Performing live electronic music: The theatrics of CTEMF

Ja. Magazine writer, Andy Mkosi, reported from SA’s biggest electronic music festival. While paying homage to the pioneers of electronic music, they consider the festival’s representation and talks online spaces and accessiblity when it comes to the offline, live music experience.

It’s around four in the afternoon when I’m woken by an 021 number flashing through on my phone. It’s my colleague Philela informing me to start moving towards the Cape Town CBD. I drag myself off the couch and make my way to the taxi rank. We breeze through the freeway and seven minutes later I’m in town. Walking towards City Hall, I catch myself wondering whether or not the locals chilling at The Grand Parade even know about the event that’s about to take place over the next few days.

The gig is the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival (CTEMF), an annual three-day event that features some of South Africa’s biggest electronic musicians as well as a handful of international acts. Established in 2012 as a platform for South Africa’s burgeoning electronic music culture and industry, CTEMF has gone from strength to strength, even gaining international recognition.

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This year, 39 exciting acts and artists were lined up for the weekend taking place from 2- 7 February, spanning a range of electronic genres from hip- hop and kwaito, to ambient electronica, dancefloor- house and everything in-between. Considering it was what seems like only a few years ago now that artists like The Real Estate Agents and Felix Laband were pioneering live electronic music in the country through live scratching and impromptu turntable setups, festivals like CTEMF do a great deal to showcase the rapid growth of the genre.

But electronic music, in all its growing popularity, primarily exists online. I am reminded that it’s only a select few who have the privilege of owning a Twitter or Facebook account who know about these things, especially electronic music which exists in the online spaces frequented largely by the white middle class. With the 2012 CTEMF debut hosting a number of black artists you could count on your hand, the festival’s representation has increased ever so slightly over the years (you can just make it to two hands now), but it still has a long way to go. I ride this train of thought for a while longer before it arrives at another point in question— if electronic music primarily exists online, how does it translate to the offline, live music experience? The answer to this question is met almost as soon as I arrive at the venue.

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At City Hall there are people and there is sound and all of it is in excess. This was to be expected. Sound is thumping through the corridors coming from various corners of the venue, pink, purple and red lights flare out from the stage as I walk towards what I discover is the ‘main stage’, while Cape Town based hip hop crew Driemanskap do their thing. Behind them sit high, sprawling screens, on which strange and captivating images are being flashed and looped. The images range from cryptic, maze like patterns, to people jumping off tall buildings. Standing there, in front of this audio- visual scene, it’s a few tracks later that I remember what I’m actually there to do – cover the event and make images.

This hypnotic, near overwhelming display of imagery however, is the answer to my question. There is a theatrical element to these musicians, and certainly, if all musicians are performers, then these DJs, producers, and rappers are here to put on a well-rounded performance, online or offline, regardless of genre.

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The visuals are a constant at CTEMF. You need only witness a performance by Sibot and Toyota, the pinnacle of live, local electronic performance, to know that the theatrics of live electronic music are as much a part of the show as the music itself. Similarly, musicians such as Haezer take to bringing actual dancers, dressed up and glittering in gold, to enhance his live shows. Another act I was looking forward to was the perf Petite Noir. Before he even stepped on stage, his set was visuals from the get go. It was as though the audience were waiting on a movie to begin as the screen went from black, to being filled with a white that formed the letters of his name, bouncing up and down the screen and building further momentum.

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By the time he emerged screaming “Wassup Cape Town!” to a crowd that was already screaming out his name, the screen took the form of familiar visuals which I remember seeing online when stalking his career moves. The colours dominating his La Vie Ebelle album videos and covers were moving around in all forms on the screen, a milky type of white and this strong beautiful green. While I make images of Petite, he switches from a silhouette to an illuminated artist as the lights hit him. “He is so hot!” screams out one of the girls in the crowd.

It’s clear that in an age where those of us with readily available access to the internet reach the majority of our music online, far removed from stages and live music venues, there is a need for a heightened level of performance in the live context. In electronic music, and specifically in South Africa’s electronic music, that performance really is something to behold. And considering a festival such as CTEMF which is only in its fourth year, South Africa’s musical theatrics are only just beginning to grace the stage, now it’s just a matter of access and inclusivity. We’ll have to see how next year’s festival plays out.

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