The Dread and not so Dread
From Petite Noir and Thandiswa Mazwai to Ray Phiri and Damian Marley, LUMUMBA MTHEMBU wraps up KwaZulu-Natal’s Zakifo Music Festival, which was held from 26 to 28 May
I arrived at Zakifo 2017 via twenty years in Johannesburg and ten in Grahamstown. My thinking, as I got drunk off overpriced craft beer while waiting for Thandiswa Mazwai, was that this festival would mark the beginning of a new adventure in KZN for me. I was not the biggest fan of Thandiswa in my youth but she was the main event for the evening and I was tipsy enough to be curious.
I was blown away by her kwaito intro as lights and drums exploded everywhere. The curtain-raisers didn’t get flashing stage lights, nor did they get sound as crisp as the night air but hey, they were not Thandiswa. I wondered where everybody was as my eye rolled over the medium-sized audience. Didn’t everyone just get paid?
By the time Thandiswa got to “Uzigqibile Izindaba” I wanted to buy her CD. The Soweto Apple Ale told me no one would top this performance, and the Dragon Fiery Ginger concurred. Thandiswa moved on to a dynamic performance of “Zabalaza” which made the studio version sound like a poetry reading.
Thandiswa was politically conscious and socially aware but that seems to be the trend these days. Is it fashionable for live performers to take public stances against xenophobia and gender-based violence, or are some of them genuine? There will always be publicity fiends out there but I got the feeling that Thandiswa was not one of them.
She closed off a rousing performance by warming us up for Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley with one of his legendary father’s tracks: “Heathens”. Her back-up dancers took it home with moves that had the crowd gyrating as they transitioned into “Lahl’Umlenze” for her encore. The partisan Durban crowd loved the song for its Zulu lyrics sung by a Xhosa woman.
My question was answered – sort of – by Bombino: a francophone West African band who were tasked with following one of the most recongisable artists in South Africa. My description makes them sound like you would hear them on Richard Mwamba’s Saturday afternoon show but they were too energetic for that. I quickly forgave them for starting half an hour late as their rhythmic goodness drew festival-goers from the the beer tents. The band’s matching purple traditional garb accentuated the exotic sounds we were hearing. Energetic drumming and ice-cold bass made for a thumping, driving acoustic experience. Ladies swooned over the bassist who stood out in his sunglasses, wave-cap and gloves, as though his lime green guitar strings were not eye-catching enough. Bombino surprised me and dare I say, everyone, with a performance that maintained the buying temperature set by Thandiswa.
Energy levels had to drop as the night grew later and cooler, which coincided with Ray Phiri’s advent on stage. The old man has still got the moves but the voice is gruffer and the memory blunter, but you would not have known that from the kindness of the crowd. The experience made me wish I had been around during the days of Stimela to get the best of what Ray Phiri once had to offer.
Blue Lagoon was not the place to be on Saturday. I arrived in shorts on a day made for raincoats. Friends of mine who were running a food stall were chain-smoking, wondering how they were going to sell three hundred risotto balls to the measly crowd. I busied myself with beats by Missu: an infectious DJ I had first heard at Durban X-Fest last year. Capoeira dancers improvised to his set in slippery grass conditions while an American tourist by the name of Connor chewed my ear off. I was relieved when he went off for a boerie roll, which is when I went to support my risotto friends. For my contribution I got a free recommendation: “Look out for Nova Twins. Those chicks are wild!”
No shit! At six o’clock the girls came on after we had been chased in and out of the tents by the intermittent rain, and boy, did they perforate some eardrums with their hard rock sound. They were playing at I-don’t-know-how-many decibels; all I know is that I felt the drummer’s kicks in my chest. Nova Twins brought energy and warmth to a drab Saturday evening, setting themselves apart from a painfully average line-up.
Tiggs da Author was the only other vocal act who was of similar quality to the ladies, and that was due to his MCing (Moving the Crowd) rather than his music. Technical difficulties tested his improvisational skills as he had to tell anecdotes while technicians tended to some faulty wire or fuse. His stagecraft distinguished him from other solo artists as he successfully guided the crowd through his largely unkown catalogue.
Homeboy was not lying: three DJs on stage simultaneously? Mind blown! They could all scratch; they could all mix and they were making tracks on the spot. The first of the French trio would supply the bassline, upon which the second DJ would add a sample, for the third turntable-ist to solo and scratch to. They even took turns, switching roles and showing off while smoking cigarettes (how French) and blurring musical genres. They were far and away the most innovative act at Zakifo, bringing something to the stage which the crowd had never seen.
I got dressed to the nines for the day we had all been waiting for and was not surprised to find so had everybody else. I was greeted by Rastas in full-blown camouflage, stay-at-home dads in Air Force Ones, hippie moms in saris inundated with babies, cool kids with geometric haircuts in skinny jeans, and of course, the obligatory barefoot white boy in a Bob Marley shirt.
The adage goes: “If you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all,” so I will ignore the acts before Kommanda Obs. The Lesotho-born reggae/ragga artist tried his best to inject some energy into the crowd with a limited set. Some songs had to be performed twice but the audience were feeling him so he got away with it. We all wanted to get into the mood for ‘Jr. Gong’ and Obs was the only one to fulfill that brief up to that point.
Sax Machine took the baton and ran with it, blessing the crowd with old school, high-tempo, hip-hop sounds. Their style was reminiscent of the Diggable Planets, which the older heads in the crowd could appreciate. RACECAR, their lead man, wrapped up a concise set with a humble farewell and a promise to mingle with everybody.
The stage was set for the festival’s second biggest artist, SA’s very own Petite Noir. The eccentric lad from Cape Town has made it big overseas and I was intrigued to see his set, if only for the fact that he had captured my imagination at last year’s Oppikoppi. I am pleased to report the man is still pushing the boundaries of gender normativity, as he presented himself in chandelier earrings and a flowing red kaftan. He is an artist who is important for conceptions of masculinity in South Africa, which is why I was disappointed his set was so short.
Damian Marley did what all headline acts do, which is to keep the crowd waiting. I must commend the Durban folk for their stellar behaviour. There was room to see/access the stage from all sides, and none of the pushing and shoving I experienced in Cape Town from Little Dragon fans who dressed genteelly but acted like hooligans. ‘Jr. Gong’ wasn’t making it easy as he teased us with one of his proteges: Black-Am-I came running onto the stage, fooling one ignorant white girl who was eager to Snapchat into thinking that he was the one for whom we had all assembled. The penny dropped for her when the stage turned black and a bevy of performers materialised in front of our eyes: back-up singers, instrumentalists, a flag-bearer, and the man himself.
The audience was mesemerised by his ankle-length dreads and the cosmic force of the Marley genes. We didn’t expect him to be so genial and regal at the same time. He punctuated his songs with dialogue: asking about the weed and women of South Africa. Damian Marley did not cheat us; he performed for two hours, backed up by his flag-bearer who waved those Rastafarian colours non-stop. Cheekily, as his set wound to a close, he acknowledged the crowd and snuck off stage, but we knew, we all knew that he could not leave these shores without performing the song we all came for: “Welcome to Jamrock”.
People lost their minds and to be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much after jumping up and down. My next memory is of me in the car, waiting for my driver to take me home. I will not lie, I was not sober but from my solar plexus radiated that warm sensation of knowing that I had reached the climax I had been waiting for all weekend.
Images courtesy of Liza du Plessis