Arts festival celebrates power of music

2 July 2015

The National Arts Festival opens in Grahamstown today, and runs until 12 July. Over the 11 days in the small academic town in Eastern Cape, there are nearly 2 500 performances of 630 shows.

Questions around African identity and belonging are woven into this year’s programme, with continental representation from countries such as Botswana, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

This is of special significance in South Africa, where xenophobic violence earlier this year has affected the country’s relationship with its neighbours and friends across the continent.

Speaking at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in Qunu, in the Transkei, South African struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada said: “Xenophobia, racism and sexism must be fought with tenacity, wisdom and enlightenment. Anything that defines someone else as ‘the other’ has to go. Tolerance and understanding must flourish and grow.”

And it is these bridge-building questions of identity, belonging and what it means to be African that artists from around the continent will bring to the stage during this year’s National Arts Festival.

Reconciliation lessons from Rwanda

Issues of reconciliation and forgiveness are at the heart of the remarkable one- women show, Miracle in Rwanda. Co-created and acted by Leslie Lewis Sword, it tells the story of Rwandan genocide survivor Immacule Ilibagiza, a 22-year-old Tutsi who hid with seven other women in the bathroom of a local Hutu pastor’s home.

Despite the tragedy and horror, Ilibagiza’s life remains one of personal empowerment and of finding peace of mind despite unbelievable hardship. “It’s completely revolutionary to go through a genocide and forgive the people who massacred your family,” Lewis has said of Ilibagiza, who now lives in New York City. “It’s a quiet revolution.”

Identity and belonging

Zimbabwean identity is explored through dance, movement and space by Tumbuka, who present Portrait of Myself as my Father, an interrogation of masculinity, performance and the Zimbabwean self.

But it is in music where Africans seem to most easily find common ground. Madagascar’s Eusebe Jaojoby brings his country’s unique salegy sound to the Grahamstown stage. The singer – known as the King of Salegy – is known for his willingness to experiment, blending the Malagasy genre with soul, rock, funk and other Western musical styles.

Watch him at work:

Also mixing it up is Botswana’s Chasing Jaykb. Trans vocalist Kat Kai Kol-Kes heads up this funky post-folk African pop group, who will be performing in South Africa for the first time.

Listen:

Malawi is represented by Masauko Chipembere, whom South Africans will recall as a member of the 1990s acoustic duo Blk Sonshine.

Watch Chipembere perform:

Traditional sounds

More traditional African music is celebrated when Rhodes University’s International Library of African Music marks its 60th anniversary with Celebrating African Music. Expect fascinating music performed on a wide range of traditional and contemporary instruments, accompanied by spectacular dance by local groups. Prof Emeritus Andrew Tracey, the retired director of the library, will make a special appearance.

The Standard Bank Jazz programme expertly creates the space for some of Africa’s top musicians to collaborate with their South African counterparts. Playing with Dave Reynolds and Pops Mohamed are Sylvain Baloubeta (bass – Congo) and Frank Paco (drums – Mozambique). Also in the line-up are Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi, Benin-native guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke, Botswana-born Bokani Dyer, and Nigerian guitarist Kunle Ayo.

Watch and listen:

Challenging transnational collaborations are on the festival’s film programme too: The Gods of Water (Los Dioses de Agua) is the first-ever Angolan- Argentinian co-production. Directed by Pablo Cesar, the film tells the story of an Argentinian anthropologist who travels to Africa to understand the origins of the secrets held by the Dogon, a Malian tribe.

Watch the trailer:

And, as always with film, it’s just a small skip from there to murder and mayhem, this time in a Nigerian jungle in Bleeding Rose. Director Chucks Mordi’s film about a group of botany students searching for a healing plant in an evil forest, offers South African audiences the chance to see the kind of film wildly popular in the West African country. It won Best Feature Film at the 2007 International Film Festival in Lagos.

The National Arts Festival is the biggest annual celebration of the arts on the African continent. The programme comprises drama, dance, physical theatre, comedy, opera, music, jazz, visual art exhibitions, film, student theatre, street theatre, lectures, craft fair, workshops, tours (of the city and surrounding historic places) as well as a children’s arts festival.

Source: National Arts Festival