Long live the new fests!

2015-04-05 16:30

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The Brother Moves On at Smoking Dragon. Picture: Alastair Fraser/Mediatek Photography

The dismal line-up at Splashy Fen this weekend makes Roger Young wonder if SA’s grand old music festivals can survive the boom of the new school

Blissful uncertainty, unfamiliar landmarks, pockets of anonymity, the gentle freedom of a limited but equally attractive set of choices – auditorium or terrace, river or shade, top bar or main stage, open desert or the cuddle puddle among the tasselled cushions scattered around the

Bedouin tent of a top-hatted couple from Benoni?– the quantity of landscapes, music, and experiences available to the South African music festivalgoer is as vast, and predictable, as the range of humanity one may encounter.

The burnt-out stoners, naive political science first-years entranced by their own first dreadlock, freshly ironed House music enthusiasts, statuesque Germans from another lifetime, adrift punk rockers, faded indie kids, squeezed-legging jazzheads, Goth-panted rappers and bright-eyed ravers – all to be found sprawled, lounging, chilling, arms akimbo, twirling, twerking, burning, chuckling, gasping, sweating, swimming and sneaking through the tent camp in the predawn light.

As winter draws near, so does the close of the 2014/15 festival season; this weekend’s Splashy Fen being the second to last of the big ones, with a line-up so dismal it begs the question of how much longer Splashy can go on being so out of touch.

Indeed, Splashy’s big KwaZulu-Natal competition is the New Year’s Eve period’s Smoking Dragon that is emerging as a firm favourite.

If anything, the Splashy-Smoking D situation reveals how slow-moving yet constantly evolving the South African festival scene is. Splashy has been in need of competition for years and, finally, it is emerging.

Last up for this year’s minor festival challenges is braving Witchfest to see Cannibal Corpse.

This season, Oppikoppi and Rocking The Daises had their roles as leaders of the churn challenged by the jockpocalypse that was franchise fest

Ultra, and Ramfest took a year off with promises to expect bigger things. But as the age of the churn draws to an end, three newish festivals may point the way to what festivals in South Africa could look like over the next few years.



As music festival audiences grow, so does an appetite for festivals that are less bloated and more challenging; that overwhelm through line-ups rather than sheet attendance, with consistent quality of staging and performances, and a desire to make tangible to their attendees a deep love of music.

Committing to a weekend away, with all the myriad choices available, is no longer about just being grateful for the fact that there is a festival to go to, but rather about choosing the best one for you.

Smoking Dragon takes place over the New Year’s Eve period.

It’s a fairly new event, about four years old in its current form. It’s set in spectacular surrounds in the northern Drakensburg – a day trip to the waterfalls requires a short half-hour drive. Don’t swim in the Smoking Dragon dam. There are actual leeches.

At first glance, it doesn’t offer a much better line-up than Splashy, with a scattering of really good acts among a lot of unknowns; the difference is that, at Smoking Dragon, the unknowns are on the rise and not a collection of has-beens that have been performing the same slots for years.

What Dragon has is a sort of incredulous newness and freedom – a charm not felt since the old Rustlers Valley days.

There are different VIP sections, sure, and one can even book rooms up at the backpackers should one want luxury and access to the Jacuzzi and sauna, and top bar swimming pool, but the sections are loosely defined during the fairly low attendances on the 29th and 30th.

The attendance swells to about 1?800 people on the 31st and security becomes less lax. Yes, swells to 1?800.

Smoking Dragon is years away from being bothersomely full, but is determined to get there, meaning the next three to four years will be Dragon’s golden period – so get in early on the fact that, even at the height of the fest, you can still get to the front row to witness The Brother Moves On in one of their best, most free-spirited performances of the year.

For the electro nerds

The Cape Town Electronic Music Festival finally came into its own this year, with the event moving from the concrete parking spaces of old and into City Hall.

During the lead-up and the day performances, the event feels more like an electronic music convention than a festival, partially because of its city location. People go home to beds, not tents, and arrive clean at the start of each day.

It’s also because of the work behind the scenes, with a week of workshops that build up to the festival, adding to the electronic music-nerd veneer.

Said the festival’s Duncan Ringrose: “Nerdy is good. We are on track for building [the festival] into a platform that is as much about the industry, its growth and its effect on society as it is about the three days of music celebration at the end.”

As much as it’s a dance party, it means more than that to its organisers.

“We are driven by change and believe music can be a powerful mechanism in helping people, communities and society change for the better,” added Ringrose.

“Knowledge is power, so the workshop platforms are a way to open up access to this knowledge base, hopefully giving tools that can assist in change.”

From Cape Town’s Sideshow rushing around to make sure all the internationals had the locals’ music on flash drives, and the general spirit of knowledge sharing that seeps through the festival, it’s obvious that the knowledge ethos does inform the party.

This year saw incredible sets from Mujava, Felix Laband and Fletcher – who couldn’t resist using the low end to effect on the bouncy wooden City Hall floor (the bass was running around the room like a rhino having a heart attack) – to Branko dropping township funk and FourTet’s mind-bending performance on the closing night.

The festival excelled because of the wide spectrum of electronic music on show and because of the low churn – you could get anywhere at the festival without much trouble, except for a period on the Sunday afternoon when the Terrace was oversubscribed.

Talking about the line-up, Ringrose said: “We tend to group things not just by genre, but beats per minute, headspace, back story and many other factors that provide the nuances that hopefully come through in the detail of the final weekend’s flow.”

He added: “City Hall has lots of space and spaces. Because of this, and by having different areas of interest, it allowed movement to flow.

“The only issue was the Terrace, which was not ideal. But it did ensure things got moving early on.”

Quality over quantity

The common factor driving the smaller and newer festivals is festival organisers using limited space and tickets as an attraction factor – the idea that you will not be lost in, or have your experience hampered by, the throng.

The Wolfkop Weekender is a perfect example of the freedoms granted by a limited-entrance festival. Wolfkop is held near Citrusdal twice a year (once in spring and again near the season’s end) at a camping ground with bungalows on a slow-flowing river that becomes inundated with inflatables, much like an electronic version of Up The Creek, but with fewer shitty folk bands.

Wolfkop’s attendance was less than a thousand people; the dance floor probably never held more than 200 people at a time, and yet it was host to an epic, scholastic and downright groovy four-hour set from Tama Sumo & Lakuti (both Berlin based, but Lakuti is a born-and-bred Joburger who has done big things on the European House scene).

Wolfkop and the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival (and even perhaps Ramfest in its decision to back off for a year) seem to have an overarching ethos of heralding a return to quality music-based experiences at festivals, with limited ticketing and more niche performers contributing to the specialness of the experience over that available at the monsters of churn – not to devalue the beauty of being lost in said churn.

And if Smoking Dragon is to become a true contender to Splashy, it would do well to learn from all of this.

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