The interview: Festive fire in the little kingdom

2013-06-02 10:00

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As the MTN Bushfire festival wraps up in Swaziland’s capital city, Percy Mabandu speaks to its director about the future of the jamboree and the mooted cultural boycott

A week before festivities kicked off at the MTN Bushfire 2013 festival in Swaziland, Jiggs Thorne, director of this flagship cultural event, took time to share tea and chatter in Rosebank, Joburg.

He wears a pair of denims with a black festival-merchandise T-shirt, having just taken off his windbreaker on account of the warm office interior.

The short haircut gives him a military look. However, a few moments into the chat, he falls into a much more easy-going quasi-hippy demeanour.

Thorne uses phrases like: “Oh man, that’s what I call the juncture of hum!”

This is to explain those rare moments when personalities and cultures converge in ways that are too cool to fake.

Like the kind of encounters that are possible at this festival. He says: “Juncture of hum is the inaudible sound and vibration that shapes a unique context where disparate people come together.”

In response to questions about his background, Thorne indicates that he studied politics and drama at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

His wanderlust or youthful search for meaning saw him spend some time in Joburg before heading to Egypt and London, England. He lived in the UK for a year.

The trip to Egypt was to attend the International Conference on Population and Development with a team of dramatists from across the world.

He stayed on in the land of the pharaohs after the conference that took place in the capital, Cairo, in September 1994. This part of his biography is discussed with broad outlines and generalised phrases.

He is specific, however, about his rootedness. Thorne masters a siSwati phrase, “Ngivela kaNgwane (I was born in Swaziland)”, before getting even more particular. He says he

was born at the Raleigh Fitkin Memorial Hospital in Manzini, Swaziland’s second-largest city.

He tells me that the theme for this year’s festival is Bring Your Fire.

It is titled so as to inspire a collective response to the challenges facing Swaziland today.

Hence the festival is placing a strong emphasis on sharing of skills by visiting artists. The bands that are set to perform will also participate in workshops and training with the local students and upcoming artists.

The MTN Bushfire festival is, as the PR schlep puts it, a multigenerational global community of up to 20?000 people bringing their fire to the scenic Malkerns Valley to experience an eclectic pan-African and international line-up of more than 40 live music, theatre, poetry, film, circus, dance and visual arts events.

This bold positioning has made both the organisers and performers vulnerable to critical political attention too.

The Swaziland Solidarity Network is one of the organisations calling for a cultural boycott by those invited to perform in Swaziland.

They also include elements within the largest opposition party in the small kingdom, the People’s United Democratic Movement.

Artists like Ringo Madlingozi and Zahara, a.k.a. Bulelwa Mkutukana, have reportedly cited the boycott as a reason for their respective failures to make their dates to perform in Swaziland.

Last year, for instance, Madlingozi was scheduled to headline the festival, but cancelled in the build-up to the show.

Thorne becomes visibly emotional when the subject is raised. He takes a few breaths and then proceeds with a deliberate and studied tone.

“I see this debate as dynamic. It certainly challenges the festival to be relevant to the issues of the day. But what we disagree on with the boycott of the arts in Swaziland is that it’s not a comprehensive strategy and it doesn’t look at corporate organisations, for example, that probably have real influence on issues.”

Thorne proceeds to make an analogy between the South African anti-apartheid cultural boycott that ran parallel with the divestment movement.

He then accuses the Swaziland cultural boycott of taking shots at “a soft target”.

He points to the community work that the festival and other initiatives at cultural hub House On Fire, which is the venue of the festival, do.

The hub also houses groups of craft workers from across Swaziland and provides access to clients for them.

In fact, the festival runs a marketplace that provides space for regional artisans and their products.

Thorne also points out that 100% of the festival’s profit is donated to nongovernmental organisation Young Heroes, an orphan-sponsorship programme The reward for this community contribution, one may suppose, is that American MTV has recently listed the Bushfire festival as one of the top nine events to do this summer around the world.

Thorne says “this affirms that we do have something unique and people are responding to it”.

He adds that the event has pioneered and initiated a festival route called the Firefest Route, which kicked off last year. The idea is to strategically align dates with other similar events in the region so that all the festivals happen within a manageable time period.

The route offers culture vultures and artists an opportunity to travel through multiple nations to sample different cultural and tourism treats.

These include Bushfire itself, Haifa in Zimbabwe, Azgo in Mozambique, Sakifo on Reunion Island and the Black Major music festival in Cape Town, South Africa.

The route also has some business implications. For example, there’s an opportunity for organisers to share costs, which means they are able to offer package deals to acts from far-flung parts of the world.

So, instead of booking a big name artist for an appearance in Swaziland only, the organisers are now able to offer them a regional set of shows.

The example this year is a headline band from Colombia called Bomba Estéreo. They have been booked with the help of the Colombian embassy in South Africa and are performing across the Firefest Route this year.

Bomba Estéreo will perform alongside Joburg’s latest raging band, Brother Moves On, DJ Euphonik and Nathalie Natiembé from the Reunion Islands, among many others.

Some of the performers came to “bring their fire” to audiences they would ordinarily not reach.

Bands to Look out for at Bushfire

Bomba Estéreo (Colombia)

Selected as one of the 25 best new bands in the world by MTV, Bomba Estéreo was founded in 2001 in Bogotá and describe their music as “Electro Vacilón” or “Electro tropical”.

The Muffinz (South Africa)

They’ve been celebrated for unleashing their mysteriously beautiful eclectic soul music that’s so honest and innocent, it appeals to all age groups, classes, races and sexes.

Shangaan Electro (South Africa)

They are described as a street-level dance phenomenon. They went global in 2010 on the back of a series of viral YouTube clips (two million hits and counting) and an acclaimed compilation on Honest Jon’s.

Alhousseini Mohamed Anivolla (Niger) and Guy Buttery (South Africa)

Anivolla and Buttery met for the first time in 2009. They have both been chosen to perform in an African project called “Guitafrik”, a meeting of Africa’s best guitarists. They rehearsed for two weeks in Mauritius together with the Mauritian guitarist Eric Triton.

» The MTN Bushfire festival ends today in Mbabane, Swaziland

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