Did we need foreign artists?

2009-09-05 00:00

In two weeks time, the ICC Durban Arena will be launched to the public. Critics of large-scale projects such as this ICC extension will no doubt point at the continuing poverty that continues to surround the Durban CBD in all directions except the sea, and suggest that the money could have been better spent. And while that point retains its validity, for once I'm not grumbling.

Well, actually I am. But about other things. Durban is in desperate need of concert venues, particularly a medium-scale indoor venue such as this one. And since the admin at the ICC are generally very good at helping to make sure that everything that takes place there goes off smoothly, I can't really complain about the location of this concert venue. Admittedly, it's a little corporate for a rock and roll band, but then rock and roll sold out long ago. And I presume that it won't be carpeted inside like the rest of the ICC. (There's something slightly disturbing about moshing your socks off on a carpeted floor). But a highly functional space in the city that can hold audiences of up to 10 000 people - that doesn't sound half bad. And it can only benefit the local music industry, providing a decent performance space for both local and visiting musicians.

My complaint lies not with the venue itself but with the choice of artists that they are using to launch the arena. Now, I know that George Benson and Al Jarreau are two musicians that are greatly loved the world over, and no less so in Durban. But they are not from Durban, nor from South Africa. Whether they are from Africa is a more complex discussion. But by using two American performers as headliners for the launch of a stadium that is in many ways an architectural ambassador of the city, we are subordinating our position on the world stage. We are saying that foreign talent is inherently more talented and desirable than local talent. We are saying that we have no pride. We are saying that we will happily submit to ongoing cultural colonialism and that in fact we will encourage it and worship at the shrine of America.

Make no mistake, I love American music. From jazz to motown, from rock to country, America has delivered incredible treasures to the planet. Treasures so rich that they almost offer a redemption for the sins of that subcontinent, even as they always contain traces of African-American slavery. But we have our own music. Music that is equal in quality and depth to anything being produced on the planet. But we are blind to this fact in the midst of imperialised inferiority.

So who should be launching the event? Well, how about some of the province's most popular artists. What about Phuzekhemisi? Shiyani Ncgobo? iHash' elimhlophe? Nibs van der Spuy? Busi Mhlongo? Guy Buttery? Ladysmith Black Mambazo? These are just some of our musical heroes.

Maybe you haven't heard of all these people. Which is part of the point. If they were all playing at the ICC next week in a powerhouse showcase of our culture, you'd be that much closer to knowing who they are, to buying their music, to discovering what incredible treasures we have on our own shores.

I spoke to the ICC PR person, the always helpful and amiable Frances Parker-Ross, about my beef with the launch concert. Oh, but there are a whole bunch of local acts performing, she said, something that hasn't been widely circulated in the press. Acts that include Linda Bhukosini, Bongani Tembe, Malaika and the Afro Tenors, who will all perform under the banner “The Power of Durban”. But, in that format, the Durban entertainment sounds more like a variety show poised between introductory speeches and the main event, and no offence to those who will be appearing, but they don't exactly constitute the power of Durban, well not musically anyway. And I've had a look at the evening's schedule (again courtesy of Park-Ross), and, without giving anything away, I can reveal that, with the exception of Malaika and a traditional number from the Afro Tenors, there is no locally authored music on the programme.

Parker-Ross also points out that, besides the headliners, the launch will be a completely Durban production in every other respect. She also says that she herself discussed the matter of local content with the ICC and was told that international acts are necessary in order to establish the facility's international credentials.

Which is fair enough. But Ladysmith Black Mambazo are as internationally acclaimed as Benson and Al Jarreau. And Shiyani Ngcobo played at Carnegie Hall in New York three weeks ago. Busi Mhlongo plays to sold out audiences in Europe, and Tree63, who will be in town round about the time of the launch, are big in America. It would certainly have been possible to have pulled together a 100% local content show and blown the socks off CNN and the rest of the global media crew. And I'd bet my bottom dollar (that would be R7,20) that Busi Mhlongo in all her colourful finery, shaking her beaded butt in the specific dislocating way that only Zulu women seem capable of doing, would have garnered a few more screen seconds on CNN than Al Jarreau and George Benson returning to the motherland (my sense is that there will be some orphans somewhere).

I have another concern about the arena. Although launched with a musical event, the venue is, like most concert venues, extremely flexible, both in terms of accommodating varying audience size, and also in terms of the kind of events it is capable of hosting. As well as music concerts and dance and theatrical production, audiences will, according to the press release, be able to enjoy boxing, wrestling, tennis, hockey, netball and gymnastics as well as ice shows, motocross and equestrian events. I'm starting to feel as if music might not actually be that high on the agenda.

Though, hopefully, my concerns will be for nought. Hopefully, the success of the venue (and I'm sure it will be successful) will attract the more obscure international acts that tend to bypass Durban and, most importantly, help to create a viable music sector that is at the moment not much more than a set of record company agencies and a horde of phenomenally talented but hungry musicians.

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