Festival’s soul-filling and skeleton-shaking sounds
Listed and unlisted events give music lovers hundreds of options
There are many different festivals at the 2018 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. One could focus exclusively on dance, film or visual art; and even if you came just for the music, you’d still need to decide between jazz, classical, folk, electronic, choral, experimental and more.
Within each genre one also creates one’s own festival, depending on the route you navigate among the hundreds of shows available. Here’s a snapshot of some of the sounds I’ve been lucky to hear.
There was Gabrielle Goliath’s haunting experiment, Elegy, a ritual for the mourning of transgender woman Joan Thabeng, who was murdered in a possible hate crime in 2017.
Seven women sustain one note for one hour, each picking up the note in turn when the breath leaves the preceding performer. Staged in the Nuns Chapel, the piece is a lingering lament for an unfathomable loss sustained by prejudice.
Before this I’d seen A Feather on the Breath of God at the same venue, which featured compositions by 10 female composers, spanning the millennia from 805 to 1875.
Emma Farquharson has embarked on an ambitious project of restoration, unearthing previously neglected female composers and bringing them into the repertoire. It’s a timely gesture and her voice is extraordinary. However, it did feel as though the presentation of many of these mystical songs emphasised appearance and political context rather than possibilities for spiritual revelation.
The ecstatic visions of Hildegard von Bingen convey a potent inner life and the context of the event felt a bit too glamorous for such a sacred rite. Even though Farquharson’s voice deftly danced and dived, the show lacked the inner power conveyed, for example, by the simplicity of Goliath’s presentation.
Perhaps I’m being unfair, considering that the one was a dirge while the other was staged as a celebration.
After bearing witness to Elegy, I went straight into Andreas Schaerer, appearing with his band Hildegard Lernt Fliegen (Hildegard Learns to Fly). He is a vocal virtuoso, able to deliver sounds "from steam punk lyrics, to mimics of other instruments, to a repertoire of unusual sound effects".
I was reminded of photographer Jeff Wall’s statement that "the arts are an expression of immense joyfulness and gratitude that there is a world", and that "the musician is joyful that sounds exist".
Schaerer demonstrated this exuberance and glee, as his tight ensemble cavorted through tunes of fiendish complexity and daring. It was a wild, quirky ride through delight.
Then, as part of the Digital Arts Festival, I stepped into the Rhythm Jam where Freshlyground bass man Josh Hawks and Johnny Clegg’s drummer, Barry van Zyl, provided drum and bass backing for DJ Strat3gy’s retro mix. Pink Floyd’s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun was nimbly mixed with Talking Heads and Bob Marley, while sustaining deep beats that shook my skeleton. It was a lively event.
There are many other musical moments I could enthuse about. Circus Schoenberg’s show played and explained, and revelled in uncomposing some of the great experimental works of the 20th century.
I also managed to fit in one of Richard Haslop’s listening adventures. Sitting in the Monument Restaurant, its wall of glass providing views of dusk settling over the valley, and listening to a master music lover guide you through some of his favourite songs is a unique experience.
Young artist award-winner Guy Buttery was a pleasure, both in his performance with the East Cape Orchestra (where Buttery played sitar and the orchestra backed him with arrangements by Chris Letcher), and also in his own show, The Mending, where he was accompanied by Shane Cooper on double bass and Kanada Narahari on sitar and voice.
This was a warm, friendly show, and Buttery’s charming minimalist style, influenced by ragas, deep folk and indigenous rhythms, soothed and enriched. The title of his show comes from a period when he was bedridden for months. He claims that listening to ragas for 10 hours a day healed him.
This theme of music as healing followed me when I discovered an unlisted venue after the Buttery concert, walking in on poet Dan Wylie at The Vic intoning wistful travelling tunes with Dave Fuller on guitar. But the evening really got going around midnight, when Geoff Diver played a free concert for an intimate audience. Travelling between India and Berlin, Diver’s oceanic loops were indicative of what he told me was his "conscious choice of diving into the subconscious", both for himself and also "trying to evoke that introspection for the listener".
This was as beautiful treat as only the festival can deliver, something off the programme and synchronous, where it feels as though one is reconnecting with people one hasn’t yet met. Being at the festival with so much creativity flowing allows the opportunity for these unexpected portals.
Diver’s free concert was a wonderful gift. I heard recently that in the earliest economies, bartering was what one did only with one’s enemies. With one’s friends one gave gifts. Although exchange might be useful for social interaction, it still somehow remains rooted in the premise of trying to gain something from another’s loss. However in this environment, with the audience gifting their full attention and Diver sharing his own joy and love of sound, this was a good place to be.
It has been a full festival already, and there’s much more to look forward to with the last weekend still coming up. There’s another Haslop talk on Shifty Records, and a new film (The Fun’s Not Over) about counterculture frontman James Phillips, who died at the festival two decades ago.
I’m also excited to be catching the smooth sounds of singer Samthing Soweto. Then there’s The Brother Moves On, Amanda Black and special guest Suzanne Vega. I’m also hoping to seek out another off-Fringe venue, The Black Power Station, where the legendary Dave Knowles might be doing a set.
And maybe I’ll stop by The Vic again around midnight.