ON FRIDAY night at the Oshoek border post, there is a 1½-hour-long queue of cars waiting to deliver their passengers in Swaziland. It is the first day of the Bushfire festival — an annual three-day event held at House on Fire, a tourist attraction and performance venue. The bravest cars drive tentatively alongside the queue, trying to cut ahead, only to have a camouflage-clad soldier who can’t be much older than his automatic rifle turn them back to rejoin the queue.
One can almost hear the “ka-ching” of the kingdom’s coffers with each vehicle crossing the border, because Bushfire and other festivals like it go a long way towards generating immediate and longer-term tourism revenue. The festival’s organisers claim that the event gives Swaziland an annual cash injection of 33m emalangeni (R33m). Bushfire’s economic footprint includes both official traders operating within the festival’s grounds and unofficial traders outside the venue, who peddle everything from artisan jewellery, plates of pap and chicken and Alice bands that light up to “the best ganja in Swaziland” in the green gold capital of Southern Africa.
Bushfire is one of six stops on the Southern African Festival Circuit (SAFC), which includes Hifa in Zimbabwe, Azgo in Mozambique, Africa Day and Zakifo in Johannesburg and Durban respectively, and Sakifo on Reunion. One of the advantages of the circuit is that festivals are able to book expensive acts and share the costs by having them tour the various festivals. All nine listed organisational partners of the SAFC are from non-African countries, and close to 90% of these are European. These organisations have placed themselves in prime position to gather positive spin from helping to finance festivals in Southern Africa where artists from other parts of Africa and from its diaspora rarely perform.
Bien-Aime Baraza of the Kenyan Afro pop band Sauti Sol says he and his bandmates made the decision to play in as many shows in Africa as they could. Baraza believes that performing overseas is not all it is cut out to be.
“When I play in Europe, I have to teach them how to dance and it is more difficult to sell the emotion, though it is much appreciated,” he says.
Ghanaian-American MC Samuel Bazawule, who goes by the name of Blitz the Ambassador, agrees. He says: “For about three years I was touring in Europe, because I had drunk that Kool-Aid too. So I’m playing like 100 shows a year at huge festivals. And I get to a point where I realise that they never pay me enough to walk away. My real work is here, my real work is in Africa. The trick is that they never give you enough for you to say ‘OK, peace, I’m going to do my work.’”Most of the finance for the arts in Africa comes from outside the continent. But instead of considering this a sign of magnanimity on the part of those countries and institutions, Bazawule sees it as an unequally balanced trade in cultural currency and relevance that closely resembles the colonial structures of old. He says that this is a double-edged sword that exports African arts to places outside the continent while also cultivating dependency among, and removing agency from, the artists in Africa.
“It’s part of this narrative that everything good cannot live within us,” says Bazawule. “It has to live within these Western circles. This is a trap. It has trapped our governments, hence we are consistently in begging mode; it has trapped our cultural movements, who are also constantly in begging mode.”
Sauti Sol’s debut album Mwanzo was made with the support of the Alliance Francaise in Kenya, but this did not strip the band of its agency. It went on to create opportunities and markets in a difficult musical environment, where there was only potential before. For example, with local and international recognition the band began to realise that the cost of staging a Sauti Sol show was becoming too high for local promoters. And so they conceptualised and managed a six-city Kenyan tour with a 100-person troupe in support of their Live and Die in Afrika album.
“Our tour cost us US$500,000,” says Baraza. “The problem is that in Africa there is no infrastructure, so we had to [transport] trucks and trucks of screens, stage, lights and crew. And Kenya is not as advanced as SA is, so when we go deep in the Kenyan rural areas, people are shocked at the level of production.”
For Malian band Songhoy Blues, creating shows on the scale of the Live and Die in Afrika tour in their own country is a far-off dream, inextricably tied to the politics of the Western African nation. Songhoy Blues was formed after the Islamist group Ansar Dine took control of northern Mali and banned music and musical performances. The band released its debut album Music in Exile after meeting Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs when Songhoy Blues and Zinner participated in an artist collaboration project called Africa Express’s “Maison des Jeunes”.
Oumar Touré, 31-year-old bass player for Songhoy Blues, says failed states and wars are a gargantuan hurdle for African arts. Since the crisis in northern Mali, he says, the structures and institutions supporting and funding the arts have been drastically reduced — with government choosing to prioritise political stability instead.
Nathanael Dembélé, the band’s 27-year-old Mohawk-wielding drummer, sees no other avenue for Mali’s and Africa’s development without the arts — he considers this Africa’s greatest source of pride, which deserves more publicity.
In October 2015, the Goethe-Instituts in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Lagos hosted a festival called African Futures which, among other things, was meant to explore and speculate on the future of the African continent. The festival brought in artists and academics to do the speculation and exploration.
Bazawule says it is “a completely backwards and ironic thing that Germans are sponsoring your [Africans’] future” and makes no sense.
“It’s more of a cultural colonisation, because space matters, and so what we start to do is to [yield] all our magic and all our brilliance to these cultural institutions. And what we don’t realise is that they start to build credibility, they start to build importance in our society. In Ghana, for instance, anything of cultural importance is happening at Alliance Francaise.”
For him, it is more pertinent to create African institutions that can support the arts in Africa and to work towards sustainable arts creation and management.
Without prompting, a group of revellers gets into a line dance called “bus stop” in most SA townships. SA music group Mafikizolo is well into its hit-after-hit set, sending arms into the air and voices along with them as they sing the first bars of each recognisable song.
It is at moments like these — and there were many over the weekend — that one can’t help but wish for a future of African arts that is truly African.