Every year 20,000 fans and revellers trek to a thorny patch of bushveld outside the platinum mining town of Northam in Limpopo province. The reason? Oppikoppi, an annual music festival that is much more than a massive party with five stages and over 120 acts. Oppikoppi has become a pilgrimage, with as many stories about the road trips required to get there as there are tales of free living once you’re through the gates.
In the early years, your proof of entrance was a piece of nylon rope clamped around your wrist with a crimped lead fastener. Nowadays, Oppikoppi has its own currency, helicopters that deliver beer and an augmented reality app. The festival even pre-dates the democratic South Africa, with precursor concerts held in what’s now called ‘Top Bar’ before the first Oppikoppi took place in 1995. Dubbed ‘Festival of Rock’, it drew 1,200 fans and a line-up that included Afrikaans rock stalwarts Valiant Swart, Koos Kombuis and Piet Botha’s Jackhammer along with the African fusion-inclined N’goi and industrial rock purveyors Battery9.
“We started with band weekends before the festival began. Remember, this was on a farm far away from anywhere, with no curfews and no ‘The bar closes at this time,’” says Carel Hoffmann, co-founder of the festival. “As soon as anyone had enough energy, they got up on stage and played. Koos and Valiant played for about 10 hours, on again and off again. Oppikoppi was well known for all sorts of rock and roll mayhem. It was an endurance race. Anything that could have happened, did happen. But it was always all about the music, and it still is.”
It’s 2001, at what was then the 206 stage – an early haven for electronic and DJ’d music that paved the way for the Red Bull Studio Live stage, which this year celebrates its fifth anniversary at Oppikoppi’s 20th bash. People are joking about how die-hard rock fans are wearing handwritten T-shirts that read ‘P.A.T.A.T. – People Against Trance And Techno’. Most festivalgoers still restrict themselves to the main and secondary stages that cater to the rock bands, but a growing number venture up and over a ridge, and then down a perilous slope studded with shin-damaging boulders.
DJ Bob and The Blunted Stuntman have been playing for about five hours and dawn is breaking. A guy in orange overalls slips on the descent – he’s not the first, and he won’t be the last. He is saved from hitting the dirt by the fact that he’s attached to a friend by a length of hessian rope. What is more impressive is that they manage to ensure that none of the five 5-litre wine bottles tied to the rope between them shatters on the rocks. “Are you OK?” someone asks. “Ja,” they say, “We lost our campsite and we’ve never heard this music before, but it’s lekker and we’re gonna camp here instead.” Two days later, they’re still at the 206 stage, although only one wine bottle is left.
Another snapshot. Collaborations have always been part of South Africa’s music landscape, and festivals allow for them to be showcased. Someone’s playing the headline set; it could be Fokofpolisiekar or Springbok Nude Girls – there is a massive burst of guitars and bass. A rapper joins them on stage, drops some lines and then readies himself to drop the main bomb: a stage dive that means he needs to clear almost 4m between the stage and the metal crowd barrier. He stalks back, sprints, jumps and makes it. The crowd goes wild and the rock ’n’ roll continues.
The rapper has been there before, back in the mid-’90s with The Original Evergreen, then later with Max Normal, and as a key part of Oppikoppi’s ‘Way Of The Dassie’ theme in 2007. His name is Watkin Tudor Jones Jnr, better known as Ninja from Die Antwoord. Oppikoppi, birthplace of stars.
The early years of Oppikoppi are very blurry for me,” says Francois van Coke, vocalist for Fokofpolisiekar and, later, Van Coke Kartel. “I heard I got hung in a thorn bush one year, and apparently I broke off the TV in one of the band rondavels and I had to pay for that. I was on the cover of Sondag kissing a guy with the headline ‘Siesa! Van Coke soen ’n man!’ (‘Yuk! Van Coke kisses a man!’). “When Fokofpolisiekar played in 2012, I think that was our greatest show ever, with about 15,000 people watching us. I think everyone in South Africa should experience Oppikoppi at least once, and if you do it once, you’ll want to do it again. It’s dirty and dusty and debauched, but there’s something about that top bar that makes it halfway between Heaven and Hell, and that’s a good place to be.”
Oppikoppi has woven itself into the very fabric of South Africa’s music and cultural tapestry. It started when live music was something of a counter-culture: a way to celebrate being human in an apartheid political system that tried to deny humanity. It was there when live music was a haven for artistic expression as record company shareholders demanded made-for-play radio hits. And it’s still here now, when live music performance has resurfaced as the lifeblood of the music industry as record sales dwindle.
Early festivals were characterised by far-from-prying-eyes excess. Everyone who went has a tale, like when drummer Marius Appelgryn spent three days handcuffed to a bar. Or when the Wolmer crew – as the extended fan-family of hard rockers Not My Dog were known – decided to waterski behind their Land Rovers across the bushveld. Or when the bar first had the cane specials – the ones where you bought a shot and got a free tot of brandy. But there was also a thread of true delight in celebrating the music, rather than establishing a brand or pushing a market.
“When they asked us to play, we didn’t know how to answer the question,” says turntable master (and ex-Prophets Of Da City pioneer) Ready D, recalling how erstwhile Cape Flats rap crew Brasse Vannie Kaap were invited to showcase their brand of Afrikaans rap to a very different Afrikaans audience back in 2000. “We got to the festival and were being driven to the stage and someone shouted, ‘Stop! Stop the bakkie!’ We didn’t know what was going to happen, but they wanted us to stop because there was a girl just lying in the road, listening to a band. A woman! We had never seen anything like it.”
Cue the morning after Brasse’s breakaway success set, and countless new fans are humming their earworm-catchy chorus: ‘It’s the Fords, and the Nissans, and the ’Toy’s and the Beetles.’What of Oppikoppi 2014, christened ‘The Odyssey’ and featuring a line-up of more than 100 artists revealed via a press campaign with a spokesperson named Themis, the ancient Greek Titan who decrees that which shall be law?
There are South African gems like 20-year reunion gigs for Urban Creep (the Durban rockers of the 1990s) and alternative rockers Springbok Nude Girls; a return for voice-driven hipsters The Muffinz; and post-indie rockers Zebra & Giraffe will be pre-launching their new album. There’s also maskandi ancestor-hailer Madala Kunene, Soweto funk-rock visionaries Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness and rap innovators PHFat.
Oppikoppi has previously hosted big international names like Groove Armada, Diplo, Violent Femmes, Bullet For My Valentine, Billy Talent and Eagles of Death Metal, as well as underground winners like Saul Williams, Soulwax, Purple Sneaker DJs, The Used and Enter Shikari.
‘Odyssey’ is no exception, with international highlights including Wolfmother (the Brit, Grammy, ARIA and MTV Award nominees from Australia), indie survivors Editors (UK), dollar crooner Aloe Blacc (USA), female singer-songwriter sensations Cat Power (from America, but a Brit Award nominee) and Sarah Blasko (a multiple ARIA Award winning Australian). Singer-songwriter Willy Mason (USA) will also be making the trip, as will seasoned festival rockers from Canada (The Last Supper), France (Inspector Cluzo) and America (Rival Sons).
“Against our will, we had to grow up over the years, which is inevitable if you start having a bunch of people on your payroll, and have to think about keeping 20,000 people safe, and with toilets and showers,” says Misha Loots, who is known in the music industry as Oppikoppi’s festival promoter although his business card simply says “Ambassador of Goodwill”. “Oppikoppi was started by people inviting bands to play in their bar, and the only reason they did that was because they wanted to see that band. You can’t please all the people all the time, but we’ve never booked a band we didn’t want to see ourselves – and that’s the spirit of this festival. It’s about the tunes.”