Bush Fire Music Festival

Bush Fire Fairy Tales

Words: Niren Tolsi
Photography: Sydelle Willow Smith

The Red Bulletin heads for the hills of Swaziland and the Bushfire music festival, where an eclectic group of people party the nights away against a backdrop of a country riddled by unemployment, HIV and under the watchful eye of an ever-increasing military presence

The sun has just dipped behind the Mdimbe mountains in Swaziland leaving the sky orange and blue, and creating blackened silhouettes on the horizon. It is Sunday evening, on May’s final weekend, and the 10th edition of the Bushfire Festival is drawing to a close at Malkerns.

Malian four-piece band SonghoyBlues are winding down their set, and have just broken into Ai Du, their homage to fellow countryman and blues-guitar god, Ali Farka Touré. The band’s rhythm section is driving upwards. Guitarist Garba Touré is wailing out a ghost’s wind on his strings as frontman Aliou Touré weaves his voice between the song’s notes.

The crowd has been kicking up a dust storm all afternoon with their dancing and hip-shaking. But the dust settles during the ache of this song. The lyrics hauntingly demand a generosity of spirit towards one’s fellow human beings. “You must know yourself before you know others,” sings Aliou Touré. Glancing around at the assembled audience – all with happy, smiling faces; youthful and the young at heart; black and white – one is reminded of Aliou Touré’s belief that music imparts a joyful optimism into the world.

He describes a world without music as being “a world without soul, because everything in this world happens around music”. These words are especially profound coming from a man who fled his home in the north of Mali because he refused to stop singing and making music, following the 2012 occupation by the jihadist group Ansar Dine, which had outlawed music and destroyed instruments while imposing their brand of sharia law.

“Everything in this world happens around music.”

Bush Fire Music Festival

Artists like Kenyan afro-pop band Sauti Sol help add to the event’s continental feel

In the warm glow of a sunset, at the arse-end of a music festival, after three days of carousing, loving, tripping up, and reimagining the world over campfires, the Kool Aid always tastes better.

Sometimes it’s so good that it strips away the cynicism and makes sense of Antonio Gramsci’s observation that, in imagining a better world, intellectual pessimism is allowed for, necessary even, but it must be balanced by an optimism in the human will. 

Bushfire is the sort of festival that makes you want to live in that way. It exhorts festivalgoers to “Bring your Fire!” to dance, but to also “ignite a collective response for social change”. 

The festival’s social responsibility extends to donating its profits to the Young Heroes, a non-governmental organisation, which supports more than 1,000 HIV-Aids orphans in a country where, according to the 2012 HIV Incidence Measurement Survey, 31 per cent of the population between the ages of 18 and 49 are HIV-positive.

Bush Fire Music Festival

Art and artistic expression are as much a part of the festival as the music

The festival also donates all profits from its merchandise sales to the Gone Rural boMake (Gone Rural Women) community development initiative, which, among other things, helps create jobs for women in the artisanal craft sector. Much needed in a country where the economy is moribund, unemployment vertiginous and which is surrounded by South Africa, from which it receives 90 per cent of its imports.

It is something that festival founder and director Jiggs Thorne is especially proud of. “There have been musical highlights over the past 10 years, seeing some of the greatest artists from the continent on a Swazi stage,” he says. “But I get the most satisfaction from what we have achieved through our social responsibility work. That is the essence of Bushfire.

“The crowd has been kicking up a dust storm with their hip-shaking.”

The Bushfire Festival’s Pan-African programming draws on a continental pop sensibility, but also extends beyond, to singular musicians such as the late genre-defying South African new-maskanda vocalist, Busi Mhlongo, or Zimbabwe’s elder statesman, Oliver Mtukudzi. There are also added left-field touches, like academic Coleman Barks reciting the work of 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, which provides a more refined taste for festival palates. The music means Bushfire draws a very different crowd to that of its behemoth counterparts in neighbouring South Africa.

“You don’t get the hordes of young white Afrikaans rock-kids projectile-vomiting all over the place, as you would at places like Oppikoppi [a festival in northern South Africa which regularly sells out over 20,000 tickets a year],” says Markus Blank, a veteran of five Bushfire festivals, self-confessed hedonist and purveyor of Tanzanian rhumba.

“That’s definitely a major drawcard because there is no alcohol-induced aggression here. While the music on offer is mainly Afro-pop, there is enough on the menu to make the journey here every year more than worthwhile.” Blank looks like he has slept fewer hours than an insomniac on a coffee-binge, but he is manfully marshalling a breakfast crew in a sprawling camping site filled with friends from Johannesburg.

Bush Fire Music Festival

Bushfire has attracted some of South Africa’s biggest musical stars like Mafikizolo

Theirs is an easily mixed crowd – an academic here, a dance instructor there, all colours of the new South Africa – happily working together on a fry-up while giggling at a bunch of corporate types in the campsite across the road who are wearing matching dashikis so as to “find each other at night”.

Watch the teaser video from this year’s Bushfire Festival

© MTN Bushfire Festival // Youtube

The crew’s 10x15m campsite feels like an autonomous republic in the middle of Swazi King Mswati III’s absolute monarchy. But there is a realisation that this party is held in a country without a constitution to protect and advance rights, but, instead, with a supposedly divine leader who would appear to be the only person with any real freedom.

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The realisation becomes weirder given the number of non-governmental organisation types and gap-year-do-gooders from Europe and North America at the festival. Their large presence, whether it’s Americans blow-drying their hair at the ablution block or others more overt in their saviour-complexes, lends a cosmopolitan feel to the party, made stark by the reality that this is a country in crisis.

“I really like the festival and I love the music, especially the Swazi artists,” says Julie Tirtiaux, a first-time festivalgoer from France who has been working as a law clerk in South Africa’s Constitutional Court. “I have never seen so many interracial couples before during my time in southern Africa. There is certainly something beautiful about it.”

“Our social responsibility work is the essence of bushfire.”

Bush Fire Music Festival

Bringing the heat. A carnival of madness in the dark

But there is a caveat. Tirtiaux says she is uncomfortable with some of the patriarchal aspects of what is deemed “Swazi culture”, like the role of women in society and the polygamous king’s annual Reed Dance where the country’s virgins gather to be inspected, certified, and then wait upon Mswati’s whim: as to whether he will choose another wife to add to his current total of 15. 

That sort of patriarchy is evident in some of the conversations and hook-ups on a frenzied Saturday night where more than 15,000 people get down.

“Its difficult because you get accused of viewing the country through Western eyes,” Tirtiaux says. “But culture is dynamic and always shifting. It would be fascinating, if one considers the stats around Aids, to start a conversation about the need for culture to evolve so as to consider the interests of others.”  

Bush Fire Music Festival

A heady mix of traditional African jams is also part of a truly indigenous mix

On Sunday afternoon, Joburg-based architect Sarah Calburn sits in an alcove on the edge of the amphitheatre she designed, after Thorne and his family decided to alter what was essentially a bed-and-breakfast operation into a place that would include a shop, studio space and performance areas. 

The crowd flows by, strangers and old friends stop to shoot the breeze, hang out in the shade for a bit or to trade war stories from the weekend. There is a warm, fuzzy feeling of community and Calburn, who has been commissioned to redesign and enlarge the amphitheatre, which is the festival’s second stage, is making mental notes: of the buzz and the sense of family engendered by the space itself, and the festival.

“I must remember this atmosphere and how useful these pockets of shade are in getting people connected,” she says, adding that the original amphitheatre was considered too big in the festival’s first year, but actually proved too small as it filled with the heaving masses. mIn terms of revenue and visitor numbers to Swaziland, Bushfire is arguably the biggest thing to happen here each year.

It feels like a welcome pocket of shade in the scorching sunlight of a country in crisis. Where the music still plays and the people still smile. And where Aliou Touré’s words echo: “It is important for us to keep playing music to show to the younger generations, to everyone, that we don’t have to be fearful. If we are fearful, we can’t keep living.”

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09 2016 The Red Bulletin

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