Festival highlights the myriad sounds of Africa

by Paul Fisher

The South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, I was told upon my arrival, has everything, from snowboarding in the morning to surfing in the afternoon. And from the itinerary that Swize, from the local tourist board, handed me, it looked like I would be doing it all: a trip to a game reserve and a Zulu village; a tour of the townships and Oribi Gorge; micro-lighting over the Valley of a Thousand Hills; whale- and dolphin-watching; and so on.

All this would have to be packed around the reason I was in South Africa in the first place — the Awesome Africa Music Festival, which took place Sept. 22-24 in the Shongweni Resources Reserve, about an hour from KwaZulu-Natal’s main city of Durban. Awesome Africa might not be the name I would have chosen for a festival, but it is difficult to argue with. Some of Africa’s greatest musicians, both local and from the wider continent, performed together with a smattering of international musicians.

The Durban Black Drifters at the Awesome Africa festival in South Africa

After two days tracking down lions, rhinos, elephants and buffalo, I arrived at the festival site. Last year, the inaugural festival was situated in a beautiful location at the foot of a dam. However, this year a couple of rare black storks had also chosen the site to make their nest. Awesome Africa is part of the Living Treasures Project that combines elements of culture, community and the environment with eco-tourism and sustainable lifestyles, and living up to these convictions, the organizers switched the site to higher up in the hills. It still seemed like an ideal festival location to me, with a main stage set on a mercilessly wide and flat field, and a smaller stage at the bottom of a small valley, creating a natural amphitheater.

For me, there is no more awesome an African musician than Senegal’s Cheikh Lo, who was chosen to headline the first night.

Cheikh Lo

The light drizzle probably kept the numbers down a bit, but did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the audience — predominantly black, predominantly young and predominantly intent on getting down. How familiar the infectious, jazzy, Latin-tinged music of Cheikh Lo was to them, I have no idea. Still, Lo’s soaring voice, the high-powered rhythm of the “talking” Tama drum and one of the tightest horn sections in Africa obviously hit all the right spots.

More familiar to most was the sound of the Durban Black Drifters, an a cappella group, who preceded Lo on the main stage with their archetypal isicathamiya, made famous around the world by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Awesome Africa prides itself on its multiracial audience, with 18,500 people from different areas of South Africa, and some from overseas, attending over three days. Due to the African National Congress-supported cultural boycott during the apartheid era, South African audiences have been starved of international artists and music from other African countries. The festival encourages cross-cultural collaborations and this year these included Indians Debhashish and Subhashish Battacharya sharing the stage with Zulu Maskanda guitarist Mfiliseni Magubane, La Reunion’s Rene Lacaille and Okinawa’s Takashi Hirayasu, and Italian Celtic rock group Modena City Ramblers playing together with local group Landscape Prayers and former Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera.

Mfiliseni Magubane and Takashi Hirayasu

Since the free elections of 1994, the new music of urban South Africa is kwaito, a local version of hip hop with social and political rap commentary. Bongo Maffin, one of the leading kwaito groups, was one of the hits of the festival with an adoring and young fan base. Joining Bongo Maffin was the U.K.’s Aki Nawaz from Fun(Da)Mental, whose own message as a pioneer of the Asian Underground is close to that of Bongo Maffin. Nawaz was later accompanied by some mesmerizing tabla playing by Subhashish Battacharya.

Angelique Kidjo, one of Africa’s best known female singers, headlined the second day on the main stage. Originally from Benin, but now a resident of Paris, her music remained largely bland despite her powerful voice, with her band intent on pumping out a dreary Western groove. Kidjo seems to believe her own press releases, and behaves both on- and offstage like a prima donna: At one point she encouraged the audience to sing by saying, “You can be the kings and queens on this next song, not me.”

Far more skilled at naturally connecting with her audience was KwaZulu-Natal’s own Busi Mhlongo, who headlined the final night. Mhlongo shares some similarities with Kidjo: a great voice; residency in Europe; a decidedly contemporary sound; even the same producer, Will Mowat (Soul II Soul). Mhlongo, however, draws on her heritage (Zulu Maskanda music, primarily the domain of men) in a far more inventive way. With her feminist message, Mhlongo has become a role model for Zulu women, and Awesome Africa was a triumphant return to her homeland.

Hugh Masekela returned to South Africa after 30 years in exile in 1992. He has since started his own record company and is bent on changing the entertainment industry to become primarily black owned and promoting new talent. His own music on record has embraced kwaito, but live, the trumpeter/vocalist stuck mainly to his usual fare of funky jazz, which judging from their reaction was exactly what the audience wanted.

Ugandan Samite is currently living in exile in the U.S. His music, accompanied by a superb multiracial band, combines Ugandan Baganda traditions with Caribbean flavors. On the evidence of his riveting set, Samite is a future star of African music (and he’s recently signed to the American label Windham Hill).

Awesome Africa was a well-organized festival, with a friendly vibe, and some outstanding music. South Africa still faces many problems, but the country proved to be an exciting and enlightening destination, and the festival was a chance for anyone interested in African music to see some of the continent’s most awe-inspiring musicians, along with local music that would never get a hearing outside, in a spectacular setting.

It doesn’t get much better than this.