“World music” is a somewhat unfortunate term for the plethora of music that exists outside of the Western canon. Furthermore, it is problematically associated with an interest in its supposed primitivism and exoticism. However, the organisers of the Cape Town World Music Festival this past weekend avoided belittling the music they put on offer by curating a vibrant festival in a gorgeous venue that was quite seamlessly organised. The weekend provided a feast of acts and events for the young and old, the experienced and uninitiated, both local and foreign; a celebration and rumination on the diversity of music from around the world.
The first striking aspect about the festival was the venue: the Cape Town City Hall, a colonial architectural behemoth originally designed to host opera and ballets and now playing host to men playing mbiras and sitars. The juxtaposition was interesting in itself but was furthermore augmented by the gorgeous lighting and set design that increased the proportions of the cavernous, sonically faultless venue. The main stage was set in front of the colossal organ, which is no longer played as its booming sound threatens the structural integrity of the building; people mingled in the standing section just below the main stage and pondered from the seated gallery at the top of the hall.
The first big act of the Friday night line-up was the biggest act on the bill for the weekend, the Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré and his band. They had to travel for another festival in the U.S that same night so were awkwardly, as headliners, slotted as one of the first acts of the night’s schedule. Despite this, they lived up to their acclaimed billing by simply blowing the roof off of with their electrifying brand of tightrope guitar music. Vieux is the son of Malian Grammy Award-winning legend Ali Farka Touré and the music, which lies at the intersection between Malian music and blues, often descended into rapturous solos and crushing prog-like climaxes, leaving the lowly crowd gasping for air.
The tickets for the concert were priced at R280 for the weekend and R180 for a day pass which, although reasonable, was not going to attract droves of young fans without some interest in “world music”, so the organisers also incorporated the Electronic Stage that would entice the folks who were keen for a straight up party. The stage was a mixed bag of the oddball, such as Miss H who played a mixture of electronically worked swing classics interspersed with some Bhangra flourishes, to the incredibly exciting Okmalumkoolkat who, as one of the most interesting acts in South African hip-hop, played a knockout set on Friday accompanied by JakobSnake. Okmalumkoolkat’s buoyant dancing enhanced the tight chemistry between the two, as he demanded the slightly nervous Cape Town crowd to get into it a bit more. The crowd, now fearful of being showed up by the rapper, responded in kind as they chanted “Umswenko!” timing the makeshift chorus with the banging bass drops and Okmalumkookat’s snappy a cappella verses. Saturday’s lineup consisted of the wonderful jungle, African and rave fusions of DJ Mighty and the house wizardry of DJ Clock, who was able to chuck in some heavy 4/4 numbers, some radio-friendly EDM and his own Beatenberg-assisted hit, ‘Pluto’. He managed to keep the electronic stage – placed upstairs on one of the roofs of the hall – a packed, sweaty and jubilant affair.
The Main Stage on Friday closed with local favourites, The Brother Moves On, who are becoming increasingly famous for their explosives live sets but on this night dressed smartly and joined for a few tracks by a keyboardist, violinist and saxophonist they seemed geared up for a slightly more austere set. Missing usual guitarist Raytheon Moorvan and joined by the spectral vocals of Nozuko Mapoma, it was interesting to see them just as frenetic on the bigger stage as they are in the tighter, more claustrophobic venues that they are probably more accustomed to playing – this despite the fact that the crowd had lessened somewhat since Vieux Farka Touré’s set.
The organisers very deftly managed to appeal to the diverse crowd that included yuppies, scene-kids, aged hippies with a second wind and wide-eyed foreigners excited to immerse themselves in “culture”. Because of this, they had acts like Carlo Mombelli, the virtuoso jazz bassist who provided considered and ponderous loose jazz compositions; Ras Haitrim for the frayed reggae fans; Los Tacos, a ten-piece Latin fusion act; and international acts like Chinese band, Jam You, who were an eclectic array of Chinese folk, rap and rock. Beatenberg were one of the headliners for Saturday and their easy-going mix of light Peter Gabriel and Vampire Weekend indebted guitar pop gently pleased the crowd before they brought on DJ Clock to rapturous applause for a performance of crossover hit ‘Pluto’ – which is sure to be played at South African weddings/dances from Diepsloot to Durbanville with the sort of Rainbow Nation exuberance that crossover hits like it provide.
Aside from the actual musical performances, the impressive design and co-ordination of the event made it feel as if it was a festival held in an elaborate party house with rooms and areas for you to flow into, to eat, drink or chat. Unlike a bar experience almost anywhere in the 30km radius of the Hall, it was easy to pop out to grab a drink or quickly nip to the bathroom. Saturday afternoon provided an opportunity for art workshops, intimate and insightful talks and discussions on culture and identity during the Lightbulb Sessions which provided a context for the music that the artists made and their reflections on their art and music.
The final act for Saturday night was the imperious and stately Thandiswa Mazwai, whose force-of-nature vocals was the standout of the weekend. Interspersed with humour and candidness, Mazwai got the “fairer citizens of Cape Town” to join her in singing Xhosa spirituals. Earlier in a Lightbulb Session, she commented on the sort of stillborn absolution that has taken place after the fall of apartheid and the lingering pain and anger that black people had not been allowed to fully express. Her music, which is as melancholic as it is shaded with joy and obvious pain, seems to directly confront that reality and showed why having events that promote such music is so necessary. The music on show here was clearly and deliberately addressing the issues of culture, history and how modern and homogenous society is rapidly becoming. Over the course of the weekend it was apparent that, although busy, the venue was never packed and it is a shame that more people, especially young and mobile partygoers, were not attracted to the event; the crowd was mostly made up of older and more seasoned veterans of such events. Whether or not future events will have to be marketed to younger people by getting more acts like Beatenberg and Okmalumkoolkat, the organisers kept their integrity this year by mixing the new and exciting with the familiar and established. All in all, it was a weekend that wasn’t trendy or gimmicky and largely devoid of the usual big brand commercialism that music festivals have come to stand for. It felt laboured. It felt loved.