Cape Town Electronic Music Festival (CTEMF) is always the event that’s on everyone’s lips at this time of the year – and deservedly so – though no one ever really knows what to expect (a quality that lends itself well to an event format that becomes stilted if the tried-and-tested is stuck to too stubbornly). Acquiring the services of local acts, and acts from varied elsewheres, who come together to celebrate the beloved and amorphous music format, it was fair for festival-goers to go into the weekend expecting another stellar showing for CTEMF’s 5th anniversary.
CTEMF has only been around for a little while, but it has firmly established itself as the country’s foremost left-of-centre electronic music festival, gaining international recognition and plaudits along the way that have allowed them to improve upon what’s already been done (and loved) in the years since its inception. The festival as a concept has fairly lofty, admirable ambitions. Every year they look to unite a very broad community of those making and experimenting with electronic music – a format with so sub-divisions that creating a socially and creatively diverse showcase for it – that is still appealing and cohesive to all – seems a tall ask. To their credit, those running the machine behind CTEMF still haven’t let this aim fall by the wayside. CTEMF wears its vision for a diverse, multi-genred exhibition of South African-centric electronic music like a badge of honour, with their appetite-whetting workshops and talks in the build up to the occasion split between Red Bull Studios in Gardens and Guga S’thebe in Langa.
For all their good intentions, it was vital that CTEMF avoided paving themselves into the same corner as many South African live music festivals before them by shutting out many fans before the line-up is even announced. There was an additional challenge this year to go one step further than before to ensure their aim of multiculturalism was better reflected in the crowds that packed the festival’s three dancefloors.
One of the more eagerly anticipated sets of the weekend was Driemanskap, who are no strangers to big stages, even though their much publicised switch to indie label Native Rhythms was only made last year. I was unfortunate to only catch the tail-end of their performance (out of a naïve determination to not miss a thing), but it certainly seems that Driemanskap are giving in a little more to that kwaito itch they’re never shy to scratch. They were even occasional bursts of Sotho spat into the microphone as the Gugulethu-grown, spazarappers flexed their versatility for a mostly new and ever-pliant audience.
Crosby & Friends who followed the set and preceded Petite Noir were a welcome palate cleanser of easy, compelling reggae that was only a marker of the many sides the festival wanted to show off over the few days.
The ambitious variety and flow of talents and sounds guaranteed that from act to act, and stage to stage there was a fresh, yet equally fervent audience crowding each dance floor during the weekend’s feast of electronic music.
The decision to host the event at Cape Town City Hall once more turned out to be particularly fitting this year. A party of this scale hosted in the ornate and marbled hallways of the City Hall may have seemed ambitious at first, but the festival comfortably nestled itself in and illuminated the large space with the 39 exciting acts and artists that were lined up for the weekend. The auditorium’s imposing chandeliers swung dangerously in time with the relentless sounds produced by Sibot’s frantic fingers as they tapped out and synth-scratched some impressive hip-hop/kwaito-inspired sounds when he and Toyota treated fans to an hour of pure sonic and visual indulgence in one of the headlining acts. The outdoor terrace was made the go-to for those searching for the heady experience of Ralf Kollman’s funk-laden techno, the soulful samples of Nightmares On Wax – or alternatively, a blessed breeze. The Club Stage might have best imbibed some of the qualities of its frequenters – mostly sweat-drenched and non-stop. This rule held true whether it happened to be DJ Lag who seemed to feed off the dancing crowd’s inhibition as much the crowd fed off his shamelessly gritty Gqom set – or White Nite who seemed to magnetically draw more feet through the curtained entranceway with every feverish turn in tempo.
This isn’t to say that the planning of CTEMF 2016 had been without the occasional setback, either. They managed to shake off Okmalumkoolkat‘s sudden and indefinite unavailability by swiftly and efficiently replacing the slot with the exciting Angel-Ho and Dope Saint Jude whose abrasive, give-no-fucks attitudes hyped and delivered beyond due expectation. Organisers were also disappointed at the final hour by a mix-up with DJ Rolando and his management that meant he could not attend this year’s festival. However, the hitch was tackled with an admirable transparency and poise that still left attendees excited for the remaining foreign headline acts that flexed their capabilities over the packed three days. Chloé (France) fans enjoyed an entrancing electro-minimal set late on the Friday night that perfectly set up Boris Brejcha’s dreamy “high-tech minimal”.
Petite Noir – to the credit of his recent critical and global audience acclaim – had a throng of followers singing along to every word and crowding the railing as he easily crooned, captivating new listeners and reaffirming every local fan who had (up ’til then) never seen him perform. Plainly, he looked every bit like the star the international reception to his work has purported him to be (even through gracefully dealing with the odd technical glitch).
Other standouts were the massively energetic marathon of Goldie, the first ever Rudeboyz set in Cape Town, Beat Sampras, and the energising Techno-House(-Rave even) smasher of Aero Manyelo.
The festival’s inception in 2012 coincided with electronic music’s blossoming just as it started to grow into its place as a recognised scene in South Africa and the world. The festival has quickly become a benchmark of just how rapidly the industry is growing now that it’s looking to sustain its own unstoppable momentum. That may be why CTEMF challenges itself each year to be bigger and better in just about everything that happens in the lead-up to and surrounding the weekend. Idealist though it may be; there’s a very real and mostly achievable belief that as long as electronic music artists continue to innovate and are given an equal platform like this to showcase their talents, then the rest will all fall into place.
They have been a few giddy conversations flitting about social media and IRL that this year may have been the best Cape Town Electronic Music Festival we’ve seen yet, even amongst some criticisms of how far it has to come to really expand the sonic (and social) geography of the city. It was certainly a resounding success, and came leaps and bounds closer to its vision of an inclusive, cohesively broad-spectrum celebration and showcase of electronically-realised musical expression.
(Ed’s note: While no music festival (especially regionally) really achieves ‘multiculturalism’ and true representation in line-up and audience, none of Cape Town’s other globally-relevant, locally-focused festivals state that aim – and work towards it – as clearly as CTEMF. They’ve also never turned a profit, partly due to the curatorial risks associated with attempting to connect the dots musically and socially. That said, we’ve all got a long way to go.)