United Colours of Africa

As a cultural journalist I lived in Cape Town for ten years exploring the authentic style of the city, goema music. Although so naturally beautiful, Cape Towm has a cultural beauty to match:

Contact me on struan at afribeat.com for good guidance in experienceing Cape Town

Cape Town 

Cape Town Jazz City :

Cape Town, Mother City, with a combination of beauty and location it attracted many different people to its picturesque shores. Christopher Mra Ngcukana, the Columbus of South African Jazz was an early pioneer of education and collaboration in the 40s.

By the 50s Cape Town was already growing cosmopolitan and international through the port. The talented pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim, was called Dollar , as he carried a Dollar to buy the latest jazz records from the visiting American sailors at the port.

During the 60s, jazz gatherings at Green Point's Art Centre lead to the formation of saxophonist Winston “raging bull” Mankunku Ngozi seminal sound and the founding of The Jazz Workshop by vibes and piano player Merton Barrow and his wife Cynthia. This diligent school has remained the cornerstone for nurturing Cape Town jazz and is jokingly called the 'Hogwaarts of Cape Town – place where magic happens.”

University of Cape Town (UCT) jazz department was founded in 1989 by Mike Campbell after graduating with a jazz degree from North Texas State. It has spawned a host of accomplished players, who with dedication and good fortune have risen to fame with a singular approach,” explained Campbell.

T he political isolation of South Africa during the 70s and 80s resulted in a tremendous hunger to see “international musicians perform in a festival atmosphere that brings people of all persuasions together,” as Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) co- founder, photographer Rashid Lombard put it.

The annual CTIJF was founded in 2000 and has grown ten-fold since. The event impacts R500 Million on the creative economy and contributes extensively to jazz education, training, skills and development across the sector.

“Every year people depend on us for their livelihood. We have a moral obligation to maintain this event, if not expand,” explained festival Director Billy Domingo.

There are inner city and suburban venues catering for African and collaborative jazz. The music promotion initiative “ Jazz in the Native Yards” founded by Koko Nkalashe hosts brings jazz music to the b ack-yards, cultural centres and informal spaces in the townships where people gather. These e vents offer the full African jazz experience of community, food and freedom.

Cape Town and radical self expression :

Streetopia is a community based and family friendly event. The event was founded by the AfrikaBurn festival team in 2015 to fill the creative vacuum left by the demise of the long running Obsfest.

AfrikaBurn is the second largest regional “Burning Man” event in the world. It attracted 14000 “burners” to their eleventh edition in the Tankwa Karoo National Park in April.

Co-founder Monique Schiess said, “In essence, Streetopia is bringing the principles that guide the AfrikaBurn event to town, transporting what we do in the desert back into the “default world” as it were, and seeing what happens.”

Burning Man is a leading “transformational festival,” with many regional events all over the world. The principles arose out of the Bohemian climate of challenging norms and seeking experiences exemplified by Burning Man founder, Larry Harvey and the ‘Cacophony society' in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1986.

“In San Francisco during the hippy movement the symbol of wearing the flower in the hair is that you have to go and find the others like you. It was the psychedelic movement and with the first Burn we found the others,” recalled Schiess.

1000 people attended the first AfrikaBurnand the event has grown exponentially. The event has added an eleventh guiding principle: ‘Each one, teach one,' which extends the principles of self-reliance to community awareness, whilst growing the community and the bottom up management of the organisation.

“We wanted to carry across the message that it is every persons duty to acculturate others into the ethos and spread the culture rather than think that it belongs in a centralized authority,” Schiess explained.

A guiding principle is ‘radical inclusion.'Participants define the event. Organizers are the enablers of the creative projects.

“ These events work well asthey invite archetypal impulses of the participants to come out and play and create. Participants are being playful, happy, irreverent, serious, or whatever- and they are collaborating. This is a catalyst for change,” she said.

Participants “gift” their content.This creates connections, friendships and builds the community and the event. Artwork, services, performances, live music, trays of cookies and sculptures are examples of some of the gifts that are contributed to the whole experience.

“A gift is given with no expectation of anything in return. The point of it is to move away from the default world transactional practices, to be quite pure actually,” explained Schiess.

Over ten years of AfrikaBurn, Schiess has witnessed many exciting and innovative projects suchas the artwork of a mining engineer called James who designed a “beautiful flaming, singing, washing machine!” she said.

“He never ever thought of himself as an artist,” explained Schiess. “One of things I love about AfrikaBurn is that it is a place of no judgement and everyone is a creator or artist. When you free that side of people, anything becomes possible. It becomes collaborative and playful. It is like exercising a muscle of working together . It is a change agent where fun is the vector for change. People are so inspired and so full of joy .”

AfrikaBurn has built strong connections between collaborators, which contributes to the communities back at home. This social and community health impact is being monitored and evaluated using frameworks such as the gross national happiness parameters from Bhutan and the Julies Bicycle analysis tool. 

Schiess said, “With AfrikaBurn, the city infrastructure to creative project ratio is inverted compared to what it is in city. A town that it is utterly dominated by creative projects feels like a healthier space. With Streetopia we are attempting to do that inversion in town.”

From their offices situated in the Bijou cinema in Salt River/Observatory, a historic cultural centre, AfrikaBurn have made their first expansion into the city with the annual Streetopiaevent taking place in the immediate neighbourhood.

Streets around the Village Green and Lower Main Road are closed to traffic and opened to pedestrians, cyclists, buskers, live music stages and creative projects. This becomes like a blank canvas for inclusive and collaborative creative projects to generate content in an open source model.

Iconic artworks of the Afrikaburn community such as mutant vehicles, giant sculptures and techy playfulness together with an aerial art-piece meets with Observatory's vibrant cultural diversity. Businesses in Observatory such as the vintage clothing, record stores, small eateries and cultural venues are encouraged to flow out onto the streets and decorate their pieces of the pavement.

With the mandate “to reinvent the word anew,” 3.5% of AfrikaBurn earnings are used to fund outreach projects through Artspark grants. Grants include, Art display boxes, murals and innovative art lights “ to leave a legacy of creativity behind in the suburb,” explained Schiess.

The Burning Man philosophy of action was founded in America in 1986 with an annual event in the Nevada desert which now attracts 70 000 people. AfrikaBurn was formed in 2007 as a non-profit company to co-ordinate the South African event.

“AfrikaBurn is an open source model. It is everybody's town and it is defined by everybody. It is idealistic – it is in a rough and difficult and incredibly beautiful space, the desert – you have to bring everything you need to survive, you have to gift something. Everyone goes there, they leave utterly exhausted but an activism is woken up in them. It really is an exercise in self organization, which is amazing,” explained Afrikaburn co founder Monique Schiess.

The original founders of Burning Man were from the bohemian movement of San Francisco and acted from a basis of experimentation, play and idealism. A set of principles, built around “radical self reliance” arose out of practice and action. And they were penned to define the event.

AfrikaBurn founders also included Robert Weinek famous for Bob Bar in Johannesburg, BlackLil who hosted avant grade MALparties and Paul Jorgensen who had a history with Burning Man. The event quickly became the largest regional Burning Man event in the world and is sort out by the global Burning Man community and now attracts 30% of its audience and participators from abroad.

Schiess said, “But it really goes way beyond the founders. We were just facilitators. Humans have a tremendous impulse to work together and be creative. These are the archetypes that the burn brings out.”

AfrikaBurn was started on a private nature reserve in the Karoo desert of Tankwa, Northern Cape. Organizers and volunteers build a temporary town on the site that acts as a gallery for large scale and mobile artworks. The beautiful site is 1.4km across and eight hundred meters in width. The town plan is in circles. The inner circle, five hundred meters in diameter, is reserved for art and creative activations. And there is a street network behind where people camp and participants create theme camps with activated spaces.

Schiess explains, “A space is created for magic to happen. “We provide the blank canvas, with minimal intervention except that we challenge everyone to do something, anything with bravery and play. That defines the space. It is a fertile ground for invention, collaboration and a space of no judgement, where you can just try.”

One thousand participants attended the opening event, many of whom have remained strong supporters throughout, encouraging their children to grow up with the event.

Schiess said, “We have a number of lovely kids that started coming to Afrikaburn with their parents when they were nine and now are in their early twenties. They are thinking that the Burn is the normal way of life and it doesn't become something else.

Attendance figures have grown exponentially numbers and after previously sold out events, number are limited to 13 000. The majority age group is now between twenty-five and thirty-nine. As the event has grown, it has necessitated more rules and regulations which is ironic since, “the tap route of Afrikaburn is in anarchy and challenging norms,” as Schiess said.

Afrikaburn has created an Inclusivity Committee which deals with potential barriers to entry and participation for any marginalized groups. Participation is becoming increasingly diversified through collaboration with the wider community. Afrikaburn offer 130 sponsored community tickets for marginalised participants across South Africa. And, Tankwa locals create their own art and performance works.

Year round programmes offer long term support for the local community at Elandsvlei, the karretjiemense of the greater Tankwa area, Middlepos and Matjiesrivier. In response to the fires, AfrikaBurn has supported the Imizamo Yethu, Garden Route and Masiphumelele communities

Klinton Whitehead from the Khoisan community said, “We feel at home at Afrikaburn. It resonates with a big part of our culture – not to be rigid in living life and to embrace the absurdity that lightens the grind of life. The Elders think it is a strange and beautiful place filled with absurdity and wonder, a dreamlike environment manifested. They absolutely love the experience.”

Afrikaburn awards 40 annual unique creative projects, particularly giant sculptures and mutant vehicles for display at the event.

“Everyone who does something transforms the event. Just putting up a tent for the first time or living without running water, building a thing, burning a thing, doing a performance for the first time and being in a space of no judgement where you can just try; catalyses mind-set changes, ” explained Schiess.

The burning of an eighteen meter tall effigy of multiple striding people called “San Clan” brings the event to a climax. The sculpture symbolises community and unity and the burn, “letting go of that which no longer serves you.”

For some artists fire completes their artworks, and for others the pieces are dismantled in order to be re-used or re-erected in bare urban spaces.

“People exercise self-organisation in the desert. They are collaborating. And those collectives organise themselves back in town and do things. What I have seen done in the last twelve years is what keeps me involved,” said Schiess.

Afrikaburn has been challenged in the past by the money-making concept “plug, play and profit camps,” the extreme one hundred and ten kilometer dirt road to Tankwa Town, the terrible weather of 2012 and the Norovirus in 2017.

“In its essence this whole event is an experiment. We are turning a whole lot of stuff on its head this year, to be true to the experiment and to make sure people don't ever get too comfortable that we lose the dynamism,” explained Schiess.


© 2018 African music, writing, philosophy and multi-media creations Struan Douglas afribeat.com

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