Dancing with the Diaspora
The Annual Johannesburg Arts Alive International Festival :
Johannesburg comes to life in spring with local, international and African diaspora acts filling the city theatres, museum and outdoor spaces in forty unique events.
Beginning in 1992, Arts Alive was borne out of the transformational phase of South Africa and provides a dramatic and dynamic journey through the vibrant, diverse and evocative African city from an African Diaspora perspective.
Glen Mosokoane, director of the cultural development unit in government said, “ Arts Alive brought to South Africa a lot of music we could not otherwise see.”
South Africans were introduced to African artists from the continent in the mid to late 90s with musicians like Salif Keita, Baba Maal, Cesaria Evora, Youssou N'Dour, Oumou Sangare, Oliver Mtukundzi and Cheikh Lo coming for the festival.
“Johannesburg is undoubtedly a melting pot for everything African. The character of the city has completely morphed to a true African character to the extent that it's difficult to distinguish a pure South African accent from that from outside the borders. From Maboneng to Yeoville, Alexandra Township to Hillbrow, African culture permeates everyday life of a Joburger,” says, director of Moshito, Sipho Sithole.
And with the intention of uniting Africa through culture, the festival has grown to accommodate many exciting initiatives under its umbrella.
“Arts Alive International Festival, features artistic offerings that will entertain , educate and stimulate cultural tastes, from Jazz on the Lake launching the Festival in a celebration of spring, to events at the Johannesburg Theatre, Soweto , Alexander to various regions in Johannesburg,” says festival curator Roshnie Moonsammy.
Roshnie Moonsammy : Johannesburg Arts Alive Festival director 1994 - 2000 and curator 2015 -
Interview Catz Pyjamas August 27 th 2014
A festival that goes out to tender is not viable. I think even the people who get the tender will tell you after they are still establishing themselves, then the tender is over, And then all the gains made are lost. When we ran Arts Alive, it wasn't a tender process. You were employed and you did it. And I don't think anywhere in the world, that I know of, has there been a successful city festival based on a tender process. Tender processes are used for various departmental needs from the South African government side, and certainly not from a festival perspective. You have to select people who are knowledgeable who develop the institutional capital for training and for me that is what we did with Arts Alive basically from 1993 to 2000. You have to employ people, you have to train people, you have to create jobs, you have to have an on going process of artistic curatorship, ownership and relationship with the sponsors and all those things take ages to build. Government can give you your money for three years but how do you get sponsors if you are not going to be there. You must start the process over. Your relationships are no longer valid. People come in and they must make new relationships; so I think fundamentally it is a floored structure. I think it is an important festival, even though sometimes it is not seen as a fully-fledged arts festival. Artists need work and we need events in the city, so however you see it, it is important. Even the people who get the tender will agree, as soon as you are ready to face the next three years, your tender is over.
Were you the first director of Arts Alive?
The Arts Alive archives, are they available?
That was done with the late arts and culture director, Mr Victor Modise who tragically died in a car accident. He gave permission for it to be housed at Wits. It is just video footage. That is the only central archive for the material. After 2000 I don't know if there is any central keeping of material because obviously the tender process changes. I am ignorant of what has happened, but he has insured that it is kept at historical papers. Only the video footage remains of the event. It is on Betacam and video. Members of the public cannot view footage on Betacam as it can be damaged. The edited copies are on video and it is a simple process to put onto CD. It is nothing major to do if they want to do it. It is up to the City. And what are they doing with all the footage after 2000 and how centrally located is it? I don't know.
There are a lot of events that happen over the period of the festival. Are they all under the banner of Arts Alive?
Sometimes to many events for one month is too much, so it is good that you spread the activity. And then you find in winter there is so little happening, so to go out you must choose good venues and warm venues. People will go out if the stuff is good and what you do is artistically good. I think it doesn't have to all be clubbed together and I think a festival has to have an identity. I think sometimes government officials think that an artistic event is one that has to satisfy everyone's needs. And then a festival looses an identity and a focus. You find in Europe and America and various other countries there is a core of what the event is about. You can't have a whole lot of fringe events and then you call it a festival. Even from a marketing perspective it becomes very cumbersome. You have to have a focus. I think that whatever events being held is great because there is not as much, there is less money for all these things. And there is less political and artistic will to put together cutting edge events, events that really push you artistically and are well created. There is a need for that. And also a need to see artists we don't see. We see artists coming out for big concerts like Carlos Santana and who-ever but there are also the other middle range artists who really make an impact but we don't get to see them.
How did you develop such a strong Pan African network?
Incidentally I ran the biggest Wits University workshop open day. That was during the period of major worker cultural groups in 1990 and it is also when the release of Nelson Mandela and political prisoners was announced. We had Ahmad Kathrada come and talk on the University steps. Mzwakhe Mbuli, Johnny Clegg, Sipho Mchunu, it was a whole range of artists. Vusi Mahlasela was just starting out.
Do you think such a Pan African programming can return?
It can return. People are always desperate for good music, diaspora music, South American, Caribbean, afrobeat. Those things are great. In fact I am busy trying to get someone to screen the Fela Kuti documentary, “Finding Fela,” which has opened in the US and is opening in Lagos in October. There are so many things one can do and that has always been my interest. I have been involved in different multi-spheres, from a political, social and cultural perspective.
Are you a writer?
Is there rehabilitation in the system?
I see it in the women's system. If you go to the female system it is very different to the male system; same grounds, different buildings. Joburg Female Correctional Services is the biggest correctional center for female offenders. It is about 1300. It has very good facilities for babies under two because they are allowed to stay with their mothers. There are issues; such as, are people learning enough skills to empower themselves, so when they leave the correctional institute they will be able to fend for themselves. Those are issues where they need help. Of course the church is very active but the church is not going to put food on the table, so how do you do that. Spiritual wellbeing is important but you also need other hard and soft skills. Your confidence issues, and that is what the theatre program tries to do?
Are there people wrongly incarcerated?
It is an umbrella body. I hire in people when we have to do the work. Our work runs the Urban Voices brand. It will be the Urban Voices brand when I run the parolee program. I usually work with inmates. This is a completely separate program with parolees. I have come in to assist and take them to the Emfuleni carnival.
That was separate. I was asked to assist with contacts and meeting artists. It was a very nice experience. I will be going to the festival. At this very venue Catz Pyjamas we did the showcase. We had the likes of Sibongile Khumalo, Phuzekhemisi to Wouter Kellerman. It was a range of artists the night we did it. I am very pleased that Carnegie has even taken the Cape Malay choir to New York. The festival runs from September to October to the first week in November. It is the first time the Malay Choir is going to New York. There are a lot of classical audiences that come to Carnegie Hall. Audiences like new things. There are interesting things if you go to the Carnegie Hall website and uBuntu festival, including Angelique Kidjo who is doing a tribute to Miriam Makeba. There is also a guitar program and even young jazz musicians Kyle Shepherd, Kesivan Naidoo. For every young artist, it is their dream to perform at Carnegie Hall. It is really great that Carnegie got this program together.
Glen Ubedje Masokoane Interview Johannesburg 29/07/14
Glen is the director of cultural development at the DAC. He is currently working on scripts, a “costume drama” on Sol T Plaatje which has lots of music. He is also looking into a nook on Victor Ntoni and his music.
Photograph of Glen Ubedje preparing data of the Mzansi Music Ensemble for a forthcoming jazz 'biopic' on Victor Ntoni
“Ideas are not stagnant, they shift with time. Controversy should not be a point of avoidance as long as one is not blatantly aggressive and counter revolutionary and is controversial for the sense of limiting open minded discourse, you know, polemics …”
“It has outlived its expectations is what we are saying. ‘Arts Alive,' the one concept of the brand is a loaded statement and over the years, Arts Alive has contributed to the body of South Africa and international music because it is an international festival. It is not only South African centric. And over the years we have seen Arts Alive really contribute to the engendering of the broad landscape of arts appreciation, building audiences and the point sometimes is we tend to really look for radical accumulation of measurement. The arts are a different kettle of fish especially in a country like South Africa. We are relatively new in this space. By saying new does not mean to say we are backward and don't have the elements of something great. We are a growing cultural production centre, totally connected to Africa. And we should say ‘bravo' to the new democratic country in all its manifestations, cultural players, policy makers in government, opinion makers, media, the practitioners and the different administrations that have come back. If we look back at the ATAC process of the very beginning of the creation of the new South Africa, the evolution of the white paper on arts and culture was a very important point of beginning what we are appreciating now. So, you are talking to someone who is ovetly optimistic and in my optimism one is not saying let us avoid the mistakes encountered or the challenges. I understand Arts Alive in that context, heavily supported by the city of Johannesburg, the province, government and other sponsors. It has had its ups and downs like any other festival in the world. It is not unique in that sense. The support of the arts is not a linear approach. Also, arts sponsorship also has a tag of control of management manipulation, it is a complete space but nonetheless South Africa has held its festivals, Arts Alive included. We can not compare ourselves to Europe and North America but certainly we are not stagnant, we are evolving and I suppose we are going to see new and better and greater things. That is where my optimism lies!
Did you have a festival circuit as part of your plans for arts and culture?
I think the minister for arts and culture in the period of Paul Mashatile… He came in with a new approach to Arts and Culture funding under the notion of Mzansi Golden economy. In the Mzansi Golden Economy you then see a whole bouquet of offers in terms of arts funding and support; touring ventures, art in public spaces, support for the festival circuit or rather underpinning already existing Arts festivals like Macufe in the OFS or what Rashied Lombard is doing in Cape Town with the Cape Town Jazz Festival and the Joy of Jazz festival.
That was the culmination of the recognition of the importance of investing in culture. We are in the post-election mode. It is a new administration. I suppose there will be the culmination of using the arts as a contributor to social and economic development, also focusing the arts in social cohesion.
The unit that I work for, cultural development is part of the broader picture. You know that the department is made of different directorates. Cultural development is the unit that I work for. It is purely looking at providing the cultural industries with the momentum to create value. By that, I would mean the organization of sectorial representative bodies for them to be able to have a stronger voice to engage with government but also for collective bargaining. I am not talking in the Trade Union sense but in the context of providing identity per se. Like, we develop together with the music industry the Association of Independent Recording companies in South Africa. That is a definite sectorial grouping of music labels, creators of music. That is what cultural development does, like MOSHITO which is a unique South African expo for the African continent to have a place where the business of music can be mainstream, the same with France and what they do with MIDEM and South West in the US. That is where cultural development would be coming from.
Do you have Pan African links?
At 2014 this year at MOSHITO there will be a focus on Congo because last year MOSHITO went to the Congo. Over the years MOSHITO has attempted to have a strong African presence, Nigeria, Ghana, musicians from the Sahara, desert blues festival. People have come to MOSHITO. And, MOSHITO has to be underpinned strategically, not only as a South African initiative but as a broader African music conference, and as a business point for entrepreneurs, producers, musicians. Also, MOSHITO has to continue to be an internationalist organization. We have had contact with music out of Latin America, Columbia, Cuba. We as South Africans have to maintain our spirit of internationalism because that is where we have come from, in terms of the struggle. We cannot be sectorial in our approach to international relations, but we have to be part of the movement of the South, because that is where our links are?
Exactly, the beauty about this is BRICS should not become BRICS at government at the level of international relations alone. We, the practitioners within the BRICS community need to find synergies with the work we do. The newly created BRICS bank should not only be about heavy industry, infrastructural development alone, but it must also engender the creation of cultural development.
Brazil had Gilberto Gil as minister of Arts and Culture. How do you feel about a musician as minister of arts and culture, doesn't that make sense?
Gilberto has come to South Africa, 6 or 7 years ago. In Brazil, yes (it works). I think South Africa, the minister in the presidency, Collins Chabane, he is a musician. A person like Collins Chabane would be great. I think a minister like Pallo Jordan fitted the cap, because he has worked and lived with musicians like Dudu Pukwane, Louis Moholo in the UK. Pallo comes from a literary and history background. I think a minister that comes out of the cultural industry would understand but having said that, the arts has to be liberated from politics, all be it the two are mutually inclusive. I don't believe there has to be a politicized arts movement because then it begins to centre ideology of a single party or group of people to determine the way forward and we can't afford that in South Africa. We need to be culturally, politically inclusive to continue to champion social cohesion and cultural cohesion and the cementing of different cultural nuances. Our history has to combine. I am sensitive to political inclusion or political control of the arts. I am not saying the arts must be neutral. No, the arts has to be critical of the status quo all the time. The artists must become the eyes and ears of society. We have to be the bearer of the good news and also to be critical of we feel the centre does not hold. We mirror society that is our role.
Jazz has an alchemical nature in its ability to transform sadness into happiness …
You telling me! That is the power of music and that is the power of jazz. Without singling out jazz, but the road as we look back at what South African jazz has created in the building towards the new South Africa. If you look at the work of Chris Macgregor, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, that was a very interesting mix of South African jazz musicians who demanded to operate beyond race.
With democracy music has had to share the platform with other arts. My research leads me to believe that ‘music is the mother of all arts.' Do you pick up on that?
Yes and no but yes, music can be the mother of all arts, true, but there is another way of looking at it. As a film maker, in the 80's we used to be proponents of this idea of 3 rd eye, definitely confirming what you are saying. If you look at African cinema, it is an integration of different forms of the arts. Film is not a single narrative but in it you will find integrated different layers of other cultural forms, music, dance, poetry. I agree with you to say music is the mother of all arts. When you look at traditional music, when people go till (the land), they sing. Song drives production of communal involvement. If we look at what is happening in this contemporary space, a lot of youth are integrating music with other art forms. The latest offering of Jessica Mbangeni who is a traditional Xhosa poet, she has integrated jazz. She is working with a big band and she is doing what would be hardcore Xhosa poetry. Look what Zim Ngqawana did with Lefifi Tladi.
Did Arts Alive start in 1992?
Was it '93? I came back in 1993, February. I came back for a little while in 1992 and I saw this new space blossoming and I just left Europe. I said, ‘I am coming back to contribute, I haven't looked back even though I still keep my links with London, which has influenced my thinking because it is out of the African Caribbean experience out of London that gave me the opportunity to be a practicing artist. Arts Alive was early 90's. With its evolution, Arts Alive brought to South Africa a lot of music we could not otherwise see, especially Roshnie Moonsammy Urban Voices. Roshnie as a curator of content had a hand in Arts Alive.
I feel a certain antagonism between the festival directors and the city…
Bore the brunt of bureaucratic intrusion or bureaucratic lack of vision and understanding what the festival is all about. I think those tensions are unavoidable. It is how they are managed and that comes back to my point. The political control of the arts becomes problematic in that sense. The artist must create or the festival director needs to be given the long rope to conceptualise, to program, to give creative input and direction. Once there is a lot of intrusion from the political heads favouring one group over the other, there will also be conversation. You will find the festival director compromised. Sometimes, if the festival director is not kept under scrutiny, they must not become loose cannons where they become part of a cabal, the buddy buddy syndrome.
What will be the catalyst for the change for people to allow other people to get on with their work?
It would require dialogue between policy makers and creators and cultural managers or producers, managers with knowledge and skills. As much as there has been an evolution of great content out of South Africa, we have wasted time in terms of lack of clarity in managing our festivals. Some of our festivals have run their course. They are no longer innovative in their content mix, and haven't allowed new voices as curators to bring in other new forms. I would want to see new approaches to festival direction, to bring a new unusual work. If we look at the Grahamstown Arts festival, it has tried but it needs to take a different approach. It has played a very important role for bringing to South Africa impresarios or curators from Europe, Edinburgh especially, but want to see makers of theatre, music and other arts forms from other parts of the world, Argentina. There has to be this shift. We have to bring in Africa more, not because Africa is something politically correct but there are serious things happening in Nigeria musically, Ghana, Senegal, plastic arts, painting and all those things need to come into this space. There has got to be more commitment to sustainable development of our festivals through massive injection of finance, training and development, marketing and we need to go outside of our convenient space because the difference about arts on the one hand is it is a business and on the other hand it is about spiritual and social upliftment. In the epoch we find ourselves, we need to be continually aware of these tension spaces. We should not fool ourselves. The arts can never be commercially viable, they cannot bring that return on investment in the common sense, otherwise we don't understand what it is all about. They can be sustainable, they can break even, they can create value, they can attract other monies and that is why Hollywood is such a big failure because it is driven by high commercial interest and it producers cultural content and I am not too sure of its value. That is why we need to support our music so that our music is not driven alone by commercial interest but is driven by providing the opportunity for musicians to make a living out of their music and that is only the creation of organizations like MOSHITO, AIRCO have been important, so that South African music can define its space in the global arena, especially independent music creation. We can't all be driven by the interests of Sony and Universal. We have to engender South African labels that compete in a viable way in the digital space, because the digital space provides us with the opportunity to be seen and known throughout the world.
Can I ask you to address the conspiracy regarding Arts and Culture being the Siberia of departments, an exile?
I think that is a conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, I don't sit in the heart of the politics or political honchos. That understanding to say Arts and Culture is a dumping ground for non innovative political heads, I do not subscribe to that. You understand where it would be coming from. What I have seen, ministers in all departments, some of them have no experience of the portfolios they manage. We need to be able to appreciate that. Minister Pallo Jordan was a minister of a special kind because he was an organic intellectual and I am not saying the other ministers do not qualify. I would reserve my comment. I think over all my opinion is that the powers that be in government in the cabinet still need to fully appreciate the role of Arts and Culture. Not as funds, not as entertainment for the sake of it but as a serious industry like mining, heavy industry because out of Arts and Culture we can create social value as intellectual property development, create markets that could compete with the developed world to the best of our ability. That has been the missing point for the correct configuration of the cultural industries in industrial policy. It has been piecemeal although not fully emphasized. If you look at the New South Africa and the Industrial Policy document have recognized cinema, film, music, but I think we can do more. I would not point it at the political head of the department and say they don't fit the bill. Sorry. Also it is up to us. I would say let us create a critical dialogue between the key departments, Arts and Culture related. What is missing is the cohesion between departments that have input onto the cultural industry production, that would be tourism, social development, department of communication, trade and industry. All these people. I don't think they are working in tandem. If the criticism was coming from that point of view I would say yes there is value in that. But, to single out a single guy and say oh yeah, Arts and Culture is a dumping ground we might as well think like the Green Party, why don't we have an Arts and Culture political party?
You talk about doing more in Arts and Culture. Is this the driving force behind your independent work?
I haven't reached my sell by date, there is nothing like that. I have been ten years in public service and I just think I need to go back and become a film maker because that is where my first passion is. Maybe by the end of the year I will be becoming a film maker but again a very unique film maker because all my films are around music because I believe it is an area that has been neglected. Even when I was in UK, the very important film I made was a Samuel Coleridge Taylor, you know the Anglo Black composer who was a contemporary of Elgar. I did a film for BBC called the African Suite. I looked for the great black music composer and conductor who was big in his time. My heart is in doing biopics. I did Kippie Moeketsi, Blues for Kippie. It was a beautiful film that told a story of one of South Africa's important saxophonist who was controversial and at the same time highly innovative. At the moment I am producing Gideon Nxumalo's film, African Jazz Fantasia. I plan to attempt to do a opera, on the music of JP Mohapeloa who was a composer that left a whole body of work. I am so driven by music. I am writing a feature script now on Sol T Plaatje who was a writer and the first Secretary General of the ANC. Sol Plaatje was such a great musician. Actually he was the first South African musician to record at the point where sound was being recorded in Middlesex at Xonophone records. Sol Plaatje produced an album which included not only Nkosi Sikelele Africa but included a number of African details. I hope you appreciate where I am coming from because as a film maker, my arena is driven by music. There is so much to reclaim and re-document. I am hoping on making Mackay Davashe, also another great musician. I would like to make a biopic of the Merry Blackbirds, 1930 Emily Motsieloa jazz pianist. There is so much to be done. I am fixated by making cinema and using music as my entry but also I am planning to become a music producer to unearth new South African jazz musicians. I am going to work with Claude Deppa. He is in London. He is leading this big orchestra. That is where my mind is. I live for music.
Lesley Hudson festival director, Arts Alive since 2012 said at the launch of Arts Alive 2014,
“It is an interesting experience running a festival like Arts Alive as it is totally city sponsored. The majority of funding comes from the city of Johannesburg. The city of Johannesburg are in effect our clients so I have to work very closely with the city of Johannesburg and the department called ‘Community development.' As you know in any sphere of government, local, provincial and national, there is always the political arm and the administrative arm. That makes it kind of a challenge as you are reporting both to the politician and the administration. In essence when you are getting sign off and feedback you are getting it from administration but also from the political arm which makes it quite challenging. That is a dynamic that is quite unusual in this festival in that you are reporting to those two sides but very rewarding in that you know you are contributing to a bigger vision, not just administratively but politically as well. The festival is seen as part of a bigger political agenda. “
One political agenda is the campaign called Joburg 2040.
At the media launch held in the very scenic penthouse of the Johannesburg Theatre a short documentary of some of the highlights (particularly African music) of the last 21 years of Arts Alive provided a nostalgic, dynamic and dramatic journey through Joburg as an African city that loves African music. The archive of recorded material that is available to the Arts Alive festival is a very important body of performances of many legendary musicians and their bands who performed in Johannesburg. For many people (self included) seeing these musicians was a once in a lifetime experience.
The other political agenda is the “celebration of 20 years of democracy. “ Considering the Arts Alive festival started in 1992, it was a fore-runner to the peaceful transformation the country took. However to brand our peaceful transformation as ‘democracy' is a travesty of justice. For example, music is known to be the mother of all arts, yet in a democratic situation it is required to share the stage, funding and resources with dance , theatre , music , poetry , comedy and visual arts. This will naturally limit the effect and reach a festival director may have.
Lesley Hudson said,
“To pull off a festival like this you have to have what I call ‘genre heads.' So we have different people who run the music; theatre; dance. You have to interact with those people and make sure you coordinate all of that in a way that is satisfying audiences but is also satisfying the needs of the administrators and politicians.”
In ancient societies of West Africa, the politicians were the musicians. They were called ‘griots.' When the link between music and message making is re-stablished, Arts Alive becomes once more an African festival and Johannesburg returns to its original position as one of the most diverse cities in Africa.
“It is a very Joburg festival. It embodies the essence of Joburg which is vibrance, cosmopolitan, diverse, evocative, all of those sorts of things. And the fact that we have to coordinate events in all of the seven administrative regions of the city makes it very embedded in the city and gives it a very organic flavor so that it is very much about the people of Joburg and responding to their needs rather than just a couple of elite people.”
In the big city of Johannesburg everybody gets a chance to prove themselves. Lesley Hudson responded,
“I guess that is kind of the democracy of the festival in that the administration changes so that everybody literally does get a chance to run the festival but because it is a multi genre festival and we have something like 43 events over the ten days, lots of people have the opportunity to perform on the festival or work on the festival. It is very dynamic and democratic.”
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