It is either slightly disconcerting or enormously flattering when you arrive at a hotel for the first time and the receptionist greets you by name. In the case of my arrival at the Rapid Waters Hotel (and I use all three of those words advisedly) 29km outside of Potchefstroom, it could only be the former. The whole place has an air of being somewhere that no one has stayed at for weeks. Getting there involves a slow crawl along a pockmarked, gravel road that winds through a trail of rusty farm debris and dilapidated houses. In anticipation of my arrival, the staff have probably been gazing at the sole entry in their booking register every morning, lovingly running a finger over the inked curves of my name, mouthing each syllable, tasting the delicious prospect of, well, a guest. And so it was, after a long and dusty drive from Johannesburg, that I stepped across the threshold. A flicker of relief across the lady’s face. I hadn’t let her down. “Anthony Lankester” she told me as I pushed open the jangly door, stepped over two mangy poodles and tried to decipher her outline from under a cloud of smoke (hers, not mine).
“What a co-incidence,” I said, “That’s my name too.”
“I’ll just get your key.”
Off she hurried. I’m loath to use the world “bustled” because that conjours up images of a rotund B&B owner, wiping on her crisp apron the floury evidence of warm and crusty bread having just been popped into the oven while clucking around her guests like long lost friends. Ms R Water was nothing like that. Ash dripping from her top lip, she hurried through a western-style pub door behind the desk with poodles in tow. “He’s here,” I heard her announce to the gathered staff at the back. I’m sure I heard a celebratory “Whoop”. Dewy-eyed she returned with my key and instructions to follow her to my room.
The journey through the hotel backyard to my room was an adventure in itself. Stepping over dogs, rabbits and, I swear, a mongoose, I nodded sagely when my hostess gestured to a peacock or Guinea Fowl or something (fauna and flora have never been my strong point, so take that mongoose thing with a pinch of salt) and told me that they were likely to walk on my roof tonight and wake me up. As it turned out they didn’t. What did wake me up – repeatedly and relentlessly – was a rooster that decided to “cock a doodle doo” himself to a hoarse whisper on the half hour, every half hour from 2am, just outside my window. Walking to my car the next morning, grumpy from my interrupted sleep, I spied the smug rooster, well, let me call a cock a cock — I spied the smug cock under a nearby tree. Its night of hard work had worn it out, and so it now lay in a deep slumber of its own. I tiptoed over to it, leaned forward and positioned my mouth more or less where I imagined its ear to be. Or maybe it was its ass. Anyway, I leaned toward a tightened orifice. At the top of my lungs I yelled “BOKKE”. Nothing. No dramatic flurry of feathers or that useless panicky thing cocks do with their wings. Zilch. Unsatisfied by my experience with the cock, but quietly pleased at scoring a point over nature, I stood and turned toward my car to see a flutter of frilly curtain in the office window. I gave the spying receptionist a wave and a cheery smile, threw my room key at the mongoose and hopped into my car to start the dusty trek to Potch.
I was in the area as part of my ongoing attempt to get a handle on South African arts festivals. When a small town like Potch stages Aardklop, which tens of thousands of people flock to in the name of the arts, then it’s worth taking a look to see what they’re doing right and what I can learn from them for the benefit of my own employer.
Before arriving, a journalist told me of the outcry that ensued after he reported that Aardklop was like a giant “Kerk Bazaar”. That may be a little harsh, and a comparison that conveniently ignores the cultural passion that runs through the festival. But I can see how he arrived at that description. The massive “Fees Terrein” is basically a patch of lawn enclosed by several streets that have been shut down, giving way to marqueed and caravanned food and craft stalls. While impressive in its size, there’s not much by way of variety. It seems that sosaties are big in Potch. Lamb sosaties, beef sosaties and chicken sosaties. Sosaties on a bun and then, cunningly and to give the illusion of choice, two sosaties on a bun. Sosaties made and sold by a staggering number of NG Kerks and their derivative offshoots (Reformde, Gereformde, Hergereformde and so on). Others braaied on long rows of sizzling grids and sold by means of signs promising that, of all the sosaties in Potch, these are the best — until the next few steps, anyway. Now don’t get me wrong, I love sosaties as much as the next man. But a slice of Bovril toast would have been good in between. They could even sell it on a stick if it makes someone feel better.
And then there was “Mr Mushroom”. Now Mr M is a creative thinker. Obviously well aware of this crowd’s love of food on a stick, he wacked up not just one two or three, but four stalls selling what can only be described as a crumbed mushroom sosatie. Genius.
In case you’re wondering what has precipitated the national stick shortage, I can reassure you that, after Aardklop, supplies will return to normal.
So the food is all well and good, but what of the art? What indeed. I counted a healthy 98 productions on the Festival programme – a good mix between music, theatre, lectures and dance with a sprinkling of children’s theatre thrown in. And there were lots of recognisable names on the bill, such as Sharleen Surtee Richards, Lionel Newton, Frank Opperman, Zane Meas and Chris Chameleon. There’s also powerful, touching and tear-jerkingly beautiful work, like the Lara Bye directed Yellowman. But, and this is likely to be a contentious observation, as with the ABSA Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudtshoorn, it’s not these 98 productions that give the festival its identity. It’s the multitude of music stages that spring up around town like mushrooms (I told you Mr. M was good). It’s the devastating truth of many of these Festivals that the arts take a back seat. In the front are a procession of pretty boy Westlife wannabees, singing and strumming songs that, to my ear anyway, all blend into one. Now I love live music. I really, really love it. When it is performed by the real deal – non-plasticky South African artists with genuine talent. And it’s not a language thing. I count Karen Zoid, Koos Kombuis, Chris Chameleon and Valiant Swart among my all-time favourite acts, regardless of the language in which they sing. So there’s nothing more depressing to me than stepping out of a mind-blowing performance by Valiant Swart, who I saw playing to a paltry audience of about 20 people in Oudtshoorn earlier this year, and coming face to face with a 5 000 strong crowd weeping over the Cambells and that musical abomination Japie or Gawie or whatever his name is (you know, the one with the hair who massacres Bryan Adams’s songs. If you don’t know him, you certainly know the type). It’s just wrong.
Now I’m not suggesting that festivals should swim against the tsunami of populism. It is what it is. If the masses want to flock together to watch Kurt Darren and Ghapi (that’s the guy) then they must do that and they will be urged along by mindless television talent searches, which, by the way, I love. No-one said I had to be fair or consistent. Salivating big record companies will milk the opportunity and achieve stratospheric CD sales. Sponsors see all the commotion and pay a premium to put their brands in the heart of the experience. Everyone’s happy and that’s all fine. But when that’s the dominating feature of a gathering of people, then you’re not at an arts festival with some music. You’re at a music festival with some arts. So let’s call it that.
Some will argue that what happens on music stages counts as the arts. And they are probably right, especially if you apply a broad definition of the arts that covers anything that is an expression of self, be it on canvas, through song or words. But I’m not talking about philosophy here, I’m talking branding. If you’re staging an event, you should call it something that reflects either the prevailing impression that is created of what you are, or it should describe what you want to be. I think too many events in South Africa pass themselves off as “Arts Festivals” to loosen the purse strings of those who want to get behind the arts. But in staging the event, they tend to default to the crowd-pleasing (read “ticket selling”) shows that stretch the definition.
That said, I have the utmost respect for the men and women who run other festivals in this country. I’ve met a lot of them and they’re constantly under the terrifying triple-whip of funding, logistics and ticket sales. They tend to do it with aplomb and passion, which is why it works. And my hat goes off to the sponsors too who are under increasing pressure to get “bang for their buck” and find a way of moving money off massive sport budgets to the arts. Between them, the major festivals and their sponsors are responsible for tens of millions of rand finding its way into the pockets of our artists, writers, directors and producers and anyone who gets on a stage in front of an audience deserves a cut. Yes, if I’m being honest, even Ghapi. Maybe.
And while on the subject of honesty, a note to the owners of the Rapid Waters Hotel. May I suggest a name change? There was nothing rapid or watery about where I stayed. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t very hotel-ly either. Since we’re all on a learning curve, here’s a tip. In Grahamstown there’s a guesthouse called “The Cockhouse”. I’m sure they’ll let you use the name.