Monday, October 12

Live from a field in South Africa, Part I

When I started this blog, I wanted to talk about primates and animal behavior a lot, but I also wished to chronicle my adventures through the culture and life of South Africa. This will be the first such dedicated post, and I hope my description lives up to experiences at Rocking the Daises 2009.

All of last week, I kept hearing tidbits from a few people here and there, in the real world and the online one, about some music festival in the Cape Town area. And aKING was playing. That was all I knew. Come Friday, I finally make some effort to see what the logistics and lineup is. In the process I found a sweet site that covers most of the goings ons in Cape Town, which ought to keep me busy and not bored for a while to come. It also told me that the festival started Friday, ran all Saturday and Sunday, was at some wine estate north of the city, and required I buy a ticket at the local coffee shop if they still had any left.

Day 1

I woke up early, and I jetted to the coffee shop (none other than Seattle's Best Coffee - haven't seen any Starbucks yet) and got my ticket... card. One of the main South African ticketing services came up with this idea of giving you a card with a bar code on it, and then when you buy a ticket, it goes on the card in their database, and they scan the card at entry.

Before you can use said card, you need to activate it. So I had to go back to the house and do that before getting out of the house with all my necessities. It was already past 10 and I was missing hard earned music. I hit the road.

The highways and roads in South Africa are a bit on the... slim side. Also the signs suck. This road kept switching between telling me I was on the M7 and the N7. Of course by then they were the same thing, but I kept thinking I had missed by turn. Getting out of Cape Town lead me by this fatty nuclear plant.
those visible supports at the bottom make this look like someone's rush project
The highway is literally right next to the cooling towers, so that you can see the huge steel beams supporting the structures. About a kilometer beyond that, I found myself passing legitimate African shanty towns.
20% less corrugated steel than an average Namibian shantytown
How... convenient. I bet their energy rates are superb!

Well, this was more like the Africa I had been lead to expect. So were the dudes by the side of the road trying to sell everyone giant batches of trash bags, 50 for 3 bucks. Once I got outside of the township areas and into the country, the trip became much less exciting. It generally just looks like a hilly landscape in the midwest when you're in the Western Cape region. There is still bush in South Africa, but you have to go a way.

Oh, right, how far do I have to go? I glanced at a sign: 40 miles?! What the fu-oh its in kilometers, damnit. Thus, I really didn't know how far I had to go or how long it would take since I really didn't have a good idea of how far a kilometer is in terms of a mile. Or how fast kilometers per hour is in terms of mph. But in theory I could reason this out and it would make sense. My mind didn't like this. It felt like it took way too long.

Finally, I pulled into the dirt road which signaled the final stretch. I was waiting in the... "queue" to pull into the lot, and glanced around at the ordinary but nonetheless scenic landscapes.
so uh when I was driving back I ran over the dead animal which was already roadkill (I SWEAR I DIDN'T KILL IT), but I'll be damned if it wasn't a baby ostrich
Hoooooly shit its an ostrich
Africa: Nuthin' but a G Thang
I pulled into the dirty field and grabbed everything. Except my damn water bottle. Well, they must have some sort of solution to this, we're in the middle of nowhere, they can't just be selling people beer. Onwards!

My ticket/card worked like charm, and I got a pack of info with some warpaint, a condom, and a neat booklet inside. The booklet's map became useful in time, but at first was just confusing. Nonetheless, the really big stage and general source of noise made it pretty easy to figure out where I wanted to go.
what no one told me there was a swimming hole. why didn't anyone fucking tell me about the swimming hole?
Provided I knew where I was going at all. Which I didn't. All I knew was that this was some big music festival  with lots of rock and ethnic music, but the rock part meant there would likely be more white people which made it safer. And I paid 350 rand for two days, so it better be good.
In the words of the comedy tent MC: FUCKING HIPPIES
Well, it appears that I had stumbled upon the Bonnaroo of South Africa. A dirty field in a relatively middle of nowhere location, filled with hippies camped out for three days, and lots of rock bands - some big mainstream headliners and a lot of indie and reggaeish stuff. Not as many jam bands, actually, I don't think there were any. More diverse in general from my glances at the Bonnaroo lineups of late. But, because there are only 10 million people in South Africa, it was definitely smaller.

I approached the main stage in time to catch the latter part of the Jack Mantis Band's performance. It was a standard band setup, except Jack sang and played acoustic rhythm, so they had no real lead guitarist. Instead, they had a saxophonist, which I might prefer in general, but was certainly glad to see since I had this strange feeling that I was going to be hearing plenty of electric guitar over the next two days. However, at the end they played this sweet rendition of All Along the Watchtower with the next act, a guitarist named Dan Patlansky.
featuring Moses on the bass!
Then Dan Patlansky played. He's in his late 20's, but he's the most prominent blues-rock guitar virtuoso in South Africa. And, he's really good. There's not a lot more I can say. The guy has incredible talent. But, watching a three piece band where the guitarist is the only one doing anything can get sort of old for an hour. I always did say I liked bands as full as possible.

One other little irksome thing (to me at least) about electric blues is that the vocalists have to have this raspy baritone thing going on. Patlansky definitely did, Mayer's got it, Vaughan did too, certainly Hendrix as well, plus all the black bluesmen. I've heard people say that it something about having soul. Well, what if Marvin Gaye sang electric blues? How would that sound?

Around this time my thirst levels crossed a threshold and initiated an irresistible appetitive behavior which cause me to seek potable water immediately. I had seen some ordinary looking boxes referred to as "Hydration Stations" all around, but no explanation or water source to accompany them. A quick look at the map told me there was one right between the beer huts near the stage. Upon closer inspection (read: talked to the dude giving out water bottles), I learned that the bottles they were giving out would allow me infinite refills. Unfortunately, the bottles cost 5 bucks (40 rand blah blah). I didn't bother asking if I could use their water with a different bottle (since I had left my behind) or if I could fill an empty beer can with water since that just didn't seem like a good plan to last me ten hours. Fine, give me your 40 rand bottle that says "Rocking the Daisies" on it. Now I won't buy a T-shirt unless I really like it.

I stayed by the stage for the "Red Bull Radar" which is this competition to see which up-and-coming band is gonna get this sweet record deal. The three that made it to the finals this year were a Passion Pit type dealie, a solo sensitive folk Jack Johnson type dude, and evil clown violin rodeo music. The last guys were really weird looking and sounding. I though they were going to win. But the unanimous decision came down in favor of the indie electronica dudes.

I'd had about enough by this point, and despite the allure of the saxophonist in the next group, I decided to head to the comedy tent. Yes, there was an exclusive comedy tent! Well, almost exclusive - they had these native drummers dudes playing in there for an hour, which I also listened to. The comedians then came on and joked about them for a while.

But comedy! And I was about to see the Best of the Fest lineup. Well, the tent was certainly packed. A good first sign. I managed to squeeze into the back. Behold my terrifically awful photography! You can't tell the comedian is Xhosa which made for great jokes!
Mahn, you so white its IRRITATIN. Its like a COCAINE party in mah nose except there's no coke, just your WHITENESS.
As I watched these comedians, I began to realize a few things. 1, Afrikaners are weird. 2, Being South African is pretty much like being British, and if I recall, the British know their comedy. 3, imagine the civil war ended 20 years ago. Now imagine the racial comedy in that kind of atmosphere. Oh yeah.

They were all damn funny. However, the closer for that section, Rob van Vuuren, was absolutely amazing. He's definitely got a lot of physical and silly comedy, but the guy was absolutely hilarious. Midway through his extended routine, my face muscles hurt from laughing so much, and that hasn't happened in quite a while. He's pretty respected around here, and he does plenty of shows in Cape Town, so hopefully I'll have more to hear from him.

I've realized of late that I really like comedy. Throughout the summer, I went to a lot of musical gigs for local artists, somewhat for the radio show, but mostly just for fun since I like music and all that. However, a few happenstantial comedy outings set me seeking out more of that just before I left, which why I went to the boston comedy marathon and visited the alternative comedy sleepover to name a few. One might say the culmination was our hour long live radio chats with Dick Doherty. Anyhow, this all reminded me of just how much I like comedy. And I think I had started to forget it since coming here! Thankfully, the comedy tent was there to remind me how great it is and the interesting take on it South Africa can provide.

I also learned something interesting about South African colloquialism. I was very confused when many of the comedians kept using saying the word "cock," but they were using it as an adjective. I eventually reasoned (correctly) at that, that its an Afrikaans way of saying shitty or shit. I didn't realize till later the word is spelled "kak." In a similar vein, getting the local humor of South African people and places is rather interesting, but not too hard to pick up, thankfully. For example, it took me very little time to acquire the knowledge that Port Elizabeth is the New Jersey of South Africa.

So the comedy was great. But when that portion was done, I really did want to get back to the stage for some more music. Thieve was coming up, afterall. After listening to a song or two by them , I decided I was hungry, and needed to replenish my reserves. Fortunately the food hut was located just to the north, where I could still hear the music. I decided to buy food from the braai stand because isn't that what South Africa's all about? I'm quite hungry here; what's the most expensive item on the menu? The Braai Bag? Sure, gimme. The guy said some stuff in a think Afrikaans accent and I paid him... wait, did he say something about grilling this myself? I think I heard a laugh so he must have been joking. A minute later he handed me a bag.

Noooooope, he wasn't joking. Shit, now I have a bag full of raw but delicious looking meat through which the juices are rapidly seeping. Uhh shit shit, I could give it back I guess but that's so much trouble there's got to be some way to salvage this. Hijinx! This is exactly why I came here, baboons and hijinx! Okay, how bad could this be? The meat is cold, so I have no idea how old it was when it was put in their cooler, but its been kept cold. Okay, so if I put it in the car right now and then do my thing for a few hours and drive back, it'll be fine. Yeah! Of course it'll be good, we've done way worse stuff with meat while camping, I'll just make sure I cook it right when I get back and cook it straight to hell. Everything will be fine.

So I did just that, and I even happened to have a clean plastic bag in the car to protect the truck from getting meat juice everywhere. Excellent, the weather is even cooling down and the clouds are rolling in, so the meat wouldn't bake in the car.

Pleased with myself, I returned to the region, though I missed almost all of Thieve. Well, time to actually get some food (which turned out to be a shwarma). I wasn't really interested in Captain Stu, and I needed a stage break since the next three were gonna be the bonanza, or so I was told. I went to inspect the DJ tent.
only my camera can truly convey how bumpin this tent was
The DJ tent was created to allow MC's and DJ's to rap and rhyme and place funky beats ranging from reggae to techno. I wanted to see what Chamber Concept was all about, since they were given the spotlight of the festival at the DJ tent. What I found was a colored and a black dude rapping while two white guy laid the beats. It wasn't bad but it wasn't anything special, either. Rap lyrics are usually beyond me, and the beats weren't very interesting, since that's hardly the focus of the music. Oh well, I can stop by later to get glimpses of what other DJ's are doing.

Fine, well I don't want either musical choice so... more comedy! It happened to be improv time right around then. They were pretty funny, what can I say? Not as funny as the straight up stand-ups, but still quality stuff. Quality enough for me to lolly about there a while longer and miss the beginning of Desmond and the Tutus.
TUUT TUUT. Aha. Ha. ha. Fatty, you'd better be reading these.
Right, so they sound an awful lot like another Harry Potter tribute band. But they're really just a generic indie rock band. Shocking, isn't it. Still enjoyable to listen to for half an hour. I was pretty stoked for the next band, called Freshlyground. According to rumor, Freshlyground was some real fusion music where you get all parts of South African culture coming together, which is the kind of thing I really like to see, given my adoration for similar such projects like the Afro Celt Sound System.
There was this huge townie Irish guy standing behind me who knew all the words to the ballad they played about LOOOOVE
Freshlyground was pretty excellent. It was pretty much everything I was expecting. I'm not sure what else to say since I already gave you the link to their site and music. Here look at more pictures.
Around this time the wind started to pick up and it was getting darker, so I moved further into the crowd to absorb their heat, which was a fine move. I caught this really nice scene on camera as the sun passed over the hills.
Despite being a hippie festival, I didn't see a lot of drugs out. The festival seemed to be pretty clear about not allowing illicit substances. Then again, when did that ever stop anyone? There was way more weed at the Brandeis spring weekend than I saw out here during the day. When night did fall, then I started to get a few whiffs of kush. Still, pretty weak representation. Oh also, I learned the drinking age in South African is only 18.

Okay, so the next act was completely unknown to me. However, after conversing with some random English girls for a while about the various acts etc, I heard that most people were very excited about this band, and that they'd been touring around the world, and this was one of the first times in a while they were going to play back in their home country. From looking at the shirts people were wearing, it also seemed that these guys were the main headliner of the festival.

The band's name was Just Jinjer, and I learned later that all of what I heard was true, and that these guys are the most successful South African musical act in history. So that meant the crowd was close to 10,000 strong for these guys, everyone was really intense, and the band, seeing as it was their first time back in a while, was really looking forward to it.
there were way too many people and way too much motion for these ever to look nice on my camera
They opened with a sweet cover of Ramble On (in true hippie music festival style I was wearing my tie-dyed Zeppelin IV t-shirt), and then broke into their classic material. Even though I didn't know those songs, I had a pretty good time thanks to the showmanship of the band and the fervor of the audience. I also learned later that each member of the band had drummed professionally at one point in their career. Which explained the part of the show where the bassist when behind the kit, and the drummer and singer/guitarist brought out a dual snare apparatus and the three of them played this massive drumming orgy, culminating in a cowbell solo. I shit you not.

That was definitely the highlight of the evening. Everyone wanted them to play more, so there was gonna be let down afterwards. I stopped by the DJ tent and heard some of Richard the Third. He was at least not a hip-hop DJ, but his techno was a bit heavy on the unoriginal basslines. At the very end I heard some of Markus Wormstorm, who I enjoyed quite a bit. But he's a real DJ, since he has a bloody wikipedia page. I would have liked to have stayed for more of the dancing, since it went way late into the night when the bands had stopped, but at that time it hadn't really picked up yet and I really needed rest and meat and not to be driving back at 3AM.

So I drove back. The car I use for such excursions is without radio, which sucks once the novelty of driving in Africa wears off and it just becomes annoying. Driving on the left side of the road seems really uncomfortable at first, but its really not so bad. The bad part is the signs and the lack of lighting. The South African versions of Interstates can be these two lane highways with no lights. Or even the four and six lane highways have these sections where suddenly POOF no lights. The exit for my house, for example is just such a stretch.

When I started driving here and my supervisor was observing me learn the roads and the car, she told me that the left side driving is not so bad, but one must be careful because there will be moments when you're tired or distracted, and you take the action of a natural right side driver. I made it back to that stretch and off the exit safely. Had just a few blocks to go. Then I did it. I took an easy right from the one way exit into the wrong lane.

Thing is, it would have been fine if I could have seen the oncoming lights, and just shifted over a lane. But, there was a fucking divider between the lanes, preventing such an action. I hate dividers. Always have. So I turn on my emergency flashers and go real slow past these cars who flash their lights and honk timidly at me. And once I get past the damn divider I pull into my right lane for like 20 feet and then take my last turn into the safety of my neighborhood. Then I go to the house, and pull out my meat.

We're bad South Africans because we don't own a BBQ. I must admit that having a BBQ in use all the time while growing up was a nice deal. However, MIT weaned me away from such luxuries effectively enough. And it taught me a little creativity, I like to think. So, I turned the over on broil tossed the meat in a pat and let 'em roast.

I had to keep an eye on it all, and thankfully the meats came with turning sticks, but in a little time, by braai was complete. I meant to take a picture of the final spectacle, but sadly, I forgot because I was too hungry. I only remembered after I had devoured my feast. All in all, 50 rand well spent.

My duties complete, I tossed my belongings on the table, showered, set the security and alarm, and went to sleep.

Day 2

I awoke around 8:30 to find myself not-dead from eating the braai the previous night. There went my excuse for skipping out on the final day of the festival. I'd have bought a Saturday only pass, but that wasn't an option. Intent on getting my money's worth, I went back out Sunday morning for more because why not. There were a number of bands I was definitely looking forward to, and I was psyched about more comedy.

The drive was getting pretty dull by this point. I observed more shanty town instances this time, though. I arrived a little after 11, and caught the second half of the Simon Van Gend Band, which was okay. Indie folk rock sung by a guy who sounds pretty much the same as Colin Melloy. Son of a Thousand Blues was the next act up. I enjoyed these guys a lot. They were another mixed race band, and the black guy singing was really good on stage and had a damn fine voice. Also, their guitarist (who I think might have been French) was pretty good too. Midway through the set, they played this awesome 10 minute cover of Whole Lotta Love. It was a nice, full sound. They're on Universal's label, so they might be going places.
the singer kept telling people he was running for president in the next election and to vote for him
340mL had been recommended to me, but there was more Best of Fest in the comedy tent, so I went over there for an hour. I also caught the end of the unplugged comedy sessions (think Flight of the Conchords) which were pretty alright. The Best of Fest roundup turned out to be a few of the same people with a splash of new blood. Problem was, all of them were running out of material. When van Vuuren came on, he was still funny, but he admitted to having very few jokes left (though he managed to make plenty up based on that premise). So... it wasn't as good, but it was still pretty funny. So when I actually heard a joke repeated from previously, I left and found the last band starting.

The closers, Bed on Bricks were a punk, reggae, blues, funk, and rock fusion band? So they played music. The lead singer busted out a saxophone every now and then. Much like the comedians, I'm running out of things to say because I'm tired now and I was more tired by the time they came on. But they played a neat set, and since they were very last, the organizers even let them have an encore.
these guys reminded me Reel Big Fish... just a tiny bit
I wanted to leave as soon as that was done, however. There was more raving in DJ tend till 6 o'clock or something, and it sounded alright, but there was no way I or anyone else had proper energy for that. It was time to leave.

The drive back was mostly uneventful as always, except for the increase in traffic due to people leaving the festival. Nothing too slow. However, the skies grew dark near Cape Town, and eventually opened up on the highway, unleashing torrents of hail. The clouds were think above me, but over the bay to the west, the sun lit up the stormy countryside. It was quite a sight, blinding but impressive. I would have taken a camera except for the extreme and idiotic danger that would have entailed.

And I made it back unscathed. Plus the car had been washed of all the dirt it had accumulated from being in the field for two weeks. But, I needed to refill the tank, and that wasn't such a pleasant experience for my wallet (350 bloody rand).

So, in retrospect, it was a pretty excellent time. Well worth the money and time investment. I got all kinds of tips on bands and music to listen to. If you're a listener of the WMBR radio show Droppin' Knowledge, you'll likely here some of these bands on the airwaves. The comedy was great, and I now possess knowledge of who and where I can find good shows in Cape Town. I definitely want to see van Vuuren again.

The configuration of three venues, one for music, one for comedy, and one for dancing, was rather brilliant, in my opinion. Maybe, I'm just lucky to be attracted to all three of these forms of entertainment. However, I've not seen other places put such a strong emphasis on the stuff that wasn't the big music on the main stage. The smaller festival size may have this balance possible. All I know is that it worked.

The people? Yeah, mostly white English people. A lot of hippies, but the music was mainstream enough to attract others. I met a surprising number of Americans. I'm amazed how many of them hail from the Boston area. A lot of couples were here, but a pretty young crowd overall. The comedy folks were more mature, but the vast majority of people were in their 20's or younger.

Thus ended my first significant foray into the world of the South African music scene. Daisies, as I've been told, is pretty representative... though it doesn't explain what the other black 3/4's of the population listens to. Figuring that one out is going to be a bit more of a challenge... and if I wanted to do it right, probably quite dangerous.

In conclusion, the reason this is part I is because part II will arrive in December when The Killers come to play in a different field at different wine estate outside of Cape Town. Voerspoort!

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