Photo: Bram Lammers
MALKERNS/SWAZILAND 1 June 2014 - BUSHFIRE 2014 Photo: Bram Lammers
Photo: Bram Lammers
MALKERNS/SWAZILAND 1 June 2014 - BUSHFIRE 2014 Photo: Bram Lammers

Therese Owen

“Welcome to Swaziland. There are no queues here.”

This is how the Swazi customs official welcomed us South Africans into his country at about 9pm on a Friday. And he was right.

The Swazi border post was a breeze and took a mere seven minutes as opposed to four hours in a horrific queue in South Africa that included a 2km line of cars before we even reached the queue of people. Then, once inside the actual customs building, the frenzied crowed verged on a stampede.

So, herein lie the questions: how does the second-richest economy with the most sophisticated infrastructure in Africa, and the shining light of democracy throughout the world, the same country that was deemed fit to host the continent’s first soccer World Cup, get it so wrong? And how does this little monarchy reportedly raided by their king in his insatiable urge for more and more young girls and a gargantuan greed for wealth get it so right?

Surely, after eight years, the South African Department of Home Affairs in that area should know that MTN Bushfire is happening on that weekend. And surely they should take some sort of initiative to avoid the above situation. Surely?

Not only was it MTN Bushfire where more than 10 000 extra people were expected to cross the border that day, it was also a Friday and month end – like, duh!

Luckily for us, Sky World Travel and Tours, who are the official partners for Bushfire, had a driver who collected our passports and disappeared into the building for about an hour. This was about three hours into the waiting experience. When he finally appeared we were hustled into the building where I have seen more order at cattle being run into an abattoir. Screams, shouting, squeezing, pushing, shoving… it felt like one of those scenes from a movie where the people are trying to climb into the last boat outta there to avoid the invaders.

On arrival at MTN Bushfire, after thanking the driver profusely for saving our bacon, we were told that the fare which was quoted as return by his office was actually just for the one-way trip and a return fare was double the amount.

All this before we had even set foot on the festival grounds.

On entering Bushfire, we encountered a magical vibe. The music, the lights, the happy people, the smell of exotic food wafting on the air. The buildings have this fairy-tale look to them, as if millions of goblins and pixies had created a giant monument in celebration of their other-worldly architecture.

There is an amphitheatre where the more intimate, avant garde acts perform and then there is the main stage. On the far side after the flea markets and KidZone there is a makeshift art gallery which, aside from exhibiting art, is also a space for silent gigs and discussions on what’s wrong with the world.

Aside from the fairytale feel of the surroundings, the first thing we notice is that this is a cosmopolitan festival. Unlike the South African festivals, there are many people from Botswana, Mozambique, Spain, England, France, China and the US. This is partly because the line-up is so international, from Columbia’s La33 to Switzerland’s Imperial Tiger Orchestra, who have been here before and were well received at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival a few years back.

On Friday night the most popular acts apparently were Kiwi & the Papaya Mangoes from Japan as well as Spain’s Fuel Fandango.

We were just way too tired and irritable to stay for the entire night and left for our hotel, which was near the airport. Note to self – camping at Bushfire is a far better option than booked accommodation miles away from anywhere.

Arriving during the day, the festival was still so pretty. It honestly is the neatest and most orderly festival I have attended. The lawn is mowed, there is no litter. The sound throughout Saturday was excellent on both stages, however they ran late in terms of the acts that were booked to play.

Swaziland’s Floewe started the proceedings on the main stage and oh, my hat, she was boring. It was like one long song performed in that clichéd World Music, oh Africa, my Africa genre that hasn’t changed since the 1970s. Yawn.

Equally as boring and clichéd was Mozambique’s Sigauque Project who went on and on ad nauseum for more than an hour. Luckily, there were people to chat to and an interesting market to visit.

By day the young ones came out and I haven’t seen so many toddlers and babies in nappies at a festival like at Bushfire. The age groups varied from tots to people in their 60s. But it’s that kind of festival. There is no rowdiness, no groups of drunken varsity males singing beer songs, no rockers or hippies ripped off their faces on hallucinogens. Everyone is peaceful, happy and well behaved.

Akale Wube were impressive on the day. These Parisians play music inspired by Ethiopian music from the 1960s and ’70s. These instrumentalists include brass as well as traditional Ethiopian instruments in their band. Their laid-back, funky music took me back to the days of Jozi’s groundbreaking club, 206. They made us wanna get down and boogie.

Blues guitarist Dan Patlansky had his best gig I have seen him perform at a festival. His new songs impressed new fans, particularly a hipster who kept banging his One Direction-inspired hairstyle to Patlansky’s sexy guitar grooves. It looked so very wrong.

Throughout the day everyone we spoke to was looking forward to two bands – Bongo Maffin and Uhuru.

These two Kalawa Jazmee artists are at different points in their careers. Bongo Maffin are on the comeback trail, clearly hoping to emulate the massive comeback success of their label sisters, Mafikizolo. Uhuru are riding high on their first gold release and the popularity of the single Y Tju Kuja.

Bongo Maffin had a great slot at about 11pm and took the excited crowd on a wonderful trip down memory lane. It is amazing to experience how many great songs this foursome had. (And, yes, Speedy was also there).

Surprisingly, it was Stoan who visually carried the group. Thandiswa, Speedy and Jah Seed have all found a few fridges over the years and were a bit sluggish physically, while the agile Stoan never once stopped moving. He delighted the crowd with his famous, unique moves. Thandiswa, surprisingly, once the pillar of the group, stayed in the background and even vocally, was reluctant to push herself. Jah Seed has clearly not lost his sense of humour or his ragga rapping abilities and Speedy was, well, Speedy. It was all held together by reggae/rock band Tidal Waves as their backing musicians. It was an enjoyable experience and a lovely welcome back for a South African musical treasure.

Sadly, when we realised Bushfire’s other headline act, Uhuru, was stupidly booked at 2am, it was time to call it a night.

Facing the reality that our hotel was so far away, and the chance that taxis to the hotel might not be around at 3am, we decided to head out. While it would have been great to have seen my current favourite act at Bushfire, surely the organisers could have placed them earlier on the programme.

The next day, because Sky World Tours had misquoted their tour fees, we found ourselves at a taxi rank searching for transport to Jozi.

It again took a short time to cross the Swazi border and as soon as we hit South African customs, there was another long queue marshalled by a policeman with a sjambok. I felt kinda embarrassed.

When we finally reached the counter, we watched intently to see if the South African officers did anything differently to their Swazi counterparts. To our astonishment – they didn’t. Both parties stamped twice and ran the passport through a machine. It was a very funny, but puzzling moment.

The trip back to Jozi in the taxi was safe and quick, although a bit squished. We arrived at about 5.30pm at Noord St taxi rank, which is more rank than taxi. Wearing flops, I was terrified that I might contract cholera as I waded through the stagnant water, rotting litter and past the rats.

Luckily, my partner was male and strong. He made me walk ahead of him in the darkness of the chaos of Jozi’s biggest and dirtiest taxi rank and I felt safe. But this was no way to end MTN Bushfire and surely, next time, their official travel partners should learn to tell the truth about their fares to and from the festival.