Select Page

Once a year, like an artistic atom bomb, the National Arts Festival – or Fest to its friends -comes to Grahamstown. Artists of all stripes and skills descend upon what is otherwise a small and difficult to reach settlement in the already-pretty-remote Eastern Cape. Last year was my first experience of Fest in person, working as a photographer on a newspaper that gets produced for the length of the event. Which, last year, meant fifteen days. It was a tough, but rewarding experience. One which unfortunately left  me delirious with some evil flu at the end, the likes of which I have only ever had on one other occasion. This year was wholly different.

When is a lamp not a lamp? When some enterprising knitter makes into a flower. That's when.

In the first instance, it was only ten days long. Which meant that I managed to stay in reasonable health for the entire period. Secondly, artistic mischief and magic abounded from day one, when some nefarious knitter covered a lamppost in town with a giant sock made of wool. A few days later, someone would put cut-out shapes over the traffic lights so that they resembled hearts.

Sometime around this point, I received an email from one Shannon Hope. She is a South African singer whose music I absolutely adore and was already planning to wrangle press tickets for – partly because I have massive respect for anyone who chooses to put their neck out and commit to a life away from the safety of an office, and partly because her music really is that amazing.

But I digress.

Shannon, as it turns out, was performing as part of a collaborative performance called Machitún, involving an Argentinian electronic music maestro named Ernesto Romeo, some acrobats, a school drum circle,  a professor of string instruments at Rhodes University, a girls’ school choir, a guitarist and the sheer will of their producer to get them all working together. It was scheduled to be the final send-off performance of the festival.

‘Would I be willing to take photographs to document the performance?’

Hell yes.

And so, when not photographing puppets or sugared nuts or Xhosa dance groups, I would return in the late afternoons to the school field behind my house where the stage was being assembled. Nature, for the most part, had decided that it would be hilarious to stress anyone doing outdoor performances that week though. And so there was little to be seen or photographed, as the trapezes were too wet to practice on, and the sound and lighting couldn’t be laid as long as everything was under a film of water.

And so it went, one day after the next.

it became clear from listening to the practices that Ernesto could not only get the assorted musicians to play together, but that he could get them to play together exceptionally well

Until, come weekend the rain stopped and the sun came out. With a handful of days left until the first performance was due, the sound and lighting guys worked like maniacs. The afternoons became filled with rich late-afternoon light and Machitún-related sounds, as it became clear from listening to the practices that Ernesto could not only get the assorted musicians to play together, but that he could get them to play together exceptionally well.

And around that point, in the newly-dry days, sitting in the sun, some ephemeral magic began to draw around the production. Like some imperceptible string pulling everything together, the music didn’t just sound good, it felt good. It pulled you in a dreamy sort of way from whatever it was you were thinking of, towards that more relaxed space where you sort of half-think, half-feel. And smile like an idiot.

But it was still a race. There was precious little time to get all the equipment up and tested. Full dress rehearsals were a luxury for a version of Machitún in which rain never happened. On the first night, the recently-installed sound failed, forcing a repeat of the second act. So nerves were high on the second, the final send-off performance of Fest.

With an audience of some two thousand or so, the final performance came together in all the right places. Monsters on stilts, acrobats in red ribbon. The music one giant trip from funky drumming to haunting introspection.

Come Monday morning, only the photographs remained.

And the equivalent of an emotional hangover. Festival was over and the streets lay empty again.

The spell, as is the way of spells I guess, had broken. But after a festival of interesting things, beautiful conversations and afternoons on the Machitún grass, their sudden end meant an empty space of the same dimensions of the fun that was had. And spaces like that are always melancholic.

It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last. But that epilogue always carries a poignancy that throws life, for the next few days at least, into a sharper, more intense focus and a mental stillness of sorts.

It reminded me that I rather enjoy that state of mind. And to make a tight little fist to hang onto it harder. Pull it back and make it mine.