First published in Business Day; Weekender, 11 April ’09
Roosterkoek grilled on an open fire, juicy Kudu sausages drenched in tomato relish, Ostrich biltong, bokkoms, pancakes dripping with syrup, melktert, koeksisters, and an ice-cold beer at the end of a long hot day.
It’s that time of year when thousands of art lovers trek up to the spectacular of the annual Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK).
From 4- 11 April, the dusty town is transformed into a colourful hub that teems with performing artists, musicians, bustling foodstalls and hawkers selling wire art, imitation crocs, sunglasses and anything made from ostrich. At night flame throwers, sparkling street light decorations and flashing neon headgear lights up the Karoo sky. By day the sandy streets are awash with streams of festival goers, drifting between shocks of brightly dyed ostrich feather dusters, multi-coloured stalls and violently bright sponsors banners crammed into every nook and cranny.
© Astrid Stark
Music, wine and beer halls are spread across the heart of the town, their blaring music chaotically competing with each other that of the beating of drums rolling in from the flea market. Every school, church and public hall serves as a make-shift art venue.
The downturn in the economy has resulted in people booking cheaper accommodation such as school hostels, army barracks and camping, but they are still buying tickets. Many of the main performances were sold out well in advance.
Jericho! played to fully booked shows of 600 people each. It is an impressive production with the powerful Libertas Choir stealing the limelight from an overwrought performance by Anna-Mart van der Merwe. The production includes music from Bäch, Handel and Mendelsohn, beautifully mixed with African rhythms and lyrics. Tasteless was their use of shock tactics by projecting images of starvation and despair on the back wall.
Sandra Prinsloo’s Die Naaimasjien was a showstopper; according to the few lucky ticket holders. Koos Kombuis’s performance was so intimate it felt as if we were all sitting in his lounge, sipping red wine, and sharing memories of South Africa then and now. Kombuis has the ability to make us laugh through the heartbreaking events which punctuates our lives as South Africans.
Finding the music headquarters of MK to watch 2-21 rapidly escalated into a nightmare as the venue was situated on the outskirts of town and the supplied directions were misleading. The situation was exacerbated by 2-21 ‘s aggressive management.
One of the gems of the festival was discovering the !Garob Project, which is a partnership between the KKNK and local communities. Their projects include the Khoi Konnexion featuring the Ghetto Poet of Tanneman !Xamm, and the lovely boys and girls doing a traditional Rieldans. The boys alternate between performing as young bushmen, and then the animals that they hunt. They leap like Springboks and shuffle their feet sending dust clouds into the air. It is a beautiful and rare performance.
The new curator for visual arts, Johan Myburg, took visitors on daily tours of many of the exhibitions on offer. Clusters of local shops in Baron van Reedestraat were emptied out of their regular stock and transformed into art galleries. Artists come from all over the country to exhibit and many set up their easels inside the galleries to treat visitors to a session of live painting. Bredasdorp painter, Ronald West, expects to sell around 15 painting at the KKNK. He says business has been good so far.
In 2008, KKNK generated R30m for the economy, of which R7,1m was generated by ticket sales. This year organisers expect around 300 000 visitors to pass through the gates; producing even more sales than last year.
However this is not a poor man’s festival. Enthusiasts really had to dig deep into their pockets if they wanted the whole experience. Most of the performances ranged from R70 to R100, and even the site-specific outdoor shows were cordoned off and ticketed. Cheap food stalls were in abundance, but if after days of fast food, you craved something green and healthy, you paid dearly for it. A man was arrested for violently protesting about the R2 charged for the use of public toilets.
Radio sonder grense (RSG) had one of the few free music tents and they put on daily shows ranging from mundane musicians to a cracker live radio drama performed by a string of radio gurus. RSG presenter, Leon van Nierop wrote and directed the piece for the stage, which he admits is something of a new genre. Van Nierop and radio stalwarts like Betty Kemp and Chris van Niekerk romped about the stage illustrating the chaos that takes place during a recording. Much to the audiences’ delight they demonstrated how sound effects, such as a creaky door or rattling chain, can go horribly wrong. Van Niekerk afterwards commented that this production brings radio to life for a whole new generation.
RSG team: From the left; Leon van Nierop, Denver Vraagom, Bettie Kemp & Chris van Niekerk
At night the musicians really came out to play. Contemporary and traditional, mostly Afrikaans, musicians rocked and crooned in every available space. Steve Hofmeyr, a brief appearance by Amor Vitone, David Kramer and a slew of well known and new rock bands kept visitors up until the early hours.
Teerpad, a progressive rock group from Tzaneen, had fans at the African Space and Lemon and Lime dancing about like banshees; their drive and unique approach is set to take them far.
Before too long it is time head home. Broke, exhausted, and with your head spinning from all the chaotic sounds, tastes and textures, you realise that you have only but skimmed the surface of what’s on offer at the KKNK. The festival is bursting at the seams; undiscovered gems are buried underneath the many mediocre performers that fill up every second of the time, in every space imaginable.
Maybe the organisers should consider enforcing stricter entrance criteria for artists? The tired old flea market selling the same sad stock year after year, and the sponsors’ overwhelming self-promotion gives the mistaken impression of a cheap carnival.
More integrated and better promoted performances, such as !Garop, that include the local community will broaden the cultural experience and will maybe absorb the many clusters of tiny children, begging on the streets, into a program that leaves a lasting cultural legacy.
The Afrikaans performance and visual arts industry is obviously healthier than ever, as indicted by strings of additional performances and sold-out shows. Established artists such as Sandra Prinsoo, Gys de Villiers, David Kramer and Koos Kombuis constantly raise the bar and pave the way for a new generation of artists that are passionately immersing themselves into their work. The locals who have to brace themselves for the annual traffic jams and noisy revellers also deserve a medal of some sort. As an effort to generate greater collaboration between artists and as a springboard from which unknown stars are shot into the open sky, the KKNK is by far the leader in their field.