Written by Ray Hartle:
I wish I knew the names of the groups which were the first to tread the boards at this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.
A youth big band with a swinging brass section and a vibrant dance troupe performed outside the Monument against a stunning, crisp winter sunset. Giant puppets jived and played amongst the audience gathering for the official opening in the Guy Butler theatre. One of the dancers told me, as they rushed into the relative warmth of the Monument foyer, that they were from Mdantsane near East London, but attempts to confirm this with Eastern Cape government officials attending the opening were fruitless.
Inside, one might assume that, on the stereotyped face of it, the audience might not appreciate the langarm-sakkie-sakkie played by a three-piece outfit. But the crowd goes ballistic at the sound of Kurt Darren’s “Loslappie”.
There is no mention of this band or the one outside throughout the programme, a shortcoming I point out to MEC for Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture, Xoliswa Tom, afterwards.
At the end, the Eastern Cape Indigenous Dance and Music Ensemble provided a tableau of precise rhythm and movement with sounds against the backdrop of a rather potted – and suspect – history of some of the people who inhabit South Africa.
The group of 52 performers reflected the diversity of Abathembu, Amampondo, Amagaleka, Amabhaca, Amakhati, Khoisan and Indian groups, with musical and dance forms interspersed with a random sprinkling of historical anecdotes, including Mahatma Gandhi’s arrival in South Africa and the birth of the ANC as reflections of our struggle towards “the happy ending” of a united nation.
I wonder about all the other cultural and religious strands which are part of our national DNA, but I’m told the group assembled for the first time 10 days ago in Uitenhage, so perhaps the shortcomings in their presentation are forgivable.
Not so, those of the director of ceremonies who, by his own admission, was so appalling that he risked being fired from his day job in the provincial department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture. Considering the amount of money that government spends on the arts, surely it’s possible to inveigle one of our pre-eminent artists to do this annual gig.
The entertainment was interspersed with speeches by the Premier of the Eastern Cape, Noxolo Kievit and other government officials, reflecting the policy and financial efforts government is making to ensure sustainable growth in our cultural outputs in the Eastern Cape.
These efforts are substantial and the success is reflected throughout this year’s National Arts Festival programme and even in the entertainment laid on for this official opening.