Sitting in the shade of a giant tree, a classic Swazi scene is spread out in front of me: plump blue mountains dwarf the lush sugar cane that bristles beyond a blaze of lawn. Except for a cluster of concrete lollipop-shaped sculptures and a stage on the left, there are few signs that every May this bucolic patch is home to one of the most vibrant music festivals on the planet, luring fans from far and wide.
“It’s quite surreal when you have someone getting in touch with you from Japan, to think that they’re going to come all the way to attend Bushfire,” says Jiggs Thorne, the festival’s founder and director, who has joined me at my wooden table for a coffee.
Since it launched with 4,500 attendees in 2007, the festival’s popularity has surged – there were over 25,000 admissions last year. There are achingly cool Braamies hipsters, scientists from the Kruger Park with their families, sidvwashi-swaddled Swazis, Maputo-based expats and dreadlocked aid workers.
Thorne believes few other festivals are able to appeal to such a spectrum because “they tend to pander towards [a specific] audience. I think Bushfire blows that pigeonhole wide open.”
“There’s a very conscious effort to try and cater for a broad cross-section of people. The programme is very eclectic… we try and steer away from the popular formula, and I think that in itself has a following. I think there are people out there who are looking for something slightly different.”
He admits, though, “there’s always a bit of a balancing act – you’ve always got to bring in a few headliners that have a profile and are recognisable”. Last year, for example, both Freshlyground and the Parlotones – guaranteed Saffer crowd-pleasers – played, while sultry French duo Les Nubians and folksy Sweet Sweet Moon from Austria added a touch of bohemian spice to the programme.
Together with five other festivals, Bushfire forms part of the Southern African Music Festival Circuit which “has received huge interest from cultural agencies around the world who now have a portal to basically send acts into the African sub-region. And it ticks all the boxes because it means they can export their culture, it means they visit five countries instead of one, and it means that these artists are touring some of the top festivals on the continent.” So far 80 acts from more than 25 countries have travelled the circuit. Not only has it meant that the festivals can share music groups’ travel expenses and get charged reduced performance rates, the circuit also facilitates regional exchanges between member festivals – this June, Swazi artists who have played at Bushfire are going to Safiko Musik Festival in Reunion, for example.
There is much more to Bushfire than just who’s on stage, though. Thorne might be sounding a tad ridiculous when he waxes on about how the Bushfire blazes with “a fire of light and warmth… a positive energy that [brings] people together” but in actual fact he’s right. The festival’s vibe is easy-going and laidback: no one is taking themselves too seriously; everyone is friendly (even the smartly-attired Royal Swaziland Police patrolling the campsite).
Bushfire’s inclusive atmosphere is very much imbued with the political idealism of Thorne’s late parents, Jenny and Peter Thorne, who moved here from Britain in the 1960s. Passionate about gender equality, Jenny founded Gone Rural, a thriving homeware business that empowers rural women weavers, while in the apartheid era, Peter maintained a safe house on the farm for ANC activists on the run.
From Gone Rural and the Malandelas guest house and restaurant to All Out Africa (Thorne’s brother Roland’s travel company which runs volunteer outreach programmes), “all businesses here have a very strong social mandate that has been influenced by our parents’ engagement with the community.”
Although Bushfire is “not a political platform”, Thorne believes it’s important that the festival be “a space where we could pose questions” about the social issues affecting Africa’s last absolute monarchy. “I sometimes think we’re caught between a rock and a hard place because I think the manner in which you engage needs certain respect and sensitivity. It’s certainly not about pointing fingers, but it is about proactively engaging with the issues at hand.”
Every year dialogue around a theme (often relating to sexual health and gender) unfolds in the lead-up to the festival on social media, and then on big screens during the event itself.
Half a million condoms have been distributed over the last few festivals, with free HIV testing and counselling also offered. Bushfire has donated more than R1 million to the Aids orphan charity Young Heroes and encourages festivalgoers to sponsor food and clothing for needy kids through this NGO.
Thorne believes the arts can be a powerful catalyst to inspire positive social behavioural change. Bushfire’s primary and high school festivals involve arts facilitators from around the world conducting workshops and performances with kids and teachers, using creative expression to communicate powerful messages about sexual health and gender equality.
“There’s no formal arts curriculum in Swaziland and the idea was that we wanted to introduce the language of the arts to students who wouldn’t otherwise know it existed,” he says.
Although drama was not offered as a subject when Thorne was at Waterford Kamhlaba high school, he recalls a workshop conducted by a visiting Market Theatre director: “I remember thinking ‘crikey – this just makes me tick’” – and the experience inspired him to study drama at university. He hopes Bushfire’s school workshops will have a similar effect among the pupils who attend.
“For me it’s one of the most exciting aspects of what we do… because you’re igniting that flame – these are future generations who are hopefully going to take arts development forward.”
When Thorne, together with his brother Sholto, launched House on Fire at Malandelas in 2000, the performance venue predominantly hosted South African musicians because “it was very hard to get support for local performances back then,” he recalls. Thorne is justifiably proud that the overwhelming majority of the acts performing here today are Swazi – a transformation in which Bushfire has played a crucial role.
In the run up to Bushfire, House on Fire’s quirky amphitheatre hosts Sibebe Friday Night Live – a concert series where local bands compete against each other for a spot on Bushfire’s line-up. The festival also conducts industry workshops exploring the business side of the performing arts, helping professionalise local bands – through showing them how to developing proper press kits and create YouTube channels, for example.
The past decade, of course, has seen huge changes for Bushfire’s own team – which has grown from two to – when preparations are their height – nearly 700.
“We set ourselves up as a charity initially that was running a business, and we had to become a business that ran a charity and I think that was a key learning process for us,” Thorne says. “The business structure, accountability, systems and procedures need to be there to make sure this event thrives. We had no experience of running festivals at all, so this has been a very organic process and it’s been very difficult.” A decade later, though, “it feels like we’re growing up. Bigger is not better – we’re looking to maintain our model, but grow the experience and to make sure the take-away experience is something people talk about.”
An edited version of this appeared in the Sunday Times on the 15th May 2016.