Seventh heaven in Zim

The seventh Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa), ending today opened with the biggest cultural bang yet seen in Zimbabwe, around 6 000 people thronging Harare Gardens for the grand opening concert. Regional artists from Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, South Africa, Malawi, Angola and Zimbabwe came together with European and Asian artists to celebrate cultural diversity. This grand show, snippets from many of the musical events was cleverly woven together by Brett Bailey ‘ the award-winning South African theatre director, designer, playwright, author and creative force behind South Africa’s most controversial performance troupe, Third World Bunfight. The musical director was highly-acclaimed Zimbabwean musician, composer and choir director Andrew Baird. Zimbabwe has had some rough times recently, but these seemed to be forgotten by the large crowd in the gardens and the sizable group in the streets around the park who, although unable to pay the admission fees, were willing to join in, take advantage of the powerful open-air speaker system and enjoy the fireworks display. Besides the usual eclectic mix of music and dance ‘ ranging from grand opera, through the modern heavyweights like Oliver Mtukudzi to small string quartets, classical mbira and modern dance ‘ there were two big themes running though the festival. The playwrights ‘ from all around Southern Africa ‘ seem to have decided, independently but near unanimously ‘ that regional problems can only be solved by people. There is not going to be a messiah descending from the clouds and politicians are less useful than they believe, if more useful than the common man admits. Zambian playwright John Katebe was the most lucid with his Madam President, the story of a politically ambitious couple wrought with jealousy. He, Daniel Siwiti, is a mayor with presidential ambitions and somewhat cynically figures his best chance of the top job is to move into opposition politics since the aging president of mythical Zania favours his son as successor. She, Lucy Siwiti, favours a campaign built around her new party, Gender and Equality. Daniel fights back. Culture in mythical Zania demands that if women are not exactly meant to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, they should at least not have a job as good as their husband’s, should not associate with men outside the home and should treat their husband as some sort of demi-god. Culture is reinforced by the sort of loose evangelical Christian theology that states a wife must be subordinate to her husband. Lucy braves drunken assaults by her husband, excommunication from her church for not submitting to his will, and even riots in the streets. She won, but campaign promises are carelessly dumped within days. Zimbabwe’s Gavin Peter gave his solo performances on a bus driving through the dense afternoon traffic of Harare, the city where everyone is a millionaire. Again there is this stress on the hope of the people and the results of they themselves seeking solutions. That traffic alone showed that many have found solutions. Cynicism? Probably not. There is a healthy reaction to the post-independence fervour in most African countries and a realisation that the solutions to the many problems are going to come from a lot of people working together, often just trying to make a go of it rather than implementing a grand plan. The second big theme is a realisation that, culturally, African countries have a lot more in common than they sometimes think and that petty nationalism can diminish. Pan Africanism is alive and well, but less as a creed and more as a way of life. Africans laugh at the same jokes, enjoy the same music and understand each other’s plays at a depth that can leave outsiders outside. One interesting experiment, premiered at Hifa, is coming from the French. La Voix is a programme to give African performers their big chance. La Voix assembles some big African names, albeit often those who grew up or studied in France, and combines this with a workshop for aspiring artists. At the end is concert, bring together the new and the old on the same stage. The first workshop brought in talented artists from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Uganda, Swaziland, Kenya, Zambia, DRC, Sudan and Botswana. But it was that opening show, Seventh Heaven that set the theme of HIFA 2006. Seven is a magic number. Seven days of creation; seven days in the week, seven graces, seven ages in the ife of man and even seven eadly sins. The seventh Hifa opening concert was a unique cultural and spiritual celebration as artists and audience celebrated cultural diversity, raising the spirits of all. Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi and the Celebration Choir, DRC’s Lokua Kanza, Louis Spohr String Quartet, Pastor G of Zimbabwe, Antonio Forcione, the ZimZim Acrobats, Opera Interludes, The Chipolatas, Ntiwatina Nyau Dancers, the graceful Matthias Julius, Mike Ibrahim, Tumbuka Dancers, Tony Cox and Brazilian percussionist Adriano Pinto together gave a theatrical performance of note. Albert Nyathi used is incomparable energy and the verbal gymnastics of a charismatic preacher to maximum effect. Spiritual aspects of many cultures were women into one seamless show, dramatised by poetry, dance, gospel, opera, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop vocals to maximum effect. Pastro G of Zimbabwe and the Celebration Choir broke into what can only be described as a spiritually inspired performance. Albert Nyathi, through poetry, helped the Hifa audience acknowledge the challenges of everyday ife in Zimbabwe while the choir reminded all that there was hope. This opening celebration was special in another way. It brought together the largest crowd ever at a Hifa opening, and so probably the largest crowd ever in central Harare. Hand in Hand it took all to the Seventh Heaven.

May 2006
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