All is well with my soul. HIFA week has come and gone and what a week it was. Six days of art, theatre, poetry, live music, laughter, drinking (shout out to the Pump Price Boys), joy, friendship and … one memorable night of unbelievable ratios. There are levels to this whole culture vulture shindig and the past week is right up there in the upper echelons of this culture vultures greatest hits. So much so that writing this I feel a quite sensation of satisfaction at the week that was the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA). It was definitely worth the wait and it was full of pleasant surprises. Over 1600 artists from Indonesia, Ireland, Cote D’ivoire, Germany, USA, China, Malawi, Netherlands, Greece, South Africa, UK and DRC just to mention a few descended upon the Harare Gardens and the surrounding areas and served a gourmet feast of arts and culture for the thousands of revelers to gorge on. By the end of the week even the most gluttonous of culture vultures were satisfied.
My first HIFA experience last year was limited to taking in a handful of live performances over the course of weekend. This year I made a concerted effort to turn my HIFA experience into a weeklong event. And now armed with the benefit of hindsight I realize how much I shortchanged myself last year. This year I took in more of the theatre program than I did live music. I stepped out of the luscious green confines of the Harare Gardens and into the intimate spaces of the Reps, Standard and 7 Arts theatres, as well as The National Art Gallery Of Zimbabwe. My HIFA experience was so much richer for it.
The highlight of the week for me was a play entitled ‘The Gods They Have Built For Us.’ It stands as probably the best, most engaging, thought provoking, enthralling and enlightening live theatre experiences I have had in the last couple of years. It reminded me of how much I loved and missed theatre. Other highlights included the opening ceremony which featured acrobats, b boy dancers, the legendary Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi, The Cool Crooners and Steve Dyer. As the week progressed I was pleasantly surprised by Zimababwean Hip Hop artist Synik live set, UK based Malawian Standup comedian Daliso Chiponda, Belarusian solo guitarist Maneli Jamal, South African musician Toya Delazy and German reggae /jazz fusion band Jamarama. The week was not without its controversies as protesters and some parts of the media tried to get the play ‘Lovers in Time’ which re-imagines the spirit mediums trajectory if they had not been executed during the First Chimurenga struggle.
The controversy was focused on the portrayal of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi as transgender as well as white Zimbabweans in their reincarnations. Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi were stalwarts of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and they inspired the generation of Zimbabweans who finally freed Zimbabwe from the shackles of colonialism. As such some sections of Zimbabwean society did not take to kindly or appreciate the artistic merit of the play. It did get the directors great publicity and it was only because of the controversy that I ended up attending the play.
One of my favourite spots during HIFA that I only discovered much later in the week was the Craft and Design Centre which was supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy. The Craft and Design Centre provided a space for local artist and designers to showcase their work to HIFA goers. The Craft and Design Centre had some interesting events including live graffiti and painting. Environmentally sensitive artists who use recycled material including bottles, cans, plastics and even bottle tops were busy with their displays.
My only regret from this year’s HIFA experience is that aside from the opening ceremony I didn’t get a chance to take in some of the dance acts but that will be on the top of the agenda come HIFA next year.
The only blemish from this years festival was that the South African Afro-fusion musical group Freshlyground denied entry into Zimbabwe. HIFA organisers allegedly left it to the 11th hour to apply for work permits for the group. Subsequently the group was turned away at the Harare international airport when they arrived without the necessary documentation.
Overall though it was still a great week, and HIFA definitely stands among the best festivals I have been privileged to attend.
Below I have written reviews for some of the shows that moved me.
Opening Ceremony: Lighting Up the Darkness – Telecel Main Stage
For the opening ceremony the stage was set against the iconic backdrop of the Cityscape and the leafy bamboo walls with the natural glow of flaming torches, lighting up the darkness. The opening ceremony provided a highlight reel of the performances that would take place during the week. It involved poetry reading, live music from legends such as Steve Dyer, Tuku & The Cool Crooners. The musical curation was matched by the dance that followed from acrobatics to b-boying intensity. And to end of the night the beautiful Harare skyline reflected the colour, passion and light that came from the Opening show: Light Up The Darkness as fireworks light up the Harare skyline.
The Gods You’ve Built – Reps Theatre
This play was based on three unlikely characters, the founder of an anonymous online community (for people who question religion and the meaning of life) who happens to be a bored accountant pretending to be a policeman for most of the play, a pregnant nun and her philosophy professor lover who has lost faith in his own philosophies. The drama unfolds out in a dilapidated public toilet that is decorated with graffiti and used condoms on the floor. To quote one of the lines by the actors “It is classic in a sanitary kind of way.” The play explores the complexity of existence. It seeks to understand the purpose of life and poses questions such as whether there is a perfect way out of misery. It served up a theatrical journey that left me mulling on play long after I had left the theatre. I found the play full of witty, insightful dialogue and musings. Some of the memorable quotes from the play are “We are all trying to find order in randomness’, “We were all Catholic at one time” and “Prayer is like insurance. People take out insurance not because they think their house is going to burn down. They take out insurance just in case their house burns down.” One of the more thought provoking questions the play posed to the audience and deals succinctly with the thrust of the play was this: Imagine if one morning you woke up and God was standing at your door and he said to you, ‘There is no heaven and there is no hell. No reward for the good you have done. And no punishment for the evil you have done. But I am God. Love me and worship me.” Would you do it?
This play was undoubtedly one of the top highlights of my HIFA experience.
Synik (Award winning Zimbo Hip Hop artist) – Coca Cola Green
Zimbabwean rapper Synik has a confident flow that immediately commands your attention from the get go. His energy was as infectious as it was organic with the audience vibing along to his crystal clear and at times poignant rhymes. For his live performance he was accompanied by a flawless live band that was reminiscent of American live Hip Hop band ‘The Roots’. Prior to his set I was not very familiar with most of his catalogue. I had only heard whispers on the Twitters streets but even that could not have prepared me for the musical vortex Synik sucked me into. I have not listened to a more authentic and talented Hip Hop musician live in a long time. Despite this being basically my first listen his cooly delivered lyrics resonated viscerally with m. His subject matter appealed both to the patriotic Zimbabwean in me as well the man still desperately trying to find my place in the world. His raps took me on a journey that transfixed me into a reflection of my past and future struggles to feeling like an outsider in my own country. In his own way Synik gave the soundtrack to my homecoming that I never had. A soundtrack I didn’t know I needed. Did I mention how organic his energy was on stage? There was a very Rock feel to his performance. And his interaction with the crowd revealed a humble and grounded young man. A rarity in Hip Hop circles. I am a fan. Over the course of this coming week I will be definitely marinating on his album with an eye on penning a full review at the end of the week.
Daliso Chiponda : Barely Legal (UK based Malawian Standup comedian)- 7 Arts Theatre
Daliso Chiponda’s stand up routine ‘Barely Legal’ had me and the rest of the audience laughing at our own collective idiosycransies. I have always admired how socially intelligent most comedians are and Daliso was no exception. During his set he made fun of Zimbabwe having a raunchy pole dancer/stripper Beverly Sibanda as a ‘celebrity’. He expressed shock on how Bev is considered a superstar in Zimbabwe saying in other parts of the world a stripper is on the lowest of the social ladder. Daliso also joked about Bev’s use of a beer bottle during her dancing routines by quizzing the audience how she discovered the “trick.”“Is it that Bev tripped and fell on a bottle that she discovered she could dance on top of it?.” “How does one discover such a talent of dancing on a bottle,” he quizzed.
He also went after Prophet Eubert Angel musing on whether he and his prophetess wife have arguments about things that haven’t happened yet. He alsojoked about the upcoming South African election featuring Julius Malema, the time he was almost arrested for ridiculing the government of Malawi, corrupt African leaders as well as bizarre sex laws in Europe. All in all he served up laughs galore.
Lovers In Time – The Standard Theatre
This was one of the more controversial performances of this years HIFA week.I will admit I was only drawn to watch it after the catching wind of the inevitable publicity the controversy stirred. Conceptually I loved the premise of the play. The play aimed to retell the story of the spirit mediums Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi, two of the most iconic figures in Zimbabwe’s fight for freedom. The play imagines what would have happened had they not be captured and hanged by the colonial regime.
How different would our history have been? How would they feel about the current state of affairs in a free Zimbabawe, that they died for? Those are some of the questions the play attempts to answer. To achieve this the writer’s and director of the play reincarnated Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi and switched their bodies. The spirit of Mbuya Nehanda came back as a man and that of Sekuru Kaguvi as a transgender woman. Both spirits are reincarnated at different stages of Zimbabwe’s history including Zimbabawe’s independence in which they were in the form of the two Bob’s , Marley and Mugabe. at one stage the spirit mediums come back as two white Zimbabwean and it is this that seems to have been the trigger for all the controversy surrounding the play. Those protesting against it argued that it mocked the legacy of the two spirit mediums. Personally I loved the idea of having the opportunity to imagine the beautiful possibility of what their lives could have been like had they not been captured. What I did not like was the execution of that idea. The acting and the dialogue itself left me underwhelmed. And despite the noble efforts of the directors to promote racial harmony I felt they missed the mark as some of the scenes especially towards the end felt contrived. Also leaving the play I felt the play itself had lacked a focus as well as a clear message.
That’s all for this years show folks.
Written by Tafadzwa Tichawangana