Monday, November 9, 2015

Festivals: Thin Line Between Too Much, Nothing

A ‘huge’ silence fills the air after the rolling of the last drum of festivals’ season, the silence lasting between one year and as long as two years.
Then, when one festival organiser opens the door, the ‘silent’ scene turns into a sea of activity: One great festival follows another, and another, and another within months so close to each other that the situation comes close to a motor race.
It is a situation akin to a beer-drinking party as it gives the impression that event organisers with concepts not very different from each other have started talking at once. It is like they are all talking at once, or one immediately talking after the other, without giving each other ample time for the message to sink in. It is, in a way, a confused case — no one hears the other out!
Maybe the organisers feel like, after one festival’s patrons have enjoyed the party, they feel drowsy, and that quickly organising another festival gives the patrons a chance to blink and feel fresh, more or less, again.
Whatever the case, those drunken moments are upon us, yet again. Between Friday, September 25, and Sunday, September 27, patrons from Malawi and abroad descended on the beaches of Lake Malawi at Sunbird Nkopola in Mangochi. It is a festival, one of Malawi’s international headline festivals, dubbed The Lake of Stars, a big place with three performance stages.
On these three stages, the past met the present as the likes of Fumbi Jazz Band rubbed shoulders with the Sonyes of this world. Fumbi is known for, among other songs, the hit ‘Tiyimbe Nyimbo Zotamanda’ while Sonye, real name Sonjezo Kandoje, is the brains behind the controversial hit ‘Tsika Msungwana’, which gender activist Emma Kaliya says demeans women.
The Moods Malawi, former Botswana Big Brother Africa representative Zeus and our own Lomwe, Tilinanu Children’s Choir, Lusubilo Band, Patrick Simakweli, Third Eye, Zimbabwe’s Mokoomba Band, Takula Band [featuring the likes of Peter Mawanga], Dikamawoko Dance and Drumming Troupe, EJ Von Lyric and bFAKE from South Africa, Rainmaker, Sally Nyundo are some of the artists and bands that had their turn to impress on the sun-smitten beach of Nkopola.
And, like all refreshing things, the festival came and went. 
Barely a week later — five days after the curtain closed on the Lake of Stars in Mangochi — some of the patrons who trooped to Mangochi met at the Blantyre Arts Festival (Baf) in the country’s commercial city. The venue is the Blantyre Cultural Centre, formerly French Cultural Centre.
The festival started with a carnival from Blantyre Old Town to Civic Centre, the headquarters of Blantyre City Assembly. The Black Missionaries and Anthony Makondetsa showed people that they are made of sterner music stuff on Friday, when the festival, which started as another joke in 2009 before taking its place as a serious affair over the years, opened its doors to the world. Ever-green South African gospel singer, Rebecca Malope, also performed on Saturday.
Other artists who jumped up and down the beach-less stage, while exhausting the reserves in their choral chords, included Tanzania’s Baba Watoto Acrobatics, the student of veteran Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi, namely Munya, Germany’s The Great Grandpot and Nonkhululeko from South Africa. Giddes Chalamanda did not miss out, just as Patience Namadingo, Waliko Makhala, Black Syndicate Band, Ethel Kamwendo Banda, Home Grown African, Dalma Theatre, Black Syndicate Band Agorosso and Muhanya also availed themselves.
In addition, poetry and drama shows, film screening, photography exhibitions and traditional dances spiced the event.
However, this does little to conceal the fact that Baf has come fast on the heels of the Lake of Stars; in fact, too close for the cash wallet’s sake.
But, according to the Malawian script of doing things, these festivals are not enough, despite one coming so fast after another that they nearly collided, literally— one falling on top of another.
Exactly 20 days after Baf— and less than a month after the Lake of Stars— comes a new festival-kid on the block: The Malawi Film Festival. The festival, a brain-child of the Film Association of Malawi (Fama), opens its doors to the world from October 23 to 25. The venue is the Capital City, Lilongwe.
Why should Malawian and foreign patrons ‘entertain’ a ‘huge’ silence [from the time people endure the situation where festivals are nowhere on the events’ calendar to the period when one festival comes so fast after another that they nearly collide, literally] and an overdose of happiness during the festivities’ season? Are festivals the only thing happening in people’s lives? 

The case for festivals
Baf executive director, Thom Chibambo, does not subscribe to the idea that, since Baf has come fast on the heels of the Lake of Stars, then, the act smacks of duplication.
“To begin with, the Lake of Stars and Baf have different target audiences. They [Lake of Stars] target international and local audiences and we court ordinary people; people like you and me. I am talking of people who cannot afford to go to the lake and camp there. We, therefore, make it possible for them to appreciate art without digging too much into the pocket. Patrons can come and return home,” says Chibambo.
Added Chibambo: “Secondly, we want to help Malawians appreciate the many dimensions of our culture through art. There are many ways of promoting culture and the arts industry is one of them, hence our focus on the arts. You may wish to know that Baf offers Malawi the opportunity to appreciate culture and traditional practices through dances, songs, poetry, among other artistic forms. So, I don’t think the fact that we had another festival may affect our objectives.”
Chibambo adds that, since Baf targets those who appreciate art at reasonable charges, even those who patronise other festivals may find it necessary to attend.
“Look, if someone could afford to spend a week at the lake, paying accommodation costs and the like, I don’t think they can fail to come to Baf and appreciate the performances,” argues Chibambo.
Chibambo also dived into the debate of whether there is anything called Malawi culture, saying Malawians have values which are molded by cultural beliefs, customs and traditions. He said art, in that regard, also serves as a means of transmitting cultural values.
“Malawians have their own culture, and cultural practices— which shape our value system— vary from area to area, from people to people. What do you think happens during initiation ceremonies? It’s the transmission of culture.
“In much the same way as cultural values are transmitted through initiation ceremonies, the same values can be transmitted through the arts, hence our idea to develop the concept of the arts festival. It’s a festival where cultural values are appreciated through the artist’s perception,” said Chibambo.
Film Association of Malawi president, Ezaius Mkandawire, also believes that the film festival is a justifiable activity, and hence sees nothing wrong with it coming so close after other festivals.
We are not duplicating issues as far as we know there is no festival that has given film space. We are also looking at the festival a development project for the industry. As for festivals being many, we are looking at using Lilongwe in the centre of Malawi which has no festival in terms of geography,” says Mkandawire.

Mkandawire adds that the objective of the festival is also different from the others, observing that “We are looking at building a pool of future filmmakers. The festival has a component of training”.

Says Mkandawire: “We are also cultivating a cinema-going culture. Something that can spur the growth of the industry. Our festival has films from Senegal, South Africa, Mali, among other countries. We will also premier a film called ‘Lilongwe’.

He says the festival is premised on the idea of promoting the film industry and, through film viewers’ appreciation of artists’ work, the festival would go a long way in ridding local filmmakers of that irritable sense called hibernation.
Whatever the case [for or against festivals], one cannot help but appreciate that there is that moment of festivals in the September-October air. It could be that people feel like spending some time away from ‘real’ life, to hang out, and festivals could be one of their answers to not wanting to get stuck at home.
Thus far, the festival doors remain wide open, and patrons have already thrown themselves through the doors of the Lake of Stars and Baf, and basked in the rich ‘smell’ of poetry and music and drama and traditional music and stuff like that. 

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