HIFA Retrospective

8 05 2008

It is all over for another year. That it came off at all is a minor miracle and testament to the determination (this year’s slogan was The Art of Determination) of the organizers who not only pulled it off in extremely difficult circumstances but pulled it off with an amazingly good programme. There were all of six (I think) cancellations by artistes who thought that the “situation” in Zimbabwe was too dangerous and pulled out at the last minute. We didn’t miss them; they were replaced by acts that were just as good if not better. Those artistes that I did get to talk to all raved about HIFA and wanted to come back. It was also noticeable that a number are becoming staunch supporters of the event and have come back for several years now. Daniel Lager the counter tenor is one, Hans Lüdemann and Trio Ivoire are another.

As a press officer I was fortunate enough to be able to get to see what ever I wanted but it was a bit more complex than that. Part of a team of reviewers I felt bound to let the others who had to be allocated tickets (I had carte blanche) get first pick so I tended to go to the less popular shows, I guess you could call it “The Fringe”. Still, I have enjoyed it. I did not see a single dud and there was some great stuff to be seen though nothing that left me speechless. There were only two shows that I felt I missed out on; Truth in Translation which even impressed a friend who is less than culturally inclined and Thibault Cauvin, a world class French classical guitarist.

It also got me away from work where business is not going well, to a world of escapism and creativity and allowed me to indulge my own creativity a bit (and even push my self to be creative under pressure). This blog is made much easier by all the notes I had to take. In some places I will just reproduce my review but in most I can be a bit more personal. Note that we were reviewers not critics. Our job was to promote the good shows. Being a critic is much more difficult; one has to know what one is talking about!This is the first year that I have been involved in the project though not much on the organizational side. I was impressed overall by how smoothly it ran; it’s a huge amount of organization. A couple of areas need attention, IT being the main one. I suppose it is not that surprising as most of the management are artistes themselves!

HIFA Day 6

8 05 2008

It’s a free day. Well, I don’t need to earn my keep so I can see whatever I like. I go into work in the morning and do other things. In the afternoon I go and see the John/Allen Project – Unruly Twist (why can’t these artistic types just write their names like the rest of us?). It is contemporary dance and I don’t understand it. Everybody else says how clever it was so I am glad I don’t have to review it and show that I am clueless. I suppose it must have been good. I do admire their creativity, how they think of these things is beyond me. The programme warns that the show “contains nudity”. It doesn’t. There is one act where a guy in a G string “dances” in a pile of what looks like metal off-cuts but he is not naked. There is also a disturbing grainy monochrome film of a man and woman dancing in a field – it ends with him walking into a river and disappearing under water. She looks on disinterestedly. Odd. Later I ask a friend who used to dance professionally if this style of dance is meant to be understood. She says no, not really, and I feel better.

Tokoloshe Come and Go is a humorous almost Monty Pythonesque show by two young South Africans on their first foray out of South Africa. I chatted to one a couple of nights ago and he was ecstatic about HIFA. I have to agree that the “vibe” is great. Everybody is excited and chats to everybody; I was even approached by a street kid who asked if I could get him tickets. I was not sure if he wanted to see a show or he wanted to sell the tickets.

They tell the story of a mythical Zulu village and a quest that a young warrior has to undertake to win the hand of his modern day maiden. It is silly, irreverent stuff and goes down well with the audience of all colours and ages.

I am supposed to go to the closing show of Oliver Mutukudzi but decide to give it a miss. Once again I am put off by the large crowds and my knee is giving me hell sitting down; what it would be like for over an hour standing I don’t want to know.

Someone tries to pick my pocket on the way out.

HIFA Day 5

8 05 2008

One day to go and I am running out of steam even though I have not had a very busy schedule. Having volunteered at the beginning to take on the more esoteric stuff I decide it’s time that I did and wander over to the Hivos poetry café. It really is a bit of a café and today I stumble onto the theme; “The word is my weapon” and it is inflammatory stuff. The convenor assures everyone that there is enough security around to deal with any eventuality so the artists can “go for it”. They do. First up is Comrade Fatso – a dreadlocked white youngster – who raps out a vitriolic piece that I’ve heard before on BBC. Several others follow and they are all just as passionate. Then it’s Comrade Fatso back with a backing band. I chat to him later and he calls their style toyi-toyi rap. I am impressed by their drive and wonder what this country would be like if we had a few more people like them.

“Curry Tales – Written and performed by Rani Moorthy we were transported across time and continents with the common ingredient, always a type of curry, always linking time and place. It was hilarious and at times emotional but Moorthy held it all together with wit, charm and consummate acting.”

“There was more than a little social commentary and maybe the audience did not appreciate the links between Edwina Currie and the egg curry (as Health Minister she presided over the dumping of millions of eggs) but they certainly appreciated the curry samples distributed throughout the show and at the end of it all Moorthy received a deserved ovation.”

We put together the last HIFA-lutin but it is not the fun the others were. It’s mostly “corporate copy” which is a euphemism for arse kissing the corporate sponsors. It seems that the articles that should have gone in throughout the week didn’t so now there are only two reviews and four photos. I really don’t thing anyone will read it. I do insist on the poets article – those guys deserve some recognition!

HIFA Day 4

8 05 2008

Another 10 o’clock show lets me off the press briefing; it’s The Silent Knights. Two final year schoolboys from St George’s College they put on nine short mime acts. I probably last watched mime as a schoolboy too in the days of scratchy films of Marcel Marceau! These youngsters are talented and the capacity audience is appreciative.

Next up is my friend Jeanette Micklem (concert pianist) who accompanies Daniel Lager, a German counter tenor. I would guess that a counter tenor is equivalent to a mezzo soprano, yes, he sings like a woman would. He’s a big man with a voice to match and shows off a bit dropping all the way to a baritone (but not with the same power). Now I really do enjoy classical music but on this one I am again out of my depth but I am getting good at dodging the issue. It is a great recital!

In the afternoon I catch Wings, a show by a contemporary Norwegian circus group.

“We have it all at HIFA 2008; comedy, performance art, dance and music of all types. Some is serious and thought provoking. Some is abstract and difficult to understand and some is just pure escapist entertainment. Wings at the Tetrad Reps Theatre on Lion Lager Day by Circus KhaOom which is a contemporary circus group based in Oslo, Norway, was just such entertainment.”

“It is a simple and effective story line of a dream had by an overworked businessman and the “bird inside him”. An interesting blend of circus and dance the act is accompanied by ethereal music supplied by Egil Stemkens on double bass and Ørnuluv Snortheim on guitar who work up to a suitably dramatic crescendo. The juggling, tumbling and trapeze work is slick and cleverly woven into the theme. Matia Salmenaho, whose strength is literally fantastical and matched by his juggling skills, and Egil Stemkens who specializes in aerial and silk work, are the performers who entertain so ably. This is a show for all ages and it will appeal to the child in all of us as it did for the child in me.”

My gold bracelet pass gets me into any show I like but I take a pass on freshlyground, a South African pop/rock group that has had everyone buzzing all week. I am not good in crowds and this is a packed one by any definition.

HIFA Day 3

8 05 2008

It’s a public holiday, 1st May, so things are pretty quiet in the morning. I use the excuse of covering the first performance of the day to dodge the press briefing. It’s Matthew Gair who has been brought in as a replacement for Angie Nussey, a Canadian singer who thought Zimbabwe “too dangerous”. Half way through he thanks her for dropping out!

“Born a South African and living in Cape Town but still calling Zimbabwe “home”, Mathew Gair was the perfect start to the public holiday. A totally unpretentious singer-songwriter with a dry wit, he has had some notable success with songs released onto the internet and it is not difficult to understand why. His lyrics are thoughtful and his playing and vocals are clear and melodious. The highlight for me was the commercially successful Number 37 about the house in Harare where he spent a lot of his formative years. While not dependent on his music for a living a professional music career can only be a short hop away.

If you enjoy this type of music make a note of his next performance at the Global Stage… And if you are not sure just go along to chill and enjoy anyway! Thank you for coming home to play us Matthew!”

After the performance I drop past the Green Room (not a room at all but a fenced and tented area where the performers and hifAmigos, who bought early membership can hang out) and get my daily tea and muffin. It’s about all I can afford but it’s a pleasant place to chill. I get chatting to the actor who did the Blood Orange show. He’s an affable guy who doesn’t seem too upset that he had his passport stolen the previous night!

In the early afternoon I take a HIFA shuttle bus to the Reps theatre where the cast of Truth in Translation are doing a workshop. There are a lot of workshops on the go during the week that are and integral part of the skills transfer side of HIFA – it’s not all fun and games! This is a more serious one though. I did not see the play but it’s based on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa that dealt with various apartheid issues. The hearings had to be translated simultaneously into the 11 different official languages and the translators (or interpreters as they were officially called) could not be influenced by what they were hearing. This particular workshop centred on the theme of forgiveness.

“It was a surreal experience having my life story and issues on forgiveness recited by a complete stranger to an audience of some 35 people, most of them strangers too. I was sitting in the Truth in Translation workshop held in the recital room at Reps rehearsal room on Stanbic Bank Day.

It was a cosmopolitan mix of all races, ages and sexes and was being hosted by members of the Truth in Translation cast, that excellent show that I missed. I did have a free slot for the workshop though and I must admit it was thought provoking to say the very least. Some six hours later I am still coming to grips with the concept.

The session was started with an introduction and ice breaking session of singing and self introduction. We then paired off with a total stranger and recited in brief our life story and an issue we had with forgiveness to him/her in more detail. That was the easy bit. When my turn came, and I was last in the circle, I had to recite my partner’s story, pretending that I was her, as accurately as I could. Now my training is in the sciences so I condensed her four minute story to about 20 seconds (Julie, as I will call her, forgave me). I am of course not the professional that the South African interpreters (not the same as translators) at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were. It did reinforce though what an incredibly difficult task they had to reproduce simultaneously what they were hearing and not to be influenced by it.”

I did struggle a bit to come up with a forgiveness “issue” but then settled on a beating I got from a soldier a few years back just down the road from the nursery. The details are not that important suffice to say that it was not serious (a cracked rib) but was very unpleasant. There is a discussion time after all the presentations are done and some interesting points are raised (this was all being filmed for a documentary). Some people did feel that the workshop had helped them deal with various issues. One black woman commented “You know it’s been really interesting to find out that the whites have the same problems that we do.” Duh.

I have had quite some time to thing about this whole forgiveness thing and like I commented at the workshop; “I don’t really know what forgiveness is”. I have come to the conclusion that it is a process not an event. I could not confront the soldier who beat me up and say that I forgave him and it would all be forgotten. No ways! I could never forget that. One day it may become irrelevant but is that the same thing as forgiveness? I don’t know. If I ever faced my father’s killer/s would I ever consider the event irrelevant?  I doubt it. Does that mean that I am keeping alive the “lack of forgiveness”? Again, I am not sure. It certainly does not mean that I want retribution. One of the cast members commented to me that she thought that “forgiveness” was the wrong word and that another term should be invented.

My last show of the day is Callate!, a Mexican slapstick comedy that spoofs Mills and Boon and bad Mexican melodramas. Aside from the fact that I don’t like slapstick I have no idea what to make of it and don’t review it. About a quarter of the audience walks out (not suitable for children) a quarter are bemused and the remaining half love it.

HIFA Day 2

8 05 2008

We have the usual press briefing in the morning and afterwards I spend a while repairing the files that got trashed by a virus on the press computer; I will have to use my own from now on. I don’t like the idea of walking around with a computer but at least I can leave it in the main office during the day.

 Loupe (magnifying glass) is a wholly Zimbabwean written, acted and directed. It takes a comic look at a serious subject; homosexuality. Well, it is serious in Zimbabwe where the general population is notoriously homophobic. It IS funny and surprisingly well acted. I don’t have to review it as someone else has already done it the previous day.

 Live Sax Acts is very different and best described as performance art. Yes it does involve saxophones but has nothing to do with music and I have to ask the performers what it was about. It is a satire on male relationships (first 2 acts) dealing with dominance and competition. The third act is experimental and rather odd. I still give it a good review as I think it’s worth seeing but I hear later that some thought it obscene! Zimbabweans can be depressingly narrow-minded.

HIFA Day 1

8 05 2008

We start off with a packed press briefing as we will every day. This one is different; it is the first and there is an air of expectation and excitement. It has not been an easy year. Artistes have pulled out at the last minute and been replaced with others but the biggest hurdle has been getting finance out of local companies who are as beleaguered as the rest of us by the appalling financial environment as the rest of us. Opening addresses are given by the various officials, sponsors are praised and finally some of the artistes for the day are introduced and get to say a few words. Then we are let loose.

Gods, Fate and a Librarian is a witty comedy written and performed by Erica Glyn-Jones and Haidee Crowe. They take the roles of the Fates, out to manipulate the human race and have a bit of fun while they are about it. Of course it all goes wrong and the humans being the recalcitrant lot that they are have other plans. There is an underlying serious message about African dictators and they poke fun at religion and even give birth (literally) to a new one. Audience participation is mandatory; God  (the new one) is declared a woman and a hapless male member of the audience is dragged off for fake (presumably) sex in the theatre toilets. Props are simple; just a couple of step ladders and a feather duster or two and an apparently poisoned banana. I don’t notice that there is a Fate missing (they are apparently not immune to human disorders) and enjoy the play for what it is – light hearted humour!

I bump into Haidee Crowe later and ask her if they slanted the dictator aspect for the Zimbabwe performance (this is the play’s premiere) but she says no. I hear comments much later that some people thought the acting a bit amateurish but what would I know, and anyway, I am not a critic.

The second performance I need to cover is quite different; it includes a lute player, a soprano and a poet, all Dutch. I do enjoy classical music and I am intrigued by the lute but I am way out of my depth …

“Having only ever seen a lute on reruns of the Blackadder series set in Tudor England I was fascinated to see and hear the real thing. Fortunately the playing of Willem Mook could not have been further from my images of Rowan Atkinson chasing down the cavorting jester in the TV series!”

They play the music and poetry of Constantine Huygens (father of the scientist). It’s easy listening and I don’t have to sound like I know what I’m talking about. I simply tell the truth. “Accompanied by the delightfully smooth soprano of Paulien van der Werff and the rich readings of Peter Adema in both English and the rhyming Dutch, Willem Mook’s superbly talented lute was the perfect introduction to the early baroque era of music that is rarely heard in Zimbabwe. Hopefully this talented trio will be back!” I bump into Willem later and he is ecstatic about my review. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I’m a rank amateur!

The last performance I attend is a replacement for someone who pulled out and it’s titled Blood Orange. Based on a book of the same name it’s a simple story of a boy growing up in the 60’s and 70’s South Africa. It takes a few minutes for me to realize what is going on and the actor, in his 30’s plays all the characters. It’s a phenomenal piece of acting by … and he is soaked in sweat at the end of it all. He is amazingly dynamic. Oh and the tyre in the photo? Four of them are his sole props. They are the cane he gets beaten with at school, his backpack, the toilet his pet mouse gets flushed down by the teacher and the rocks in Copenhagen habour where the statue of the little mermaid sits. It’s clever, witty stuff and I connect with an era which is of my childhood. The crowd is small but appreciative and I’m pleased to find out that his last show sold out.

I help with putting together the newssheet for the next day the HIFA-Lutin (get it?) and it’s fun to see it all come together under the skilful hands of the typesetter Tracy who’s a professional. We use the photos of the professional photographers who’ve been contracted to photo all the performers but it’s a cheap and cheerful publication and a lot of the quality is lost.

I get home late and Jenni is ecstatic in that special way that dogs are when you are late.


17 04 2008

In the chaos that is Zimbabwe there exists an oasis. It is also chaotic but has a vision and is actually an inspiring place to work. It is the HIFA (Harare International Festival of the Arts) office and I’m a press officer, IT geek, gofer, whatever there. Yes, HIFA 2008 is going ahead despite all the obstacles! I’d mention the website if it was worth visiting but unfortunately it is nowhere near the standard of the printed programme which is a piéce de résistance. As an employee (actually I don’t get paid) I get free entry to the programme but this year I’d be hard pressed to choose what I want to see; it will probably be dictated to me anyway! Amazingly we have had very few cancellations because of the “situation” so it’s all go and looking like a great event.

The Festival runs the usual 6 days from 29th April to 5th May.