he Morning After
This morning, as you sit down to write, the smudged ink from the gate stamps still spreads up the inside of your arms like bruises or track marks, your hands are daubed in blotches from trying to take notes in the open-air darkness of Main Stage, your armpits smell of old sweat and dust raised by many feet.
Do you know where you are?
It is the last day of a weeklong international arts festival that has taken over the downtown section of the capital city, a rough triangle between the National Gallery, the park, and a swanky hotel. The city residents are a dissonant mix; security keeps chasing away street kids outside the festival gates, but they always return. They offer to watch cars for chump change, and the city boasts some fancy cars: expensive off-roaders, even the occasional sports car. Despite exorbitant fuel prices, a canary yellow Hummer has been spotted around the city, the vanity of one of the city’s business potentates. In early May the weather is mild, not quite winter—perfect for a festival. The city’s name, Harare, means something like “does not sleep,” and it has never been more apt.
You sit watching the Antonio Forcione Quartet, one of a couple thousand people gathered on the only overcast day of the festival. Forcione introduces the band: a gorgeous African-American cellist, an Australian double bassist and a Brazilian percussionist. You sit back—Brazilian percussionists are always a good thing. The day has been almost chilly, the clouded, smoky air growing lambent with sunset while Forcione plays an exhilarating tribute to the architecture and history of the Alhambra. (Many of the musicians at the festival are Francophone, and dedicate practically every song to a woman with a name worthy of a romantic chorus; Forcione is Italian and seeks to impress rather than seduce.) By the song’s end, the sun has set, but the night feels warmer than the day: a trick of cloud cover in temperate climates. The crowd is suitably awed and attentive.
You rush out of the green, weaving through crowds made aimless by excess, across a busy six-lane downtown street beneath the great phallus of the shiny glass Reserve Bank building, to a theatre attached to a decommissioned church of one of the more severe brands of Christianity. You arrive just in time to duck into aisle seats as the play’s opening music is finishing up. The play is a brutal, punishing treatment of American slavery and the reluctance of an African-American mathematics professor to examine his past. It is a festival performance: audience members clomp their way across resonant risers, leaving two thirds of the way through; a cellphone goes off. But the performance itself is excellent, interspersing snippets of old spirituals and sorrowful blues songs with stories of lynchings and beatings. The audience is rapturous in response, the standing ovation lasts minutes. On the way out, you shake the hand of the pale, dreadlocked author, then set off immediately back to Main Stage.
You join a large, amorphous queue that continually widens to occupy the available space. Some people are clutching folding chairs, though it is clear from the size of the queue and the energetic soundcheck inside there will be little opportunity for sitting. Once inside, you stand as the crowd, several thousand strong, perhaps the biggest of the festival, gathers around you, shoulders packing together densely, heads cocking for better visibility. The MC comes on stage to stall for time; he wears an Afro wig studded with glowing fairy lights, and describes the festival as “the best in the world.”
Finally, only ten minutes late, he announces the final act of the festival: the South African singer Thandiswa, formerly of Bongo Muffin, sponsored by Caltex and the South African Embassy. Thandiswa is dressed in white and wields a spangled iwisa, a ceremonial Zulu club; her guitarist wears a black leather jacket and her bassist a white Yankees cap. She is far from the best act of the festival; she looks down towards her feet a great deal, spends too long on an old-school gospel number. She sings a tribute to South African anti-apartheid heroes, with an emphasis on the controversial figure of Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela, to a lukewarm response. The crowd thins early, cheerfully gathering on the green, where drinks and food are still being sold: curries, roasted meat, savory pies. Roughly timed for the end of Thandiswa’s show, there is a fireworks display. For five minutes, everyone feels eleven years old again, watching streams of sparklers descend over the city.
Where are you?
Day One – The Green
At the festival, they wander around in twos or threes, talking to no one but each other; not unusual for police at a festival, I suppose, but there is an added dimension of distance here. Few of the police carry guns (though too many for my liking); many more carry brass-tipped sticks about three feet long. It doesn’t help my nerves any that drinking in public is permitted; after ten years in North America, I keep freezing at the thought of the beer bottle in my hand every time I see a khaki uniform, so much like a school uniform.
It also doesn’t help that I am often taking notes in a big black book of blank pages. The notes are, in part, for 200-word blurbs I will write for the festival newspaper, Hifalutin’; I am to be paid, I am told, Z$50,000 per piece: US$200 at the official exchange rate. At the black market rate, which even the Reserve Bank reportedly uses, Z$50,000 is two US dollars. But it feels good to be a part of the festival, however minor. My friend Comrade Fatso refers to me, unnervingly, as “Chief Propagandist” and “that unaccredited Journalist.” Many journalists have been arrested for writing without government accreditation; my best defense is my sheer irrelevance.
The police do not remain entirely aloof though. In the midst of a small crowd I spot two uniforms, smiling, laughing shaking their heads in wonder. It is an unmarked corner of the green; bent over his creation, a sculptor displays a Mechanical World. The base of the sculpture is roughly boat-shaped, blossoming upwards is a superabundance of human figures in various contexts, many of them labeled with country names, occasionally misspelled. The sculptor winds a series of crank handles in the nether regions of the boat, and the figures come to herky-jerky life in an almost infinite array of work and rest: chopping firewood, gathering water, dancing, walking, herding, sleeping. Everyone, including the policemen, points and laughs in disbelief, while the sculptor narrates at breakneck pace: here is the Nile river [a winding length of light blue half-tubing], there is Senegal, here the woman is waiting for her husband to come home but he is out drinking.
For his finale, the sculptor announces a “No Under 18” Section. A different set of cranks calls to life a roofed beerhall: a couple flirt, a man staggers drunkenly. Taking a final look to ensure no underage peekers, the sculptor lifts the roof back on hinges: a couple are having sex in a bed, the man is putting on a condom, “to protect himself against AIDS.” The crowd doubles over, and the man holds out a box for donations. The police stand back, still smiling, but do not contribute.
Day One – The Opening
At length, a man with a beautifully naked torso walks slowly round the stage lifting sheets of white gauze from what are revealed to be almost-naked, white-painted, ridiculously-muscled bodies, who do, indeed, slowly get up, stretching, reaching, handstanding and gradually meandering offstage in slow motion as Chiwoniso winds down her lament. Then the stage is stormed: a big band; elbow-gloved, wrist-twirling backup girls; black-tied, sunglassed, jazz-handsing backup men; and to crown it all, the maroon-suited MC, flanked by stony-faced, pseudo-CIO security men (who, for the record, remained unsmilingly in character throughout their several appearances).
The MC assumes a queasy, slightly shaky Mugabe parody. He announces “The Ministry of Possibilities,” hails the importance of “the human right to have a good time.” Eyeing the audience closely, he demands, “Whether you are indigenous or a neo-colonial exploiter, drop your differences and enjoy yourselves, otherwise I will beat you.” Everyone laughs and cheers. The MC exits, and the backup girls sing the arrival of the Cool Crooners, resplendent in matching pinstriped suits, yellow ties, grizzled hair, and wooded voices in Ndebele harmony.
It is as though the writer of the show feels honor-bound to reference every bit of the Zimbabwean crisis, even the invasions of white farms that took place in the first years of political upheaval. Thus, the MC returns to announce that his officers have detained the McDonald family at the airport as they were fleeing to Nigeria; they have been escorted to the show to provide some entertainment first. A white family carrying a roadie trunk, a chicken in a cage and a ghettoblaster shuffle onstage to the tune of “Had a Farm”; the mother looks anxious, the son sullen, the daughter dumpy. The father sings “Mack the Knife” with gathering gusto while the two CIO men loom over the rest of the family, who huddle together as though for warmth. They are all hustled brusquely offstage while the song is still in its fading chords.
Chris Wong (advertised in the festival program as “The Robbie Williams of Hong Kong”) takes the stage, reading Shona greetings off the inside of his wrist below the short sleeves of his spangled, collar-popped blouse. He is accompanied in a dreary Chinese pop song by a female backing band and a troupe of midriff-bearing dancers, as well as two willow-girls swathed in silk who bend in surprising directions and lift each other up. People applaud politely—China is a strategic ally of Mugabe’s, but many Zimbabweans have little love for Eastern carpetbaggers or their cheap “Zhing Zhong” goods.
Here my notes get slightly muddled. I believe the Cool Crooners come back, singing “Tinobva kuGhetto”—“We come from the ghetto”—to a tune that might be “Guajira,” while two ballerinas, one white, one black, and both dressed disjointedly in ballet skirts, grey hoodies, and tiaras, flounce and tiptoe aimlessly about. And then it gets truly strange.
Still on her knees, Chiwoniso, in rags, picks up the spine-tingling theme of “Redemption Song,” accompanying herself on mbira in a compound four beat, singing the life out of the simple melody. Her companion breaks in with a refrain from Annie’s “Tomorrow” (of all things), and a third voice, a man who has appeared between them, sings a verse of “Talkin’ About a Revolution.” The three of them sing—beautifully, spell-bindingly. The bodybuilders of the first act, still painted white, gather the bodies of the fallen.
Where on earth am I?
Besides the challenge of Zimbabwean reality there is a normative objection to the festival. Close friends said they were boycotting the festival because it was a middle class event in a country with almost no middle class, because it normalized an entirely abhorrent regime and unsustainable, murderous political status quo.
In terms of the middle class, you could argue that the Harare International Festival of the Arts is, in terms of its exclusiveness, little different from many other festivals; indeed, it is substantially less exclusive than, say, South by Southwest, at which tickets are of almost no use, expensive wristbands will buy you second-class status, and badges are for the wealthy or well-connected. Participants in Harare’s festival, who ran a wide gamut of races and social classes though certainly skewed toward white semi-professionals, were provided wristbands that gained them admission to almost every show. But there is a different expectation in a time of crisis.
HIFA’s tickets ranged between Z$25,000 (US$1, or roughly the price of a beer, or three times the price of a loaf of bread) for the rabble-rousing, IMF-bashing Poetry Café to $50,000 for the big Main Stage events like Thandiswa—little enough that the festival was guaranteed not to break even. But Z$20,000 or any ticket gained you admission to the green, where there was a stream of free shows alongside the cotton candy, popcorn, and curry stands. The vast majority of people in Zimbabwe have no real disposable income whatsoever; for them, the green with its school jazz bands and Mechanical Wonders is out of reach, let alone the imported pop stars. These are the Zimbabweans who work all day every day to earn nothing but a continued chance at survival. For them, HIFA is a poster passed on the street on the way to work, a distant rumble of music on the long trip home.
But the majority is never the whole story. For better or worse, Zimbabwe’s economy and social services, are propped up by a slender but bloody-minded middle class made up of both locals and NGO expats, for whom flight is an open question, indeed the prevailing choice. This middle class has the privilege of appraising its position in the light of ongoing decline, in pay, schools, medical care. Any city in the world would be proud to host this festival; for a week, living in Harare feels wonderfully like living in a through the looking glass version of Paris, without the modernist skyline. Like Harare’s expensive private schools and high-class private health care, the festival encourages the privileged middle class to stay—for better or worse.
Fatso, in a thin beard and dreadlocks down to the small of his back, is the spitting image of a cocky whiteboy gone shit-stirringly native. He raps in Shona and English, spilling screeds on injustice, the World Bank, love in a time of politics and his declarative identity, riffing on this last in the form of the ID card that Zimbabweans are required to carry, the chitupa, chanting “Toyi-toyi, Chimurenga! Ndiwo mutupo!”—“This is my identity!” The music is an ambitious blend of styles, deploying the self-important rhythms and ellipses of spoken word atop a guitarist who deftly references the chiming arpeggios of southern African pop cheek-by-jowl with “Black and I’m Proud”-type soul chops. But the audience needed little encouragement from Fatso to take to their feet and party, shouldering up against the security men below the stage with long-necked beer bottles held high. Fatso paid tribute to the Makorokoza, Harare’s very own hustlers, for whom keeping the wolf from the door is the highest ambition.
In their final number, the band is joined on stage by three small girls who shake their bottoms in a disconcerting rendition of traditional, frankly sexual Zimbabwean dancing. Fatso shrugs at the audience and cheerfully gives the stage over to the real youth, winding up the show with a hectic, breathless fit of toyi-toyi the high-paced, knees-up marching in place that was the trademark of the liberation struggle of a generation past. It is one of the most explicitly political, revolutionary gestures of the festival, but no one stops the show. When it is over the audience disperses slowly—breathless, laughing, pleased with itself and the prospect of Saturday night.
Some elements of this piece first appeared in the HIFA Newspaper, Hifalutin’.