All photos by Russell Grant
It begins before we’ve even left Durban. Loopy needs wine. It’s Sunday, afternoon and she’s still, um, we don’t know what she is. She’s fucking sketchy that’s what she is, sketchy and demanding alcohol on a dry day, while we are late late late to get to Smoking Dragon before sunset. She comes out of the Spar triumphant, holding aloft a few tiny box wines, and with her lopsided aw shucks snorty giggle gets in the car. “Oh, ye of little faith.” And then we’re on the highway and this messy bassist is soon fighting with James, a fellow band member, shouting “it’s not my fault we are a shit band!”. She’s wrong, though. Fruits & Veggies are not a shit band, one of the few exceptions to the rule proven time and again over the following few days at Smoking Dragon New Year’s Eve Festival: it is always possible for the next band to be even worse than the previous one. This is not going to be a long music festival review – there simply wasn’t enough music worth writing about, and I have better things to do with my life than to wade through a thesaurus looking for different ways to say, “Holy crap, that was the worst band I’ve ever seen”.
Fruits & Veggies may not be a shit band, but Loopy is a shit human, or rather can be. She’s fucked to the point of megalomania and she’s driving us insane in the car, singing the entire Beatles Rubber Soul album out of tune, out of time, right into our ears while moaning that everyone hates her and she should kill herself and trying to hug Tessa-Mae, who is driving and just generally being a dick. At one point we drive through the Midlands farm lands and the stench of urine overpowers all the car’s occupants. “Loopy!” screams James, “Did you piss your pants again?” But it’s not Loopy, it’s the truck we are stuck behind, and we feel a smattering of guilt before we attempt to ghost her at the Mooi River one-stop.
Arriving at the brink of sunset, addled and needing to get just the fuck far away from Loopy, having no tent, no supplies to speak of, no money and a hankering for some kind of solitude or psychedelics, I stumble into the tipi village and demand my tent, the biggest one, because there are many of us. Surprisingly, this ruse works and I soon have a nine-man tipi to myself. That is until the hippies appear, but this happens later.
* Side note: There is something deeply repulsive about the word “tipi”.
I may have, by using the word “village”, misrepresented the size of Smoking Dragon. It is a tiny tiny festival, new as fuck and full of potential. There can’t be more than 1 600 people at any one time. The tipi village takes up less than 20 m². It’s possible to walk the entire gen pop area in less than 15 minutes. You never feel packed, or hemmed in, or lost, or unsafe. The location is spectacular – there is a small dam really close and a fucking awesome waterfall/water pool vibe that is worth the hour it takes to get there. Smoking Dragon is deliciously loose, full of the freedoms that bad organisation brings. It also has wifi, private cabins and, in the VIP area (although no one is really checking wristbands), a swimming pool, hot showers, a sauna, couches, chill areas, a Christmas tree (that doubles up as a blanket) and a Jacuzzi. What Smoking D doesn’t have is shade, or a working septic tank, or a backup generator, as we discover on Saturday night when the power goes out.
The first ground sweep occurs shortly after I’ve discovered a chap called Monty in the internet café. He’s on the floor, working on his thesis. He came here for the peace and quiet. No one told him there was a festival happening this weekend. Monty is suitably perturbed. Monty will not relent the whole weekend – by day two there is a half-naked girl passed out in his research notes, but he soldiers on. Outside the toilets two hippies are discussing politics and trying to work out the change for the cigarette machine, but their focus is off and they lose their quarts. It’s going to be that kind of festival. All manner of Durban bottom feeders roam the festival grounds, like a school camp where someone invited the kids from the Queensborough (yes, this is a localised reference to the wrong side of the tracks, get used to it) by mistake. It doesn’t take long to discover the incredible coincidence in the form of the Keyser Söze of drug dealers camping right next to us. It is an advantage of sorts, but also means that for the rest of the festival there will be long queues of people hanging out on our chairs. But what am I even talking about? This isn’t my camp.
Once the admin is taken care of, I settle into the festival. The main stage tent is about the size and height of a school fête marquee, making any amount of people seem like a decent crowd, but also somehow never getting uncomfortably packed. There is also an undeniable good vibe about the whole set-up – freedom, acceptance, love and all that. It’s plain that everyone here has come to get as high as possible. And then I start to pay attention to the music.
I have, for various reasons, avoided writing about Shortstraw for a very long time. With so little music to write about at Dragon, I have to bite the bullet. Shortstraw are what happens when Matchbox Twenty tries to cover Desmond & the Tutus.
Later that evening a friend gives me some 2C-B and I come to just after sunrise, surprised to find that I am in a stinking hot tent, in process of making out with someone. 2C-B is like a fine mix of low-grade acid, MDMA and Viagra; it is also, as you may have gleaned, blackout material.
The waterfalls are a series of small rock pools that channel into some fast-flowing water. On the way up, the path is spotted with German tourists jogging off in the opposite direction. There is one minor waterfall that you can get under – just two people, shoulders only. Meaty One, the punk rock plumber, takes me in. I never want to leave.
The rock pools are choked with festival-goers, possibly because back at Smoking Dragon there is no shade to speak of – not at the dam, not in the form of trees in the tent camps, no shade except under the tent at the main stage, where the music is mostly enough to keep you out in the sun. At a tiny festival like this, with only one stage and no other distractions, shaded areas are crucial, as crucial as a tight, diverse line-up.
There is an on-the-ground belief among South African festival-goers that no one goes to festivals for the music; they go to get fucked and to hook up. It’s a belief that has emerged mainly because of shitty festival line-ups (Oppikoppi, in these conversations, is always the exception to the rule), a way of festivaling in response to decades of sub-par curating and mistreatment of musicians and audience. The granddaddy of this kind of asshole behaviour, Splashy Fenn, lives just down the drag from Dragon, and there had been quite a bit of hope in the ranks of KZN musicians that Smoking Dragon would offer serious competition; if that is to be the case, Dragon needs to up its game. It’s not that we don’t go to festivals to get crunk and hook up, but the experience would be much better – for the audience, for the festival organisers, for the bands – if more attention was paid to the constantly shifting currents of new music nationwide, as well as finding a way to get that music to the festival that does not demean the artists by making them sell tickets in order to get paid. Musicians should focus on making music, organisers should focus on selling tickets.
* Side note 2: This article may come across as lacking in excitement. In light of this I must state that I had an incredible time at Dragon, but it was mostly spent away from the stage, getting crunk and hooking up.
After the Dollfins restore some kind of integrity to the line-up, the Slash Dogs attempt an acoustic set and are beleaguered by myriad sound problems. The Slash Dogs – traditionally a hardcore band replete with gruff screaming – performing acoustically is a bit of a left field idea to begin with, and a chilled acoustic set is hard to pull off to begin with. Tripped up by the sound issues, the set doesn’t really come off that well until somewhere near the end of they get their groove and it starts to work. Then the power goes out in the middle of a song. The power for the whole festival; bars grind to a close, lights go out, the Jacuzzi switches off. It’s near sunset and, as efforts to restore it drag on, we retreat to the car boots to drink. Hanging out at Keyser Söze’s waiting room later, I talk to someone involved in the technical side of the festival who tells me that the power went down not because of the lack of a generator but rather because someone forgot to put water in the cooling tank, and the generator blew.
Once the power comes back on, as Tessa from Cortina Whiplash and I are stumbling back to the stage area, we are told that we had missed the best act of the festival, MXO and the Peppercorns, even though their set was reportedly cut short. Out of nowhere Auriel, Cortina’s drummer, runs through the crowd and rugby tackles Tessa to the ground. They wrestle, muscular ferrets on heat. A GoPro enthusiast appears chanting “girl fight” and tracks them as they butt into each other like tiny wildebeest in a territorial dispute. Finally Auriel gets Tessa into a big patch of mud and they’re really rolling in it until someone shouts, “That’s not mud, the septic tank burst last night!” The strange smell that has been hanging over the camp is suddenly clear. I have a flashback of the night before when I had been rolling in a “mud” pit near the slack lines. My jeans are still caked in it. It’s not a vibe.
By the time we get to Yesterday’s Pupil everything has hit blur status. I am disappointed, once again, that he’s doing a full electronic set as opposed to his epic one-man-band extravaganza, but find myself, once again, really getting into this new uplifting synth vibe. Later I discover Dubstep Girl. While elements of Yesterday’s Pupil’s set incorporate some dubsteppy influences, Dubstep Girl does the drop to just about anything. A tall athletic girl who looks like she was once on the B swim team, she is resplendent in short denim shorts, tie dye, a fierce girn and glow sticks; she dubsteps like an All Black. When Yesterday’s pupil went for a harmonic vocal lift, she helicoptered her arms in anticipation for a drop that was not to come. But no matter – Dubstep Girl drops her own drops at leisure, and in abundance. Somehow Dubstep Girl manages to even conjure up drops for Gateway Drugs, the most undroppy band of all time. She swirls through the drugs and summertime bliss vibes with all the determination of a machete gang.
Gateway are here as part of Puma Summer Happy Holidays tour that has seen them, Desmond & the Tutus, Shortstraw, The Dollfins and others sweep all the way up the coast from Cape Town on an exhaustive three-week summer towns stopover extravaganza, and they will continue on to Pretoria and Joburg. If any of the bands are tired they don’t show it; David dances around the stage like a peg leg David Byrne adrift in a miasma of joyous, nostalgia-tinged, epic Forget-era Twin Shadowesque diabetes pop. At the end of their set, the entire Puma crew get on stage in celebration and, finally, it feels like the festival is going somewhere. Later, Dr Khumalo hits hard with a DJ set that really sets Dubstep Girl off on a dubstep safari, dubstepping hard, while Dr Khumalo deadpans microthoughts on technical minutia of his set as it unfolds. It is one of the best DJ sets ever played anywhere. So go fuck yourselves.
Later that night, there is a Jacuzzi party.
Day three: bad music – a short tour. The only way to beat the sun is to sit at the main stage. It’s the last day of the festival, and the build-up to New Year’s Eve should be kicking off. Instead we are treated to a string of, possibly, the worst derivative white people rock and blues bands ever assembled. It’s the as if Dragon put up posters at all the local boarding schools advertising for bands who had once heard of Muddy Waters but only by reading an article on The Doors. Sick Cindy are so abominable that Purity from Fruits & Veg vomits on the VIP room Christmas tree. For most of the day the bands are so unconscionably shit that it becomes a relief; it’s total freedom from any sort of schedule-watching anxiety because we know that the next assemblage of LARP fanatics are going to be just as bad as the current lot. There are few distractions at Dragon, which means the only thing to do is to drink, visit Keyser Söze and avoid the stage.
There is an item on the line-up that irks. The opening act of day one of the festival was “DJ Sipho and community artists from the surrounding area”. And all day today, on day three, I keep hearing some variant of “the locals always come jol here on the last night of the festival, it’s nice for them”. There is an echo here of Last Outpost thinking, a wilful myopia that makes me put on my whiteness spectacles and cast an eye over the whole line-up. Of all the bands that play after dark, all but a few are all white. But it’s not just that they’re white – musically they’re white as fuck. Not that being white is a crime or anything, it would just be so much more fun if the styles of music on offer at one stage explored different sonic palates. The festival ran a vote on Facebook to ask which bands they should pick, and many of the bands that were near the top of those voting lists didn’t make it on to the line-up. The knock-on negative effect of the festival is vast and subtle in how it affects those scores of people who voted for those bands, who saw them climb to the top of the list, and who are then expected to pay for a ticket not to see them.
The golden age of South African festivals for organisers and fly-by-nights who would put on just about any crap is over. South Africa is increasingly becoming a destination for major international acts and major franchise festivals. The Cape Town Electronic Music Festival, only in its third year, is about to go up against the Mad Decent block parties. Ultrafest is nearly here. Soon the more band-orientated international festivals will start setting up satellite events. South Africa has always had an international reputation as a party destination, driven firstly by the early acid house explosion in Cape Town and the resultant (and still massively financially successful) trance scene. Now this reputation is bolstered by the fact that South Africa is exporting quality music, acts, films, art and fashion to the “outside world” in abundance. People are curious. It’s the perfect time for audiences to be more demanding, and for festival organisers to be more creative in their line-ups. But it’s also time for bands to stop playing gigs in just the three cities – there are other cities, there are small towns out there with hungry audiences (as both the Happy Holiday Tour and the Fokof model demonstrate). And bands get better, their songs get better, when they are challenged by diverse audiences – and they don’t have to go to fucking Europe to find them. So many good bands have fallen apart thinking they were going to crack the big time by just playing The Assembly once a month.
Dragon is too small a festival at this point to compete with the more established local festivals, let alone the internationals, but what it can do, like all the South African festivals (again Oppi = exception), is dig deep into what the big festivals, the franchises, don’t have access to, and that is emerging forms of music (this does not mean merely putting interesting experimental bands on in the afternoon slots). KZN is a hotbed of Gqom, which is heading to be the next big thing after kwaito, and the addition of a Gqom-based stage would not only be a step ahead of the main competition, but would suddenly provide an entirely new local audience with an entry point into festival life. It would boost festival attendance and might just help puncture the “awww shem, look how cute the locals are” attitude of the old Natalian thinking that passes for normal around these parts.
Some time just before sunset Black Math get on stage, and I am a reduced to a gibbering Cape Town music blogger of the Gary Cool / “I can’t describe these guys but you really must make an effort to check them out” variety. It’s pure shouty rock psychedelia. It’s like being dipped in LSD and then slowly crushed by a stream roller. It’s fast and it’s tight and they’re so fucking casual about it – except their drummer who rages through the set like a raptor trying to outrace an asteroid. This drummer is anything but casual. A nose bleed erupts onstage, and with the aid of toilet paper and a shrug, they play through. When I last saw Black Math they were shit hot, but with the addition of this new drummer, they’re a proper threat. I can’t but wonder if they’d take The Make-Overs in a street fight.
It’s dark now, and I’m blasted out by the final night; I’ve pushed my synapses too far but I’m not giving up. Wandering back from Keyser, I find Duncan, who is a bit of an embryonic Cape Town film industry Afrika Burn type. Duncs expresses amazement at the scene around us, “Never before,” he says, “have I seen so many punks in the same place”. I peel off from Duncs after relieving him of things that he might not be able to handle later (can’t take any chances) and soon I’m lying on the ground with Purity, and Russell from Durban Is Yours. We’re straight chillaxing, the Fruits are up in an hour or so, and it’s time to gather our energies. Out of the ebb and flow of the staggering masses appears Dubstep Girl. She sees me and drops to her knees. She introduces herself and asks me if I’m going to dance more with her tonight. She takes a glow bangle off her wrist and tells me if I need to find her, I must raise my arm and she will see the bangle. She emphasises that hers is blue and mine is pink. She bites on her lower lip and makes the tight-elbow-fist-in-front-of-face salute known to dupsteppers the world over. Then she stands up, nods and, in apropos of nothing, delivers a drop, a drop so fierce that I fear for my life, that I welcome my impending death as her short shorts clutch her thighs, her swimmer’s shoulders shimmer in slow motion and sweat materialises on her forehead with menace,.
Fruits & Veggies are a band plagued by all sorts of misfortunes, mostly of their own making. Tonight’s misfortune is that their drummer is not only completely schizophrenic, and totally aware of it in his lucid moments, but also not very good at being a drummer. Add the fact that he’s been wandering around a festival for three days, so I’m just here to see how quickly shit gets real. The Veg are up there being punks, being all ska and shit, in that delightful way they do, heckling the audience and just being all filthy and delightfully loose, and somehow remarkably perfect, a concise embodiment of what Smoking Dragon is, free, beautiful, wilfully naïve, glorious in its reachings but not without its problems. We lose the drummer about four songs in, not suddenly, but rather a slow slipping out of time. Loopy plays her bass at him, pulls him back in, but there is fear in his eyes. He stares out into the audience, in shock at where he has landed. Through song after song the band hold him in, each member taking turns to soothe him through, to look at him, to face him in the eyes, blocking him from his demons and get him fucking through this. It’s a lovely thing to watch – he starts the song with the wrong beat, Pure cracks a joke about something unrelated while James talks him down. He may be batshit as fuck, but he’s their drummer and they’re gonna get him through this. The performance is mad and unhinged and painful and joyful; a tightrope walk of not giving a fuck while giving so many actual fucks, and the audience hardly notices at all, instead skanking along like they were just at any old festival having the best time of their lives.
Cortina Whiplash step into the gap that Fruits & Veggies have left, and they fill it with rock ’n’ roll sex ’n’ vagina demystification. Whiplash are a curious band, all outward energy and fuck you, fuck me, let’s fuck aggression, while their guitarist, Tessa, gets so into her shit that she practically disappears on stage. Loandi, the singer, expands into the audience, willing them closer and laughing in their faces. Cortina always deliver raw chaos, but tonight I’m spent and I can only sit on the sidelines and watch Loandi flash her panties and the boys in the crowd look perplexed – into it, but perplexed. As their set draws to a close, Cortina bring out two guest performers, Nozi and Portia, the rhythm section from Thandiswa Mazwai’s band (of which Tessa is the guitarist), and the change is incredible. Auriel comes out from behind the drums and takes the mic, the dynamic shifts and a whole different band emerges, the audience drawing closer, getting deeper. It’s when they break into Weekend Special that I’m done – their rendition is not perfect, but I’m crying in the confluence of all these worlds. The crowd calls for an encore and the MC tries to refuse them, being a total dick and saying that “we have to stick to the schedule, we have to respect the other bands”. But he’s disrespecting this band and the audience that pays his bills to try to shave off a lousy three minutes at a festival and taking three minutes to do it. It’s the middle of nowhere and they sure as shit don’t have to close down at any predetermined time, and who really gives a fuck what time the New Year is rung in anyway. Cortina don’t and they play on, Loandi whipping out a bottle of sparkling wine and showering the audience, the band, herself, the equipment, the lights, and drawing more ire from the shitty MC.
Meaty One grabs me and takes me down to the braai areas. It’s an hour before midnight and the tent camps are emptying towards the main stage. The fires are deserted bar a few stragglers, and here sits Keyser Söze on one of the big concrete tables, chopping lines near the microwave. I join him and we talk about stuff, and I nearly make out with Meaty. Somewhere in the distance I can hear Bittereinder starting up, which must mean it’s near midnight, and I wander over to the dying coals to get a look at the stage. I have a theory that whatever you are doing at the stoke of midnight on New Year’s Eve is a strong indication of how you will spend your year and I’m thinking should I go to the stage. “No dude, it’s my fire extinguisher, I found it!” Meaty is behind me battling with a stocky dude in a gold shirt and low-level bling. “I’m the son of the king,” shouts the son of the king. “This is his valley and therefore that is my fire extinguisher!” Meaty, as you should know by his name, is chubby, but that solid chubby you don’t fuck with and he has a look that says he will not back down. The son of the king has a similar stance and his friends crowd around him. “I am the son of the king!” he bellows. “Nah man,” say his mates, “it’s only a fire extinguisher.” Meaty tries to sneak off. “Give me my fire extinguisher!” shouts the son of the king. “Fuck you!” says Meaty, “I want to set it off at midnight.”. The son of the king rages, “THAT’S WHAT I WANT TO DO!” Meaty shrugs, clutching the thing. “I will get my fucking gun from my car and I will shoot you, white boy!” shouts the son of the king. Then I hear it, the 10, the 9, and I’m not welcoming in my New Year watching someone being shot over a fire extinguisher. I jump the wall and reach the fire where all my people are chilling and we’re all good and then it’s 2014 and we head off into the night, away from the stage, where Rise will soon begin playing their shitty shitty 90s pop house dressed up as lamb in a leopard-print skirt.
Some time later I hear DJ Satori starting up, and I know she plays heavily dub-influenced dupsteppybreakbeaty sets. My glowing wristband is pulsing, reminding me that Dubstep Girl is out there and I must find her. So I make my way down to the stage from the VIP section and see the shitty MC is tuning Satori. Apparently they are cutting her set short because they want a chance to DJ. What shitty shitty self-involved assholes. I raise my hand in the air, my wristband a dubstep signal, pulsing in the light, but Dubstep Girl is nowhere to be found, so I head back to the VIP section, in the attic of the main building. Hanging from the rafters are various people in various states of fucked – someone is on a couch using the Christmas tree as a blanket – and I find my place in the cushions and the madness and I fall asleep.
I am woken by someone sucking on my toe, my shit crusted toe. Loopy is half naked passed out in the toilets and Tessa-Mae is trying to put her friend’s pants back on. Meaty is asleep in the Coca-Cola fridge. A lone pool noodle floats on the surface of the murky pool. I consider drowning myself, done with this dirty, stupid, low-paid, low-reward shit stain of a business of writing about music, done with the brutal mornings, done with the shitty bands and the crappy MCs and the endless search for adjectives.
Graaff walks past and offers me a ride to Joburg. There is nothing else to do but accept and go back to my tent to pack up. One of the hippies is sleeping, the other absent. Trying not to wake her I get undressed. Pants-less, I hear her stir. I turn, she is looking at me. She sits up and greets me in broken English with some kind of perhaps Scandinavian accent. Caught in the headlights, my dick swinging in the wind, only one thought comes to mind – what would Dubstep Girl do? I bite my lower lip, make the tight-elbow-fist-in-front-of-face salute known to dupsteppers the world over, nod, and deliver the drop.