Air on a shoestring

Zimbabwe is losing tourists. Its society is deeply divided. Can an arts festival really help?
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The Independent Culture
Rehearsing on the eve of Zimbabwe's first International Arts Festival, conductor Paul Colman had to contend with some unusual elements. As night fell over Harare Gardens, he was trying to launch into Carl Orff's cantata Carmina Burana with a clutch of local school and church choirs, a percussion section, a pair of Serbian pianists and an expensively dressed soprano from Johannesburg. Microphones picked up the murmur of bamboo clumps overhanging the open stage, along with the mutters of 300 people beginning to catch cold in the rapidly freshening breeze. Something that resembled a bright green hummingbird flickered in and out of the arc lights.

"Any questions?" asked Colman, after giving his final notes on the performance. "Yes, indeed", said a white woman at the edge of the assembled choirs. Very loudly, she sought to enquire who exactly would be assigned to guard her car on the big night. Grumpy veterans of the Rhodesia era hate to park in the city centre nowadays, for fear of theft. As Colman offered faint reassurance, ten black men - nearly naked and in drag - appeared and began to slither around on the apron stage behind the conductor's back. The Tumbuka dance company were preparing for their own show-stopping contribution, adding movement to Orff's massed music.

Who needs another shoestring arts festival? The city of Harare does, according to Manuel Bagorro, concert pianist turned festival director. Zimbabwe's capital is losing its main tourist franchise (distant Victoria Falls) to a resurgent South Africa, and after 19 years of independence, its society is still largely split along the old black and white lines. Young people prefer to meet in suburban malls, and the old city centre goes to sleep very early nowadays.

With the hope that a successful festival might give the city and its people a renewed and more confident sense of themselves, Bagorro and his colleagues have spent three years doing the rounds of fund-raising, planning, pleading and persuading.

Over five frantic days last week, they saw their hopes fulfilled. From the crashing inaugural chords of the mix 'n' match Carmina Burana to the conclusive and swirling hymns of the London Gospel Community Choir, the tempo never slowed. The makeshift festival grounds swarmed with visitors and artists, who strolled between the stages, craft booths and food stalls in an atmosphere that most resembled a school fete as imagined by Evelyn Waugh, but with all the characters muddled up.

The Minister of Culture was introduced to the podium by a beatific Rastafarian, and spoke to other invited VIPs as they sat on hay bales. At the Four Divas concert in mid-week, a temperamental coloratura mezzo from Belgrade refused to wear the extravagant costume designed locally for her; but her three rivals stepped gamely into the limelight in chain-mail bodices and feathered head-dresses, and were cheered to the echo.

Most crucial to the infant festival's self-confidence was the high quality of the home-grown contributions. A particular source of local pride was the electrifying music of live acts like Andy Brown's Storm, and Oliver Mtukudzi and Mahube, with their insistent refrain of "Rise up, Africa".

On the stage, both Harare's Tumbuka Dance Company and Transkei's Third World Bunfight both demonstrated their international class. Brett Bailey, director of Bunfight's landmark Ipi Zombie? - the hit play of the festival - lamented that audiences north of the Equator may never see his show. He cannot afford to tour abroad with even a dozen actors - and, anyway, he prefers his original production, which had 60 performers.

"Struggle Art", in its many forms, dominated the festival. Politics is still the conversation of choice in a continent where the blatant injustice of apartheid has been superseded by the bitter subjects of land rights, debt, impoverishment and exclusion, foreign aid and the AIDS pandemic.

Typical of the genre was Tumbuka's violent and uncompromising And Rwanda, which featured constant machine-gunnings of tangled heaps of dancers by a churning, yowling bass guitar. Although the piece managed to prompt walk-outs by some conservatives of a recalcitrant turn of mind, the predominantly white audience approved it with clear enthusiasm.

Change comes from small beginnings and first meetings. This festival was full of such encounters. It may even be that minds were opened. I will treasure the sight of one elderly white chorister, who stood up to applaud her own conductor as Carmina Burana concluded with a burst of fireworks in the night sky. And then she sat down comfortably on her bench to share a thermos of hot tea with a fellow black chorister. I do hope that her car wasn't nicked.