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Friday, June 12, 2015


Questions around African identity and belonging are woven into this year's programme for the National Arts Festival, with continental representation from countries such as Botswana, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

This year's celebration of Africa Day takes on special significance in South Africa, where a recent upsurge in xenophobic violence has affected the country’s relationship with its neighbours and friends across the continent.

Africa Day, held annually on May 25, is a commemoration of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (later the African Union) in 1963, and is widely regarded as a reminder of the continent’s quest for unity and peace.

As South African struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada said at Nelson Mandela's funeral in Qunu in the Transkei, 'Xenophobia, racism and sexism must be fought with tenacity, wisdom and enlightenment. Anything that defines someone else as "the other" has to go. Tolerance and understanding must flourish and grow.'

It is these bridge-building questions of identity, belonging and what it means to be African that artists from around the continent will bring to the stage during this year’s National Arts Festival, which runs from July 2 to 12 in Grahamstown.

Issues of reconciliation and forgiveness are at the heart of the remarkable one-woman show, Miracle in Rwanda. Co-created and acted by Leslie Lewis Sword, it tells the story of Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculé Ilibagiza, a 22-year-old Tutsi who hid with seven other women in the bathroom of a local Hutu pastor's home.

Zimbabwean identity will be explored through dance, movement and space by Tumbuka, who will present Portrait of Myself as my Father, an interrogation into masculinity, performance and the Zimbabwean self. However, it is in music where Africans seem to most easily find common ground. Madagascar’s Eusèbe Jaojoby brings his country’s unique salegy sound to the Grahamstown stage. The singer – dubbed the King of Salegy – is known for his willingness to experiment, blending the Malagasy genre with soul, rock, funk and other Western musical styles.

Malawi will be represented by Masauko Chipembere, whom South Africans will recall as a member of the 1990’s acoustic duo BlkSonshine.

More traditional African music will be celebrated when Rhodes University’s International Library of African Music (ILAM) marks its 60th anniversary with Celebrating African Music. Expect fascinating music performed on a wide range of traditional and contemporary instruments, accompanied by spectacular dance by local groups. Prof Emeritus Andrew Tracey, ILAM’s retired director, will make a special appearance.

The Standard Bank Jazz programme expertly creates the space for some of Africa’s top musicians to collaborate with their South African counterparts. Playing with Dave Reynolds and Pops Mohamed are Sylvain Baloubeta (bass - Congo), Frank Paco (drums - Mozambique). Also in the line-up are Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi, Benin-native guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke, Botswanan-born Bokani Dyer and Nigerian guitarist Kunle Ayo.

As always with film, it’s just a small skip from there to murder and mayhem in a Nigerian jungle with Bleeding Rose. Director Chucks Mordi’s film about a group of botany students searching for a healing plant in an evil forest, offers South African audiences the chance to see the kind of film wildly popular in the West African country. It won Best Feature Film at the 2007 International Film Festival in Lagos.

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