Music on the Move: The City-Based Festival ‘Zakifo’ Stirs It Up in Durban Once Again

[ALL PHOTO CREDITS] Marcello Maffeis & Caroline Burne
(courtesy of Zakifo Music Festival)
[WORDS BY] Jannike Bergh

“When they say ‘world music’, what they mean is ‘third world music’, but it is our music.”  

So proclaimed the Belgian/Congolese hip-hop artist BALOJI as he set the Zakifo Music Festival ablaze last Friday. The night soon came to a close after his set, and his statement was an apt reflection of what the festival set out to do: bringing musicians and festival-goers together in a sonic and cultural celebration of our own worth and agency.

From Soweto to Kinshasa, Niger to Tanzania, Chicago to Kingston, the Zakifo Music Festival brought together some of the world’s most suave and innovative (yet in some cases, unforgivably unheard-of) acts to Durban’s Blue Lagoon Promenade this past weekend (26 – 28 May 2017).


The three-day event kicked off on Friday, where mbaqanga-funkster Thandiswa Mazwai‘s electric performance set the tone for the weekend: the mood was fierce, proud and unapologetic, but within the most positive space imaginable. It shows music’s power to make merry while tackling socio-political issues head-on. When Thandiswa proclaimed, “There’s a war that’s being raged on women’s bodies,” there was also a sense of jubilation – of course not because of the subject matter, but precisely because of the tangible connection and solidarity felt at that moment: we are here and we are together. Thandiswa’s set was a celebration of female strength, a running theme throughout the weekend.


Bombino (Niger) entranced his audience with his signature electric Tuareg blues. He is no doubt a unique voice within this genre: for example, he has a drummer instead of the usual percussionists, making the outfit more modern. He is also less traditional in the sense that he fuses reggae and Niger blues. His higher-pitched guitar tone and frenzied playing award him his own ‘voice’; he truly doesn’t really sound like anything else out there that is in the same vein. The performance is energetic and determined, a characteristic running through all the acts on the line-up.

Baloji (from Belgium/DRC) commanded everyone’s attention with his confident blend of modern hip hop and traditional Congolese sounds. He, too, as an observer, had a few things to say about the state of South Africa’s politics, calling Zuma “a gangster” and listing South Africa in a resistance song about countries affected by African dictators. Baloji was well psyched up, kicking and punching the air, jumping, spewing rhymes in French and English. A smooth talker, a sharp dancer and quite the charmer, it is his performance in particular that my mind keeps going back to the most.

Saturday was marked by anticipation and surprise. Keen to catch Nova Twins again after seeing them in France at the Rencontres Trans Musicales (a pioneering music showcase festival with a similar spirit as that of Zakifo), I had promised my friends that they were in for something special. Nova Twins exploded onto stage in the early evening and their crowd of instant fans grew bigger with every song. They conquered Zakifo with their raging riffs, overdrive and attitude.

Buhle Mda (THE SOIL)

The Sowetan accapella trio The Soil echoed Nova Twins and Thandiswa Mazwai in the way the female lead musicians’ presence and voices resounded in cool and calm self-determination. The Soil played a powerful set and their frontwoman, Buhle Mda, accompanied by her two beatboxers/backing vocalists (Luphindo Ngxanga aka Master P and Ntsika Fana Ngxanga) introduced herself as “King and Queen”, after asking “[our] brothers to be our brothers’ keepers and stop killing women […] Love us, we give life.” The trio then got down to stirring it up while an infatuated crowd cheered them on. This moment took me back to a gig I’d seen earlier this year, when the fired-up afro-psych outfit BCUC (also from Soweto) told a French crowd: “There is no time to be soft about love — love hard.” Those who open themselves up and look around will see that South Africans create their own spaces of love and hope despite all the forces of adversity.

Tiggs da Author (Tanzania) is another artist that’s blasted onto the international music scene in recent years; with just enough jazz, just enough pop, he played a very soulful set and the slick, happy tunes have a nostalgic feel to it, which, by this time of the festival (more than halfway through) made one already so reluctant to see it all come to an end the next day.

On Sunday, the French-American hip-hop/funk outfit Sax Machine took Zakifo back to the future with their special brand of brassy afro-beat and hip-hop. Powered by saxophonist Guillaume Sené, trombone player Pierre Dandin and their loop pedals and machines, they transport their audience to the US East Coast in the early 80s — alongside, of course, their MC/rapper, a Chicago kid who goes by the name Racecar. Putting a more forward-looking spin on hip-hop with their smart, upbeat rhymes, Sax Machine also ushered the surge of “radical positivitism”, which underscored Zakifo, to come full-circle.


The crowd went mad for it. The atmosphere was on fire, so it was very timely then to unwind for an hour during Petite Noir‘s psychedelic post-rock set. Their modern, dreamy soundscapes turned the transience of a Sunday night into a timeless moment…If you let the music do the thinking the night could have lasted forever. It is for this reason that there was no real rush to get to the weekend’s headlining act, who would arrive soon enough. There simply was no hurry. Elation and contentment carried festival-goers from one musical experience to another, everyone effortlessly flowing between the bars and the stages. The festival seems to be organised in such a way that the magic just unfolds in front of you. Its limited size no doubt makes for its quality: it is cozy, smooth-sailing from beginning to end. Everything is easy. Everyone is friendly. And the music is to write home about …or spam your Facebook newsfeed. What’s not to like?

And so we reach the last hour of Zakifo, with the youngest of Bob Marley’s offspring, Damian Gong Jr Marley, ending the festival on a particularly high note. I had my reservations about the “son of” a legend taking up the headlining spot, but Marley Jr and his band spilled onto the stage in an explosion of familiar green, yellow and red, fire and flags, rhythm and groove. Marley Jr is most definitely his own artist, and I enjoyed hearing him mix up more rootsy Jamaican dancehall-reggae with hip-hop elements, playing mostly his own material, including the well-known “Road to Zion”, with a surprise reference from to time – you would hear an “Exodus” here, some “No More Trouble” there. The energy was contagious and the band were tight and well-versed in the art of creating a vibe and sounding damn fine. It was the perfect way to send off a perfect festival. When Damian Marley ventured into his father’s repertoire for an encore or three — “Africa Unite”  / “Is This Love” / “Get Up, Stand Up” – Zakifo’s end drew closer and I could barely believe what I had had the privilege to experience for three days in a row.

What is Zakifo’s force? Maybe it is the dawning of an Africa that chooses to define itself for itself. While the world is forced apart by powers-that-be, there will forever be movements that resist and people who naturally drift towards one another. Zakifo is not a world music festival. It is a modern music festival that looks to the future and rewards both the artists and the audience in their multitude of backgrounds, origins, songs, sounds and stories and their willingness to share in it all. And perhaps the ‘privileged hub’ of this defiant cultural phenomenon is right here in South Africa. Hey, perhaps it is Durban itself – the friendliest city I have yet encountered this side of the equator.

♥ P.S. Luckily, this is not an isolated event. Check out Sakifo, Zakifo’s sister festival, to be held in Reunion Islands next weekend (2 – 4 June 2017) // END 


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