HIFA, they came, they sang, they rocked us – 2001

HIFA, they came, they sang they rocked us

The Harare international Festival of the Arts (HIFA) came and went in a flurry of song, dance and artistic verve. Helen Patchett was fortunate enough to experience the stunning spectacle and reports on why it was one of the best things ever to have happened to the creative arts in Zimbabwe.

Never before in such a short period of time have I seen so much, talent oozing from one city. I found myself laughing and crying, (sometimes at the same time!) singing and dancing and constantly surrounded by people of different countries, religions, ages and ethnic backgrounds.

But HIFA wasn’t about peoples’ differences: it was about their similarities and their love of art and culture. As Glenn Stutchbury, the general manager of Meikles said at the opening of the fabulous Meikles Opera: “HIFA is about talented people from all over the world giving us a bit of magic for six wonderful days. ” He wasn’t wrong either, for those lucky enough to be in Harare forgot their worries and joined together to witness some of the art and entertainment world’s most promising newcomers, as well as some of its tried and tested oldies.

Not that I’m calling the white-suited, pepper-haired Cool Crooners old, you understand. They are merely gentlemen of advancing years, although you wouldn’t believe it the way they were gyrating around the stage. The ‘marginally younger Mbari Trio, consisting of William Kashiri and the Mbirimi brothers were less energetic but equally outstanding. The two groups of male singers were taking part in the exceptional locally-produced African Township jazz concert at the 7 Arts Theatre in Avondale. Ava Rogers sang, Paul Lunga blew his trumpet and Tanga Wekwa Sando’s wriggling legs and trombone accompanied the excellent Summer Breeze band. They received a standing ovation from the nearly full house.

Such was the quality of the performers throughout HIFA that nearly all the acts I saw received standing ovations. The only place where this didn’t happen was the Cottco Theatre in the Park and that’s only because, being a rondavel, the roof was too low. With nine different venues for live performances, The National Gallery, arts and crafts stalls, a children’s entertainment area, assorted food outlets and the Coca-Cola Green’s free shows, the biggest problem was having to decide what to see and what to miss out.

HIFA’s theme this year was “HIFA takes you higher” and boy did it do just that! I walked out of concerts grinning from ear to ear, vowing to take up a musical instrument and pledging to re-kindle the contemporary dance days of my youth. With 1 500 performers from 35 countries, this year’s festival was one of the most multicultural to date. Festival director, Manuel Bagorro, truly excelled in putting together the stunning line-up, with talent representing just about every corner of the globe. The 59 local shows, 22 international events and 12 collaborative projects attracted over 50 000 ticket holders during the six day festival. HIFA employed 2000 people in total for the week and all those I met were amazingly patient, efficient and helpful – a real asset to the Festival and Zimbabwe as a whole.

My first 2001 HIFA experience took me to the Dutch Reformed Church on Sarnora Machel Avenue where Rodolfo Cavero, the softly-spoken tenor from Peru enchanted the audience with his beautiful voice. Immaculately dressed in black with a red waistcoat, his voice filled the church with a mixture of melodies, including classic opera and traditional South American love songs.

Such was the diversity of the programme that within one hour of being lulled into operatic ecstasy at the church, I found myself at the 7 Arts in Avondale listening to the world renowned Oliver Mtukudzi. His striking and versatile music was chosen by renowned Zimbabwean contemporary dance company, Tambuka – among others – as an accompaniment to its dance routines. The performance was called Hoche- Koche which means interlocking or joining. The name aptly described their dance, which incorporated the amazing musical skills of South African saxophonist, Steve Dyer, and the paintings of Ann Gollifer. “How do you incorporate dance and painting?” I hear you cynics ask. Well with some excellent choreography by Tumbuku dancer, Mathias Julius, and a selection of aluminium door frames, of course. Bizarre it may sound but the result was spectacular.

Also on the opening day I found myself watching an outstanding display of dance and music courtesy of the Boterekwa Dance Company. The group was performing in the traditional quarter and I found myself returning here time and time again throughout the festival to witness some brilliant displays of culture and celebration. Boterekwa was started 22 years ago with the aim of educating and artistically stimulating children. The group’s programme, entitled Hurricane Storm, attracted a vast variety and number of people. With no seating space left, people sat on the ground and even stood. A group of local guys next to me laughed at the stories the dance routines recounted. Overseas visitors, who didn‘t perhaps understand the dance‘s content, were happy enough to look on and be mesmerised.

Then in the evening there was the opening ceremony. Along with an amazing 4500 other people we watched as the music of Duke Ellington came to life. The grass in front of the Main Stage was covered in blankets, chairs, picnic baskets and people whose smiles and enthusiasm meant only one thing: they were here for the show, and what a show it was. Henry Olonga narrated the evening and sang (yes, he holds a note as deftly as he holds a cricket bat!) beautifully along with Zimbabwean jazz star, Miriam Manipira and Donita Volkwijn from the San Francisco Opera. The l00 strong festival chorus and 16 piece festival jazz band accompanied the singers. There was an outstanding display of tap dancing by the internationally-acclaimed Baakari Wilder, while the grace of the Duke Ellington era was brought to life by the Zimbabwe National Dance Sport team as they floated around the stage. The concert closed with a breathtaking fireworks display that filled the Harare sky with colour and sound. This left the audience in a dilemma: should they turn their heads to the sky to watch the pyrotechnic extravaganza or keep focusing on the amazing performance taking place on the stage below?

Could anything match up to the brilliance of the opening day? Amazingly, the answer was yes! In between the scheduled shows there was always something to see. The National Gallery was home to the Compaq-sponsored ‘Filling the Gap’ furniture exhibition. It also hosted free international films showing all day and free jazz during the weekend afternoons with Ava Rogers and Detema. Exhibitions included: The Barber Shop, a fascinating collection of some of the more bizarre West African barbershop posters; Home/Manzel, displaying traditional Iranian arts and crafts; and ancient Japanese art from the 17th century. Behind the gallery there was a chance to try your hand at traditional African crafts such as basket weaving, sadza printing and soap making.

The Coca-Cola Green hosted a variety of local and international performers and was the place to go for a bite to eat, face painting, pony rides and information. It was here that Channel O from South Africa held its lively party on the Saturday night. Meanwhile the Anglo American sponsored workshop programme moved around the HIFA venues offering dance workshops by Tumbuka members as well as workshops in theatre, arts and crafts and music, including lessons in mbira playing.

The Main Stage was situated directly behind the Monomotapa Hotel and hosted the well publicised Meikles Opera. Over 4000 people turned up to witness opera singers from as far afield as north and South America and Europe. Zimbabwean born Kim Brown and Craig Downes completed the sextet. Instead of an orchestra, the phenomenal New Zealand pianist Steven De Pledge accompanied the singers. The mixture of tenor and soprano had the audience spellbound for the hour and a half that they graced the stage.

Main Stage was also home to the dynamic English soul singer, Juliet Roberts, who had the audience standing and singing along to ‘I want to be your baby‘. Her cheeky innuendos and effervescent personality kept the crowd enthralled throughout – oh, and she could sing too! Together with the awesome British, saxophonist, Denys Baptiste, they played pieces off their forthcoming album as well as some old classics by the likes of Harry Bellafonte. Other performers that graced HIFA’s biggest venue included Cape Verde’s Sara Tavares, Senegalese band The Groits of Dakar performing with Austria’s Sigi F inkel, and a man who needs no introduction – our very own Tuku.

The musical skill of the French jazz trio, Romano Sclavis Texier, was almost unparalleled. Modern jazz may not be everyone’s cup of tea but they played their instruments as if they were an extension of their bodies. A friend of mine visiting from England said, “Modern jazz is like listening to abstract art. It doesn’t always make sense but it’s undeniably fantastic”. Like many overseas visitors that I took with me to the shows or spoke to afterwards, she was amazed by the talent of the performers, the organisation of the festival and the friendliness of all the people that she met. She is among many that vowed to return to see a bit more of our great country.

The list of outstanding performances goes on. ‘Essence of Women’, Zimbabwe’s only all-women contemporary dance company performed with the National Ballet Dance Foundation Course students. The new talent coming through the ranks of the course was outstanding. Henry Olonga’s first recital was breathtaking and he had half the audience in tears with his song ‘Our Zimbabwe’. ‘Born African’ was a brutally honest three-man theatre production focusing around life in Zimbabwe. Sometimes reinforcing stereotypes, sometime destroying them, the performers – who played many characters — had the local audience laughing and in some instances crying.

The outreach programme bought 3000 under-privileged children to the event so that they could experience the wonder of HIFA. As Manuel Bagorro said in an interview with a local journalist: “These kids are our future audience, and audience building and education should be, I feel, a major part of the mandate of everyone working in the industry.”

The festival was intense and, from every aspect, exceptional. As is the case with art and creativity, the understanding of the performance lies with the observer. Some of the acts questioned our beliefs and left us wondering if we had missed something. But there was no denying that the talent and charisma of the HIFA performers was phenomenal.

If you missed this year’s festival, I have only one thing to say to you: start planning those picnic baskets and airing those blankets now in preparation for next year’s event. You won’t regret it!

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