By Craig Barrowman
Having grown up in the Eastern Cape, I have many nostalgic memories of the National Arts Festival.
After a long absence, I returned in 2014 and 2016 with an open mind, trying not to have high
expectations, but was blown away both times with the quality of shows and the general experience.
Having planned to go again in 2020, but watched a few online shows instead, for reasons I don’t
need to explain, I’d been hoping to go as soon as I could to a post-pandemic “in person” festival, and
was delighted that I could this year – together with 5 other family members and friends who rented
a house together and spent 5 days and 4 nights in Makhanda / Grahamstown.
We booked some shows in advance, with different combinations of the group signing up for each
show, but left ample time to fill the gaps with last minute bookings but also spontaneous
explorations of markets, galleries, and whatever took our fancy. Although the total number of shows
was down on previous years, browsing the online programme, with its many hundreds of shows, to
make our choices, felt just as overwhelming as any other previous time! Possibly what added to that
feeling was the lack of big names, or at least familiar names long associated with the festival, to
steer us, compared to previous years, which made choosing feel a bit more experimental. But this
added to the sense of adventure, and once again we were not disappointed.
There is so much great jazz at the festival that this genre alone warrants its own event within an
event – the Jazz Festival. Between us we watched four different jazz shows: Mbuso Khoza, award-
winning vocalist and songwriter from KZN, who has taken the world music circuit by storm,
performed his unique mix of traditional Zulu music and jazz. Shows by the Bokani Dyer Trio and Kyle
Shepherd Quartet brought out the genius of these great musicians, each accompanied by an
ensemble of other talented performers. South Africa born and raised Tutu Puoane, now based in
Belgium, came home to give a magnificent show in her trademark style incorporating a mix of
African, European, and American traditions.
The show Piano Classics was performed by pianists Francois Botha and Yohan Chun, each a brilliant
artiste and together a delightful married couple! It was a fun concert filled with familiar tunes by
great composers, with an interesting introduction to each piece and composer, innovative
arrangements, quite a few duets, and great showmanship.
Being an educational and cultural centre, Makhanda is jam packed with dozens of performance
venues at schools, churches, the Rhodes University and the 1820 Settler’s National Monument
overlooking the city from up the hill. This imposing structure, with an array of performance venues
large and small, was built to honour the contribution of the 1820 British settlers, and the English
language, to South Africa, by providing a platform for all artistes from all backgrounds, and
promoting the arts in general, and the National Arts Festival maxes out its potential to deliver on this
We watched four different shows in the beautiful Guy Butler Auditorium down in the belly of the
building, which attracts some of the most polished productions and largest audiences.
Urban Circus was a nail biting, breathtaking romp by a talented troupe of Johannesburg’s hottest
circus artistes taking us on a delicate, dextrous dance through the intoxicating frenzy of urban life.
The creativity of the scenes portraying everyday situations through acrobatics was sheer genius. It
was produced by a collaboration between the Jozi circus company The Cirk, and well-known physical
theatre practitioner and Cirque du Soleil alumnus, Daniel Buckland, son of Andrew Buckland whose
physical theatre pieces I had seen at so many festivals in days gone by.
Popular band Goodluck, fronted by hyper energetic singer Jules Harding, had us all rocking in the
rows between our seats. I do love a band combining electronic vibes with vocals and some real
instruments, especially saxophone!
Vocalist Amanda Black had the auditorium packed to capacity, with her fans loving her velvet voice
and singing along to some of her popular songs.
Our final show of the festival, on its final day, was the Homeland concert by the Eastern Cape
Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Richard Cock, paying tribute to South African musical history,
songs and song-writers, and celebrating our diversity in a wonderfully festive, feel-good show.
Vocalists Gloria Bosman, Timothy Moloi and Monde Msutwana, each a star in their own right,
accompanied the orchestra. Songs by Vusi Mahlasela, Alan Silinga, Johnny Clegg, Miriam Makeba,
Brenda Fassie and Mafikizolo, were given a new life by the orchestra. Songs included Ntjilo, Ntjilo,
Vulindlela, Ndihamba Nawe, Silang Mabele, Pata Pata, Paradise Road and Weeping. By the end of
the show we were once again all standing and joining in.
For comic relief I watched Khanyiso Kenqa’s show iStepfather. This talented funny guy’s day job is a
tourist guide in Cape Town, and being one myself, I know him and have been following him for a few
years. Thanks to load shedding and very minimal lighting, he never spotted even my pale face in the
audience, but it was great fun to go up and surprise him after the show and then hang out with him
Oh my, so much more! Like guitarist Guy Buttery with Indian friends Mohd. Amjad Khan (tabla) and
Mudassir Khan (sarangi). Contemporary dance spectacle Be Moved by Starlight Studios. Illusion,
mentalism and sideshow (insane human feats) by Li Lau. And the list goes
One of the old traditions of the festival is the informal “Sundowner Session” in the atrium of the
Monument daily at 5, when a variety of acts perform a sample to promote their show, and crowds
gather spontaneously on the steps around the stage, spilling out into the rest of the venue. All the
ones we attended were MC’d by comedian Chris Mapane.
We browsed the craft markets at the Village Green featuring an impressive variety of highly original
products, enjoyed a few excellent meals from the food vendors there, and wondered through the
streets popping into various galleries.
There were many shows and exhibitions exploring darker conversations. We mostly chose to seek
out material to uplift and inspire. But we did attend the artist’s walkabout of the “Marikana 10 years
on” exhibition – a sobering experience. It included a set of haunting photos of Marikana landscapes
and people by Mail & Guardian Photos editor Paul Botes and a set of art works produced by family
members of the Marikana deceased, who were present, as part of a process of catharsis. These
works, mainly body-mapping images, were made in workshops conducted by the Khulumani Support
Group. Judy Seidman of Khulumani shared her input on the process, as did Paul Botes and exhibition
producer Niren Tolsi. The lack of justice in the wake of the massacre was a common thread through
There were also some very interesting large-scale art installations at the Monument and the Rhodes
School of Art including “We Regret to Inform You” in which Wezile Harmans embodied various
emotional and bodily states related to the daily hustle, against the backdrop of South Africa’s
increasing unemployment rate.
It felt a great privilege to once again make the pilgrimage to the 11 day cultural extravaganza that is
the National Arts Festival. The setting, the vibe, the interactions with random strangers sharing tips and helping each other navigate their way through it, exploring and discovering places to eat and
drink (like the Pothole and Donkey), and re-discovering the old gems (like the Long Table), are all
beautiful parts of the experience. In terms of attendance AND performance, it was the event with by
far the most representative sample of South Africa’s demographics I’ve experienced in a long time –
something that so many popular events struggle with. It made me (once again) proud to be South
Even stage 6 load shedding, a few potholes, and a threat of the city running out of water (which didnt materialise) didn’t put a damper on the great experience.
Thank you, dankie, enkosi, Makhanda – I’ll be back!