Word N Sound is responsible for reinvigorating the Jo’burg poetry scene with their monthly Open Mic League which is slam poetry competition running through out the year with a King or Queen of the Mic being “crowned” at the end of each year. Their new live poetry offering is the Spoken Freedom Festival which is set to become an annual thing.
This year, the first Spoken Freedom Festival, is being held at the Market Theatre, Newtown.
According to the Market Theatre’s website the event starts at 19:30. I’m running late, but I manage to make it on time — 15 minutes late. I get a ticket, and drink then rush in.
The Barney Simon theatre is packed to the brim; whoever said poetry doesn’t sell is surely proven wrong today. The stage is set. The spotlight shines on the microphone where the poets tonight will be performing. This is the place where language and augmented body language, really matters. Books are scattered on the floor: Reverend Frank Chikane’s new offering here, Sue Nyathi’s The Polygamist there; poetry anthologies everywhere. I take a sip of my drink and prepare myself for what’s to come.
The first poet of the night is announced, but before she comes to the stage, Thabiso “Afurakan” Mohare, programme director and organiser, narrates an emotive story about this next poet, Napo Masheane. Napo is a poet, performer and a playwright. She used to work at Market theatre as an intern cleaning this very same theatre that she will be performing in today. The aim of performance poetry is the voice of the poet, and the language used to describe his or her feelings. It’s the combination of both that captures the attention of the audience throughout Napo’s performance. “I am an embodiment of my people… and I know it’s not a sin to be born black,” a line that gets the audience grumbling from a poem about Steve Biko and Black Consciousness.
The mood in the room is tense. She quickly decides to lighten it up with a piece she did not rehearse. The people are still digesting the history lesson that was just delivered to them in stanzas. The next poem is from her anthology, Fat Songs from my Girlfriend called “Honest prayer.” A wish list of the man she one day wants to meet. The performance achieves its objective – it lightens the mood. Her last performance for the night doesn’t only demand the attention of the audience but their participation as well.
“Do not shut your temple doors / whatever you seek seeks you / Do not shut your temple doors / whatever you want wants you / Do not shut your temple doors / whatever you need needs you… /There is enough space for all of us to shine.”
Napo Masheane’s performance is a beautiful collaboration of repetition and rhyme. I would not mind seeing this poet on stage again.
Next on the lineup is Matodzi Ramasha, better known as Makhafula Vilakazi. Forget Mzwakhe Mbuli, this is the true poet of the people, a voice of the downtrodden and marginalized. He comes on stage with two members of the band Impande Core: Ntsikelelo on guitar and Sphola on trumpet. The first piece is titled, “Three kids.” An HIV positive woman wallowing to her friend about how she intends on infecting all her suitors with the virus: “Ngifuna ukuba infecter uyangizwa choma…” I’m immediately reminded of Kgebetli Moele’s The Book of the Dead whose protagonist, Khutso, goes out of his way to infect any woman he meets and keep a diary of every conquest.
The next piece is a poem titled Makhafula Vilakazi. This energetic, mixture of tsotsitaal and English, fast paced performance is a vivid description of the conditions that gave birth to Makhafula Vilakazi, “a ruthless criminal.” It is an indictment of the current conditions in townships and the never-ending cycle that keeps producing the same outcome: poverty, crime and unemployment, regardless of how many, food parcels handed out every election year, or how many young black men are sent to prison. Like many young black men in the townships Makhafula Vilakazi’s life story was written and approved before he was born. Who are we to judge? “Let god judge the criminal.” Makhafula follows it up with another township/black community phenomenon that defies logic, witchcraft.
“Abathakathi ntanga, abathakathi” (witchcraft my friend, witchcraft), this piece focuses on a haunted man who believes he has been bewitched by his neighbour. Glen Dlamini, a drunken hobo who falls in love with Queen Elizabeth and decides to write a letter expressing how he feels, hoping the subject of his affections will read it with an open mind. Even this love poem is an idiom about the township. The cry of a man stripped of his dignity and pride. Glen Dlamini, a humorous but tragic poem. Makhafula’s last performance is an ode to the “women of this country’s squatter camps [who are] still waiting for freedom.” The exit performance is raw and real – even after the last verse it is hard for the trumpeter and guitarist to stop playing.
The last poet of the night is Conelius Jones a.k.a Sibusiso Simelane. His opening performance is enchanting and haunting at the same time. His words pierce through. Is it the background music or Jones command of the microphone, words, and stage? I don’t know. His performances move between love poems to poems about xenophobia and the miserable conditions of the townships. We hang on to every word throughout this emotional roller coaster of a performance.
His closes with a letter from a son to his father about the women the he (the son) fell in love with. This is a love poem like no other. I can’t take it no more. I’m excited and heavy hearted at the same time. Cornelius Jones is one of the poems to look out for.
All the poets that embraced the stage at the Market Theater for Word and sound: Spoken Freedom Festival on the first day did not only entertain, distress, and heal; they also managed tortured words till they gave meaning to this violent, diseased, homophobic, and racist world.
There are still three more days and eleven more poets to go check out. Friday there will be performances by Vuyelwa Maluleke, Natalia Molebatsi and Multe Mothibe. The weekend shows begin earlier. Saturday show starts at 14:30 featuring Andrew Manyika, Richard Quaz Roodt and Vangi Gantsho. The Final show will start at 15:00 and will be featuring Tereska Muishond, Masai Dabula, Mandi Poeffecient Vundla and Modise Sekgothe. This show is a must see.
The Spoken Word Freedom Festival is at the Market Theatre from the 3 July – 6 July.
tonight – Mutle Mothibe, Vuyelwa Maluleke and Natalia Molebatsi