By BRUCE DENNILL
Africa Day Concert / Newtown Park, Johannesburg
With so many options in the area – the Joburg and Market Theatres; Mary Fitzgerald Square; the Bassline; even the hulking shed that is the Sci Bono Centre – the choice of the nondescript square of grass that is Newtown Park as the venue for a major concert seemed an odd one. But when you arrived, and the impressive stage was lit up against the backdrop of the skyscrapers of the Johannesburg CBD, it all made sense.
The single entry lane into the space from Henry Xumalo Street wais a less successful choice, as it gave you no choice but to navigate a barefaced dagga dealer and a couple of inept pickpockets (they couldn’t take a ride – on a bus) on the way to your car on the way out.
But that was a worry for later in the evening. To start, those fortunate enough to have the appropriate lanyards could retire to the upstairs bar area at the Bassline where the amiable chef seemed to take each new arrival as a challenge, an empty vessel that needed stuffing with a bewildering array of hearty goodness.
Thus fortified, it was possible to find a spot with a good view – the crowd was not so large that you were forced into one corner of the park – to watch the first batch of artists, those whose sets would not be part of the telecast later that night. Opener Hagar and then Maleh, just before the break, were the best of that bunch who, although they came from a range of backgrounds played music of a similar tone and feel.
If one of the goals of the organisers was to celebrate that which all Africans share, they achieved that via the behaviour of most of the crowd, who shared much – second-hand marijuana smoke, plastic juice bottles full of red wine, camp chairs when the lady handing out said plastic juice bottles had sampled one too many of them and needed a place to sit down – while each enjoying the occasion in their own way.
The first standout act of the evening was Togolese funk band Vaudou Game, who blasted open the broadcast section of the concert with strutting, groove-laden arrangements led by wide-eyed frontman Peter Solo. Later, the South African trio of Zonke (R&B influenced Afro-pop, beautifully sung by a performer with all the impact of a Mary J Blige but much less of the superstar baggage), The Soil (precise three-part a capella harmonies and a noticeable rise in energy on and offstage as they progressed) and Nakhane Toure (a strange set, dynamically all over the place, but still a great showcase for his voice and unique songwriting) impressed before veteran Zimbabwean guitarist and songwriter Oliver Mtukudzi closed out the event.
Africa Day, marked by an event that included generosity, wonderful talent, confounded expectations, warmth, ambition and the threat of petty crime. Sounds about right.