It’s hot and happening at Swaziland’s Bushfire festival

15 May 2016 - 02:00 By Alexander Matthews

Bushfire has become the warmest, most diverse music festival south of the Zambezi. Alexander Matthews traced the smoke to its founder, Jiggs ThorneSitting in the shade of a giant tree, I see a classic Swazi scene spread out in front of me: plump blue mountains dwarf the lush sugar cane that bristles beyond a blaze of lawn. Except for a cluster of concrete lollipop-shaped sculptures and a stage on the left, there are few signs that every May this bucolic patch is home to one of the most vibrant music festivals on the planet."It's quite surreal when you have someone getting in touch with you from Japan, to think that they're going to come all the way to attend Bushfire," says Jiggs Thorne, the festival's founder and director.When it launched in 2007 4,500 people went - last year attendance was more than 25000. There are achingly cool Braamies hipsters, scientists from the Kruger Park with their families, sidvwashi-swaddled Swazis, Maputo-based expats and dreadlocked aid workers.story_article_left1Thorne believes few other festivals appeal to such a spectrum because "they tend to pander towards [a specific] audience"."I think Bushfire blows that pigeonhole wide open. There's a very conscious effort to try and cater for a broad cross-section of people. The programme is very eclectic. We try and steer away from the popular formula, and I think that in itself has a following. I think there are people out there who are looking for something slightly different."He admits, though, "there's always a bit of a balancing act - you've always got to bring in a few headliners that have a profile and are recognisable". This year's lineup includes AKA, Beatenberg, Mafikizolo, Kenyan sensations Sauti Sol, Zimbabwean legend Oliver Mtukudzi and Felix Laband.Together with five other festivals, Bushfire forms part of the Southern African Music Festival Circuit, which allows artists around the world to tour five countries instead of one.So far 80 acts from 25 countries have hit the circuit. Festivals share travel expenses for touring acts, while regional exchanges are another fillip: this June, Swazi artists are playing the Safiko festival in Reunion.Thorne might sound a tad ridiculous when he waxes on about how the Bushfire blazes with "a fire of light and warmth ... a positive energy that [brings] people together", but in fact he's right. We wanted to introduce the language of the arts to students who wouldn't otherwise know it existed The festival's vibe is deeply laidback. Nobody takes themselves too seriously and everyone is friendly (even the smartly attired Royal Swaziland Police patrolling the campsite).Bushfire's inclusive atmosphere is imbued with the political idealism of Thorne's late parents, Jenny and Peter Thorne, who moved to the country from Britain in the 1960s. Passionate about gender equality, Jenny founded Gone Rural, a thriving homeware business that empowers rural women weavers, while in the apartheid era, Peter maintained a safe house on the farm for ANC activists on the run.From Gone Rural and the Malandelas guest house and restaurant to All Out Africa (Thorne's brother Roland's travel company which runs volunteer outreach programmes), "all businesses here have a very strong social mandate that has been influenced by our parents' engagement with the community".story_article_right2Although Bushfire is "not a political platform", Thorne believes the festival should be "a space where we could pose questions" about the social issues affecting Africa's last absolute monarchy. "I sometimes think we're caught between a rock and a hard place because the manner in which you engage needs a certain respect and sensitivity. It's certainly not about pointing fingers, but it is about proactively engaging with the issues at hand."Half-a-million condoms have been distributed over the last few festivals, with free HIV testing and counselling also offered. Bushfire has donated more than R1-million to the Aids-orphan charity Young Heroes and it encourages festivalgoers to sponsor food and clothing for needy kids.Thorne believes the arts can be a powerful catalyst to inspire positive social change. At Bushfire's school festivals, arts facilitators from around the world conduct workshops and performances with kids and teachers, using creative expression to send powerful messages about sexual health and gender equality. "There's no formal arts curriculum in Swaziland and the idea was that we wanted to introduce the language of the arts to students who wouldn't otherwise know it existed," he says.• The 10th annual MTN Bushfire Festival takes place in Swaziland from May 27-29. For details and bookings visit bush-fire.com

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