A Head for Festivals

My wife went into Cultura, the big multi-media emporium on the western reaches of Brive, to buy a ticket for Saturday night at the Africajarc festival in normally sleepy Cajarc. She spelled it out for the benefit of the young woman at the desk, who smiled sweetly and didn’t listen to her. Oblivious, she tried a variety of combinations on the computer: Afrique-Cajarc, Afrikajarque and so on… until eventually she typed in Africajarc.

‘Et voilà! Africajarc.’
‘But that’s what I was trying to tell you…’
‘Yes, but white woman speak with forked tongue. She foreigner. We no trust foreigners. They no know their onions.’

Never mind, she got her ticket. And promptly regretted it, because I reminded her that the festivities go on till around three in the morning and she’s got a very full week next week. So I’m going with my friend Dan, a graphic designer, who re-designed my wife’s business cards. It’s a beautiful drive across the limestone causse, which terminates in a spectacular descent to the Lot valley via a series of hair-raising hairpin bends.

I go every year as a representative of Songlines magazine, which means that I get in with a press pass and – more to the point – I get to wear the pass around my neck. I am thus able to kid myself that I’m someone half-important who has succeeded in his chosen profession. The illusion doesn’t seem to fool anyone else and I have yet to be collared by some enthusiastic youth who says, ‘I say, you’re a journalist! What an exciting life you must lead. Do tell me about it.’

During recent years of self-deception, I’ve seen some iconic (the word of the decade, it would seem – right up there with ‘awesome’ and ‘massive’) figures of Franco-African music at the Africajarc festival: from Manu Dibango, the bald-headed alto-saxophonist from Cameroon, whose ‘Soul Makossa’ was once a massive (there we go again) worldwide dance-floor hit, to Alpha Blondy, the Afro-reggae star from Guinea.

In fact, it was while waiting – still standing after midnight – among the closely packed hordes for Mr. Blondy to saunter onto stage that I came to the worrying conclusion that I was getting too old for festivals. Still in my early teens when Woodstock happened, I was only dimly aware of its impact. I had to wait until I was a student before attending my first festival – at Reading – because my mother wouldn’t allow me to go and see Pink Floyd performing ‘Atom Heart Mother’ in Hyde Park one summer when the family was staying with friends in London. With hindsight, she was probably doing me a favour.

When you factor in the journey time there and back, the hanging around, the latent claustrophobia that comes from being part of a milling crowd, the sheer weariness of staying on your feet till the wee small hours, the idea of a festival is often more compelling than the reality. And, of course, you’re fit for nothing the next day. So I’d told myself that I was ready to hang up my festival passes. But then… the prospect of seeing Staff Benda Bilili and Femi Kuti on the same bill got me all fidgety again.

The extraordinary story of the Congolese group Staff Benda Bilili was told on a recent documentary that did the rounds in France. They hail from the streets of Kinshasa: a group of older men crippled by polio, who whiz around in customised tricycles, backed by younger musicians made up mainly of street kids like Roger Landu, whose invented instrument (made from an old fish tin, a piece of wood and a guitar string) gives the band its distinctive infectious sound.

Femi Kuti is one of two performing sons of a legendary (and surely iconic) father. Despite his dodgy dealings with women (he married his entire phalanx of backing vocalists at a stoke), Fela Kuti has long been a musical hero. For many years, and despite countless beatings and general harassment, he stood up to the brutal regime that was current in Nigeria, taunting the government with the lyrics of songs that meandered on for 20 and even 30 minutes at a stretch. His backing band generated enough power to turn unwary listeners into jelly. There’s a moment every time in ‘Water No Get Enemy’ when work stops, my life freezes and time stands still: the moment when the whole horn section bursts through the low-key hypnotic intro with the combined fury of a squadron of B52s releasing their bombs en masse.

Over a million people lined the road out of Lagos for Fela’s funeral. It was comparable to the turnouts for Winston Churchill, J.F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Princess Di. Only Fela’s life, however, has been turned into a musical. Mind you, We Shall Fight Them or Winston’s War must surely be on the cards. I can just see the banner now: ‘Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Elvis Costello’. Maybe not.

Fela’s son Femi is not yet the subject of a West End show, but his smaller band still manages to create a ‘Positive Force’ (as he dubs it). He’s a crinkle-cut chip off the paternal block and I’m hoping for inspired things. But I’ll see how I feel at 3 a.m. when the clammy nocturnal river mist shivers my weary timbers. See whether I’ve still got a head for festivals.