‘A week later, and Carnival City is a riot. It makes GrandWest look really classy’ Take 11 South African acts. Add a Nineties-nostalgia frontman and a full-on symphony orchestra. Mix ’em all up and present to the pop/metal massif at a casino near you. Sound cheesy and a recipe for a right mess? Maybe – but before
‘A week later, and Carnival City is a riot. It makes GrandWest look really classy’
Take 11 South African acts. Add a Nineties-nostalgia frontman and a full-on symphony orchestra. Mix ’em all up and present to the pop/metal massif at a casino near you. Sound cheesy and a recipe for a right mess? Maybe – but before you run for the hills, read on…
Rock/pop/classical crossovers have a seriously checkered record, with more gooey blotches than shiny spots. Think Hooked on Classics or those Gregorian monks chanting Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”.
So, anything that brings together this year’s SAMA darlings and a 65-piece symphony orchestra is a potential train-smash waiting to happen. Hell, make that anything with “Contemporary Meets Classical” as a tagline. Not a great start.
Yet, that’s how the third annual Heineken Symphonic Rocks – one show at Cape Town’s GrandWest Arena and another, a week later, at Brakpan’s Carnival City – punts itself.
The line-up is less “adult contemporary” (whatever that label means – just ask Arno Carstens!) than previous years. There’s Fokofpolisiekar, aKING and Van Coke Kartel – member-swapping variations on the Vanfokkingtasties theme, yes, but all scissor-kickingly rock ‘n’roll.
There’s Xhosa pop-smash Zahara, nerd-hipster Toya Delazy and the slickly coquettish ChianoSky. There’s Tumi of the sharp tongue with some of his Volume, Freshlyground’s Zolani Mahola and “soulful house collective” Mi Casa.
And then there’s Ard Matthews, MacStanley and, for the first time, an international “pull factor” in the form of Ed Roland from Collective Soul.
“In the beginning, it was just something I wanted to do with my band and some of our friends,” says the event’s instigator and MacStanley frontman, Andy Mac. “But we quickly realised the concept could speak more broadly.”
Just how broadly does it speak, onstage? In Cape Town, a sold-out auditorium of 5 000-plus makes the right noises at the right times. But this is more a head-bopping than a head-banging sorta crowd.
Still, floor seating has given way to a standing golden circle, which feels distinctly less Last Night of the Proms than last year. Also, there’s a perceptible ripple when Jozi-based Toya Delazy starts to “Pump It On” in her tropical-print harem pants and Steve Urkel specs. “I didn’t think I was gonna jump,” she says backstage. “But then I did and [the crowd] were cool with it!”
Herein, an interesting thing: unlike at your average rock festival where fans hunt down their favourite bands and disappear for beer in-between, here the audience is exposed, just two or three tracks at a time, to artists they’d otherwise never hear. Often, they really like them. If they don’t, it doesn’t last long.
Also, arranger-conductor John Walton isn’t out to dilute anybody’s music. Artists sound as they usually do (helped by a rock-experienced house band), but fuller – in some cases, even more rock ‘n’roll. There are moments, as when the piccicato intro of a single violin on Freshlyground’s “Would You Mind” is followed by a rousing symphonic swell, that make good musical sense.
A week later, and Carnival City is a riot. It makes GrandWest look really classy. But here in bumblefuck, where the walls are all orange and purple glitter, the show is tighter, the sound is better, the crowd more liberal with their rock hands.
When aKING opens, a group of Afrikaans teens go ape-shit in the front row. It’s partly a function of commitment; who drives out to Brakpan for kicks on a Saturday night? But the same bunch – they belt out every word of Fokofpolisiekar’s “Hemel Op Die Platteland” – go crazy for Zahara (although, despite their best efforts, they can’t quite sing along). Later, I watch those who can do all the words to “Loliwe” bravely attempt some Portuguese in support of Mi Casa, whose house grooves go down much smoother in Gauteng than they did in the Cape.
“Diversity”, that dirty South African euphemism, should be banned. But there is a scope, in the music and the people who’ve come to see it, that’s both rare and really kinda cool.
In the technical run-through, I watch Zahara rocking out to MacStanley. She has no reason to fake it. Tumi says, “I’m out there, rapping about BEE, and John [the conductor, in his chinos] is right behind me – you know what I mean?!” And we do.
At the after-party, things get real. Artists who might sometimes cross paths briefly backstage have now spent days together in this lurid place, rehearsing and lying around the pool. Bonds have been forged; there’s stage adrenalin to burn. Andy Mac plays Father Christmas with tequila shots at the bar. Some girl nobody knows is determined to lose her clothes. Zahara, who hadn’t planned to stay the night, has quickly found a room…
At breakfast, amid the war stories, there’s already talk of “next year”. On the jam-packed flight home, a still-buzzing Zolani starts her campaign well within earshot: “Andy you’ll book me again, hey? I swear, I’ll drink Heineken all year!”