HARARE, Zimbabwe — It’s an improbable sight. Thousands of Zimbabweans thronging an open-air stage to hear an international cast perform operatic arias, duets and ensembles. Music by Handel, Puccini, Verdi and Bizet is brought to life for an enthusiastic audience, many of whom are encountering classical music for the first time.
Nearby, Malian virtuoso guitarist Habib Koite combines blues, Cuban and flamenco styles with his traditional West African instruments to produce a unique performance.
Eclectic? Yes. Improbable in Zimbabwe's ongoing political and economic crisis? Yes. It is that vibrant cultural mix in the midst of crisis that characterizes the Harare International Festival of the Arts — HIFA — now in its 10th year.
Under clear starlit skies, musicians from West Africa, Italy, Germany, South Africa, Britain, the United States and Spain performed for a predominantly young crowd at a fraction of the cost their tickets would fetch in other parts of the world.
The week-long celebration of the arts, which concluded its 2009 run last week, is the brainchild of Zimbabwean pianist Manuel Bagorro who, though he eschews an explicit political identity, nevertheless speaks of the need “to engage our hearts and minds at a time when all Zimbabweans are looking for reason, clarity and resolution.”
Bagorro has successfully raised funds to mount an effervescent mix of African and international entertainment at modest prices. Amid the country’s seemingly endless political darkness, HIFA offers a ray of sunshine that is much appreciated.
Some 5,000 people a day streamed through the gates to attend the dozens of performances from brass bands to satirical plays.
Foreign embassies based in Harare are among the key donors. The French embassy, for instance, sponsored a band from Benin called Gangbe, which combined voodoo rhythms with a dash of Afro-beat to produce an explosive sound.
“Drunk on sound," is how the New York Times described the Benin band. "In the band’s dizzyingly gorgeous horn lines, rolling vamps carry sunny African chorales and polyrhythmic voodoo grooves host harmonies that slide in all directions at once. The music just plain sings.”
African Voice, Zimbabwe’s all-female a capella quintet, also in its 10th year, paid tribute to the music of Miriam Makeba, the South African legendary songstress who died this year.
Many Zimbabweans living in South Africa make the annual pilgrimage to HIFA with its carnival atmosphere.
“It’s the best thing in Zimbabwe,” said artist John Kotze, a regular HIFA visitor. “You get to see your friends as well as some great shows.” Kotze and his wife had seen some 20 different performances by the end of the festival.
A “green room” decorated with palm trees and strands of white lights under the cover of Moroccan-style tents kept party-goers fortified with food and drink. Arts and craft stalls showcased the work of local craftsmen.
But amid the festivities was a pervading awareness of the political trauma Zimbabwe has experienced since last year’s election and aftermath. A paroxysm of violence ensued as President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party fought successfully to stay in power.
This year's opening show, titled “Rite of Passage,” paid tribute to those killed in the largely state-sponsored political violence. Subtle messages were skillfully interwoven. But the audience immediately recognized the fat-cats and military officers who have done well under Mugabe’s iron-fisted rule. As the haunting recording of the music of Youssou N’Dour enveloped the amphitheater, huge screens carried a roll call of the dead.
Elsewhere the message was more light-hearted, especially off-stage. Members of a traditional Irish band missed their plane to South Africa after they experienced a surfeit of Zimbabwean hospitality.
On a more political note, the audience for the Lanzhou dance troupe booed when members put on Tibetan headdress and proclaimed: “Tibetan people very happy under Chinese rule.” It was the only performance attended by a prominent member of Zimbabwe’s Stalinist politburo. Mostly HIFA is seen as a liberated zone in the heart of Harare, the nation’s capital.
A spectacular firework display brought the festival to an end. It was an exhilarating ride, almost surreal in Zimbabwe’s straitened circumstances. But as revelers streamed out of the Harare Gardens at the conclusion of the event, there was a sense of fulfillment and hope not seen in its decade-long existence.
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