And that's why we slogged halfway across the planet to be there. We're a diverse group of travellers. Scatterlings of Afrika Borwa. The mzansi diaspora. A balding, Jewish journo from Jozi; two Afrikaans comedians (TMAS); two Xhosas, one Sotho and one Zulu who make up Yeoville's finest reggae outfit (Tidal Waves); The Waldorf orchestra selection of musos who make up Freshlyground. Five Afrikaans boys with face mullets who like to play it hard (The Narrow), some 5fm DJs and miscellaneous, bearded band management roadie types.
'I'm not Hasselt.' Said Louw Venter of The Most Amazing Show, looking around the town. We all laughed. Tired and excited. Smelling new smells, seeing new things. Eating pomme-frites with mayonnaise and washing it down with great Belgian beer. Warm and fuzzy in Belgium's summer. Muggy, sticky, overcast, threatening rain the whole time. The big small town of Hasselt is abuzz with the festival. MTV electricity crackling in the distance. The boom-boom of the soundcheck carrying back to the town from the festival site. A-list celebs in every hotel, sparkling on the horizon, in the atmosphere like a big neon sign. Live music and rock stars in this forgotten industrial corner of Belgium. The glorious two fingered rock 'n roll salute! South Africa's finest have arrived.
Pukkelpop is Belgium's biggest music festival. It attracts over 120 000 pomme-frite eating, Belgian beer drinking, permissive, horny, dope smoking youths from central Europe to its eight stages, over three days. Pukkelpop, literally means the 'pimple pop' festival, and is the heart and soul of Belgian youth culture. Pukkelpop has been affiliated with South Africa's premier live music festival, Oppikoppi, for a few years now. Every year the wealthy custodians of Belgium's groove invite a selection of South African bands to play at their festival. It's a great opportunity for SA bands and musos to hang with the big names backstage, network like crazy and play before a massive European audience.
By South African standards Pukkelpop is a festival on steroids. A leviathan of beats and roaring guitars. At least 10 times bigger than Oppikoppi, attracting global superstars and their attendant schlebs. From the Basement Jaxx, the Roots and Franz Ferdinand to Royksopp, Bad Religion, Korn, Nick Cave and Marilyn Manson. They even dredged up the Pixies to headline the whole shebang; Latino grunge rock gods of an age where we wore shorts over long johns with doc martens. Nostalgia grunge rockers from the early 90s who, unlike Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam, managed to quit while they were ahead, at the height of their fame, back when I was in matric. Frank Black has gotten old. The chick on bass smoked a cigarette and thumbed her axe lazily, squinting through the smoke. They made me feel old. Then they rocked me like I was 14.
The whole festival is largely rock orientated - since that's where the mainstream of Belgian youth are situated. Black jeans, black boots and eyebrow rings. They like it hard. But Europe is a diverse place and there was more than enough groove, hip hop and house on the festival's fringes. We were spoilt for choice, from Timo Maas to Goldfrapp, Moloko to Amp Fiddler to the Stereo MCs, Jamaican dancehall queen Lady Saw, Carl Craig and even an English rock band called the Kaiser Chiefs. I kid you not. And even though the crowds at Pukkelpop looked and behaved like South Africa's (predominantly white) youth culture trendsetters, there were masses of them and they were, indeed, the mainstream. Which says quite a lot about the cutting edge of whitey South African youth culture. [I can say that because I'm a whitey]
But the criticism doesn't stop there. The crowds in Belgium seemed a bit flat. There was no mad pogo-ing, jumping up and down and dancing like a bell-end to the bands performing. The Belgian mainstream are very subdued. Standing around, nodding politely, drinking a beer while smoking some funny smelling tobacco. That's how they get down.
Far from the heady maelstrom of rock legends and MTV's current crushes, the South African bands assembled to play the Wablief Stage. A big red circus tent near the arse of the festival. Wablief, otherwise known as the Oppikoppi stage, drew enthusiastic crowds of edgy Belgians, keen for something new.
The red tent became our turf. Our little staked claim. South Africa's cultural colony. Our bands frolicked with new friends on the meadow out front. It was there that we met Pico and Basel, both deeply caned on psychedelic substances. I was with four rastas, we come from Africa. Holland is about 30km from Belgium. It wasn't long before we were partaking in some of Amsterdam's finest, courtesy of Basel. He offered us pills, hash, his sister. He had no friends. Even Pico abandoned him. He wanted to hold our hands, spoke like a machine gun and gurned with enthusiasm. He took off his shirt and rubbed his chest in a scary, absent way. He was our biggest fan and vowed to attend Oppikoppi next year and the year after. Foaming at the mouth a bit and shivering, we left him ranting and delirious. It was time for a waffle.
In Hasselt, Oppikoppi is viewed as a 'real music festival'. Small and intimate. Where rock stars mosh with the crowd in support of the other bands and you camp in the red dust of the African savanna. A lot of arbitrary Belgians approached and either told us how they had already been to an Oppikoppi festival, or how they were planning to go to one soon. And it makes sense, Flemish is like a slow, rounded Afrikaans. You make a lot more headway speaking Afrikaans in Belgium than you do in Holland. Which is why Fokofpolisiekar's angst fuelled Afrikaans rock blazed the Belgians at last year's Pukkelpop. This year, a large crowd gathered to take in The Most Amazing Show. Corne & Twakkie belly-ached the masses with their strange brand of humour, mixing the fear embarrassment with funny accents, mullets and moustaches. The Narrow struck a chord with the angry, hard rock loving masses and moered many an eardrum. Freshlyground made a whole bunch of new fans while Belgians ironed out the kinks in their faulty rhythm centres and danced like no one was watching. In fact the crowds who came to watch the South African bands were a whole lot more receptive and participatory than they were for the stars on the main stages. They clapped, howled, hooted and sang along.
Finally, Tidal Waves mashed up the red tent at midnight on the last night. Despite having to contend with Nick Cave, Carl Craig and Belgian punk sensation the Heideroosjes, Mzansi's finest roots reggae outfit put out those deep, rolling basslines and the Belgian fringe bopped along to fill up the red tent.
In the final analysis, the long view, like looking at your feet through upturned binoculars. South Africa, our musicians and our culture is perched out there on the edge. Physically and metaphorically. We are the far flung freaks. Stuck out on the limb of the world, 400 years down the line from the messed up colonial experiment. We are dynamic and different. Our culture, born of our harsh social realities, and mashed up history, is very different. There's a lot more energy in the creative arts coming out of South Africa. There's a vibrancy here that cannot be recreated in Europe. And as more and more of Europe gets turned onto what we are producing, through initiatives such as the Oppikoppi/Pukkelpop connection, the more chance we have of percolating up into the European mainstream. I have no doubt that in a few short years, South African bands will play the main stages at Pukkelpop and other European festivals. And when that happens SA music is going to blow worldwide.