The Bewilderbeast – a reference to Badly Drawn Boy’s classic ‘The Hour of the Bewilderbeast’ album – is one of the most apt themes in recent years for what is arguably South Africa’s biggest and most famous music festival, Oppikoppi.
The festival has become an institution among music fans, with some travelling from as far as Europe and Australia to attend this uniquely South African experience. It’s dusty, it’s thorny, it’s hot, it’s cold, it’s sometimes wet, but it’s ALWAYS rock ‘n roll. Now in its 19th year, Oppikoppi has always been about the music and each year the line-up of bands keep getting stronger, drawing ever bigger crowds to the farm just outside Northam in Limpopo province.
“The turning point for the festival was the year we booked Billy Talent – attendance exploded and it’s become bigger every year since,” says Misha Loots, one of the organisers of the annual event.
Word-of-mouth has always been key to the festival’s growth, even in the early days. “Oppikoppi started as a private party, the next year we decided to bus in a couple of students from Tuks [University of Pretoria] and the word spread,” says legendary performer and South African music icon, Koos Kombuis.
And spread it did – this year saw an estimated 20 000 eager music fans cram their tents onto the farm. However, the growth has not always been easy on the organisers, especially in terms of dealing with the near-stifling dust that the festival has become known for. It was especially bad at last year’s festival and efforts to manage it created more problems than it solved. But the Oppikoppi crew learned from their mistakes and this year saw a significant improvement – along with the rare appearance of some morning rain on Friday.
Aside from the dust, the cold, the thorns, the lost cellphones, the lost friends, the cold showers – Oppikoppi still draws artists and fans to their thatch covered stages like moths to a flame. Speaking to some of the artists, it becomes clear that it isn’t just another festival. “Other festivals are cool, but this is OPPIKOPPI! You HAVE to play this festival! Playing on the James Philips main stage, there’s nothing like it,” says Fuzigish frontman, Jay Bones enthusiastically.
His sentiments are echoed by Black Cat Bones’ singer, Kobus de Kock Jr.: “Just to be part of it, no matter when you play or where you play, just to get to say that you’ve played Oppikoppi. It’s one of the top ten festivals you have to do.”
The stature of the festival also inspire artists to really put in an effort – it’s these performances that draw the crowds – the anticipation that they will see bands give it their all.
“… [Y]ou rehearse months in advance to make sure you have the best possible set for Oppikoppi,” says Andre Kriel from Black Cat Bones. It’s a relationship between artist and fan, with love spread both ways when it’s due.
And at The Bewilderbeast, the artists definitely delivered; with local and international ‘koppi stalwarts and newcomers alike ripping up the six stages that are spread over the farm. Bands like Bittereinder, Jeremy Loops, Finley Quay, Shadow Club, Toya de Lazy, Mango Groove, Kidofdoom, Manchester Orchestra and, of course, Deftones (to name a few)…played their hearts out to the eager crowds who lapped it up and responded with sweaty roars of love and adoration.
“It’s not a trend, it’s a passion,” say Oppikoppi veterans, The Narrow. “It has to be passion if you come here and endure the dust and the sun…you’re still here for the music.” The annual pilgrimage to Oppikoppi by both bands and music fans serve as an affirmation that South Africa’s music Bewilderbeast is still rumbling loudly.
Speaking before an emotional last set at this year’s festival, Koos Kombuis summed it up: “If you look at the rest of the world and all their problems, you realise that we actually live in paradise.”