Swaziland’s unique concert venue, House On Fire, is fast becoming one of Southern Africa’s best.
The African night air is dripping with anticipation and sweat. Every last corner of the higgledy piggdely space is crammed with people, colour and anticipation. Hundreds of expectant faces stare down from the circular seating area and I feel the electricity as it travels around the mosaic filled walls. Suddenly the cheering and clapping peaks as the crowd goes completely wild. Zimbabwean singer Oliver Mtukudzi swaggers across the floor and climbs the steps onto the stage. He is dressed head to toe in white. “Where I am from people sing to release tension “ he shouts and the crowd moves in waves of excitement.
I had arrived in Swaziland only hours earlier but all my travel fatigue had been soaked up somewhere in this incredible atmosphere. Mtukudzi’s “Tuku” music emanates from a mix of both modern electrical instruments and traditional acoustic ones giving it a very particular style. A cross between Bob Geldof and a singing Mandela, he sings in both his native Shona and English, about everything from the stigma of HIV and AIDS to the very personal “Left Alone” about the death of his son in 2010. His music and lyrics have earned him the status as arguably the most famous musical Zimbabwean export.
Mtukudzi’s appearance corresponds with the 13th anniversary of surely Africa’s most unique venue, ‘House on Fire’, situated in Swaziland’s scenic Ezulwini valley. The brainchild of Jiggs Thorne, second eldest son of one of Swaziland’s most influential families, House on Fire is far from your ordinary auditorium. As a performance poet and artist, Jiggs wanted to create a venue which would showcase Swaziland’s rural art, sculpture and musical talent. What he created is part fantasy world, part Shakespearian theatre in the round and part open air concert venue. Concrete sculptures, intricate mosaics and life size art installations make up the Gaudi like decor and depict many ancient cultures fused with African design and sculpture.
Gherish light installations hang down from the roof and life size carved wooden figures jump out of the walls.. There is a mass of colour. Pieces of poetry and ancient proverbs also adorn the walls from Mohammed, Rumi and some written by the designer himself. A huge tree grows through the middle of all this, its branches and leaves creating part of the roof. This individual venue and the beautifully landscaped complex it sits within (Malandelas) have now become the centre of Southern Africa’s most famous music festival every May: The MTN Bushfire festival.
House on Fire is not only about the decor. Each tap of the bongo drum resonates perfectly around the venue. The large crowd is belied by the small intimate feel. The guitar melody sits sweetly on top of the drum beat, and Mtukudzi’s husky voice makes up the next intricate layer of the music. A mix of young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Swazi’s and visitors and a large throng of Zimbabwean ex pats gushing with pride make up the madly gyrating crowd in the standing area. In front of me an African couple dance a duet, he in smart trousers and a typical colourful African shirt, she in heels and a bright blue skirt and coloured blouse. They are lost in the world created by his lyrics. In the coming days I discover that everything about tonight speaks volumes about this tiny fascinating country and it’s people. Swaziland is, like House of Fire, a small and intimate venue which can offer so much.