A cutting-edge music festival is becoming too big for the tiny African country that host it

FB_IMG_1527990142550MTN Bushfire music festival continues to grow, attracting big name acts to Swaziland, eSwatini
Celebrating a festival.
Malkerns, eSwatini

Senegalese Afrofuturist performer Ibaaku struggled to break through in Dakar’s mainstream music scene, yet now has a new fan base at the southern tip of Africa thanks to the Bushfire festival. With the massive crowds gathered in front of the main stage, this moment seems small. Ibaaku is one of dozens of fringe artists at a festival that includes Grammy winners to debutante DJs. Like many of the best festivals around the world, Bushfire festival attracts audiences with big names but also introduces them to something new and unexpected.FB_IMG_1527990149456

This formula has seen the MTN Bushfire festival graduate from a gathering on a family-run sugarcane farm to a regional event that attracts thousands of people to the eSwatini (formerly Swaziland). The long lines at the border bring in about $4 million, according to the organizers. The twelfth edition of the festival saw more than 20,000 people descend on Malkerns, a small town in Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Bushfire is remarkable for its ability to attract huge crowds and high caliber artists to a tiny landlocked country that usually falls off the radar of the international stage.

MTN Bushfire music festival continues to grow, attracting big name acts to Swaziland, eSwatini

The three-day festival now takes founder Justin “Jiggs” Thorne’s a whole year to organize. Bushfire was sparked by small gigs at House on Fire, the event space built on the Thorne family farm. This year, Ladysmith Black Mambazo headlined the festival fresh off their fifth Grammy win. The line-up achieves the balancing act of bringing together South African rappers, a Japanese ska duo, a Brazilian guitarist, a rebellious songstress from Reunion and the legendary Salif Keita.

Bushfire can at times feel like three different festivals. Friday night introduced lesser-known folk and traditional bands, while Saturday felt like a stadium concert with radio-friendly songs. Sunday’s daytime festival brought the big names meant to appeal across generations. It’s all part of managing expectations as the audience numbers swell year after year.

“Bigger for me isn’t better,” says Thorne, trying to ensure that it doesn’t become a Swazi imitation of Coachella. “The irony is that popularity and growth can be a threat.”

In its current iteration, Bushfire has four stages, food and crafts markets, a kids’ zone and, an exhibition space for local business partners. The camping area is divided into a bring-your-own site, glamping space and family-friendly areas. In the long lines to the ablution blocks, people from as far Europe, the US and around southern Africa spark up conversations.

MTN Bushfire music festival continues to grow, attracting big name acts to Swaziland, eSwatini

 

 

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