Johannesburg, South Africa: A trip “over the fence” to play at Botswana’s 8th Anniversary Overthrust Winter Metal Mania Festival in the 6000-strong town of Ghanzi was something of a metal Valhalla for Riddlebreak, who sat down with metal4africa a week after getting back – giving the band enough time to sleep off the debauchery of the festival and contemplate the cultural contradiction that is Botswana’s metal life.
If you don’t know much about the festival, it’s worth chatting to any of the bands that have gone before: who are still remembered and adored. According to Riddlebreak, people were wearing shirts of local South African bands, Maximum Carnage and Adorned in Ash. It sounds like the kind of festival that every metalhead needs to experience at least once in their life – not just because Botswana can bring a party, but it’s rare to find a festival that focuses so much on pride, charity and loyalty to the metal brand.
Riddlebreak’s Gareth Reed (Rhythm guitar) and Roushan van Niekerk (Bass) recounted story after story from the three-day revelry – from how people were putting their hands into the holes in frontman, Jade Osner’s jeans, “just to touch his leg”, to the sound guy passing out on the stage a few hours after he arrived, as were others. “People had passed out right in the middle of the mosh, just lying there…people were moshing around them.”
And that was just the tip of the iceberg during a weekend that seems to include not just a new set of crazy memories, but some beautiful experiences in, what Gareth refers to as, “a Mardi Gras, but for metalheads.”
The focus of the festival is charity, which influences how people respond and support. People came from all over Botswana to experience the biggest metal festival in the country, even if it meant they could only be part of it from a distance. As Roushan recounts, “Some of the people couldn’t afford the ticket to come inside, so a lot of them would stay outside but still be listening.” While the metal show was the main focus, the festival also put on a massive rally to raise money, which they deemed the “March and Ride Against Poverty”.
While it broke the band’s bank account to get there, there was no shortage of appreciation for Riddlebreak’s presence. “People came and told us that we were amazing for doing this, for helping charity.” Roushan has her own unique experiences as a female bassist. She seemed pleased to have been seen as a role-model for female metalheads in Botswana.
“[Being a female bassist] wasn’t like a ‘gender roles’ thing specifically; they were just surprised, because not a lot of women go for that. A lot of guys came and kissed me on the head and they were like, ‘This is amazing, because a lot of women in Botswana don’t think that they can do it and you are showing them that females can play an instrument’.”
In fact, the gendered dynamic of metalheads in Botswana was the focus of quite a bit of our discussion, considering the very traditional and respectful society that characterizes the Batswana, while also having a female community that are independent and resourceful. But that was just one aspect of this community that is fascinating. Other publications have touched on the old-school elements of Botswana metalheads, and I was interested to know how Riddlebreak, with their core elements, was received. But it was a question with an obvious answer – people were nothing but supportive.
There is an appreciation for anything that is classified (even vaguely) as metal that is healthy and inclusive. As Gareth points out, “there is no elitism.” Roushan elaborates: “It’s all just metal, even the lightest version of rock, or the heaviest thing you could offer, everyone just supports what’s going on. Everyone is just into it… There is just a shared love of metal.”
Of course, we had to talk about the traditional attire that characterises the metalheads in Botswana. It seems quite banal, maybe a little eccentric, but it is definitely something that metalheads can relate to. “…they are dressed head to toe in leather. And I not just mean leather jackets and leather pants. It was like spikes, African masks with spikes coming out of them.” “The one guy was in full skull paint.”
“They were people in character. When you introduced yourself, you were like, ‘Hi, my name is Gareth’ and they were like, ‘Hi, my name’s Demon’, or ‘Hi, my name is Blood’, or ‘Hi my name’s Vulture’, or ‘Hi, my name’s King.’ No one introduced themselves by their real name, it was like they put on this character and they lived in this character for the entire weekend.” ~ Gareth
When I asked Gareth why he thought people took on characters, he was pragmatic: “It’s a form of escapism, you know, like they put on this persona where they just absorb all the good vibes that are happening in that day, right now.“
The festival is so much a feature of Ghanzi – from who is involved (the mayor and sheriff are both metalheads) to what they seek to achieve. It becomes a whole lot less easy to dismiss as just another festival when you learn about something that Batswana metalheads achieve, but that we often fail at: pride and support. “These people have limited access to resources and band trips like we do, but they will still spend money on a band shirt because they know it is going to a good cause, and they support that, and they have a heartfelt love of metal that overrides any kind of bills or struggles they have.”
Naturally we started speaking about a cross-border exchange of bands, but sometimes things are better left unasked. It seems that the Batswana think we’re hardcore and are not too keen on venturing south. When asked what aspects of us are hardcore, the obvious answer comes up: the people and the crime. Gareth echoes my thoughts: “It just shows what global image we have. It’s a little bit sad.” But then, our metal is also seen as hardcore, which is a little surprising.
At the beginning of the interview, there were no questions asked. The idea was just to talk about first impressions. Isn’t it interesting then what is raised by Gareth: sound. Haven’t we all complained about bad sound at some point in our lives? Except that it wasn’t that simple. “The sound wasn’t that great, but then you realize that these people have limited access to resources like we do in South Africa.”
Without sounding too sentimental, it felt like a punch in the guts. Here is a small, proud community of metalheads that do whatever they can with whatever they have. And here we are, the mighty breadbasket of Africa, which music stores in every city, sponsorships and deals, and venues that support us. Yes, our scene is by no means perfect, except that we have extraordinary talent and spare cash. Maybe it’s time we started thinking about “pride and support” – because we have so much else. Botswana metalheads can teach us many things, if we are willing to listen.