Maverick interview: Rashid Lombard
Fourteen years after launching the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, Rashid Lombard and his team have developed the event into one of the biggest jazz festivals in the world, but it has not been easy. In a wide-ranging interview, the CEO of espAfrika, organiser of the jazz festival, spoke about his frustration at not getting proper support from the authorities in the Western Cape and his inability to garner enough corporate support for the event voted the fourth largest jazz festival in the world. By RYLAND FISHER.
In fact, Lombard said, he has considered closing the event completely or moving it to another city because, while it is a high-profile event, it hardly makes any money. Lombard feels that the government should intervene, like it did with BEE, to force companies to support the arts.
Lombard also spoke his conversion from a struggle photographer to event organiser, reflected on some of his favourite acts over the years and looked forward to some of the acts who will be appearing at the festival which takes place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on Friday and Saturday, 5 and 6 April.
You have a long history as a struggle activist and a photographer. This is quite different to being the organiser of one of the biggest jazz festivals in the world. Tell us a bit about this journey.
I worked for 28 years as a photojournalist, covering mainly changes in Africa, including Namibia and the Congo, and the unrest in South Africa, among others.
After reporting on our first democratic elections in 1994, I made the decision that I’d had enough. It affected my health and my family life.
Wherever I travelled during that period, I always had cassettes and a record player. Music, particularly jazz, was my therapy and kept me alive.
When I decided to stop reporting, I had to find something to do and I was asked to serve on the board of Fine Music Radio. We decided to pitch to the IBA then as a jazz/classical community radio station. We won the bid and I eventually became station manager.
We were reasonably successful but then licences were given to commercial stations and I joined the Norwegian-owned station P4 on an 18-month contract as a programmes manager, dealing particularly with the smooth jazz genre.
However, I always wanted to again go on my own. After 18 months, I decided not to extend my contract.
In the time that I was working for P4, I started doing tours to various festivals abroad, in particular the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.
I realised then that there was a need for a serious jazz festival, but I thought it was important to find a partner, and at the end of the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1998, I walked up to Theo van den Hoek, the festival director, and I asked him to help me to produce a multi-stage festival in Cape Town. By then they had been in existence for 24 years.
A few months later I sent him a return ticket and hotel accommodation and he came immediately.
We had a deal that we were going to use the name North Sea Jazz Festival Cape Town for four years. In those four years we would have, every year, two to three South African artists performing in the Netherlands. We would have exhibition space to promote South Africa as a destination and Cape Town as the host city.
Our agreement was that after four years we would change the name. It was obvious that the best name to use would be Cape Town as the destination city.
That was really the beginning of the jazz festival.
From my activism side, it was natural that we got involved in the liberation movement inside the country, being the United Democratic Front. It was natural that my kids at school got involved in SRCs. I got involved in alternative media such as Grassroots and Saamstaan. We were part of the launch of South newspaper.
Has music always played a role in your life?
I come from a rock and psychedelic background. I used to listen to artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In 1968 I met some older guys, including Winston Mankunku and Duke Makasi, and they introduced me to a track by John Coltrane called The Love Supreme and that just flipped me.
Nowadays I have a much broader appreciation of music particularly what the youth is listening to because that is the future.
Some people will say that the pace when you are organising a jazz festival is very different from photographing conflict. Is that your experience or is your life even more hectic now?
In some ways it is more hectic. As a photographer, I always worked with a journalist and we would share with each other angles in which to cover stories. But also, when you are in conflict areas, you move as a group. You always stick together.
Dealing with the festival is completely different, because you are leading a staff of competent people who you have to allow to run things. You’ve got to give them the leeway to take control and make decisions.
The technical, production world is very much a man’s world and initially I had an all-male team, but over the years, more and more women joined. Today I have a staff of 20 and 18 are women. All my heads of department are women, from my right and left-hand person, Eva Domingo, who takes control of everything. My talent booker is a woman.
If you go to the international live music conference, which I attend every year, you find most of people who attend from 64 countries are men. There might only be two women at the conference.
Your key staff appears to be very loyal to you. Is this one of the main factors of your success?
I would like to believe so, but I think there are two important factors. One is that we still practise a culture of “each one teach one”, which is an old struggle slogan, and it works because it is about empowering people and transferring skills.
The second is that once you understood the dynamics of the festival, the kind of budgets you are dealing with, we had to pay people properly. We did not really know what to pay people and we could not use the rest of the world as a benchmark.
However, I think we have managed to bring people up to a comfortable living wage in terms of their hours. The events industry can be 24/7 and even people with kids at home have to put in long hours. Obviously we have to accommodate them with time off when we have off periods.
But the important factor is that we have now set decent benchmarks within the industry.
The festival has been going now for 14 years. Can you tell me about some of the challenges you have faced over the years in building up the festival?
Our biggest challenge is monitoring the exchange rate, because I can work on a budget of R8 to the dollar and in two months’ time it can be at R9 to the dollar. For instance, my budget was worked out last year when the rand was much stronger. This impacts on our budget quite seriously, because we pay our overseas artists 50% upfront and 50% after the performance.
If you look at the standard of our artists and the level of the production, if you think about the costs of putting all of this together and you look at what people are paying at the door, it does not make sense.
It is now R620 for a two-day pass and we can only allow 14,000 people into the venue, yet our budget is R38 million. We have to depend on corporate sponsorship to make up the shortfall, but marketing directors still don’t have an idea of the power of the arts.
Government also needs to take ownership of an event like this. National government has been very supportive. They see the value of training and development at one level and the platform for South African artists at another level. But when you come to the province that is hosting the event, it has been a nightmare. We have been through four political parties and none of them owned it.
They don’t seem to understand how to sustain this event. It is one of the biggest events with the highest GDP in the province, and they give us shit. I have been saying to them openly that a city like Durban is dangling the carrot. Some of them even say to us we must go. This is very short-sighted.
Our GDP last year was just under half a billion rand. You can’t get hotels and currently there are no flights. Taxis and crafters are making money. That’s how you measure the event’s impact. Our foreign visitors – mainly from the US, the UK and Europe – are now staying between seven and 10 days.
It has been a bit easier working with the city than the province. We use all their services, such as security, police and traffic department, but I have to pay artists and service providers in cash. Cash is king, in a sense, and it is really a struggle.
Durban has approached us again. They are taking up hospitality at this year’s festival and they want to talk and I’m saying I don’t have time. They throw money at events. If they come and say they will give us R10 million, and we sign a five year contract, that will give us a great start.
I will be able to book Carlos Santana now for 2015 if he’s available, because I will have the money. I can put down 10% and he has to come.
We are always struggling with booking artists in advance and getting the big names. If you start late, they charge you premium. Cash is necessary to run an event like this.
This event is a nice to have, but if I close it, the company will still survive and maybe I will have fewer grey hairs.
Your festival seems to have survived despite the international economic recession. How did you manage to do this?
We try to increase our cover price every second year by 10% but it is not always possible. We have to make it easy for the public who are very loyal to us. The majority of the public still comes from outside of Cape Town.
But how do we keep ahead? The rest of the world’s festivals increase their cover price by 10% every year, but they still sell out. I compare ourselves with the top 10 in the world because that is where we are rated. In 2004, we were rated number four in the world.
And where are you now?
They have not done it again. The ratings were very much about safety and security, the hospitality of the city, how well you pay your artists, etcetera. It was more about the running of the festival and, of course, the city and the country.
Our artists are our ambassadors. From day one I have told my staff to look after our artists because they can make or break you. This is why I put all my artists in the same hotel, including the South Africans. They use the same stage and the same cars. I don’t have a curtain raiser or a support act. I have two South African artists and two from the rest of the world.
How does the city and tourism deal with them? There’s nothing. They don’t say can we take your main artists for dinner or can we take them to Cape Point. They have no idea.
I said to province that we must own this festival together because I am tired of the hassle. Two weeks before our festival, I am still chasing money, trying to get in the last few pennies here and there.
Do you struggle to convince potential funders about the social and healing value of a musical festival as opposed to its economic value?
Most people understand the social healing and they love our training programmes. People want to invest in that, but our costs to do that is limited and we need money to run the main festival. Without the main festival, we will not be able to do the healing work. National government knows that I use some of the money for training and development, but the other money I use for paying artists, flights and technical production. The two go hand in hand.
It’s the same with SABC, where I get airtime but also cash. In order to give them something to film, I need to build stages and pay artists to perform.
You can’t just all want to do training and development because I won’t be able to justify it to my audience.
The more and more we meet with directors, they ask us why their companies are not involved, but they have no idea of the struggle we have to get companies to buy in.
How do we re-educate people in the corporate world to appreciate art and culture. Is this the duty of government? Should they do the same like they’ve done with BEE? They might have to tell companies, like they did with BEE, that it is government policy for companies to support the arts.
A few years ago, JSE-listed Sekunjalo bought into your company. Has this made a difference; has it opened corporate doors?
It has made a difference from a corporate governance and administrative point of view. They have helped to open doors, but those doors get shut very quickly. They have got us to the top level of the corporate world. They have been with us now for about four years and we are hopeful that some corporates are coming back.
It has made a difference being part of a bigger corporate company. Otherwise we were always on our own.
Where it is appreciated amazingly is when I travel abroad. When you say you are part of Sekunjalo Investment Limited, people Google you and check you out quickly. All of a sudden it’s a whole different world, the way they treat you. The agents look at you differently because they see you are solid.
You seemed to have outgrown the Cape Town International Convention Centre. Do you have plans to move to another, bigger venue?
Yes, certainly we have outgrown the venue. There is no other venue in Cape Town unless we go the route of some of the other major jazz festivals, for instance the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival which is held on a race course. They put up huge marquees and they have events in the open air. Of course, their weather is always great.
There is now a move to double the size of the convention centre, but this is only likely to be completed by 2016. It is a long time.
This year we sold out a month before. It’s crazy, it should not happen. I hope they move on the convention centre because that will really help us a lot.
Can you tell us about some of the other events you are doing outside Cape Town.For instance in Maputo, Angola, Durban and Port Elizabeth?
We are working in Port Elizabeth, my home town. It has been difficult working there but I eventually got it right to produce the Mandela Bay Music Festival. We launched it with George Benson and we are now looking at making it an annual event. It was very successful, we had 28,000 people in one day.
I’ve worked in Maputo for three years to produce the Moz Jazz Festival. Then we moved to Angola. Outside of our borders, we don’t really want to own real estate. We just want a management fee with a huge component of transfer of skills, so that we build up a skills base.
We worked with Fifa in Durban. I need to do a major event in Johannesburg and that is on the cards. I need to do at least four major events a year and then I can sit back, because our whole year would be covered. We are also talking to Botswana, Namibia and Tanzania.
The reason why we have to go out there and transfer skills – something South Africa always said they would do in terms of helping the continent – is so that you can create your own tour, your own festival circuit.
For instance, in June and July there are 10 major festivals in Europe and every year they get together and look at artists they can get jointly at reduced rates. Suddenly your costs are amortised and then you amortise your flights, and the artists love it.
When I speak to agents, they ask me when we are opening up Africa. They see it as an emerging market. The problem is that we don’t have expertise, we don’t have technical back-up. There are very specific technical riders and I’m not talking about painting rooms pink. We don’t get that, we never get that with our genre of artists, but it is the technical details that they want us to get right. We must have the right amps and back-up amps, the right drum kits. We must respect the musicians when they are at that level, because that is when they shine for the audience.
Part of the strength of your festival is your strong social responsibility programme. Can you tell us a bit about this?
The one that is very close to my heart – and it is in its 11th year now – is our arts journalism course. Coming from a journalistic background, you will know that when you study as a cadet, you write about everything. We don’t have specialists writing for the arts in general.
We also introduced a photographic course because it is a very important part of documenting the arts. These courses contain all the theory but also a lot of practical stuff.
We have the master classes where you would have someone like Sergio Mendes talking about his life in a question and answer format, and we have practical courses where overseas musicians share with local artists.
We also have a major conference running over three days where we look at the business of music. We have specialists coming in every year and we have been doing this for the past 13 years.
We introduced Gigs for Kids two years ago. It involves theatre and music aimed at pikkies from about two to seven. They come with their parents and we use music as therapy. It is very interactive.
But the most exciting one for us is a programme we introduced two years ago and it involves 10 schools within the Western Cape, as far as Worcester, who all have bands, small or big. We look at all the musicians but also at the matriculants who have interests in a career in entertainment.
As they get to the end of the course, we put up a free event for the parents. They do the marketing, security, stage management, so that all the students get a taste of what it is like to work on a concert.
They discover that whether they do a big festival or a school bazaar or a fundraiser for an old-age home, as long as they stick to certain principals, they can host a successful event. The parents come, it is normally house full, and it is fun.
Some of the children who have come through this programme are now working for us as contract workers.
Of course, we also have the free concert in Greenmarket Square which has now almost reached capacity. This is our way of saying thank you to the people of Cape Town. There are a lot of people who will never be able to afford to come to the festival. We always play one headline artist and have a big party.
What have been some of the highlights of the jazz festival over the years?
One of the highlights, and they were difficult to get, was [Afro-pop band] Osibisa. It was amazing how everyone still knew their songs.
One of my favourites and a legend in his own right was [American jazz saxophonist] Wayne Shorter. It took me five years to get him. Eventually I was at the 20th anniversary of the Thelonious Monk Institute and I bumped into his wife. I said to her when they come, I will make sure that I send her to a game reserve. That sold the deal for me. The next day she emailed me to say that he was coming the following year.
We went through all the legends, people such as Ahmad Jamal. We also try to do collaborations between South Africans and jazz legends.
The other highlight was Earth, Wind and Fire. They are still one of the most expensive artists but we had to get the original band. We did three shows with them in South Africa.
Have you had any difficult artists that you have had to deal with?
The difficulty always starts with when they land, especially the R&B artists, not the timers, but more people like India Arie, because they are bit more arrogant. I have seen how they operate at other festivals. But as soon as they get into the hotel, it is as if something happens to them, because the hotel is always abuzz, and it seems like they just relax when they are there.
We have had lots of difficult artists, who are known internationally to make all kinds of demands, but again it is the reputation that you build up through the artists. They all speak to each other.
“Have you been to Cape Town? What a wonderful experience, what hospitality.” That’s what we want to hear.
We gave George Benson a beautiful beaded soccer ball, because of the World Cup, and he still travels with it on his musician’s piano. I met him at a festival in Munich last year and found him walking with the ball. If he could have hanged it around his neck, he would have probably done it.
Have you had some crazy demands from artists?
We certainly haven’t had “I want the floor painted pink”. It’s been quite amazing, because they are not rock artists. There is a difference.
We try to cater for their needs through what we have available in South Africa. So, for instance, if they say they want pink flowers, but we can only give them yellow, they accept. If they want imported salmon, we tell them we only have local salmon.
We sometimes have challenges because a lot of the technical riders are international.
Which acts are you looking forward to this year?
Certainly the Buena Vista Social Club. It has taken me about six years to organise this.
And Jill Scott will come this year?
Yes, she will come. The biggest fear we have is that she has already changed two of her musicians, and that is a cost to me. To change a name on a flight that has been booked is a cost.
I’m excited about Jean-Luc Ponty, who comes from [fusion group] Return to Forever. I’m also looking forward to seeing Steve Turre, one of the world’s best trombonists, and Chana Dominguez who is doing Flamenco sketches, which is a tribute to Miles Davis.
The problem is that I don’t see any of the artists really. I stay for two minutes and then I have to be out.
I’m also looking forward to seeing some of our local artists. For instance, just to have Mafikizolo on the bill is a pleasure. Thandiswa Mazwai is performing for the second time because of public demand.
The other one I’m looking forward to is BWB (Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum and Norman Brown). I think that is going to be a super show.
What are the lessons that you have learnt from organising this event that you would like to pass on to younger event organisers who might have similar aspirations?
The most important thing that I have learned is to have a good team around you. This means that whatever you learn, you must pass it on immediately and don’t feel threatened that someone else is going to be better. Without that you are bound to have a nervous breakdown. This industry takes a lot out of you.
Whenever I have travelled and learnt something abroad, I put it on email and send it to all my staff. If you are going to lose someone, that’s good because it creates a gap for somebody new that you can train.
If you could live your life over, would you do this again?
If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have said no. If you ask me now, I would say definitely, but I’d like to do it in Senegal, because that is where I would like to live.
Finally, when not organising jazz festivals or other events, what do you do with your spare time?
I’m a coach potato and I catch up on the latest movies. I love travelling, especially seeing South Africa’s coastline. I would love to do more. I still take photographs and enjoy doing that. I don’t think I’ll retire but I do see myself eventually mainly travelling and doing documentary photography.
There are so many places that I would like to go back to and stories that I would like to cover, such as the plight of the gorillas in the Congo. I would like to be able to spend two months there and just capture that as a feature. DM
Photo of Rashid Lombard by Victor Dlamini/BooksLive