Maverick Life


Reviving and revelling in Melville’s eclectic, inclusive community spirit with The Happening

Reviving and revelling in Melville’s eclectic, inclusive community spirit with The Happening
Events like The Happening provide a boost to the neighbourhood of Melville: The wandering saxophonist was a highlight of the day. (Photo: Gail Wilson)

Inspired by AfrikaBurn’s ethos of giving, the gathering in the ailing Joburg suburb brought together artists and the community for some much-needed free fun. 

Poetry, music, visual art and a carefree carnival of people came together for Melville’s The Happening festival. Did I mention mutant cars?

Mzansi is a hectic space, all bustle and velocity. A spiritual remnant, perhaps, of the gold rush. Gesture at a taxi cutting you off and you might be in trouble — ditto with an octogenarian in a rusty Nissan. Everything in Joburg is hustle.

Enter Melville, a space of relative chill. It is home to several musos and artists of various persuasions, many of whom have made the small Joburg suburb their home for decades. It has always been synonymous with creative buzz and lit bohemia.

The Happening, Melville

The streets of Melville before The Happening begins. (Photo: Gail Wilson)

Until Covid, Melville had always shone: there was Hell’s Kitchen and La Santa Muerte, both of which served great food and some Friday night havoc. Both, sadly, are shuttered. Xai Xai is an institution and still has the best pizza around.

Book Dealers, a carefully curated store where you can get cheaper new releases and find obscure volumes, is still there.

Walking the streets

Most commercial areas took a hit from the global pandemic. Many, like Melville, are still reeling. Some are gone now. The Happening, which is loosely based on AfrikaBurn’s ethos of noncommercialism, laid merry claim to 7th street, barring cars from entry, allowing families to wander the streets carefree, and for a smorgasbord of arts to happen.

Main organiser Walter Böhmer had this to say: “We like the bohemian vibe that Melville has always had — it fits in with our noncommercial ethos as well as our focus on creativity and art. The street also lends itself to the idea of a street event with businesses already directly on the street.

“I have lived in and around Melville for more than 20 years and it has a special place in my … heart.

Melville’s 7th Street

Melville’s 7th Street was blocked off to traffic – except for mutant vehicles – allowing festival-goers to stroll the
length of the road in wild outfits. (Photo: Gail Wilson)

“It has been really sad to see it decline so badly after Covid. Residents’ associations were already doing work towards bettering the suburb. So they approached us in September last year to do a festival, given our past success with Streetopia in 2019. The time was right to have the street festival and to galvanise the community to take ownership and make Melville beautiful again.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Brunch and cocktails in one of the coolest streets anywhere

Poet and playwright Marie Beytell has intimate ties with the funky hood, having lived there during her student days: “Melville’s 7th Street remains, after all these years, my home sweet home and I’m so happy about its revival through initiatives like The Happening by the fabulous troop of AfrikaBurn veterans like Bev Krost, Walter Böhmer, Vasti and their extremely hard-­working, dedicated crew”.

The Happening

A parade at midday included dancers and decorated cars. (Photo: Gail Wilson)

The festival included a plethora of arts — and artsy bystanders. There were spoken word sessions at Spilt Milk, which were accompanied by jazz musicians, decidedly wonky cars, visual art, outlandish costumes, bands of various genres at several venues and free-form jazz on the streets.

The Happening

One of the ‘mutant cars’ on display. (Photo: Gail Wilson)

We asked Böhmer about his favourite moments: “In the afternoon there was a guy playing saxophone on the street. He played such beautiful tunes. I loved watching him play freely, expressing himself! Later, after the storm, he improvised over a DJ set at our Fractal Chill Lounge. I love spontaneous art and music. And I loved that he just came and participated. This is exactly what we want people to do at our events. It is raw, unexpected and such a beautiful part of humanity. I also loved the band on the roof at Nxt Lvl. Something completely different and out of the ordinary!”

The band playing from the balcony of Nxt Lvl were a teen punk group, giving it their all, grinning and bouncing along to their own delighted anarchy.

The Happening

Musicians and artists in full swing at The Happening. (Photo: Gail Wilson)

The spirit of gifting

The Happening was modelled on AfrikaBurn’s philosophy: “Over years of attending the AfrikaBurn festival, we have learnt from its culture and we are in love with the life-changing experience that one can have there. So we wanted to share this experience as far as possible with communities outside of the Burn event,” Böhmer said.

“We believe that there is something beautiful and potentially life-changing in doing events differently. Core to this ethos is decommodification and participation.

The Happening

A parade at midday included dancers and decorated cars. (Photo: Gail Wilson)

“People are encouraged to gift their time, their craft or any other gift they feel would contribute to the community/event. Artists who perform or showcase their work at the event are also gifting in that they are not compensated for their performances.

“We do, however, recognise that people have to make a living in the city, and therefore we had market stalls at The Happening where artists could sell their craft as well as their art. We curated the stalls carefully to ensure that we did not have corporate stands but rather hand-crafted homemade goods/art as far as possible.

“We are delighted and inspired by how beautifully all of this came together the weekend of 2 March in Melville — and how the community stood up and fixed and sorted and decorated the street, not only for [the event] but for years to come. We’re so grateful and humbled by everyone who joined us in our vision and we look forward to similar events in the future.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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