Music festivals; those were the days. Afternoons soaking up the sun, living carefree for just a moment, sipping your favorite drink while hanging out with friends and delightful strangers. From every direction, the music meanders through every stall, campsite, and beer tent, culminating in gyrating epicenters we call the stage. The STRAB music festival is one of these magical experiences.
As a working musician, playing at a music festival again has been euphoric. It had been so long since I graced the stage and surrounded myself not only with enthusiastic musicians but also music lovers from all walks of life.
My band mates came from all parts of the country as well as abroad to meet and commence a much-anticipated journey. It had been over three years since the last time we shared the stage. And, where better to assemble than at STRAB 2022 in the exquisite sub-tropical paradise of Southern Mozambique.
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The music festival through a musician’s eyes
For many working musicians, music festivals have been the bread and butter of their livelihoods. They are often a means to get your music from your instrument to the minds of others – in the flesh, in real-time. Music festivals have helped bands cut their teeth, grow artistically, and gain the exposure they need, all while hopefully making a living in the process.
You could lose yourself in the plethora of sounds and pyrotechnic displays. Feeling alive again at the moment from the sensory overload, to simply groove to your favorite band. Festivals are a place to discover new sounds, meet new people, and forge partnerships.
The past two years, and Covid more specifically, took the festival away from everybody. From the creatives to the organizers, countless individuals and businesses saw their earnings evaporate. Many thought the music festival was gone, a relic from a past era.
But humans are resilient. Before long, people took chances again. New locations have been found or adapted, deals have been cut, and bands are sharpening their axes to take to the stage once more.
A short history of the STRAB Music Festival
Why is it called STRAB?
What started as a random idea for live music at a birthday party turned into an almost 20-year-long labor of love. The Subterranean Rhythm and Blues Festival, or STRAB for short, began way back in 2003 when a group of diving enthusiasts wanted to add music to the first birthday celebration of a South African-based diving school.
Dubbing it the “Birthday Bash”, the organizers expanded on the idea further by hiring the legendary South African group Jack Hammer led by the great singer song-writer Piet Botha. They, along with three other bands, performed at their 2nd birthday back in 2004.
After another successful session, Botha captured his experience in a song and made the call to cement the event as an annual occurrence. The festival’s name was a suggestion of Botha, who thought the combination of music and scuba diving had a ‘subterranean’ feel to it. Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” added to the inspiration as well.
STRAB starts to grow
Come 2005, STRAB was born. Each year the festival grew in size and musical variety until it reached its peak capacity in 2007. One of the unique things about STRAB is that it has a limit on the number of festival-goers and will never exceed more than 1200 people. This is partly due to the size of the resort, but it’s also meant to maintain the spirit of the festival as a music lover’s event. Corporate sponsors are few and far between, and the family spirit of the music festival is a top priority. Compared to most festivals out there, STRAB is a rarity on the events calendar.
Aside from the previous two years, due to travel restrictions, the STRAB music festival has maintained its loyal following year after year and has provided a launch pad for up-and-coming bands.
And to show their support, STRAB has run a charity initiative for many years to give back and uplift the local community, in order to show an appreciation for the people of Mozambique welcoming festival-goers with open arms.
Who started the STRAB Music Festival?
Since STRAB started as a getaway for scuba divers, the co-founders of the festival are also scuba divers themselves. Owners of Ocean Ecstasy Dive School based in the city of Pretoria, Annerie Snyman and Andries Burger were the masterminds who hosted the birthday bash back in 2003.
Currently, co-founder Andries Burger and his wife Hanalie are taking the reins and keeping the music festival going. Sound engineer legend Conrad Jamneck joined the organizers back in 2005 and is a vital member of the STRAB Music Festival team.
Who gets to go to STRAB?
What makes STRAB unique in the outdoor music festival circuit is its emphasis on music at its core. This is a music lovers festival. Very few, if any, brands bombard you at every corner. And, festival attendance is kept to a minimum.
However, being a scuba diver is not a prerequisite. Anyone who loves music and brings the spirit of community is welcome. As the roads can be tricky to navigate, most festival-goers travel with off-road vehicles. However, the festival makes allowances for transfers to and from the border post.
Ponta Malongane: The STRAB Festival backdrop
Time for a bit of geography. Ponta Malongane is a tiny seaside village located in the southernmost region of Mozambique. It’s an off-shoot of the larger Ponta do Ouro, a town less than 20km from the Kosi Bay border with South Africa and 130 Km from the capital Maputo.
Mozambique is a Southern African nation on the east coast of Africa and is a Lusophone (Portuguese speaking) country due to its colonial heritage.
At Ponta Malongane, the warm Indian ocean meets tropical flora and sandy beaches to produce a picturesque landscape that rivals the Caribbean and the South Pacific. The expanse of untamed coastlines is a favorite spot for scuba divers with some of the best beaches and diving spots on the African continent.
Festival-goers can book boat rides for diving, snorkeling with dolphins, or just a fun trip out on the water. With coral reefs nearby and an abundance of marine life, travelers are spoiled by natural beauty in the warm, clear waters of the Mozambique coastline.
What’s it like going to STRAB?
If there is one drawback about STRAB – it’s getting there. The long journey is not just rife with pothole-laden roads, backed-up border posts (4km+ long truck traffic jams!) and watching out for stray wildlife. Along the way, we had to wait for a giraffe to leisurely cross the road with its offspring following close behind.
Ponta Malongane has the added difficulty of only being accessible with four-wheel drive, off-road vehicles. Unfortunately, bashing through the muddy pathways in a hatchback will not suffice, which is why the organizers of the festival offer border transfers to and from Ponta Malongane to the border post.
Our journey to the STRAB Festival site
After nearly 10 hours on the road, we made it to the resort just in time to catch the sun dip below the horizon. On the first evening, stars shone through the twilight to welcome us to the Mozambican coast. The gusts of wind also played a helping hand to shoo the mosquitos away, which can be troublesome in this part of the world.
After booking ourselves in, each band member was given a tent to call home for our stay. Some of my band mates came prepared packing stretchers and blankets for the rest of us. Camping is fine, but a few domestic comforts go a long way.
The food and drink at STRAB
As with any journey, after setting up shelter, one has to forage for food. We were not shipwrecked on an island so no need to go into survival mode, but the village was bursting to the seams with food vendors and small eating spots.
As fishing is a staple for the local community, seafood lovers can dive into the vast variety of freshly caught fish, prawns and oysters. Being a vegetarian, my search continued. I made a routine of going into the village daily to purchase vegetables and freshly baked bread from local shops. With avocados the size of my head, I was not complaining.
Over the four days, the festival attendance grew and the party atmosphere followed suit. Rum and Raspberry soda (R&R to the locals) followed like a stream after heavy rains and music permeated from mid-morning right through the night.
The stages at STRAB
The festival area has two stages: the main stage and the deck stage overlooking the beach.
The deck stage hosted bands and solo acts during the day, while main stage acts enthralled music lovers with bands of all styles. Though STRAB has been predominantly a blues and rock festival, over the years the lineup has evolved and now features a healthy mix of styles.
The STRAB Music Festival has become a place where established artists meet up-and-coming bands, sharing experiences and opening the doors to collaboration.
Each morning I was greeted with the songs of thrushes as sunlight peeked through the clouds. The warm ocean currents made for a pleasant swim after a run along the sprawling beaches. Occasionally, tiny crabs would shoot out of the sand like popcorn and scurry towards the water.
As the morning progressed, more festival-goers would emerge from their dwellings, cups charged and ears primed for a day of music and sun.
Walking out of the resort grounds into the village, vendors lined the road selling their catch of the day. Others exhibited their handmade crafts and fashions while some set up bars selling local beer, R&R’s, and a selection of local foods. We were spoiled for choice.
Life in Ponta Malongane unfolds like the ocean currents. Easy and consistent, following its rhythm, not rushed by anything, maintaining its warmth, like the many smiles that greet you. Modern life is busy and chaotic, and festivals like STRAB bring you back to that peaceful place in one’s soul. The tranquil pace is addictive.
Playing STRAB as it kicks into high gear
Day turns to night, and the music kicks up a notch as different bands took to the main stage. As performers, we were allowed to go backstage where the musicians talk shop. We could catch bands up close as they heated up the stage. Fans got as close to the action as they could. No mesh fencing here.
Festivals can be a place of education for musicians. The array of bands allows us to hear what others are creating. Catchy guitar riffs and infectious bass grooves tantalized our eardrums, while drummers made us bounce both inside and out. We leave inspired with our mind and body replenished after going through troubling times in recent years.
On the night my band was scheduled to play, nervousness and excitement emulsified into an overwhelming feeling.
Sound check was swift, and before I could blink, the crowd consumed the stage. Then, we were off. After so long without performing together, our individual parts locked in and emotions spiked. I crossed the stage left and right, bouncing with the drummer with one song, sneaking up next to the lead singer in the following song, to be face deep in the crowd in yet another.
The cries of the crowd cheering for more were as intense as the music.
Before I knew it, I was loading up the car to make the journey back. Muscles sore and eyes heavy from a night of musical ecstasy, I gazed back once more at the trees and the sea. I locked eyes with the horizon and allowed the sounds and smells to drift in and out of my consciousness.
With the uncertainty of life, I appreciated these moments.
The STRAB 2022 line-up
STRAB was interesting this time around. Maybe because it has been so long since I played there, but upon closer inspection what was different was the variety of acts. Blues will always be a feature of the festival – it’s still in the festival name! Yet, as the festival continues to evolve, so does the audience, and promoting new acts is vital for the future success of the festival.
The 2022 lineup consisted of singer-songwriters such as low-fi indie rock artist Shotgun Tori and living legend Anton Goosen Liedjieboer. Some of the other bands included swing and gypsy-inspired dance band Sea of Green, electric bass-driven fusion group Amafranx, Die Horries with their heavy blues rock sounds, and the ever-popular brass dance band Nomadic Orchestra. Powerhouse singer Pedro Barbosa was there as well.
Not to mention yours truly as a side man with Namibian gypsy jungle rock band Crimson House.
There were hosts of other epic acts, and DJs kept the party going into the early hours. The acts were spread over four days between the deck stage and the main stage, which meant that you didn’t have to choose between missing bands with clashing time slots, everyone could have the chance to catch all the artists if they wished.
STRAB Music Festival: Final thoughts
With the world dealing with frantic times, finding experiences that offer not just an escape, but a chance to grow is worth more than any material object or currency. Being a musician in these uncertain times is no easy task. Some might say it’s ludicrous to even try. But, there are still glimmers of hope. Hope in the fact that people, no matter the situation, look to art for guidance, for healing, for meaning.
STRAB survived and came back in 2022 with the same spirit and energy to rival previous years. Music festivals like STRAB provide the nexus where art and human consciousness can meet on a grand scale.
For the audience, it was much-needed therapy. For the artists, it was a lifeline to remind us to keep going, to know we have value in the world. Fans need us as much as we need them. It’s with this spirit that STRAB will continue into the future, to once again rock out under the Mozambican sky.