Over 21 years the Oppikoppi music festival has come to embrace South Africa’s diversity

South Africa’s Oppikoppi music festival in the town of Northam, Limpopo has come to represent the aspirations of a generation which embraces the diversity of the country’s peoples and their respective music. Nikita Ramkissoon/The Conversation

South Africa has seen an explosion of music festivals and music award shows. One that has stood the test of time is Oppikoppi which is in its 21st year, making it one of the longest-running music festivals in the country.

When Oppikoppi started it represented the music interest of a minority ethnic group - white South Africans. But since then it has come to reflect the diverse tastes of South Africans at large, appealing to audiences from many ethnic and regional backgrounds. The festival has come to represent the aspirations of a generation which embraces the diversity of the country’s people and their respective music.

Over the past two decades, the festival has grown substantially to become one of the biggest and most popular in the country.

Music acts at Oppikoppi are representative of the evolution of a democratic dispensation in South Africa. It holds on to the musical memories of the past and is proactive in providing a musical map towards the future. This year the performers range from older, well-established musicians like Johnny Clegg and Karen Zoid to styles such as choral music which is enjoyed by the majority of South Africans.

Oppikoppi is clearly dedicated to bringing audiences of all dispositions together in the name of music. The festival provides a taste of what some festival-goers have interpreted as a “truly South African culture” not marred by rancorous divisions and political factions.

The festival’s evolution

“Oppikoppi” is a colloquialism derived from the Afrikaans phrase “op die koppie”, which translates directly to “on the hill”. Hosted annually over three days in the second week of August on a private farm in the Limpopo province in northern South Africa, Oppikoppi had its beginnings as the “Oppikoppi Festival of Rock”. As the title suggests, it had a focus primarily on rock music. It was a single stage with about 27 acts performing to an audience of about 400 people.

Today, the festival boasts about 150 acts across seven fixed stages that play host to a huge range of music genres. Jazz, blues, ska, hip-hop, kwaito, electro, drum ‘n bass, metal, traditional, folk and so-called world music are performed to an ever-diversifying crowd of approximately 20 000 people.

Historically, the predominant demographic of the festival was white, mostly Afrikaans, youth. While this is still largely the case, the event’s immense growth and the styles of performers it has to offer has made it much more accessible to a culturally diverse audience.

Over the years, a huge range of uniquely local music have been showcased. From Afrikaans folk heroes like Koos Kombuis and Valiant Swart to well-established African folk and jazz legends Madala Kunene, Vusi Mahlasela and Hugh Masekela. It has also included local rock heroes Springbok Nude Girls and Fokofpolisiekar, to name just a few.

With its humble beginnings as a small gathering of local artists, Oppikoppi now attracts a growing number of international acts from around the globe. The festival brings in some of the biggest names in contemporary music. Recent years have seen bands such as Eagles of Death Metal, Deftones, Wolfmother and Cat Power grace the Koppi stage.

A diverse range of music acts and performance styles are once again included this year: from the debauched, high-energy theatricality of US-based Gypsy punk outfit Gogol Bordello to the low-key psychedelic minimalism of local electro guru, Felix Laband. Bordello and Laband should present a dramatic contrast to other bands which might appeal more to a middle of the road audience.

An expanding repertoire

In 2012 the Oppikoppi team announced that it would be organising a concert in Cape Town called One Night in Cape Town. This features the headlining acts of the festival, mostly international artists.

The festival also has a YouTube channel featuring interviews with bands, interviews with festival goers, and live streaming of performing artists, with views into the tens of thousands. Audience members have also contributed to the channel which provides a substantial number of videos of music acts as well as their experiences.

Its focus is no longer exclusively on music. A number of stand-up comedy acts and other on-the-ground performance artists are also hosted.

As for its future, Oppikoppi has to compete with the range of other festivals in the country. But its longevity, growing appeal and increasing audiences are an indication that it has become a major event on the music calendar for new generations of audiences. This means it should continue into the distant future.