Namibia Meets Improv at Electrifying Moers Festival

Smooth jazz met with social justice as the Moers Festival in Germany flipped the script, combining classical sounds with wild improvisation for a truly unique experience.

This year, the 53rd edition of the festival pulsated with Namibian and Japanese sounds and confronted a dark chapter in German history – the 1904 to 1908 Nama and Ovaherero genocide. Namibian artists like Eslon Hindundu and Shishani captivated audiences with operatic Otjiherero and powerful calls to remember the forgotten. But Moers wasn’t just about history lessons – it was about pushing boundaries as well.

The Ju’/Hoansi group staged a mesmerising collaboration with a Peruvian bassist and a Berlin drummer – a testament to the raw power of musical exploration.

It wasn’t a typical jazz festival, but a cultural kaleidoscope, a celebration of the improvised and a platform for silenced voices.

If you are a jazz lover but also love music that touches the soul and comes from the heart, the recently held Moers Festival in Germany is worth exploring.

The festival began in 1972 with revolutionary music, synonymous with liberation.

This year’s edition did not fall short of the promises it made and attendees were left impressed, particularly with the aspect of improvised music and the Namibian artists that performed during the festival.

The 53rd edition presented a programme of unpredictable and diverse sounds over four days with around 220 musicians from 20 different countries in around 100 concerts and sessions. Focused on the countries Namibia and Japan, it also featured the music education project ‘Captain Niederrhein im Rausch des Unimoersums’ (‘Captain Lower Rhine in the Unimoers’ Intoxication’), discussions and the exhibition ‘Stolen Moments’.

The event was held under the Lower Rhine motto ‘Nix Berauschendes’, which means ‘Nothing Intoxicating’, and is based on the style of Moers legend Hanns-Dieter Hüsch’s intoxicating soundscapes of musical border-crossers of all genres.

The festival originates from a student movement and student revolts against authority in Germany in 1968, when the country’s youth rebelled against the remaining legacy of its Nazi past.

The festival this year aimed to touch on the atrocities caused by Germany during the genocide.

Although Germany has acknowledged that what happened was a genocide, according to today’s perspective, Namibian opposition and traditional leaders have raised objections about the terminology used in a joint declaration of 2018.

Moers artistic director Tim Isfort said the idea was to draw attention to the genocide, a topic that has still largely not been dealt with in Germany.

He said the festival aimed to make the German public more aware of the problem.

On the opening night of the festival, composer and musician Hindundu wowed the crowd with an unconventional sound. His performance of opera music was not only captivating but also mesmerising.

He sang his latest work, ‘Oumwe’, an opera song in Otjiherero. Hindundu also included the Tsumkwe-based Ju’/Hoansi Living Museum Cultural Group in his performance – a move that could be misconstrued as misplaced but when you look at it in the context of improvisation, you see it was indeed well placed.

He was also joined in a strong performance by Angelina Akawa.

Hindundu’s work has also explicitly dealt with the genocide in his opera ‘Chief Hijangua’.

Other Namibian artists who performed were Jackson Wahengo, ‘West’ Vetunjona Uarije and Vilho Nuumbala.

The Ju’/Hoansi group embarked on a musical adventure with the Peruvian bassist Laura Robles and the Berlin drummer Daniel Schröteler, and performed alongside other Namibian artists at the festival as well.

The granting of visas for the nine San members of the group was not short of challenges, with uncertainties at the time about whether they were going to perform.

Isfort said this shows that structural racism and post-colonial structures are still present today: “I am ashamed of what these people have been subjected to in the process of being granted their visas,” he said.

Isfort visited the group in February to personally invite them to Moers.

One of the outstanding performances was by Shishani, who was joined by the Ju’/Hoansi group and West.

She kicked off with what could be seen as chanting, before being joined on the stage by West.

“Vetunjona, Vetunjona,” Shishani called out before West, whose middle name is Vetunjona, walked out saying, “woo”, in Otjiherero (meaning “yes”).

He walked out and started speaking in Otjiherero, doing the clan call out and wearing traditional attire of sheep skin. This is a scene that most have not seen, especially Germans.

Meanwhile, sticking to the genocide theme, Shishani sang her song called ‘Forget to Remember’.

Meanwhile, United States-based musician Amirtha Kidambi, through her music at the festival, touched on racial discrimination and the brutality people face.

South African jazz musician Nduduzo Makhathini also wowed the crowd with a breathtaking performance alongside the Ju’/Hoansi group.

Other artists included the trombone legend Conny Bauer, harpist Zeena Parkins and guitarists Arto Lindsay and Caspar Brötzmann, as well as Moers’ improviser in residence, saxophonist Virginia Genta.

Touching on the genocide, Germany-based jazz musician Angelika Niescier, who is of Polish descent, said the fact that children in Germany are not taught about the Nama-Ovaherero genocide is sad.

Niescier said Germany should confront this dramatic part of its history. “Nowadays, I think it’s coming a little to the front, so you know people are coming to know this and try to, not to stone it but have it on the agenda,” she said.

Hindundu said it was a privilege to open the show and as a proud Namibian it was amazing to see other Namibians performing at the festival.

“It is quite lovely to get this feeling of Namibianness at such a festival like Moers, showcasing what Namibia is all about and what we are capable of as Namibians. It was a very amazing feeling, it was a blessing for me as well,” Hindundu noted.

Ju’/Hoansi group member Cwi ‘Iui’ Johannas (24) said the group was happy to have been invited to perform at the festival. He said the entire Germany experience was exciting.

Moers Kultur GmbH managing director Jeanne-Marie Varain said it became very difficult to get visas for the artists, particularly the Ju’/Hoansi group. She said the process was draining but they kept pushing until the artists got their visas.

“Next year, we will go back to the African continent and see which country we are going to choose. We will continue this work,” she said.

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