Steel-pan soloist Ken Philmore will perform at this year’s Joy of Jazz Festival in Johannesburg

While some in the virtual AIAC office have been putting together their summer lists, I thought I’d keep it real and put up a winter list. (Yes, it’s winter here in South Africa.) If you ever get tired of summer in the Northern hemisphere, this list is for you. While this is by no means a definitive list, all these festivals are worth the travel to get there. Here are my top winter festivals to visit in Southern Africa.

Grahamstown National Arts Festival (South Africa)
Grahamstown Festival, as the National Arts Festival is known locally, is essentially a melting pot of what’s happening in the arts in South Africa, from live shows, to film screenings, to exhibitions. In particular, it’s a great place to see new theatre and live music from around the country. While the festival has some way to go in terms of inclusion (it can be read as a bubble of privilege in a region facing high inequality), it is an important part of South Africa’s cultural landscape. The jazz jam sessions in those cold Eastern Cape nights are nothing short of legendary. The fest has already passed this year (28 June to 8 July) but be sure to check it out next year.

Lake of Stars (Malawi)
Lake of Stars is an international music festival on the shores of one of Africa’s largest lakes, Lake Malawi. According to the festival press release, last year’s festival headlined by Foals was hailed by “the international media” as the “most spectacular festival in the world.” Previous headliners include Zimbabwean musical giant Oliver Mtukudzi, The Very Best and Groove Armada. Started by a British guy called Will Jameson who initially traveled to Malawi to do NGO work, the festival aims to not only bring in cash to the country from international visitors but to improve on Malawi’s ‘brand’ as a country, moving away from representations only focused on famine and AIDS. The festival seems to also place local participation and development at the centre of its ethos, pairing with charities such as the Micro Loan Foundation. I’ve never been, but a friend has described it as “mind-blowing.” I can’t wait to go. Lake of Stars is taking a break this year, but will return in September 2013. Put it on your iCal.

Harare International Festival of the Arts (Zimbabwe)
HIFA is another one of those festivals I always mean to go to but never make it there (I’m a Capetonian, to us Johannesburg is a far-off concept). This year’s festival ran in May and boasted an impressive musical line up including Tumi and the Volume, Ismael Lo, and, of course, Tuku AKA Oliver Mtukudzi. Previous years have seen the likes of BLK JKS and Nneka. The festival extends far beyond music however. It has become somewhat of an island of free speech and artistic expression in Zimbabwe with many of the theatre pieces and visual artworks directly confronting the ills of the Mugabe regime. Like Lake of Stars, the festival aims to bring in tourism and boost Zimbabwe’s economy, but more importantly it serves as a great symbol of National Pride. As Kati Auld recently wrote over at Mahala, “in the context of Zimbabwe’s past, every triumph must be placed carefully in the display case of national memory, and polished often.”

Durban International Film Festival (South Africa)
As a filmmaker, I just had to throw this one in there. DIFF is South Africa’s longest running film festival, and probably the most important film festival in South Africa at the moment. It’s a great mix of social and filmic experiences, and one of the rare moments when Cape Town and Jo’burg get to meet in a neutral space. The last time I was there I got to hang out with my favourite local filmmakers, pitched to international broadcasters, and met some international heavyweights. And somehow I managed to see some films as well. It was a good time. Another plus is that Durban is almost always warm, both in spirit and in climate, even in the middle of winter. This year, DIFF ran earlier this month.

Joy of Jazz (Johannesburg, South Africa)
Finally, a festival on my list that hasn’t passed yet this year. The Joy of Jazz festival is coming up from the 23 – 25th of August in Johannesburg’s hip gentrified inner city Newtown District — although things move so quickly in Jo’burg I’m not really sure if it’s hip anymore. Do people still say “hip”? With each year, it seems as if Joy of Jazz will eventually eclipse the hugely successful Cape Town International Jazz Festival, which takes place in our summer. It seems to poise itself as more of a “strictly jazz” festival, and will feature some international and local heavyweights such as Grammy award-winning Kurt Elling, trombone maestro Wycliffe Gordon, local legends Caiphus Semenya and Bakhiti Khumalo. Also on the bill is Jane Monheit and the hip hop inspired trumpeter Erik Truffaz. And Thandiswa Mazwai, Swazi Dlamini and Vusi Khumalo will be playing a tribute to Winston Makunku, Zakes Nkosi and Joe Malinga. Sounds like a crash course in jazz school. Time to get an education!