Small town Darling’s artists pull in tourists

(This article was published in the Weekend Argus, a weekly newspaper in the Western Cape province, South Africa, on February 28 2016.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Darling is one of those small South African towns with a reputation stretching kilometres longer than its short main road, a result largely of its cultural attractions that pull in tourists.

Actor Pieter-Dirk Uys, creator of the “most famous white South African woman”, his popular stage character Evita Bezuidenhout, has been a chief architect in building the town’s creative reputation.

After Uys settled in Darling, he set up a theatre called Evita Se Perron where he would perform his shows to out-of-towners each week.

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With Darling being just an hour’s drive from central Cape Town, it was close enough for a weekend getaway for those interested in the arts.

Later on Uys was pivotal in establishing the Voorkamerfest, an annual gathering that turns resident’s homes into theatre spaces for intimate live performances.

Music soon followed with the establishment of the Darling Music Experience, now in its eleventh year.

As more people started flocking to Darling’s festivals, surrounding small towns developed accommodation options when rooms ran out in the festival’s host town.

Uys bought his house in Darling twenty-one years ago and says he has seen this small town grow because of its creative residents.

“I walk around the town and wherever I walk I see things are happening. For the first five years we (Evita Se Perron) were the only place,” he says.

“We now have little bed ‘n breakfast (spots) all over the place.”

Uys adds: “It all really depends on the goodwill of people. And their is huge goodwill.

“The basic bottom line to this is, do something without waiting for government, waiting for sponsorship or subsidy. We don’t have it.”

Alfred Legner, a retired London banker and long-time Darling resident, says small towns can create arts events to stimulate tourism.

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When Legner started the Darling Music Exchange, it was among his goals that this platform attracts visitors from all over.

Legner says 80% of their festival’s attendees are South African while the rest are foreigners predominantly from Germany, Holland and the UK.

Legner says: “We need events to foster tourism. It creates jobs. We just finished our eleventh season. And we are growing each year.”

“We started with seven musicians and three events that all took place in a church. It was over one weekend. Now we do 18 events over three weekends.”

Legner says creating events to grow tourism figures in a small town comes with its challenges.

“You have to accept the culture in a small town and use the energy of people in their way and not in your way,” he says.

“It is important to not get drawn into politics too much, but to use your energy in a positive way.”

Legner’s event website offers information about other events and activities in Darling too.

“We sell Darling on our website and tell people what else is on during the festival. People can play golf, go to the beach and do mountain biking (in Darling),” says Legner.

Surrounding towns are incorporated into the music festival, with live performances scheduled there.

The music festival’s closing concert in February was on the beachfront in Yzerfontein, a small town a stone’s throw from Darling.

All of this equates to employment opportunities. The Dixie Swingers, a band from Cape Town, was hired to play jazz music at Die Strandkombuis restaurant for the festival’s last concert.

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The band’s banjo player, Darryl Andrews, says the music festival was “creating employment for musicians, which is in short supply”.

Andrews, who usually plays at The Crypt jazz club in Cape Town, says driving out to play in a small town is a “different experience”.

“It’s a quaint place for this kind of thing. This place has got character,” he says.

Strandkombuis manager Bastiaan van der Merwe says foreigners have come to know about their eatery as a result of the music festival.

“We get foreign tourists and if there wasn’t any music festival they would maybe not even come here,” says Van der Merwe.

“Most of our guests are from out of town and many of them are from Europe.

People come here and say they heard about it from their friends or saw it on Facebook.”

He adds: “We see more and more arts and culture activities. We see more artists moving into town. They bring their skills with them, including painting and music. They want to carry their skills over to other people.”

Legner cautions that festivals in small towns aren’t raking in millions.

“You don’t really make money. You just make sure you limit your losses,” he says.

“We are counting 1,000 visitors for this (music) festival. If each of them only spends R500, it contributes R500,000 to the local economy. And that is a lot of money. But we need more of these events throughout the year.”

Uys speaks to small town frustrations, somewhat offering advice to others in similar spaces who may want to create arts events to attract tourist income.

“Nothing happens quickly or easily. I keep saying don’t give up,” says Uys.

“You do it the first time and nobody shows up. You do it the second time and nobody comes. You do it the third time and some people come.

“You need patience and humour and keep listening to what people want.”

Darling residents say arts festivals in their town have had a positive effect for locals, not just drawing in tourists but helping them get to know each other.

Resident Renata McKenzie says all the town’s residents invite their friends from out of town to the festivals. It is also a time when “residents meet each other”, she says.

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Another resident, Adirian Rosant, says he has been to every music festival in the town for the last three years.

“I think it’s (the music) something completely different from what people are used to. It’s different from what we hear on a CD,” says Rosant.

“We see more tourists in Darling during the festival and it helps locals to be more interactive with each other too. It’s a very positive thing.”

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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