Brighter and Bolder: the Reinvention of the Bongo Ball

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If there’s one thing St Andrews has no shortage of, it’s formal events. In a competitive social calendar packed with one black tie event after the other, however, Bongo Ball has found a niche for itself as the premier ‘alternative’ experience for revellers tired of the familiar surroundings of Kinkell Byre and Lower College Lawn. With its reputation for combining strong musical line-ups with a unique location at Crail airfield, it has done much to earn that crown.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the self-styled “most unique and colourful event in St Andrews”. Recent years have seen it plagued by accusations of racial insensitivity and cultural misappropriation. These concerns were voiced most prominently last year by Somali-Canadian student Surer Mohamed in a Viewpoint article entitled “A critique of Bongo Ball”. In it, she decried the notion of a group of mostly wealthy, white westerners paying to experience a superficial, commoditised ‘African’ fantasy in which songs from the Lion King belted from the speakers and ‘African dress’ was interpreted by many as monkey onesies and zebra print trousers.

Surely it was possible to combine bold patterns and animal print, percussion-heavy music and a genuinely worthy cause in an event that wouldn’t cause such widespread unease. Within days, the article had been shared 252 times on Facebook, and viewed hundreds more online. Sparking agreement and outrage in equal measure, her piece opened a dialogue that, ultimately, had a significant impact on this year’s event. This was student journalism that made a difference.

Those affiliated with Bongo Ball came out fighting. The event’s founder, Ed Page, penned a response in The Saint himself, in which he ridiculed accusations of racism and defended the titular use of the word Bongo, citing its positive connotations in many regions of Africa and accusing critics of “ignorance”. It was simply an honest attempt to raise money for charity, the argument went, and organisers shouldn’t be held responsible for how the theme was interpreted by some attendees.

But yet, this year’s Bongo Ball – and its accompanying promotional campaign – saw a major re-branding effort in which evidence of a new approach to the theme by the committee was clear. Conspicuously absent were the promo shoots of years past which featured wooden spears, face paint and tribal masks. Gone too was official endorsement of animal print and safari-themed clothing. Instead, the emphasis was strongly on its partnership with Rafiki Fabrix – a company designing and producing clothing in Africa in aid of refugees.  In one move, African art and the charitable cause behind the whole affair were brought to the fore, whilst clumsy generalisations of Africa were left by the wayside.

Speaking after the event, head of committee Richard Singleton explained this year’s approach: “Bongo Ball has always been about having fun whilst supporting a very important cause. All we want is for as many people as possible to leave having had a positive experience – after last year, we took account of how some people perceived it and that drove our re-branding”. A substantial change in tone was evident at the event itself, too. In stark contrast to previous years, Circle of Life and other Disney favourites were left entirely off the play-list in favour of a range of genres, from dub reggae to chart hits. In Singleton’s words, it was “simply about playing great music”, rather than fitting a contrived ‘African’ theme.

The result? If early indications are anything to go by, this year’s event was a roaring success. A packed out venue, glowing critical appraisal from the student press and over £10,000 apparently raised for the Xavier Project. All this with none of the controversies of years past.

Problems do still remain. As sincere as Page’s defence of Bongo Ball’s name was, it will always prove controversial in a post-“Bongo Bongo Land” political environment.  The attempt to reclaim the word and place it back in its original context, whilst entirely commendable, has so far been of limited success. To those not prepared to research the etymology of the word, eyebrows continue to be raised. The conduct of guests with regard to the dress code is also a worry, given past instances and the open invitation to guests to “exploit the freedom of the ball’s dress code”. Granted, no attendees this year had to be turned away at the door for inappropriate dress, but the continued prevalence of monkey costumes and animal masks threatens to undermine the progress made by the committee.

But the key issues so eloquently raised by Mohamed – the clumsy portrayal of Africa as some quaint, homogenised fantasy safari, the disturbing neo-colonial overtones – have been tackled head-on, and significant headway made. “I think the response last year was unfair,” says Singleton in response to the article. “Bongo Ball has never been held with anything other than the best of intentions – it is all about the Xavier Project and raising money for a fantastic cause.” “But if people are sensitive about it,” he continues, “we want to take ac- count of that”.

This year’s Bongo Ball should be celebrated for more than simply putting on a good show.  This was the year it cast off its identity as the ‘African ball’, and began to craft a new one focused on excellent music and a fantastic charitable cause: an event worthy of anyone’s money and – crucially – respect. For this, the committee are well deserving of praise. But so too is Surer Mohamed, for being brave enough to author the controversial article that so enflamed passions and planted those first, vital seeds for change.

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