Attending a festival or party is fun (but not in the time of pandemics, of course). But what about the behind-the scenes? How do you go from a partygoer to a party-maker? Palesa Buyeye meets the people behind a good time.
words palesa buyeye
There is a South African proverb that goes, “Monate wa lefatshe hao fele, ho fela motho.” Meaning: “Fun never ends – but people do”, often exclaimed by our parents as we were growing up to keep us in doors to take part in more meaningful, safe and productive activities like learning something or making money.
But what if both these objectives could be met at a fun time?
According to Allied Market Research, the global events industry was worth $1.1-billion in 2018 and is expected to grow to $2.3-billion by 2026, showing us just how much of a good time is consumed and like the proverb, “Never ends.” However, what creates the demand for a great party? And what does it take to have a career in hosting one?
Thulani Dandala and Amahle Jaxa are two of six members behind the events, marketing and brand activation company Until Until. Known for hosting parties like High School Cool in 2013 (themed around school holidays and wearing your old high school uniform), Pyjama Party, Genesis All Black during the long Easter weekend, Sunday Roast at Great Dane and most recently, the three-day Bacardi Holiday Club which takes place an hour outside Johannesburg and had Swizz Beatz as a headliner in their first year in 2018. These kids know how to throw a party!
“We started throwing parties because we loved them. We were always at parties but didn’t think they were up to the standard we were looking for,” Dandala says.
“Basically we went from throwing these events with just our friends until we realised that there was a gap in the market for certain experiences and realised we had the potential to sell unique and creative ideas to brands and people because we put so much work into it,” Jaxa further explains.
With a few members of the team having marketing and law degrees, coming together for their shared passion and talent was effortless, a diverse team with interests in production, all genres of music and simply, a great party. Jaxa, who grew up in the Eastern Cape, and Dandala in KwaZulu-Natal, found each other and the rest of the founders on their journeys in university. Two members went to high school together but of the team, most of them grew up around Johannesburg, meeting each other at socials, the rugby and games, Jaxa says
The team is comprised of creative director Charles Lusengo, head of strategies Ndumiso Buthelezi, accounts manager Sandile Shangase and general manager Thandile Mafanya. The six including Jaxa and Dandala (also known as Thulz) have never had a conventional business model and learnt through experience with each event they worked on. “In the first [couple of] years we took knowledge from each other. A couple of us were working at different agencies and because we started [Until Until] together we were able to adapt and change according to what was needed at every given time,” says Dandala, like learning that although they were part of the party, the bar was now one of their cash cows.
“Thulz and I also did a lot of free jobs around different events in Johannesburg just to see how big scale events did it… We learned from the streets,” Jaxa says.
Using each member’s hidden talents, like Lusengo’s (aka Chuck Tailored) DJ and graphic designer skills, to bring the business together also helped them cement their own careers in the specific industries. “Encouraging in-house DJs and designers such as Chuck Tailored and Thulani was to save on costs at the beginning. Someone who is part of the team could play three sets without us paying a R20,000 booking fee,” Jaxa laughs.
“But we also believed in being a holistic agency. We can do anything – that’s why our slogan is: ‘By any means’.” Besides grooming talent in-house, what often makes an Until Until experience is their inclusion of everyone around them. It is said that if someone wants their name or face on one of their party flyers, they should ask and they will receive.
With opportunities in the South African entertainment industry being scarce, the company often booked up-and-coming or unknown artists which, at first, affected their funding from sponsors. “We never wanted to sacrifice our creativity, integrity or philosophy, so we would get very little money because they wanted us to do things the ‘normal’ way,” Jaxa says, emphasising how the team had to invest a lot of their own money at the beginning.
“We have always stuck to our guns with events because we valued what we were to the people, so sponsors eventually grew to understand that and started to trust our vision as we earned our stripes with each event. That helped us grow with them over time,” Dandala says. The team eventually received bigger requests from sponsors due to the massive support they had. The originality and growth of the team allowed them to secure stages at festivals that were formerly predominantly white spaces, like OppiKoppi and Ultra Music Festival, allowing them to transform the culture into something more inclusive. Bringing their own artists allowed them to bring a more diverse crowd because at the end of the night, everyone just wants to party Until Until.
“We really wanted to teach our music to the majority or the greater market that was there, so our stage focused on African beats, African house and hip-hop. It was a project which is part of our philosophy of unifying South Africa through events and music,” Jaxa says.
We started throwing parties because we loved them. We were always at parties but didn’t think they were up to the standard we were looking for
Looking back at events such as the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute (also known as the Free Nelson Mandela Concert in 1988), to the 46664 Concert for HIV/ AIDS awareness and the recent 2018 Global Citizen in a bid to end poverty, events have played an important role in unifying people or bringing attention to a specific cause, making the role of promoters and event company owners deeper than just selecting music and a line-up.
In March, Palomino Jama spoke at the ANC Women’s League Inaugural Presidential Golf Day gala dinner about how she felt at home and surrounded by love and queer energy at Lelo Meslani’s Vogue Nights, which is intentionally inclusive and celebrates the LGBTQ+ community. She emphasised the importance of more individuals creating such spaces.
Festival Director of Rocking the Daisies George Avakian has tried to embody the work of inclusivity, having assisted in the transformation of the previously predominantly white festival. “We understood that we needed to change the culture or at least bring the culture to a different audience, because as much as Daisies existed and was its own thing and doing well, it was not part of South African culture,” Avakian says. “It was this little bubble and needed to be a better representation of our continent and what we offer musically. If I had gone to one before 2016 I would have felt like an outsider myself.”
Avakian came onto the scene in 2009 as the teenage beatboxer on South Africa’s Got Talent, later becoming a rapper and producer. “I have always believed in transitioning but giving something a good couple of years… Ever since I was a kid, I would pick up an instrument and get bored and would need to try to keep it interesting.”
Avakian was one of the owners of Club Sway in Sandton, which led him into the night life and festival business. “I would throw parties there and they grew and obviously those artists were now recording in my studio. That’s when I met TJ Steyn and Dale De Ruig, who are my partners now and own Steyn Entertainment, which acquired Rocking the Daisies in 2016,” Avakian says. “We used to play poker together and when we would go out afterwards we would have some 18-year-olds sweating all over us. We realised we wanted something more exclusive, where we could dress up and have a cigar and whisky.” This led to the formation of Marabi Club, a jazz lounge and restaurant in Maboneng which has hosted guests such as Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland and Carmelo and La La Anthony.
Monate wa lefatshe hao fele, ho fela motho.A South African proverb meaning: “Fun never ends – but people do”
“It’s about bringing the eyes to South Africa, throwing events in Johannesburg CBD allows us to change the narrative around it,” Avakian says. “We need people all over the world to invest in South Africa.” Avakian believes the greater intention of his job is to show people the potential of our country through events. Although days are often filled with meetings and a 12-month programme for Rocking the Daisies forcing him to be at the office at 6:30am, no day is ever the same. One thing Avakian emphasises is the work on relationships, whether it is with representatives of artists, fellow collaborators or partners. This work on strong relationships led him and his partners to the exclusive Roc Nation Brunch a few months ago. “Getting information from Jay Brown the vice chairman of Roc Nation inspired me to want to share with others who don’t necessarily have access to him.”
Avakian has been working on creating workshops on the festival and hosting business teaching young people about sponsorships, booking artists and the details that go into it. “It’s about being on the ground because these artists grow so quickly. A few years ago, we wanted to book Billie Eilish; we had an offer that was almost confirmed for $50,000 and now the number has grown by 3 zeros,” he says, as Eilish is a Grammy-winning artist now. In many aspects it is about seeing the vision before sponsors and potential artists see it, which is often the hardest part but common in most creative fields, however, once you get it right, you get it right.
“It is such a difficult business that we should all be looking out and sharing with each other,” Avakian says.