Heavy Metal’s Leather and Chains Find a Home in the Kalahari
The genre’s raucous vibe and apocalyptic fashion serve as a counterpart to Botswana’s conservative culture
GHANZI, Botswana—By the light of a smartphone, Thato Mohamadi inspected his head-to-toe leather ensemble, which featured lizard-like scales and silver studs. Red flames flared a full foot from either side of his black leather chaps.
“Now that’s a superpowered outfit,” said Mr. Mohamadi, who is known as “Demon” in Botswana’s booming heavy-metal scene. “I will be the baddest this year.” The outfit clinked and clattered as the 29-year-old mechanic turned and strode, limbs akimbo, into a community hall hosting Metal Mania Fest 2016.
Once a year, in May, the dusty streets of this sleepy town in the Kalahari Desert fill with hundreds of Mad Max-channeling metalheads who rock to the screams of homegrown bands. At this year’s seventh annual installation, the rockers—known to their countrymen as “Ma Rock”—paraded in leather cowboy hats and skeleton-print jumpsuits before partying until dawn.
The gathering has made tiny Ghanzi a Mecca for bikers and rockers from across this landlocked country and beyond. “It’s a dress-to-kill event,” said Tshomarelo Mosaka, or “Vulture Thrust,” his nom de guerre as bassist and lead singer for the death-metal band Overthrust.
Heavy metal, a North American and European mainstay, has been surging in popularity in seemingly unlikely places in recent years, including Indonesia and Chile. As scruffy as it seems, metal requires expensive equipment and a relatively high degree of musicianship, and is often seen as a companion to increasing education, affluence and internet use.
In Botswana, known for its diamonds, stable governance, wide open spaces and shortage of distractions, fans say metal is a way to blow off steam while expressing a little cultural dissent.
“We’re a very conservative culture,” said Kefentse Masimolole, a bureaucrat who made the 400-mile trip from Gaborone for this year’s festival. “This is the flip side.”
Many Botswanans trace their rock roots to the success of a more straight-ahead rock band called Nosey Road that two Italian brothers founded in Botswana’s capital of Gaborone in 1972. Today their children make up two-thirds of one of the country’s most popular metal acts, Skinflint.
“Our idea was to create a new style of music combining elements of African culture with heavy metal music,” said Giuseppe Sbrana, the band’s singer and guitarist. Some time during the past decade, as the band recorded four albums and toured the country, they noticed more fans turning up in increasingly intricate attire that fused metalhead menace with African cowboy culture. Overthrust and other local metal acts are as popular here as hometown rappers have become in Johannesburg or Lagos.
“We’re passionate musicians, but our fans have taken it to an extra level,” said Alessandra Sbrana, Skinflint’s drummer and Giuseppe’s cousin.
Mr. Mosaka—Vulture to his friends—was an early evangelist in this mineral-rich country’s musical conversion. “People locked into the heavy-metal scene because they could make it a passion, an identity,” he said. “They want to feel like they belong.” Six years ago, he founded the annual festival in this tiny town 500 miles northwest of Johannesburg.
The 30-year-old recalls his uncles introducing him to the iconic metal band Iron Maiden in the 1990s. Lesego Modibati, or “Calvera,” the 37-year-old lead singer of a three-piece act called Barren Barrel, said he inherited cassette tapes of the band AC/DC from South African and British safari guides working around his hometown in the late 1980s.
“That’s when I started opening up my eyes,” said Mr. Modibati, whose screaming-eagle vocals, light mustache and lithe frame evoke a mashup of AC/DC frontman Bon Scott and Little Richard.
Eager for a piece of the action, bands from South Africa and Europe have made tour stops here for the first time recently. One from Finland, called Kirrotuaani, roared into town last year; a Pretoria-based outfit called Adorned in Ash headlined this year’s event.
“They’ve taken a subculture and made it all their own,” said Robyn Ferguson, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, as she watched a parade of roaring motorcycles and chanting metal fans march toward the modest festival venue.
The fashion is as much a draw as the music itself. In the hall’s parking lot, dozens of Ma Rock die-hards strutted in enough chain, leather and metal to stock a Harley-Davidson dealership. Most had dreamed up hard-edge nicknames to match their outfits, including “Gunsmoke,” “Hardcore,” “Fire Darkness” and “Mad Dog.”
“I’m expressing myself as a warrior,” said Justice Keleghaile, who is known as “Series.” The 27-year-old graphic designer had turned the bottom of a plastic bucket and a pile of spent rifle casings into a menacing sundial of a belt buckle.
He carved a workman’s helmet into a gladiator mask crowned by high spikes. Along with his leather pants and frilled leather jacket, the outfit cost him about $450, or about 5,000 Botswanan pula, he said.
Inside, Raven ‘N Flesh took the stage. “Let me see your hands if you want to hear some black metal!” roared frontman Bobby Lefi.
As the bands thrashed on toward midnight, Mr. Mohamadi prepared to make his grand entrance. He belongs to a group called the Superpowers who spend months planning outfits that aim to make other get-ups look tame.
“Rock is in my DNA,” said the group’s leader, Mompati Seithamo, or “Desert Dust,” a 27-year-old electrician. He learned how to punch holes in leather from his father, a cowboy—an honored profession in a cattle-mad nation.
This year, Mr. Seithamo sewed a tuft of fur onto a stud-spiked leather cap and layered his limbs in leather flaps that made him look like a samurai warrior.
He acknowledged that one of his pupils, Mr. Mohamadi, may have outdone him this time. The understudy’s 6-foot spread of spikes and studs, which he spent nearly an hour riveting together, was the envy of the crowd.
In the end, though, it’s the music that matters. Gomolemo Sebidio, aka “Vaselyn,” a 24-year-old waitress with long, orange curls, said the vibe is something that only grows. “I was born a six,” she said, rating her own fanaticism. “And I became a 10.”