Mr Jones and Meby Sipho Hlongwane / Images by Dorothy Mhone / 14.09.2011
Something is happening here. But I don’t know what it is. They’re laughing. What at, I can’t tell. They’re here in packs of two and three, evidently willing to have a good time. I haven’t been in the room for two seconds and I can already tell that I don’t belong. Or I’m not supposed to belong. I’m definitely not in on the joke. I feel like Mr Jones in Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”
“Oh my God / Am I here all alone?
Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr Jones?”
Almost everyone is wearing gold Phantom of the Opera masks. I gather that those came late didn’t get masks. Or perhaps you were supposed to bring your own one. I don’t know. Nobody is going to tell me either. I came alone.
The band hasn’t started yet. We’re watching a shaky film on a makeshift screen set at the back of the stage. “I started The Brother Moves On when I was masturbating in the toilet,” a small man in the film says. Cackles explode sporadically from the audience. What’s so funny? There’s a chap with a ridiculously hollow back standing shirtless at one corner. He’s covered in gold. There’s another one in a suit in the other corner. He’s covered in silver. Is the audience laughing at them? What could possibly be so funny?
Is this entire thing an elaborate joke? Am I it? My good shoes don’t fit with this Braamfontein crowd. There’s nary a weave or a franchise store shirt to be seen anywhere. White dreadlocks? Yeah.
I don’t give a shit, though. I’m here for The Brother Moves On. The band appears from behind the cramped audience space, singing in unison. Much like you do at black funerals.
And that’s what this is, Siya Mthembu tells us. This is the funeral of Mr. Gold waseGoli. He tells the tale of a man from far, far away, who was ordered to eGoli by the portent of an old man. His story takes on a rural pace. I immediately struggle to get with it. The quick snap of the snare drum and the earnest throb of the bass guitar suggest to me that we’re not sitting under a tree somewhere, eulogising Mr Gold waseGoli with his amusing history. We should be on our feet, dancing. Is that dissonance purposeful, a way of keeping us all unsettled? We’re unsettled alright, but I’m also struggling to get with the story. I will the band to show that I’m wrong, that this is all part of the joke, instead of being the unsteady production of a band just starting out. They never do.
I wasn’t the only one struggling to move apace with the band. They weave their story in waves – the guitars chase Siya’s swelling voice to a crescendo, where the natural thing to do is dance, before we’re dropped back down to a slower pace. The people want to dance. The Brother Moves On wants to tell a story. We can’t really have the same response to the “Wenu Wetla” (which has undertones of “Standby” by the BLK JKS) and the burlesque “Dagiwe”, even if the band demands it of us.
We eventually give up on the jol and sit back to listen.
Siya’s voice has an unpolished quality to it that is reminiscent of a young Tom Waits. Listening to Siya sing is like watching an amateur high jump athlete attempt to leap over the 2 metre mark. You want him to succeed, yet at the same time failure will be spectacular. Siya’s voice doesn’t allow you the confidence to sit back and let it take you wherever it wants. You think it is always on the verge of breaking, but it never does. It’s a potent gift.
Someone once described the BLK JKS as being ungenerous in their music. They were trying to say that they were too complex and inaccessible to succeed. Self-indulgent. The Brother Moves On, successors to the BLK JKS, perhaps, will be even more inaccessible to the disciples of 5FM. They sing in isiXhosa. They tell izinganekwano in their songs. They speak to the other half of Johannesburg. They may need a competent production manager to better marry their stage craft to the music, but nothing stands in the way of their musical accomplishment.
Which isn’t to say that commercial success lies at their doorstep. What The Brother Moves On does will never catch on. It’s for the in-crowd. It’s for those who know the punch line of the joke to enjoy. Those of us who are on the outside, looking in, will always find the band mystifying and its disciples annoyingly obtuse. I’m not sure whether to mourn or celebrate that.
*All images © Dorothy Mhone.