The Sound of Magicby Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi / 21.10.2013
Witnessing sound check for a City Hall Session is like watching the rehearsal of an intricate magic show. Split seconds can mean the difference between a successful performance and total career ending chaos. It’s the equivalent to trap doors being put in place when the performers are barking orders of which instruments should be heard in their respective monitors and the sound engineer is trying his best to druk the right knoppie.
The grandiosity of the venue, the regality of the line-ups,and the complementing sound and lighting make every City Hall Session equivalent to an auditory magic concert. Sitting in on sound check for this particular City Hall Session, was like watching the dummy locks and mirrored boxes being tested for efficacy. The City Hall Session on 6 October featured eighteen African artists of various origins, which abides by the theme of a New Africa Re-connection quite closely.
During the arduous sound check, Making Music Productions grand wizard Steve Gordon found time to impart to me the gravity of this series of events. He is an endearingly weathered man who has lived through times when South Africa was at its worst. He speaks of South Africa reentering the fray of international relations between countries at a time when the world was globalising. His mind is elsewhere but there is a clarity and conviction in his voice when he talks about building a nation, he speaks in whispered tones so that his voice doesn’t carry as far as the stage, just a meter away.
The way he sees it, the entertainment industry and culture are at opposite ends of one spectrum. According to him, the task of reconstructing South African culture will take years if not decades from this speck in time. “This is a cultural event” he says about City Hall Sessions between darting glances to the stage and the sound engineer, “we can’t let the entertainment industry determine the cultural reconstruction of South Africa.” In the grand scheme of things “this (City Hall Sessions) is a single brick, not a tiny speck of cement in the reconstruction process” he says. It is a huge challenge to reconstruct something reduced to near rubble. Without funding from the National Lottery Development Trust Fund, the City Hall Sessions presented by Creative Cape Town, a project of the Cape Town Partnership and with support of the City of Cape Town, would descend into the kind of sloppy léger de main Gordon fears is gaining ground in South Africa’s music scene.
Internationally acclaimed vocalist Sakhile Moleshe faces the same challenges, but from the stage. He says “I see what the benefits are of focusing on just being popular or having material wealth circulated only in South Africa.” and continues “I also see the benefits of rediscovering a whole new world that lies out there because everybody’s got ears”. For Moleshe, the social ills which afflict the country are extremely distracting to his creativity. There is a real chance that he will base himself in a country off the African continent for the sake of his muse.
The opposite applies to Munit, vocalist in the guitar and vocal duo Munit and Joerg. She moved back to Ethiopia three years ago after spending two years living in the US. Brave as it is, that decision has meant having to face the challenges of a local market which she says has received the duo well but also simultaneously alienated them. She says “What the (Ethiopian) music scene is saying about us is that we’re music for music lovers”. She bemoans the fact that local audiences are more responsive to their performances than the media, saying that “they’d rather play top forties of whatever is commercially repeating everywhere. It’s a slow to change atmosphere in terms of listening pattern”.
The woman who sat in the front row going through the ins and outs of the scripted programme earlier that afternoon has supernaturally transformed from a takkies and trui frump to an enchantress MC in a deep blue, two piece number. She announces the various acts, without being too much of an act herself and does a skip walk every times she leaves the stage.
Being even just a passive spectator of the sound check that afternoon makes one sit literally on the very last threads at the edge of one’s seat. One cannot help but become a part of the show and druk duimpies vas for every trap door to work and every dummy lock to come loose on time and every trick to have the desired illusion of magic.
The Silapa group, mentored by Dizu Plaatjies and making their debut on the City Hall Sessions stage, open the evening’s performances with traditional acoustic arrangements with four voices and African instruments as accompaniment. The four young women ease into the full power of their voices as the nerves settle with each interlude appearance between sets.
The first big act of the night are Munit and Joerg. Joerg on guitar compliments Munit’s delicate and harmonic voice without drowning the clarity of her vocals. The audience responds to an interplay and synergy which they have formed over their five years working together. Her disabling ease on the stage and visible honesty draws the crowd easily into singing along where required. Even when singing along to absurdist childrens songs, in Amharic, her Ethiopian mother tongue.
Awadi, the legendary Senegalese conscious hip-hop MC is next on stage, accompanied by Tibass on vocals and acoustic guitar. The sound is stripped down from what is usually expected from a hip-hop set. As a result, the messages of African unity and anti-corruption in Awadi’s songs are accentuated that much more.
After the interval the Hassanadas take to the stage. They are a well versed four piece band which speaks the local taal but with an Afro-Latin twang. The musical strength and leadership of acoustic conjurer John Hassan becomes evident when considering that every act which follows is backed by the Hassanadas. The young and impressive guitarist Don-Veno Prins and exuberant saxophonist Brandon Ruiters join the Hassan’adas.
Sakhile Moleshe, of Soul Housing Project fame, takes to the stage with the entertaining Fancy Galada. The only moment of a trick possibly going wrong happens. The sound team has forgotten to prepare the microphone which was so painstaking checked for levels during sound check and it is only during his second song, that the command of his voice can be felt.
The next artist to take to the stage is Stewart Sukuma, a Mozambican arranger, composer, vocalist and guitarist with a 30 year career behind him. He performs only three of his songs, including Wulombe and Mandziko wa Siku. The criticism of the script of this particular City Hall Session is that the whole is assumed to be stronger than the sum of its parts. There could have been more lee way for individual performers to perform encores.
The prestige of this auditory magic spectacle was bringing all the musicians together to perform Salif Keita’s Africa. After that performance, one would be inclined to agree with Making Music Productions’ Steve Gordon, the City Hall Sessions are fast becoming an important part in reconstructing Cape Town and South Africa’s musical culture.
* All images © Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi