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Culture, Music

Clash in Neon

by Andy Davis, images by Liam Lynch and Tyrone Bradley / 07.12.2010

The Sun Coast in Durban is a huge modern art deco monument resplendently decorated in neon. A throbbing beacon of casino, hotel and shopping mall with every fast food franchise known to South Africa. It’s bright lights and big city on the Durban beachfront, just across from that new G-String Stadium… And on the lawn between the Sun Coast and the Sea there is a huge sound rig, split between two massive stages each with its own monster screen. This is the venue for Red Bull Sound Clash.

Now there are a few things I know about Durban… it’s hot and humid, it’s full of Zulus, Indians and the descendants of Englishmen, the majority of who have become ocean sports enthusiasts. But it’s not known for it’s large and robust Afrikaans population. Which begs the question why Red Bull decided to stage its Sound Clash concept featuring two of South Africa’s biggest (and most interesting) Afrikaans pop music acts in Durban – perhaps the least Afrikaans city in the republic?

Red Bull Sound Clash

OK Gazelle aren’t strictly an Afrikaans act – but they do bring a fair amount of that Kaapse vibe into their nu skool Afro Dictator Disko sounds and may I just remind the dissenters of the lyrics: “Sorry pa, ek moesie plaas verlaat, want ek missie diskoligte.” from their breakthrough hit “Die Verlore Seun”. My point is, they’re not exactly all that well known down these parts. But Gazelle were always going to get an easier ride from the crowd with their upbeat, Afro infused, eclectic dance sound rhythms. Because Durban likes to party, and the majority of her inhabitants are no strangers to shaking their bum to the drum. An introduction to South Africa’s most recent eclectic dance music export was always going to be well received, especially by the cool kids looking for something that takes resonant African influences and melds them with reggae, dance, synth-driven electro and live bongos!

On the other hand, the Clash was always going to be tipped against Die Heuwels Fantasties… far from their MK constituencies in Cape Town, Pretoria, Joburg, Bloem, they were in a rare position as the underdog going into this bout. Many in the crowd would not know their music, or have much access to understanding their lyrics beyond the rapidly receeding memories of high school Afrikaans classes.

Red Bull Sound Clash

Sound Clash is a live music concept that pits two of South Africa’s biggest local acts against each other on opposing stages – and gets them to compete for the affections of the crowd over a series of musical challenges. Anyone who spends a lot of time watching live music will tell you that the scene is generally punctuated by bands who get up on stage and rip through a well-rehearsed stage show of their 12 album tracks, almost identical to how they were recorded on the album. So what you get from Bloemfontein via PE to Oppikoppi is the same set of songs performed the same way week after week. Good bands should make a point of evolving their set list and approach to their songs over time, so when they next tour your city, you can assured of something different and new. Unfortunately very few South African bands take the time and effort to rework and change up their set list on a regular basis. In their pursuit of “tightness” they fall into a formula, trotting out the same songs night after night – so in truth you’d be better off sitting at home listening to the CD instead of standing at the back of a smoky club, drinking an overpriced beer waiting for them to do the same songs the same way.

That’s why Sound Clash is such a novel idea, sponsored by energy drink heavyweights Red Bull, they provide the impetus, infrastructure and resource for the musicians to mix it up, practice and deliver something different and new. The irony is that for most of this Durban crowd just seeing Die Heuwels Fantasties and Gazelle rip through their regular sets would be “something new”. But for the jaded selection of media invited on this junket, who get to watch live music most weekends, Sound Clash always offers something different and original.

It also gives the press the opportunity to spend time with bands we often end up dissing. This is certainly the case with Mahala and Die Heuwels Fantasties. Over the last year we’ve accused these guys of lip synching, producing “cliché electro-pop” and generally being unwatchable; all against the grain of their ever-increasing success and a flood of album sales. That forced Hunter to abandon aKing and pursue Die Heuwels full time. Now we’re sharing space in the hotel and nodding politely at each other. Most of that stuff is like water off a duck’s back for Hunter. Pierre doesn’t seem to know who I am. But everyone else, all the journos sitting around the table, know what’s been said and there’s a kind of expectation of fireworks everytime we sit down together at one of the hotel’s tables. Or maybe I’m just getting paranoid. Personally, I’m glad for the opportunity to see them live again and measure up what all the other Mahala pundits have said about them.

Red Bull Sound Clash

By late Friday afternoon all the bands are engaged in the soundcheck and a brief rehearsal. The press and event organisation are talking shop and shit over the spiciest Nandos I’ve ever eaten. Soon people are getting their drinks on. I excuse myself to jump in the ocean with long lost Mahala scribe Samora Chapman and his clan. All the Chapman patriarchs pulling into North Beach to throw themselves off the pier and into the water, regardless of the conditions, which are pretty shocking, onshore slop with the promise of blue bottles. As I launch off the pier, the wind and a rogue wave conspire so I smash my nose on my board. Luckily it’s not broken, but it hurts like hell, even now. We kick around in the piss warm Durban slop until the last rays of sun illuminate golden clouds blown between the buildings on the beachfront. Durban is so kif like that. I run back to the hotel and start preparing my liver for the assault to follow.

My pocket stuffed with free drink tokens, I hook up with perennial under-achieving and over talented Durban Surf Pros from the newly launched Tripod TV, Warrick Wright, Ricky Basnett and Daniel Redman. Not to mention the bevy of incredibly beautiful women who unfathomably follow these deadbeats around. None of them know anything about either Die Heuwels Fantasties or Gazelle, but they’ve overcome bigger obstacles to having a good time. Warrick Wright is on and running around filming clips and instigating for his blog. Ricky and Dan occupy the space in front of the bar by the Die Heuwels stage, collecting a steady flow of fresh drinks without having to queue. Durban Surf Royalty has its perks.

Die Heuwels have attracted a core following from Durban’s Afrikaans community. A tight knit group bouncing around in front of their stage, barely turning around or giving any attention to Gazelle on the opposite stage. The gig kicks off with each band playing three songs to warm up the crowd before the blow by blow kicks off.

Red Bull Sound Clash

Round 1 was straight up weird. Both bands were required to play a cover version of Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue”. Which is just weird considering it’s probably Eddy Grant’s lamest song ever. And not exactly fitting in the “oeuvre” of either bands. Die Heuwels opted for a pretty standard rendition, while Gazelle tried to Afro funk the shit out of it. But really original South African bands playing with international doo-doo was always going to produce a kak vibe. Then the crowd was implored to vote by applauding the two bands. Gazelle pipped it, primarily because the Die Heuwels fans didn’t make the effort to get close enough to the mic suspended over the middle of the crowd, perhaps for fear of giving up their front row places.

Round 2 was more interesting. Known as the ‘Take Over’ each band would start one of their songs, the band on the opposite stage would then step into it, take it over and expand on the song in their own way. During the rehearsal I watched Die Heuwels Fantasties do a fairly standard rock riff takeover of Gazelle’s “She Did Me In” but on the night, it actually went down a treat. It came off as a more direct version and really got the crowd jumping. Then it was Gazelle’s turn to take over from Die Heuwels on their track “Sonrotse” and what resulted was most pleasing. A kind of reggae dub version with haunting vocals from Xander in his Mobutu guise before Dubmaster China stepped from behind his bongos and did a ragga rastaman freestyle. All the while supported by Gazelle’s two back up singers and a sangoma who kept casting curses on a Die Heuwels Fantasties T-shirt in a clay pot. Deep weirdness but it’s a strangely engaging stage show to a series of original and hypnotic rhythms. Once again the Die Heuwels fans refused to get close enough to the mic to make their voices heard, and the dudes with the vuvuzelas supporting Gazelle ensured that the electro funk African dictator outfit won that round comfortably. Although in terms of the music they were producing, and their overall stage show and production, Gazelle won that round hands down.

Red Bull Sound Clash

Next up, Round 3, pitted the two bands against each other creatively having to produce hip hop, country and dubstep reworkings of their tracks, as dictated by DJ Ready D. Die Heuwels Fantasties and Gazelle both produced interesting country songs. Hip hop on both sides of the Clash was pretty lame. But the dubstep kicked everyone in the pants and set the dancefloor ablaze, with Gazelle pulling out some bass wobble, courtesy of a Mix ‘n Blend remix of “Die Verlore Seun” that released some of the kinkiest dance moves I’ve seen in a long time from Durban’s grody, post-race filthy hipsters largely made up of representatives from the Winston mouth rape scene, who occupied much of the space to the left of Gazelle. By this stage the Die Heuwels fans had realised where the mic was and congregated underneath it to avoid the Belvillians from being whitewashed out of the Sound Clash. And even though their dubstep track came in a long way behind Gazelle’s, they still snuck the round on the decibal count.

Finally Round 4 introduced the ‘Wild Card’. With Die Heuwels rolling out their big gun in the form of Francois Van Coke, while Gazelle pulled Inge Beckmann out of the sangoma’s pot. Gazelle snagged that and then both bands got together with their wildcards for an impromptu ode to Durban with some wicked lyrics from Xander talking about Bunny Chow, Zulus and a whole bunch of other namechecks that resonated with the locals. It was a fine finishing touch. Champagne soon sprayed down on the front row and a velvet bag full of R10 000 bucks worth of casino chips was placed firmly into the hands of Gazelle.

Red Bull Sound Clash

What was funny was the group of Afrikaans fanboys standing outside the backstage chanting for an audience with Francois Van Coke, even though he only really had a small on stage cameo. Soon enough he’s posing for shots and behaving like a rockstar, proving that the old Fokof notoriety runs deep. The night, what was left of it soon descended into a montage of backslapping, tequila shots and increasingly slurred conversations in a club mainly populated by Indian dudes dancing to commercial house. Oh what a night!

I’m left feeling that Gazelle are rightful winners. All that international touring has moulded this band into one tight unit. Their sound is fresh and interesting. It draws on original African sounds and presents something new. Die Heuwels, on the other hand, come across as a bit inhibited by the glass ceiling of parochial Afrikaans music fame. There also seems to be something missing from their mix, exasperated by Gazelle’s polished stage show and their back-up singers and the sangoma cameo, but Die Heuwels is definitely crying out for another element. Perhaps Inge Beckmann needs to change sides…

At about 6am, in the hotel lobby, Xander from Gazelle and Pierre from Die Heuwels are a few thousand Rands up and fanning themselves with their recently cashed-in casino loot trying to persuade the concierge to hook them a bottle of vodka. The sun had risen, the ocean beckoned. Sound Clash was done and dusted, but the resounding moral of this story is that South Africa’s music promoters have got to figure out a way to get bands do more spontaneous, original and eclectic shit than the standard 12 album track performances, we get fed at almost every live music event.

Red Bull Sound Clash

*All images © Liam Lynch and Tyrone Bradley

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