Get Spiritualby Kimon de Greef / Images by Malherbe Pelser / 26.08.2013
Church, Long Street, on a Tuesday night. It was a deeply subversive ceremony. We prayed and sang hymns but there was no priest. A black man with dreadlocks moved wickedly beneath the pulpit while a blonde woman howled the blues. A demonic butterfly waved a loudhailer. Someone fell down the stairs. We sat transfixed on wooden benches and when the service was over we drifted like mad moths into the night.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start a month back, when a group called City Soiree launched South Africa’s first crowdfunded music event. Three acts — Derek Gripper, Sannie Fox and The Brother Moves On — were on the bill. The Slave Church in Long Street, originally a mission project to guide Cape Colony heathens to Jesus, and now a museum, was the venue. “It can’t happen without you,” the organizers said, flipping the usual routine of securing a lineup and selling tickets on its head.
Instead, they offered potential guests a wager: the show would only happen if 150 people pledged to attend. What would ordinarily have been a concert became a campaign. Fans started hustling their friends to book tickets. When you put money behind an idea you become an investor. You buy in and commit to the project’s success. I wanted to see The Brother Moves On invoke spirits in a slave church, for example, and I wanted to hear Siyabonga, their frontman, reverberate off the walls. So I made a noise about the show and punted it to all my friends—and so did everybody else.
Cape Town is notorious for being fickle when it comes to live music (especially in winter) but the campaign was a blazing success. The target was reached ten days in advance, and a small batch of additional tickets sold out almost immediately.
Cut back to an austere chamber lit by candles. Derek Gripper strode onstage in a blazer and plugged in. He sat with one leg folded over the other and started playing hypnotic Malian blues. For the last few years he has been transposing traditional kora compositions — a West African harp with 21 strings — onto acoustic guitar. He is classically trained and his technique is impeccable. He plays with his eyes closed, singing faint overtones while his fingers fly across the fretboard. Midway through his first song the audience was entranced.
He performed a tribute to Joni Mitchell that broke all the rules of composition but was perfect. He detuned a bass string and bent it back up, and in the ensuing silence someone in the front row gasped. Between songs he stood and bowed. When he finished the room erupted, and with a smile at the edge of his lips he returned to his seat.
Sannie Fox wore a low-cut black dress with long tight sleeves. Her hair was combed out in a mane. She stood straight as a javelin with a Fender at her hip, ice blue eyes locked dead ahead, and belted out dirty rock ‘n roll. A young man behind her thumped a four-beat on the cajón, a Peruvian drum box that once underpinned banned slave music in Latin America. (You sit on top of it like a seat. Apparently this enabled players to disguise their instruments and avoid having them confiscated.)
Then Derek Gripper walked back on stage and the three musicians played a sublime cover of an Ali Farka Toure number. The groove shifted and the energy lifted. We were gliding above the desert, drinking water from oases near Timbuktu…
“I’m afraid of the blues and I’m afraid of singing in a slave church,” warned Siyabonga Mthembu before the next collaboration. Derek was perched on the sidelines again like a cat. Sannie hammered out a searing riff as Siya took the mic. His voice was deep and ghostly. He began winding his hips, flicking his tongue out, smiling and groaning, and we groaned with him, pained and ecstatic in equal measure, watching a boy from Kempton Park unleash himself in front of the pews.
After a twenty minute break he was back on stage with his band, which I’m convinced is the best in the country. In the last few months I’ve watched The Brother Moves On destroy a festival stage, a block party and a jazz bar. They are musically superb and have the tightest rhythm section imaginable. Siya is a giant of a performer, able to cut between states of anger and joy and fear at the snap of a hihat, leading audiences to strange places like some insane hybrid between a sangoma and the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Writing about The Brother Moves On is much, much worse.
The men were dressed in khaki uniforms and red berets. They introduced themselves as the Eccentric Freedom Front. Throughout their set they returned to the format of a revolutionary meeting, addressing us as Comrades, and everybody laughed because it was hilarious, but it was uncomfortable too because nobody quite knew who the joke was pointing at.
The audience was mostly white. Slaves once sat our seats, imbibing the doctrine of their oppressors. The band was parodying a populist black movement many are genuinely afraid of, and it was hard to tell if the jest concealed cold nuggets of truth. But whenever the trip got too deep Siya would sigh, drop his shoulders and smile, and the tension would dissipate.
“I’d like to thank the elders for coming to watch us,” he said. “We don’t often get to play for you guys. People think we’re a political band but we’re not, really … even though we are, really … ” and then another five-part vocal harmony started up and we were led off into prayer again, into meditation, into the redemption through music that has accompanied spiritual journeys ever since human consciousness began.
A black butterfly danced down the aisle with a loudhailer. From nowhere a heavy mbaqanga groove dropped and everybody jumped to their feet. Siya had his eyes closed. We were jiving hard. Behind the band an embroidered cloth hung from the pulpit. I’d kept looking up to read it during the show.
“So sê die Here,” it said. So says God.
* All images © Malherbe Pelser