Music Incubatorby Ts'eliso Monaheng / 14.11.2013
Over the course of five days, Redbull decked out the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein with nifty music-making gear and then hand-picked some of Mzansi’s most forward-thinking musicians to come and play with it. Participants were flown in from Cape Town and Durban, and Jozi had its lot thrown in. Days comprised of lectures from renowned producers and musicians in the morning hours; production and recording sessions took up the bulk of the afternoon until late evening. The night-time schedule was filled with club gigs featuring a wide range of electronic music deejays, and these typically went on til dawn threatened to break.
My late arrival on day one turned into a week of pondering what that ingeniously-curated meeting of minds potentially holds for future South African music. An even more prolonged meditation about the filters at play in popular culture – or mass consumption as dictated by ‘the man’ – was brewing in parallel. Why is cutting-edge music in South Africa still largely underground?
I did arrive in time, however, to hear as the production duo Black Motion tracked the progress of their career from the 2010 breakout single “Banane mavoko”, to the current day when it’s not unheard-of for them to be booked for three gigs a night. They also spoke religiously about Dr. Phillip Tabane and the genius of his Malopo (or Malombo) music; indicated their desire to fuse their production sensibilities within a hip-hop framework; and reflected upon why they still prefer a bare-bone production set-up when composing their music.
A floor above in Studio 2, rapper Cassper Nyovest has programmed a drum loop in the tradition of the current wave of 808 kicks and claps making rounds in rap music. He tries out chord combinations on the midi keyboard, feeling his way around and hoping to stumble upon a melody that’ll stick. He keeps at it, but grows increasingly frustrated when the “guy who plays keys” proves hard to find. This keys guy is Vistor da Kreator, a Kwa-Zulu Natal-based producer. Kwanele Sosibo did a piece on the state of Durban’s house music scene and when we meet days later, he asks whether I’ve listened Vistor’s music. I nod fervently, recalling every detail of the moments I spent watching him build a song from scratch.
But on this first day, he’s just the keys guy who’s gone missing.
Nonku Phiri’s in the room, as is Hlasko and Lex Lafoy. They all pace about while the loop plays; Lex mumbles a rhyme pattern while Nonku joins Eve Rakow on the seat by the wall. Hlasko motions to Cassper and suggests sounds which could be added to the song. By the time I leave, they’ve settled on reverb-drenched jingly bells and are busy figuring out a fitting chord progression. Nonku goes off to inspect on-goings in the different rooms and I follow siut.
Studio 1 lets out a different drum loop through its wide-open door. Inside, reggae/ragga singjay and producer Crosby is building a raggamaffin-style tune, methodically adding elements of digital dub and a belly-deep sub-bass as he goes along.
Later in the day, I ask him about the recent shooting incident in which a group of gunmen ambushed his car and tried to kill him. He drags his oversized rudeboy t-shirt chin-high to reveal the bullet wound on the left side of his rib cage and tells me that he had to drive himself to the hospital because no bystander dared help him. Had the bullet lodged itself any higher, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. He still found time to stop by a Spaza shop and buy airtime so as to update his facebook status with a very brief message: “got shot in the stomach.thank Jah im alive.admitted at Jooste Hospital.I need your prayers!!!” A stream of comments followed, get well messages from friends and musical collaborators.
In the basement where the lectures are held, producer Mr. Apple Sawc is jamming his drum machine as another producer (and Beatenberg drummer) Ox++ nods his head in accordance to the rhythm. Bra Sol mouths some rhymes softly. A few moments later, Nonku – whom I found hanging in the vicinity – makes her way to another studio. Yet again, I follow suit.
Bra Hugh recognises my face as he makes his way towards the exit after his lecture on the third day. I’d asked a question about the balance he’s found in his life and music since he started practicing tai chi. I had more questions, but time ran out. He invited me over for a quick chat afterwards. I asked him about whether he’s aware of any of today’s jazz artists – cats like Shane Cooper, who was also in attendance. “I don’t know them, they’re too underground” he said in his signature growl and radiant smile before his entourage whisked him away.
It got me thinking: while efforts like Redbull’s are good signs of a vibrant progressive music scene, do the results always break the barricades of genre and the segregation between audiences? Past Redbull Music Academy alumni Black Coffee and Culoe de Song have had success in the house music scene, but it’ll be interesting to see artists with other musical ideas breaking into the spotlight. Just this past week, Big FKN Gun’s “Wunga” soundtracked a radio ad while Okmaloomkoolkat featured in a Coca-Cola commercial and had his music played on US-based Afropop’s special on South African music. Trendy on-line and print publications internationally are paying attention, but that doesn’t necessarily translate locally without the support of mainstream media. What is it that is lacking?
* Images © Ts’eliso Monaheng