The Indestructible Beat of Sowetoby Chad Liam Polley / Images by Xander vd Merwe / 12.05.2011
So McGee and me are driving along Nasrec road, on our way to Soweto. I’ve only been to Soweto on the odd occasion – a coupla times when I was working as a Project Manager for a property development company and the other time for a wedding of sorts. Oh, I’ve also been to Maponya mall, of course, they have nice sneaks there. This occasion is this DRUM Beat Soweto thingy. I am amused, if not excited. I think the whole reason I got picked for this was because I’m pretty bloody white. I listen to Belle and Sebastien, I cry in a good advert and, gee, well, I put shitloads of mayonnaise on everything.
One of the exciting possibilities of going to this little shindig is, while it’s populated by various acts I have never heard an inkling of, Bra mafucken Hugh Masekela will be there. When his name is mentioned around a number of jazzheads I know, their eyes go slightly misty. He is revered by certain groups of South Africans everywhere (you know, ‘those’ ones) and I know bloody nothing about him or his music. So there.
We arrive, quicksmart somewhere in Orlando, get our little Mahala passes, get inside, find a beer and look at the stage. Mofolo Park is pretty nice. There are some reeds, some wetlands on the right, some grass in the middle and on the left is a road. On the stage however are, surprisingly, some white kids grooving along. I exclaim; we move forward, watch a bit. Not much there, really. A slight proggy-ness, some jazzy vibes. A lame smooth, M.O.R version of Mars Volta, or something. Boring. They launch into a solo, reminding me of something as whitely-entrenched as “Hotel California”. Maybe I’m biased. Maybe it’s because they’re white. They are Gordon’s Suitcase.
Let me start off by saying right now, I know almost bloody nothing about ‘black’ music. That is some culture I’ve just missed out on. I mean, I know all about bubblegum, township jive and Paul Simon’s Graceland – the latter the most, of course. I think BLK JKS are a bloody great band, but I just don’t get them sometimes. I don’t even Like TV on The Radio and they’re a bunch of black kids playing white music. Sounds terrible, right? People have made jokes about it. I know a little bit about West African guitar music. I’ve heard the terms high life and can imagine what it sounds like. I even know what mbaqanga means and is. But, still, it sometimes escapes me. I don’t like jazz. I really just don’t. It reminds me of bloody hair metal half the time. I mean, I just don’t like seeing people wank, live. It irritates. Someone will be playing a lovely, tight, gorgeously melodic jazz standard and the trumpeter will go: “It’s my turn”, come to the front and spout gobbledegook for about a minute then, perhaps, it’s the next guy’s turn. Bleep boopbeleepedorippydowahwahwahwahwahwah. I mean, I get it. You play the trumpet bloody well. Awesome, now just play a nice melody, please. It’s highly exclusionary. If you’re not a jazzhead, it’s hard to get it. Anyhoo, how this relates, most of the black-vibes I know are combinations of traditional, jazz, gospel and a dash of western influence, so I’ve never been inclined to explore too hard.
Max Hoba arrives on stage next and he plays forgettable, functional black-vibes. Besides the ladies bum-rushing the front of the stage to love on him, he plays a Marley medley, cautioning the crowd to “feel alright”. Ok, good. Me and McGee discover, at this point, to our consternation, that we shouldn’t’ve been paying for beers. There is a tent. There are tokens. The skies darken, pregnant with rain. My day looks up. I am very excited to see if these peeps stick through the rain.
Asanda Bam arrives on stage looking glorious in a green velvet dress, draped with pearls. I have no idea who she is. She takes the stage very well, though, keeping it soulful, with dashes of jazz here and there. They have a white guitarist. He looks like he’s got the groove. I smile, watch her strut about for awhile. She is beautiful. She is having the most fun on stage. I watch the crowd grooving along. They’re dancing pretty hard, smiling widely despite the prospect of rain. I go take a piss. McGee follows. While peeing, we discuss the next act. Hotstix Mabuse. We’re not even sure we know what he plays.
“Is he a drummer?” McGee asks.
“No, no, I don’t think so, man, I think he plays brass or something.”
Besides, I only really know that one ‘white’ song. I’m excited to see it. It always makes me laugh. DJs play it frequently and the white kids… well… they dance hard. McGee gets some pap, sheba and a chicken drumstick. We laugh about chicken for a while.
We head frontstage. Hotstix gets on, taking over the central area after his musicians dabble with some gospel for a minute or two. People cheer hard. They love him. I do too. His smile is infectious and he looks pumped. He kind of has a commanding presence. I have no idea if this has something to do with history or not, The Past or something. I really do have the potential to be slaughtered for not knowing anything. But, I hardly care. If I like something I do, If I don’t, I don’t. It all comes down to the music, doesn’t it? Well, they rock some praisey sounding vibes for a brief while, whilst The Lord starts pissing down, drenching us in wetness, but people are sticking around. They still smile. Mr Hotstix rocks his sax, being all soulful, and it bores me. Another song starts up. I assume it’s called “Stomp Your Feet”. People do. It’s more upbeat, more groovy, elements of funk and jazz and township vibes collide around a nice big massive drum beat. The sax seems well used, now. Bursts of it spout from Hotstix. Good little bursts. No smooth crap. Maybe it’s because I grew up on ska but smooth sax perturbs me. It sounds porno, like serenation. It has a strong potential to sound like Gorgonzola.
Sipho whips out a cowbell, some sticks and an odd rocket-shaped percussive instrument. McGee and me nod at at each other. So that’s why he’s called Hotstix.
McGee grabs my shoulder. “Dude, have you noticed… he looks kinda like Spoek… like an older Spoek Mathambo…”
I laugh wildly, slightly drunk. “Yeah, yeah, he actually does. Fuck man.”
We run in the rain to use our plastic tokens. As we head back to the stage I hear the ‘White Song’. Fuck, I have to see this. “Burn Out” is halfway through when we head backstage, to watch, and so McGee can do some onstage shots. The rain is really pissing down now. The people are still, miraculously, dancing out front. “The Indestructible Beat of Soweto,” I mouth. The drums thump away, the melodies swirl around, excitedly, I smile, grin, whatever. McGee gets mad because his flash doesn’t work; the piano melody sounds glorious. It’s a really good song, it makes me smile. And, though, most of the peeps here, who are playing music, who are dancing have been through a little bit of hell, or their parents have, they still retain this sense of joy. This intractable desire to overcome. Perhaps that’s what I’ve been missing in it. This jive, this funk, this groove. Perhaps I just don’t have a soul.
We chase ourselves back to the token-tent.
We take photos of Bra Hugh backstage.
We watch for a brief while.
I’m bored, so is McGee.
We don’t like Jazz.
*All images © Xander vd Merwe.