Best of 2012 | Without LSD, I see Rainbowsby Samora Chapman / 22.12.2012
Originally published 17 May 2012
I hate disclaimers but I’ve got an itch for self-deprecation and I am no charlatan so… please note: This is a rock and roll review by a hip hop head. If I make any ridiculous references, misnomers or outright errors… please forgive me. As my man Q-Tip said: “This aint rock n roll, cos the rappers in control.”
But Poison City has recently given birth to a seriously kak-ill rock and roll band. And they go by the name Black Math… catch them in a ghetto near you before the imminent world tour.
If you don’t already know, Black Math is made up of three unassuming kids from the misty hills of ill-Crest:
Cameron ala ‘Jimi Hendrix the voodoo child’ on lead guitar and vocals. Tyler ala ‘Flea bopping like a rabbit’ on base guitar. And Nthando ala ‘DJ fucking Shadow tapping the hell outa the cowbell’ on drums.
The first time I saw Black Math was about a year ago at a pub outside a mad-house in the sticks somewhere between Hillcrest and Maritzburg. I went to go watch my sister jam her ethereal, lofty Feist-sh set, eat wood-fire pizza and soak in the starryness in the abyss between cities. The line-up that night was comprised of a couple of school bands. The audience comprised of proud, over-bearing parents and six-year olds with saucepan eyes high on Coca-Cola and cheap rainbow stage lights.
At about 8:30pm on that fortuitous night, up step a band called Black Math… three raggedy looking kids draped in skater clothes. A Led Zeppelin t-shirt the only hint at what was about to come.
What followed was the performance of a lifetime. Relentless passion and pain like unrequited love. Cameron sang like his life depended on it and escaped on guitar solos whilst writhing on the floor with transcendental bliss as he time travelled to Woodstock circa 69, when hallucinogens flowed like rivers and music united a generation in the search of unparalleled freedom.
Nthando on drums and Tyler on bass followed with enough energy to burn out the sun… a few beats behind but inspired and passionate. The eye of the storm was a quiet ballad called ‘Mary’… Cameron almost in tears as he pined, yearned and hallucinated over an unrequited love.
I stared, mouth agape in absolute astonishment. Where the fuck was I? How could this be happening in a thorn field, whilst kiddies danced in the moonlight and red-faced geezas sipped Castle and stared into the middle distance? How could a posse of school kids, still living at home, unadulterated by the perils of life, love, death, create music with such depth and emotion? Suffice to say, my mind was blown.
As they crept out of backwater pubs and into the rowdy Durban scene, the whispers were almost unanimous… “Black Math Kill!”
Black Math have been gigging hard for the last year, playing at venues all over the city, cracking a splashy invite and jamming at the City Hall in Jozi. I caught up with them at Haibo just before their gig a few weeks ago to find out how things have been going for the kids from my misty hometown. It’s balmy Saturday night as I round up the band and we huddle around a table excitedly like conspirators.
“So what does it feel like being rock stars?” I tease half truthfully.
The band just chuckle self consciously, so I try get the ball rolling with introductions:
“How did the band start and how long have you all been making music for?”
“Cameron’s been playing for about five years,” says Tyler, something of a spokesperson for the band, his afro bouncing in the breeze as he delves into an animated story. “Cameron pretty much taught me to play. We all go to school together and one day during music class Cameron taught me ‘Hey Joe’ by Jimmi. Then Nthando comes over and is like ‘hey can I join in!’. The next thing we’re a band. But we’re friends first and foremost and we just jam together… one person comes up with a riff and then we jam. That’s how we come up with songs – it’s all improv jams! It’s getting harder though cos people know us now and they expect us to play good shit so now we work hard. We play like two new songs every gig.”
“I saw one of your first gigs about a year and a half ago… I dunno what you cats are up to but you resurrected Jimmi Hendrix that night! And I’ve heard you have been gigging really hard for the last year?”
Cameron hides behind his fringe, beaming from the compliment. “Thanks man, that means so much to us. Ya, we started off playing at the Winston and then Unit 11 was really the launch pad for us. We’ve been playing alongside Fruit and Veggies and some other established bands… I’m actually playing for Fruit and Veggies now as well. The Durban scene is so incestuous!”
Tyler chips in, “We were the first band to play at Durban’s new venue Live which is quite cool… we played at the City Hall in Jozi and we’re amped to go play in Cape Town next. That’ll be huge for us!”
“How would you describe your musical styles and what are your influences?” I ask.
“We all have different styles and we’re into different music, but our styles compliment each other I think.” Says Cameron.
“I love playing funk bass… like Flea, Grand Funk Railroad.” Tyler jumps in.
“I’m into darker, heavier music… grunge, garage punk.” Cameron adds. “I take influence from traditional hard rock styles like Jack White. Jimmy Page.”
“What about that track ‘Mary’… was that like your own take on ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ by Jimmi Hendrix?” I ask.
“No it’s a song about a stalker.” Says Cameron. “I dunno it’s just a rip-off really, our songs are never serious. When I write a song, it has to come from nowhere, complete fiction. I try not get influenced by music I’m listening to cos then my songs get too inspired by other artists and I don’t want that. I want it to be totally unique.”
“Our songs are like fantasy.” Says Tyler. “Like we’ve got this new song about a wise man and his white mare!”
Nthando sits quietly sucking a Black Label like a thirsty vampire. “And what about your style/influences Nthando?” I ask him.
“First of all Jimmi.” He replies. “But I’ve been getting into Cat Empire, reggae, a bit of hip hop. When it comes to making beats and riffs – me and Tyler just connect.”
“No speaking. It’s just telepathic!” Says Tyler.
“What about the future? You guys are finishing school this year right… music full time next year?” I ask.
“Ya next year we’re focussing on the music.” Says Tyler emphatically. “We wanna go international… but first we wanna help grow the music scene here. We’re tight with all the Durban bands.”
“How do you balance school and music?”
“We jam every Thursday. No matter what.” Tyler smiles.
“We also jam on other days when we can cos I don’t have a drum kit at home at the moment so if we only practice once a week I don’t get to play enough.” Adds Nthando.
“And what about the rock and roll lifestyle? Substance abuse, reckless abandonment and rebellion has always been associated with rock and roll… 27 club yo.”
“Well Cameron is completely clean…” Says Tyler. “We party a bit but the music comes first man!”
“I’ve been clean for two years.” Cameron adds. “I don’t need to drink or smoke to create music or to feel great music. I’ve never really liked the label: Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll.”
Mean time Nthando is sucking a styvie red like it’s his last breath. And Tyler chuckles: “I reckon we’ll make it one day… as long as Nthando doesn’t die first!”
With that the formalities and butterflies dissolve and I crack a beer and disappear into the folds of Haibo, dodging ‘oh so trendy’ soft porn, witchcraft and free drugs. Later, Black Math step to the so called stage – more like a carpeted bedroom slash art fag gallery – and do their sound-check which slides into a full on ten minute abstract instrumental jam. A testament to doing what you love. People wander in thinking the gig has begun.
And when the gig starts in earnest. The Durban kids pour in to support the hottest new band in Poison City. Black Math don’t disappoint. They writhe and sweat as they channel holy music from the stratosphere. Their bodies and instruments become mere tools… as they let go and the music pours through them.
What was an extremely talented band a year ago with Cameron at the fore and Tyler and Nthando playing catch-up, is now an incredibly tight outfit. Tyler and Nthando have made leaps and bounds, growing in confidence and skill to match Cameron’s all round musical prowess, song writing ability and brutally bare voice. They play all original songs, laced with the raw and unpredictable quality of an unhinged jam session. The tempo builds to a wild crescendo, then gradually fades to silence and hangs in the air for a moment while the band sneak glances of excitement at one another. And when you thought the onslaught was over, they dive back in for another wave of madness.
The highlight for me is a strange, haunting track about a space man or some kind of cosmic exploration. I battled to hear the vocals throughout the gig though… and for me a song is void if I can’t hear the lyrics no matter how good the instrumental. Perhaps the speakers were blowing my brains out.
But what do I know, I’m just a hip hop head right?
The proof is in the front row… shivering with ecstasy and largely comprised of kings and queens of the Durban scene. James the prodigal guitarist from Fruit and Veg is pulling his hair out with adoration as Cameron disappears on another tangent on lead guitar. A drunken Kurt of the City Bowl Misers is stumbling around saying ”Oh my fuck. Oh my fucking YES!’ and trying to hug the Black Math kids between tracks. And Matt ‘the beard’ Wilson, veteran muso, godfather of the scene, is looking in from the doorway. Aloof as always. And painted on his face is something between amusement and outright shock.
*All images © Samora Chapman.