Brother Moves On Lists On The JSEby Roger Young / Images by Mapodile Mkhabela / 03.11.2011
The Brother Moves On are at once a theatrical concept, a space funk psychadelica band and a political movement. They exist as a five piece outfit and as YouTube provacatuers. Usually donning a gold cape to become Mr Gold, lead vocalist and witchdoctor Siyabonga Mthembu let the mask slip a little in this interview about Brown Bands, Black Rock and dancing coons.
Mahala: People, and by that I mean music journalists, don’t really know how to deal with you. Why? It’s not like you’re doing anything that complicated.
Siya: No, it’s not. Look, it’s not new in the fact that it doesn’t exist, it’s just new to people on the scene. What tends to happen is people try and use the same terms that they’ve always used to deal with shit. And we don’t fit into that. So it makes them feel like they’re being pretentious by trying to critique us with those tools.
So when you set out to do this thing, was it a conscious “we’re going to do this strange thing” or has it happened organically?
The material is informed by an Afro-consciousness that’s not afraid of its contemporary expression. The strangeness is due to how people polarise identity and tend to otherise what doesn’t play by the rules, the very rules that bore us. The Brother is a time and space exercise where we all (including the audience) come into it and leave something with it, be it our insecurities about not understanding our native languages or the realisation that culture is not your friend.
So have people passed through already?
Yes, namely Gugu Bodibe (drums) and Ngakana (percussions) from L8 Antique, Malcom Jiyane Trio and horn section from Future History, Nkululeko Biyane(bass) from Impande Core, Cami Scoundrel from Death Valley Blues Band and the Carniwhores and Nyameko (Trumpet) from Passport and our current rhythm section are the old rhythm section from Passport. You have to understand that if it wasn’t for the support of the musicians in these bands The Brother would not exist. The material existed but there wasn’t a rhythm section for it.
What is the point of making music? What is the point of performing to an audience?
It depends which audience. I think that’s what we’re learning the hardest. We’re learning that we need to answer this question for every gig.
Because a lot of the stuff you do, there’s the “Darkest Nightmare” thing and that’s fairly political but then you get into that kind of seriously psychedelic stuff as well. Are you trying to sneak messages in?
No, they’re all blatant. They’re never ever hidden. Nothing about us is. It’s something you don’t need to get. It’s very blatant. But it’s how you deal with the blatancy. Like this country is not that blatant anymore and we’ve grown up in a society that was blatant. 80’s society was very blatant. They were Christian ravers.
But also you grew up in a society, the 80’s in particularly, you grew up in a society where you were also black or white and people who still think in those terms are, um…
People who think in these terms, need to define them further and not think that they are a shared understandings of this reality. In ’94 I was ten years old, I’ve been sheltered from the hardships and difficulties of this space by caring parents. I’m part of the transition generation, us and the born-free’s are in dialogue at the moment and I promise you the premise of our dialogue is not informed by race simply. Old ideas of race, gender and class bug us out. We find ourselves dealing heavily with the race issue when we leave Johannesburg. We went to Hoedspruit recently for the Sustainable Living Festival where we were treated so badly, until we played music that showed we didn’t have the word “kaffir” etched into our foreheads. When we walked off stage the MC of the show said “Hoedspruit, we are not use to things like that, we must change and we would like to thank Farmers Watch for sponsoring the stage for today’s performance”. So yeah we deal with the archaic folk, but they react to what we are doing in an authentic way and that gives us hope that dinosaurs will evolve.
Yeah. Well. I don’t know. Basically we’re kind of in a time where there’s a lot of backlash to a very polarised thinking. So you feel like being who you are is in some way trying to combat that?
Yeah, well that’s what kind of puts you into the space. Of vibing something, you’re sort of critiquing everything already there, and even if you were like that even before all that shit was there, it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s always thinking about the BLK JKS relevance, “You guys are like the BLK JKS”. The only thing we have in common is that we’re all brown. But if you listen to our music and you listen to their music, there’s something distinctly different going on.
Do you think you draw from a lot of the same influences or completely different influences?
Completely different influences. But the same need for our art to be vital to this space.
I think, and tell me if I’m wrong, I hear a lot of Parliament. Like early Parliament. And that kind of stuff and the way that you roll out rhythms. You do a lot of that build, build, build, hush.
Yes, but our personal influences is what makes this tick. Our rhythm guitarist is a jazz guitarist who is self taught and then went to the Moses Molelekwa Foundation and the Johnny Mekoa school of Jazz. Our electric guitarist is a trance and drum and bass head who loves his music toys, as well as genre defying bands such as Mars Volta. Our rhythm section loves to make things funk out because they have a love for dance music. I come from a dramatic arts background and my dad was a big South African Jazz collector so I’ve been schooled growing up about bands and the male choral voice. I’ve loved the work of Zim, Feya Faku, Bheki Mseleku, Shaluza Max, Busi Mhlongo and Moses Molelekwa and try my best to sing in a voice that is authentically mine and thus the authenticity of being African needs to never be put on. Our work is blatant, we bring up issues with regards to SAB Miller, Julius Malema and Boogly Wooglies flooding this country with social hang-ups. We want to fuel the dialogue, this generation is mumbling we need to speak up.
Like the Drink and Drive campaign at Rocking The Daisies?
Nothing was real about that festival from the standpoint of…We were all there to prove that we’re cooler. And that’s the thing. When the offer came up, and it was disgusting, and it was like “Listen, Voodoo Child are waiting for this call if you guys don’t take it”.
So you’re basically the brown band?
You and Tumi.
The brown bands.
That’s like fucking 1992 thinking.
But it’s amazing; you have to commend Rocking The Daisies because they’re a bit ahead of Oppikoppi. Oppi’s attitude of thinking is Zakes Bantwini, so people go “Oh My God what an amazing African dancer performer.” It has nothing to do with anything here but people are going to walk away from here going “what a nice performance man, no one is like Zakes”. Lots of people came back and told me like “Zakes is amazing” I was like “Yes, Zakes is amazing but fuck..”
He’s at the wrong festival.
Yeah. And he is turned into the dancing coon. And that’s why you kind of understand when the Germans, the French, who are in the cities, who have the cultural institutes are like “Really? Come sit with us for three months, let’s come through a proposal and you’ll be in Germany”. Three months later we’re like sad that this shit has to go over there to make any sense. Because once it’s that side you wonder if you aren’t doing the Zakes dancing coon gig too. This music is primarily made for our people but there is no support for it from the governing powers of the music industry.
We’re in an environment at the moment where the people who are responsible, the festivals, the TV stations, the radio stations, who disseminating the culture, aren’t doing it. So the culture is just going elsewhere. And what if some poor kid who’s just trying to absorb culture, not even culture in terms of “Culture”, but he’s trying to go to a music festival and hear music that in some way speaks to him as a South African and defines a South African identity, and what we’re doing is we’re pushing forward this non-South African identity.
No. What we are doing is still polarising the issue. For example a kid comes up to Ray after our show in Soweto and asks “Yo man, why aren’t you guys on MK?”. The basic answer is because we are brown, and we can’t be on, say Generations neither because we are not that notion of blackness. Culture is not your friend and your real identity is still struggling with apartheids Trojan Horse. Sad as it is, it’s still fucking racialised on the terms and conditions of apartheids ideological infrastructure, so you have to be Cream Cartel or Zakes Bantwini in reaction to it and not just yourself. That’s why we give props to guys, like Spoek, who have deracialised their art to a point where we are in another conversation about what it means to be a South African in a global community.
So why aren’t South Africans absorbing and creating more, why are we not evolving faster?
Look, the way South Africans associate their relationship with music and culture is weird. You say to people do you know a particular band, they’re like “I’ve heard them”. So they think because they’ve heard them once, say it’s four or five months ago. They know that that band they heard four or five months ago still, to this day, sounds exactly the same and it’s not just them to blame. An audience would not just pick that up from absolutely nothing. It’s from what’s in existence. And I don’t blame the artist but I’m like “God, you’re complaining about the same industry that you’re frikking propagating”.
We watch all these mediocre bands who happen to be white that’s actually beside the fucking point. Obviously we’ve got this fucking history of polarisation but surely those guys play their music because it’s what they grew up with. Shame, sorry.
But here’s my judgement, my judgement is not even on the Parlotones. I’m not about those guys. I’m not ripping off Just Jinger or the ‘tones or Prime Circle. I’m not ripping on the hard work those guys have done to convince the people who love them to love them. No. I’m ripping on the fact that apparently that’s what South African is limited to. When SAMA reorganises their catagories the Afrikaans and English Rock sections still remain, and then what about rock bands in the other, say, 9 languages. It’s as if what we are doing is a bastardised culture for coconuts only. When those bands apply to a festival they have it so much easier because they’re South African. As soon as we show up with our brown skin here, we’re Afro. Like “why you guys bringing this afro psychedelic jam?” We’re not dog. If your country was cool and not conservative, this would be known. This would be what people would expect from a band that is rocking it hard. They’d expect you to delve into the Jimi Hendrix psychedelia without wanting to be Jimi. Into the sincerity of Joni Mitchell’s fucking soul when we deal with issues central to our identities such as the ancestral question. Into the pull of fucking Frank Leepa’s guitar. They’d expect you to go into what the fuck this is about. This black rock thing is not new. This era of music is being made a black thing is because this country won’t get over its retardation.
‘My culture is not a tourist attraction’.
And that’s what we think. That is really. Our big thing is we spent four years in this country playing with no support. My culture is not your friend or mine, it mutates and we need to keep up with it.
Well to be honest, I hadn’t heard about you until six months ago and then I start asking and people are like “Yeah, they’ve actually been around”.
Yeah we started on the ground and are heading back there, to pull our heads out of our assess. We doing a township bombing tour to get to the kids who can’t afford the steep R100 entry fee. We did it before without sponsorship, I don’t see why we can’t do it again. I fell in love with brown bands in varsity, the Blk Jks, Kwani Experience, Carlo Mombelli and the Prisoners of Strange, Tucan Tucan, Marcus Garvey and wanted to do the same when I left varsity to be involved in moulding another brown child’s realisation’s about this space we are in. I promise you that kid knows and appreciates the difference between us and the Blk Jks.
But you look like them, I mean you’re black.
I wish we didn’t all look the same. It was actually after our live recording when the guy from The Maverick Magazine wrote an article on us and said “Standby” sounds like “Wenu Wetla.” I got in my car and drove to Tsepang’s place and forced him to play me “Standby.” I was like where the fuck was this guy looking? Who is he? Where was he looking? He has no fucking clue. Mahala sent a black to see a black band because they speak in an ethnic language. A lot of our songs use ethnic languages to highlight our insecurities about language and culture here at home. “Wenu Wetla” as a statement has no meaning really, but the song is about a longing for a sign from the ancestors. It’s none of the languages for a reason, it’s saying I’m lost in this fucking sea of languages and I don’t understand shit. And how many of us really feel like that? What was beautiful is when people don’t use their race, class or gender to interpret and just enjoy their interpretation. An example is how a group of blonde Illovo girls at the first Invisible Cities reworked the song and replaced Wenu Wetla with “I can do Capoeira”. The only full sentence in the song is a Zulu refrain right at the end saying “ngeke ngikushiye, soze ngikulahle” which means I will never leave you, I will never forsake you.
This whole thing of language, you don’t even want to open that box with me. I don’t speak any other language and that’s a problem, and yet I do nothing about it.
You? Because it would make you uncomfortable. Someone said, it was Spoek, “Your music is unsettling.” That was like the fucking whole purpose. I’m not supposed to make you feel comfortable, like you and me come from the same clan. I don’t believe I come from a clan. I have a Grandfather who is half Chinese and travelled down to Africa to become a Zulu and I have a Grandmother who comes from Uganda. They both were South Africans at some point. What am I? I can’t say I’m Xhosa. I can’t say I’m Zulu. My mom’s Xhosa, my dad’s a mongrel, it’s like so many people are so foreign in this country it actually means nothing to them when they are Xenophobic to the new settlers. That bothers me a lot. But fuck it, you know,the bother moves on.
*All images © Mapodile Mkhabela.