The Authentic Sound Of Africa (Fashion Edition)by Roger Young, images Sydelle Willow Smith / 27.05.2011
The Assembly is packed with its usual crowd; upper to upper middle class kids, mostly white. On stage are palm fronds, “African” fabrics and general kitsch bric-a-brac. There is also a bunch of tribal folk. It looks like a diorama plundered from the back rooms of The Museum of Natural History. The music is full of influence yet ultimately flat. There is something deeply suspect about the whole endeavour and the lead man hasn’t even stepped on stage yet. Gazelle are playing their first Cape Town gig in a while and I’m struggling to work out why it’s a special occasion; you know, beyond the celebration of Xander’s ego.
The evening starts out innocuous enough. Unfortunately we missed Two Minute Noodle and only made it in time to see Jeremy Loops; a one man loop pedal band that utilises mic thumping, harmonica, kazoo and acoustic guitar, and who sings about tigers or girls wearing headscarves or the time his dad paid for his trip to Goa. The thing about Loops is that he’s good, technically, at what he’s doing, it just comes across as essentially meaningless; a kind of camp fire song that you indulge because you’re all coming off your shrooms. It’s totally harmless and it’s fully understandable why people get into it. It just doesn’t touch anything beyond the feet. He seems like a happy chap, with nothing to worry about. Far be it for us to recommend personal tragedy but Loops songs need some kind of emotion beyond ‘everything is great’. He comes off somewhere in-between a low grade Edward Sharpe and Balkanology. He does some crowd hyping and then starts to explain how a loop pedal works. Explaining the loop pedal is like explaining a guitar; the audience doesn’t care how it works, just make beautiful songs. Never, as they say, trust a man with a feather in his cap.
And then it’s time for Gazelle. The diorama opens up; a grand dumping of tourist clichés, as offensive as a Hot Water press release. All the people on stage are willing participants, it’s not like anyone is being forced. It’s also not like, out of this context, any one person is wearing or doing anything overtly offensive (except the back up singers, Wendy and Yolanda, who are packaged as recognisable “Africa”, primitivised the same as the rest of the band but somehow more so; stripped of modern context, made safe and harmless). It’s the lack of gestalt of the surface representation that is problematic; it does not re-interpret colonial mores, it re-enforces them. But what the fuck does it matter? After all it’s just dance music, really really average dance music.
If the reason we’re here is to hear new material, well, we don’t. Maybe because it sounds the same as the old material which is just fused together samples of funk, house, maskandi, kwaito, mbaqanga; a karaoke version of a Radio Freedom mash up. What Gazelle do with their music is the same as with their images, they plunder many sources but they do not take their plunder to a new place. The stylistic borrowing is merely that, the source is never taken anywhere new, the pieces are left wholesale in place and there is no tension between them. Gazelle have no idea how to go “next level”. Take for example the moment Xander announces “Let’s get Funk A Delic” and then the bassist breaks into what sounds like a Parliament Funk riff. Not like it was influenced or informed by Parliament Funk, it just sounds exactly like it. The same goes for the house music beats or the maskandi or the use of marimba. Gazelle are throwing everything into the sonic pot but nothing is melting. Parliament funk built up a detailed and challenging mythology from the very start of their career, Gazelle seem to think that because they’re referencing that it means they don’t have to build their own. Xander’s only mythology seems to be to package himself as a guy who understands “Africa” in order to be exotic to suburban Swedish models on an African vacation.
None of the realities of Africa are allowed to penetrate Gazelle’s representation. It’s happy, feel-good derivative music in the same vein as Freshlyground, a band that Xander himself has criticised. In fact Freshlyground’s mainly ineffectual Mugabe song is about a million times more positively effective than anything Gazelle purport to do.
Yolanda the backing singer is dressed like a tour guide at the Traditional Zulu Village attraction that could have existed at Disneyland in the late 70s. The fact that she is a musician in her own right and runs a youth drama programme in Khayelitsha is not important to the Gazelle vision. I know about Yolanda and her real life from Xander himself. Not including Yolanda’s actual self in the mythos of Gazelle but talking about her skills and talents speaks of a wilful arrogance, a purposeful exclusion, which I guess is no surprise from someone who dresses as an African dictator and exhibits images of himself at art galleries.
The best moments of Saturday’s performance were when Xander was off stage. He has a stifling energy and his voice is monotonous, his attempt at charismatic preaching just plain amateur. For the one song he wasn’t there, the band came alive. It was as if the music stopped trying. He just doesn’t have the energy or persona of a Ninja or a Spoek; he can’t carry a performance. More than that the whole thing is so ridiculously dressed-up and constructed that no humanity or sexuality comes through.
Without the visual flourishes and paper thin mythology they would probably not be getting gigs at all. It’s the imagery that gets them noticed. So, are Gazelle telling us anything new visually? Why do we question their authenticity? Is Gazelle art? With the traditional clothes, the dictator’s outfit and the projected ethnographical images of the noble savage but without comment beyond that, they move into the territory of Ethno-Porne. There is no tension between the elements. Where real artists like Candice Breitz, Brett Murray, Athi-Patha Ruga or Michael MacGarry have succeeded in using similar elements to force us to look at the way we view “Africa”, Gazelle merely puts the elements in view and thinks that that is enough. It’s a clever marketing strategy but nothing more than that. It allows every audience to see what they want to see but does not challenge what they see.
So there they are, on stage, Yolanda and Wendy effectively desexualised Josephine Bakers, the nameless marimba players, every other band member essentially invisible; the sum of its offensiveness is its meaninglessness, the total concern with surface and not substance. Near the end of the set, the audience is drifting away, when they go off stage, no one shouts for an encore but they come back anyway.
While someone like Jeremy Loops plays the same kind of surface happy music, he is inoffensive, pleasant and background. Gazelle with their Primitive Happy Africa force their way into the consciousness and arrogantly announce that they have nothing to say. The bottom line is when you’re onstage you have to transcend your stylistic elements and make something emotionally new and if you do not, you’re Gazelle.
It’s no wonder Xander had dinner with Bono in New York; they both understand Africa as a mythical country; with no need to engage beyond how they can reflect themselves off its obvious and most seen surfaces. Next up, I imagine, he’s dining with Malcolm McLaren.
*All images © Sydelle Willow Smith.