Bigger Than We Lookby Ts’eliso Monaheng / 29.05.2012
In person, Samkelo Mdolomba comes off as the kind of guy who grew up pulling pranks and telling other kids on the playground that their football skills are terrible. On stage, with eyes half-closed or the cornea rolled back so far in his eye-sockets that all one can see are the whites of his eyeballs, he comes off as a tad shy. Yet he is convincing, so much so that at all of the performances I’ve witnessed, the crowd have revelled in every note that he sang.
“I am working on it”, says Sam, looking rather relaxed in jeans and a checked shirt, with a black pair of Chuck Taylors to match. It is a far cry from the image cut by The Soil, the group which he left in order to pursue a solo career. “It was based on business really, and what I wanted for myself.” He says when pressed on why he left the acapella ensemble.
If Sam is the playful one, then drummer Ade Omotade is the de facto leader-cum-philosopher of the trio. He’s also the most talkative, according to his bandmates. Ade is judicious, and has such conviction in every statement that he utters that it often leaves you feeling either very confused, or very impressed by his character.It can also come across as stand-offish, to the uninitiated. But blame it on his talent, as he puts it: “I play a lot of drums in my head, and when it’s time to play, I translate that into music.”
Mothusi Thusi is the goofy part of the bunch, the weeded-out (with no allusion to his medicinal habits) man-child who cracks jokes at a whiff and occasionally interjects at performances to drop one-liners that shake up your mind and infect the senses.
The three of them make up The Fridge, a Joburg-based trio that met at a battle of the bands event some years ago, decided that they liked each other’s taste in music enough to start a band, and have been going strong ever since. Alongside The Brother Moves On, The Frown, The Muffinz, and a slew of others, they are shaping – consciously or otherwise – the urban sonic landscape of South African music as we know and consume it. And they seem to be winning; with every mini-tour, every performance, and every mention by influential people in social circles, they advance a step closer towards country-wide recognition.
Ade tends to drift in conversation. His attempts at answering a question involve him going off at a tangent, coming back momentarily, and then veering off again in a diametrically opposite direction. For instance, when asked about his contribution to the band, part of his answer includes the statement: “freedom is being able to do whatever you want, but that’s not freedom for me. Freedom is being able to do what you want, but you’re not doing it, meaning that you don’t go out of your boundaries.” He is a walking, talking series of quotable quotes and off-kilter moments. A scholar of the best West African music (hailing originally from Nigeria). Names such as King Sunny Ade and Tony Allen fall off his lips as easily as the comparisons to 50s-era South African jazz musicians that run through the mind when Sam sings.
Sam is quick to acknowledge the confluence of sounds that contribute to his ultimate ‘sound’, adding that, “we’re all children of a global type of world, a world where a lot of cultures are exposed, and all fused into this one ball of hood versus suburb versus foreign influences… and it’s all jumbled up.”
The very configuration of the band (Ade on drums, Sam on vocals, and Mothusi interchanging guitar and bass at different junctures) brings to mind the spatial configuration of music, the tell-tale of creator-audience interaction in order to reach an unwritten agreement on how to interpret the final product. Their formation is brittle, as they themselves attest. Thusi also points out that this set-up allows for “a lot more room for each of us to play,” and then goes into the specifics. “With the bass I can play chords, I can play four or five notes at the same time. Sam does multiple voices, Ade plays like it’s two drummers playing sometimes. I guess that’s why our songs sound bigger than we look.”
The Fridge are intent on navigating South African settings in search of spaces that will allow them to do what they want, and to present it in a configuration that best fits their music. “It’s never gonna happen”, says Adey regarding the likelihood of getting booked to perform in various locales in South Africa before suggesting “probably when we are on radio.” Adey observes that the culture of touring is lacking, at least as far as Southern Africanbands are concerned, and Sam adds that “we can’t wait for a TV appearance first, a video, or a track on radio before Cape Town or any other place that we’re trying to get to, to know us.”
Mothusi speaks of the ‘identity’ of their music as opposed to ‘genre’, saying that the band found it necessary to identify the music themselves in order to, perhaps, understand what it is – hence the term ‘urbanscape’. He speaks of an organic, non-premeditated sound that defies limits.
But in the quest to defy classification, to break free from the shackles of ‘box-dom’, artists often find themselves languishing in the abyss of ‘exclusivity’, failing repeatedly to receive acclaim beyond their immediate circles. Ade speaks of a ‘sophistication’ to their sound, and one momentarily worries that this may land them in the annals of obscurity quicker than it can gain them the acclaim they need to survive and thrive.
But their handy chops, riffs, and vocal inflections, not to mention their streetwise attitude and likable persona should guarantee them a spot amongst South Africa’s elite bands, at least in the long run. A lot hangs in the balance for The Fridge; all three members have quit their jobs to focus full-time on their music. Time will decide whether that decision was a wise one. And their wish? Thusi answers: “that people can appreciate the amount of work we put into the music.”