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The Salt Mines of Azania

by Samora Chapman / 15.10.2012

The Skebengas recently got torn to shreds by Rolling Stone (by Roger Young). But when they came to Durban, they were received with ecstasy and adoration. On the night of their gig I began an interesting conversation with Luc Spiller, lead guitarist of the Skebengas and big time lawyer in the City of Gold. A conversation that explored the life-chasm between love and hate and delved into why the Skebengas pulled out of their set at Rocking the Daisies. Join us as we ramble about Latino music, jazz legends and the quest to survive as a musician in the salt mines of Azania.

Mahala: What happened with the Rocking the Daisies? You said it was going to cost you five grand and the organisers were putting you in a ball and chain. I’d like to call ‘em on it. Someone needs to stand up and say “Hey! This aint right!”

Luc Spiller: Yip we had to pull the plug on Rocking the Daisies. Restrictive contract provisions and small pay make it hard for bands like us to make the mission down to Cape Town for festivals. The mentality amongst festival organisers is that local bands are so desperate for the exposure of playing at big festivals that they are willing to run at a loss for the privilege of doing so. We were going to suck it up and take the pain in order to jam at Rocking the Daisies. However, Bra Jim will be in New York for a few gigs at that time. Given what we would be making/losing, it simply did not make sense to incur the expenses of training up another bass player just for the Daisies gig. It looks like a fun festival and I’d still love to jam there one day. Hopefully festival organisers will get a little more in tune with what it means to be a musician in South Africa and won’t prohibit bands from playing other gigs before or after a festival. Gigging is the main way bands make money and the only way to soften the financial blow of transporting and supporting a big band to a festival, when that festival is paying peanuts.

You got a harsh review in Rolling Stone. How does something like that affect you, and the band as a whole… and your decision to commit time and energy to music? Do you make music for mass approval, for the response it gets, or do you just do what you do and it’s the creation itself that matters?

If you want to put music in the public domain you need to be prepared to take the knocks that come with it. Criticism and bad reviews are part of the game and are vital in getting the word about your music out there. Generally, the feedback we’ve received from the public and the media, on our music and in particularly our live shows, has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, you can’t please everyone, and who the fuck wants to anyway? It’s the nature of the game that you’ll come across critics with their own firmly entrenched ideas of what is kif. And anything that doesn’t align with these predefined notions of musical coolness is going to catch a ravaging. Take it on the chin, laugh it off and keep on jamming…

Good bands play music for the love, and when you play live music with love and energy – you win the crowds over. You don’t need the affirmation of an office bound critic to keep the belief and keep making music.

Tell us a bit about the band?

“Dave (the front man) is the most unique person I’ve ever met. I found him in my first year philosophy class some years back with a tiny guitar strapped to his back. I showed him how to play ‘Hey Joe’ by Jimmy Hendrix and that was that. We’ve been playing music in some form or other ever since. Bra Sello (drums) has been around the block. He’s played with Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, Lucky Dube and Hugh Masekela. It’s great that he takes the time to try new things and to jam with youngsters like us. Jimmy Mngwandi (bass) is a long-suffering legend of the South African Jazz scene. He’s also jammed with all the greats and his bass has taken him from the Eastern Cape to New York, Havana and beyond. He’s probably one of the finest upright players in the country, it’s a pleasure to share the stage with the man.

What’s it like playing alongside your sister? You guys seem to have an intrinsic understanding and I love the way your riffs are intertwined.

The best. A great excuse to hang out and do what we love. I hope we do this for many years to come.

You both come from a very musical family, right? I heard that you guys played in the orchestra from a young age.

We didn’t get quite as far as playing in an orchestra, although there were forced family outings to go and watch the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra. We also all played classical instruments from a young age (piano, violin, the oboe), although the only one who stuck with it was Twyla. I picked up a guitar randomly in high school after spending a school holiday jamming on my sister’s toy guitar, and have been playing ever since.

Tell us about your sojourn to Latin America. Did that influence your musical style? It seems to have infused a little something into your music…

Sojourn? Sojourns… The first time I went to Latin America was in 2006. I headed over with about R4000 to my name and spent an amazing year bumming, working and meandering around South America. I landed in Buenos Aires and gradually worked my way North, working as a dish washer/janitor in Santiago, a photographer in the Atacama Desert and an English teacher aboard a Peruvian merchant vessel sailing the Pacific coast. I then crossed the Amazon jungle by public transport, an expedition that took about three months before cruising down the Brazilian coast. In 2009 I spent a year trying to learn to surf in Ecuador, cycling around Columbia and sailing the Caribbean.

As far as music goes, Latin America is a bit of a mixed bag. The clichéd deep Latin grooves most people associate with Latin music actually come from Central America, while Samba is limited to Brazil. The reality of South American music swings wildly from the truly disgusting Musica Andina (Chicha and Whyno) of Peru and Bolivia to the modern rock sounds of Argentine and Uruguayan rock, the cheesy Musica Tropical of the Peruvian Jungle, fiery Samba of Brazil and mystical Bambuko and other Columbian forms of folk. I listened to a lot of music, jammed with a lot of people, played some strange and fantastic musical creations and met some brilliant musical craftsmen. I don’t think one can’t help but be affected in some way by those sorts of experiences.

How was the Durban gig? Did you dig the vibe! You guys were a big hit with the kids.

Loved every minute of it. The people gave us their attention and got into the music. Can’t ask for more from an audience. Thanks the peeps who showed us a good time at the Winston afterwards!

So what can we expect from the Skabengas in the future?

Well, the latest news is that Skebengas are pretty much on ice for now. Bra Jimmy is touring and playing jazz in the USA. Dave is working in the family pizza restaurant on Long Street Cape Town. Twy is getting set to jet off to India. Sello is touring the country with a bunch of gospel groups and I’m trying to wind down my life as a corporate lawyer. It’s heartbreaking and I’ve got withdrawal already, but then again Skabengas always were a rag-tag gang of horribly unrehearsed soulful bastards. People come and go. Songs evolve. So I guess I’m awaiting the next wave.

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