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Simpiwe Dana

The Top Deck

by Ts’eliso Monaheng / Images by Roland Metcalfe / 08.11.2011

Someone had tweeted earlier on in the week about a lack of energy at the new Zula; about the hollowness of the new location and its newfound predisposition to soullessness. There is no damn balcony for crying out loud! The neat compartments which characterise the new Zula ensure that patrons are demarcated along lines of genre preference. Unsurprisingly, that brings with it the issue of which race group an event is going to attract, and tonight is no different. With Party People happening upstairs and the Day of the Dead party downstairs, it’s like an upside down slab of Top Deck.

I arrive to a cover of “Meadowlands” booming from the speakers upstairs. The three-piece band along with its leader, Simphiwe Dana, makes it almost impossible to let the music form part of my cultural observation. Miss Dana’s music camps at the gateway to other dimensions; her sound is the spiritual gauntlet through which tales of ancestors are presented unaltered to we the now-people. She possesses the capacity to simultaneously stand out from, and become one with, her band. Sometimes emotional, sometimes enigmatic, but always charming, her music is a pragmatic, awe-inspiring experiment into the possibilities of the universe: boundless love, limitless energy, and an unhinged spiritual connection.

Simphiwe Dana

The band provides an elastic backdrop onto which ideas are realised and executed with a sharp, incisive precision. She is the conductor of a ship that is as much directionless as it is intention-filled; the known and unknown co-exist, ultimately forming a vortex which permeates Zula with reckless abandon. Simphiwe Dana does a brilliant job of channelling Sophiatown-era jazz. Dorothy Masuka (who sang an earlier version of “Meadowlands”) would be proud, amazed even. One gets a sense that not only is Dana singing, but reaching out to connect with the audience. She gives herself with countless measure, and the crowd receives her energy with equal, euphoric intent. She is at home, and hence exudes no sense of hinderance – only an exuberance and stage-competence brought about by years of experience at home and abroad. Party People is like a homecoming celebrationfor her. Earlier, she tweeted how her and DJ Kenzhero, the mind and personality behind the six-year-strong Party People sessions, go way back: “…He was the dj at all our underground jam sessions. Big Ups to him” she wrote.

The crowd is an interesting mix of quasi-bourgeois black people with the odd pale-skinned comrades thrown in. I always struggle to identify with the majority of the audience Party People attracts; it is all seems a bit superficial, all a bit overwhelming, for me. But Simphiwe keeps on singing, capably delivering bite-sized chunks of wisdom to an audience which, at least from the back, seems receptive of her efforts. She conjures visions of an egalitarian society, one whose main sustenance is music – boundless, rousing reverberations that pulsate through even the tautest of veins and cause one’s blood to flow harmoniously with every intonation, every note, and every crevice of sound.

Simphiwe Dana

It becomes evident that Sophiatown – the romanticised version at least – is still alive when two members of the audience join her on-stage to revel in dance routines which belong to a day and age when South Afrikan jazz and shebeens were interchangeable yet inseparable units. And Dana welcomes the revellers, perhaps a further testament to the honesty in her music; she is not afraid to let the ‘otherness’ into it. With a career spanning three albums, Dana has managed to carve herself a niche in the South Afrikan music scene. She ends her set with “Ndiredi”, a song from her debut offering Zandisile. The breakdown sends crescendos of energy through the floor, and the crowd jumps up and down in unison to the beat. She raises her fist, the crowd responds with an array of cellphones in the air. The irony of it all requires time to fully-process. Dana’s music and stage presence are too demanding to ignore, so I drop my train of thought and join in the celebration.

It is all over too soon. For all my misgivings (JR was not so great, and Tumi’s last appearance was unusually underwhelming), Party People manages to keep the music central, and tonight’s performance attests to DJ Kenzhero’s un-specified genre tendencies: from Miss Dana and Thandiswa’s fluid vocal tussles, to Tumi and Ill Skillz informed lyrical musings, and the international amalgam of Masta Ace, Bahamadia, and Kev Brown, everyone has a home at Party People.

On my way out, someone quips: “this is not what I signed up for”. Unsure of what to make of that statement, I settle on the rash decision that she is one of the people from downstairs. I also realise that no balcony at Zula means you can no longer witness the occasional drunken altercations on Long Street. The depression which follows is temporary. I proceed to the exit, knowing full well that I just had a very rewarding experience.

Simphiwe Dana

*All images © Roland Metcalfe.

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