Rocking at sea level

The notion that Durban is the epicentre of South Africa’s exciting new original music is already something of a cliché. In bars and nightclubs across the country you’re bound to discover some pop sociologist comparing Durban to Seattle, making the point that a host of epochal rock outfits suddenly emerged from a town relatively ignored by the mainstream media and music industry to create a definitive “sound”, as in the Seattle Sound created by Nirvana, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam et al.

Durban has the distinction of having produced a large number of the newer bands now gaining attention in South Africa. Urban Creep (picture alongside), with their widely praised debut album, Sea Level, are perhaps the most prominent at the moment.

Speaking to David Birch, lead singer of the band Squeal, one of the powerful rock bands responsible for Durban’s newfound reputation, I ask if some kind of musical spirit has indeed migrated to Durban, and if there really is such a thing as a “Durban sound”?

Birch, drenched with sweat after the show, his piercing blue eyes calm and engaging, no longer looks like the axe-wielding stage dynamo he was shortly before.

“Well,” he says. “I suppose there is something like that, though obviously on a far smaller scale because there isn’t really the same audience here. But, yeah — there are so many diverse forms of music coming out of Durban right now, but none of it is contrived. It’s all a very loose, natural form of rock music, not trying to copy anything else. It’s different to a place like Johannesburg, where the sound is very contrived — you can hear what a band is trying to sound like because there’s such a narrow expectation of how a band should sound.”

Durban has been paradoxically blessed in the long run by the absence of hype and a music industry sausage-machine. This has created a climate of freedom and room to be yourself.

“Durban has taken a real downer over the last five years,” David tells me, “it has lost a lot of its tourism, it has lost a lot of its money, and it’s been a hot spot for trouble and … there’s been a realisation that the good old days are over.”

Durban clearly has an affinity with the classic rock ethos: the natural, organic function of the music is to capture and express the pain, beauty and strangeness you see in yourself, in others and in the world around you. Rock’n’roll seems especially suited to articulating this inchoate drive. Perhaps one needs the language of music to express the unique feel of living in Durban, to resolve the contradictions between apathy and wildness, tackiness and poetry.

Squeal are a brilliant live act. Their performances are ferocious, the songs blistering yet catchy and interspersed with moments of sweetness. Their music juxtaposes intensity and vulnerability — the classic elements of great modern rock like Neil Young, Buffalo Tom and Pearl Jam.

See Saw is a haunting, broken nursery rhyme, and in live performance the band follow it with Man and Woman, an astoundingly sophisticated burst of punk-pop, all primal drums and lashing overdrive guitar.

The rapture of the large crowd at the show I attended was a comforting indication of how far the appreciation of local music has come since the treacherous days of original talent being stifled, forced to churn out Rolling Stones covers in beachfront sleazepits.

Now the record companies and radio stations are paying some long-overdue attention, and Squeal have a recording contract, a fast-selling debut album (Long Pig) and a popular radio single. And with Birch’s fondness for experimental guitar sounds and song structures, the music can only get better.

Another band sharing the modernist rock ethnic, though producing music of a vastly different mood and texture, is Famous Curtain Trick. Led by the rich, sultry voice of Nadine Raal, the music is brooding and sublime. Their songs evoke the moody femme-fatalism of the Cowboy Junkies and the sexy ennui of Mazzy Star, as well as 1970s soft-rock like Fleetwood Mac and Rickie Lee Jones.

Famous Curtain Trick soulfully explore the darker edges of sentiment and memory — their lyrics mention childhood holidays down the coast, sardine runs and swaying sugar cane … The geography and atmosphere of Natal have produced the essential quality of their music.

Free Taxi are probably Durban’s most unsung band. They’ve kept a rather low profile over the years, but are soon to reappear, doing the opening track on a soon-to-be-released CD compilation of Durban bands.

Free Taxi has improved immensely in the last while, become harder and faster, moving away from the raw nervousness of their earlier incarnation. They play jagged and intense songs, full of emotional release and passionate abandon, drawing on punk, grunge, rock and pop. There are flashes of Faith No More, Screaming Trees and even the Waterboys. Their one ballad, Someday — about close friends who disappear and never send postcards for you to stick on your fridge — is elegantly simple and powerful.

The entrance of Urban Creep into the limelight over a year ago, together with the record companies’ and radio stations’ need for excellent original local music, has shone a torch on the “backwater” of Durban, and all manner of interesting species have been discovered.

There is something in the air that gives life to uncompromising, committed rock bands which, in terms of originality and uniqueness of sound, are better than much of the industry-hyped foreign music you’re expected to like.

Bands like Squeal, Famous Curtain Trick and Free Taxi, as well as others like Fey, Fingerhead, Landscape Prayers, Blind, Bailey’s Walk, Skintrade and Cherry, represent a powerful groundswell of authentic musical vision.

And with the local-content radiplay quota system about to be introduced, the record companies are scrambling to sign good local bands that can be popular as well as retain complete musical integrity.

Luckily for the companies, they’re there.

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