/ 6 February 2004

Mlungu muti

Warrick Sony is, in many ways, the godfather of electronic music in South Africa. No surprises, then, that release number 11 for African Dope Records is the new Kalahari Surfers album, Muti Media. Although Sony is the only member of the original trio, infamous for having three consecutive albums banned in the Eighties, his music remains political, groove-infested and strangely unsettling.

Tell us about your beginnings.

I was born in Port Elizabeth on September 12 (now Biko Day) in 1958. I’m the same age as Madonna. I moved to Durban and went to Westville Boys High School. I learned to play guitar when I was 13 after seeing the older brother of my best friend do The House of the Rising Sun with a wah-wah peddle through a Marshall 100W amp, just like Jimi Hendrix.

I sold my soul at that moment. I started playing guitar, then moved to bass and worked at being a virtuoso jazz bassist. I left school for Damelin College, then, ultimately, did the Sri Sri Radha Krishna temple in Desai Nagar, Tongaat, instead of matric in 1976.

I learned to play mridangam and started my Indian music education there. I also learned Hindi and the beginnings of Sanskrit. I met a lot of Indian people during this period, the very rich and the very poor. [This] gave me empathy with their struggle in this country, and was possibly my introduction to politics. Religion and politics exist very comfortably side by side. Gandhi was a powerful icon to all at that time. I visited his home in Phoenix, where it was beautifully maintained. An Inkatha Freedom Party Zulu contingent destroyed it in the Eighties and built shacks out of the remnants, cementing Zulu-Indian tensions that persist to this day.

Zulu music impacted on me as a bass player during my school years — Soul Brothers, Moses Mchunu, Phuzu’shukela, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. I loved the slides and percussive plectrum styles that mbaqanga bass players used.

I was drafted into the army in 1977, as punk was happening. I had the right haircut and got into punk and reggae in a big way, churning out songs until I was discharged in 1979.

I went to the University of Cape Town from 1980 to 1983 and met up with Hamish [Davidson] and Brian [Rath] and we jammed and recorded stoned jams that were compiled and sent to an obscure label in Germany, and eventually released a double-seven-inch single as the Kalahari Surfers. Then back to Jo’burg to work with Lloyd Ross at Shifty Records, sustaining myself working as a sound recordist in film.

What is experimental punk satire?

A combination of all of the above. Eclectic art-rock from guys who grew up during punk. Punk was the shift from playing to protest.

What happened to the rest of the Surfers?

Hamish is gardening for Maharishi Mahesh, a yogi in the United States somewhere, and Brian is a career addict.

What did you do between the early Surfers albums and Akasic Record?

I had a group called TransSky with Brendan Jury and did an album called Killing Time. We opened for Massive Attack [and] did an album with Greg Hunter and Kris Weston of early ORB fame. Had two children.

What was it like to work with William Kentridge on Faustus in Africa and Ubu and the Truth Commission?

I also worked on Faustus in Africa with the late James Phillips. Kentridge is a great creative person and a sign of a great creative person is the lack of insecurity over the question of what is good and what is bad. Kentridge knows what is good and what is bad and I trust him on that account. If something needs to be changed, there is always good reason. If something is on target — good, move on to the next piece. I respect his judgement in the area of aesthetics and, for this reason, found it easy to work with him.

Your music is politically charged and always has been. Is there a specific message you want people to get?

I don’t know. You get what you can —it’s a Zen thing. I’ve learned over the years that things seep through. One can’t change the world with music. Even Bob Dylan did no better than spawn millions of Bob Dylan impersonators, but what he did do was give a green light to millions as well. He broke new ground. I hope to have broken new ground for South Africans.

How did Muti Media come about?

Muti Media, originally, was a multi-media spectacle I tried to put together some years ago for a French festival, but it didn’t get off the ground. My collection of compositions from last year seemed to gel around the idea that African medicine, music and electronics were a synthesis that could not be ignored.

What would you like to be remembered for?

A great work of symphonic proportion, which is still in the throes of nascence.

What’s next?

I’ve just completed a commission for Microdot Records — a whole new album of serious, 130-beats-per- minute, down-the-line dance stuff for their Africa in Trance series, called Conspiracy of Silence, which was released last week. Check it out.