“The recording was aimed at souls, not literally eyes and mental capacity, but at souls,” says the Kwani Experience bassist, Frank Magongwa, in his trademark Lee Perry-speak. “And still, we grow day by day.”
The point was made in defence of comments that the experience of watching the group live is miles ahead of listening to the band’s recently released album, The Birth of the Mudaland Funk, which was laid down over three days at the SABC’s RP Studios in Jo’burg.
After having listened to the album repeatedly and with one live show under my belt, I personally can’t put my finger on what aspect of the group’s performance is the most enticing. The live act is rousing — a complete departure from the group’s languid studio demeanour. Then again, it could be the way the band swiftly obliterates notions of genre and the generation gap (“… embracing culture adapted from the environmental/ this is transcendental”).
Perhaps the most alluring aspect is singer Nosisi Ngakane’s elevating scatting, delivered with the soul of the proverbial fat lady.
Since their sound is clearly the progeny of a long list of South African innovators, it is therefore only respectful that Kwani Experience acknowledge that they do not walk alone (“under the sun there is nothing new”). Instead, they pay tribute to various musical predecessors, peers and spiritual ancestors including Madala Kunene, Sakhile, Harari, Sankomota and, in Ngakane’s case, Jill Scott, Thandiswa Mazwai, Lauryn Hill, Miriam Makeba and jazz-funk outfit Weather Report.
However, a roll-call of influences does not tell the whole story. The pint-sized MC Petros Sekele says: “My lyrics incorporate what I’ve learnt. I’m into African and African-American literature, Indian literature and lots and lots of Rasta literature.”
His life-affirming positivity, in brief, staccato invocations, is consistent throughout the album (“it’s thine time to shine/ we are/ our ancestors and God in disguise”).
And then, of course, there is Magongwa, who seemingly is the group’s creative cornerstone and resident shaman. He tells tales of how the group came together and the musical adventures they have embarked on.
Magongwa — together with percussionists Bafana Nhlapo and Gontse Makhene — is also part of the six- member outfit, Live African Percussion, which is due to release an album later this year. He put in a stint as the drummer for black-rock outfit Black Jacks, from 2004 to early 2005, and was part of the multi-ethnic funk/disco outfit Massive Reaction from 1998 to 2001. He was also part of the “Jimmy Dludlu-style” outfit Bantu Jazz Band — with Makhene and keyboardist Madite Moalusi. Then there is the ongoing and spontaneous Crippled and Unrehearsed, “featuring anybody I know”. Last, but not least, was his and Makhene’s four-year stint with Scottish folk band Otherworld, which ended last year. “It was black and white until they kicked us out because we refused to wear kilts, now it’s all Celts,” jokes Magongwa.
For Nhlapo, who literally gate-crashed a Melville stage to join the band in 2004, the miscegenation of influences started on home ground. His father, a scathamiya devotee, was a member of mbaqanga group King Star Brothers, while his mother was a gospel singer. “But,” he says, “I suppose it is everything, including the sounds of the birds, that forms the raw materials.”
One thing that comes across as odd is that the band does not have a guitarist. “All bands with guitars are the same,” argues Magongwa. “At school I was forced to play with white rock guitarists and they blew the love I had for the guitar … It’s all about ‘How loud and fast can I play?’ and I don’t like that. I’m a spiritual person. Maybe [we’ll get one] later but for now we are mastering the sound we’ve created. Before a guitar comes in, we’ll probably have more traditional instruments like the uhadi [a Xhosa violin] or a mbira.”
The Experience’s creative process usually begins with the bassist and the keyboardist throwing around basslines and chords. “The drummer, after that, is not a problem,” explains Magongwa. “He gets it right. I don’t tell anyone what to play, I just throw suggestions and that gives them a light. Once the instrumental is done we give it a name and the lyricists put whatever they think goes with it.”
Sekelele and Ngakane’s strengths are that “they are not into kwaito”, continues Magongwa, in his tongue-in-cheek manner. “They look up to older people — grandmothers and grandfathers — and they try to find out exactly where they come from, so they can estimate where they are going.”
And just where is this vessel headed? All indications are that its occupants are oblivious — which is the blueprint of funk anyway. For now, they are content to innovate and let the scribes scramble to figure it out.