Johannesburg appears to be the favoured destination of African musicians travelling down south in search of paying audiences.
Last weekend alone there was Tarika Be from Mozambique, Xalam 2 from Senegal, Elemotho from Namibia and Etran Finatawa from Niger. (And, no, Niger is not short for Nigeria.)
Cape Town isn’t as lucky. On the itinerary of African artists, it’s almost an afterthought. This explains why Chimurenga founder and editor Ntone Edjabe and his co-conspirator, musician Neo Muyanga, have decided to launch the Pan African Space Station, a month-long music extravaganza that amounts to an ‘intervention into space — physical and mental”.
The project started on September 12 and will run until October 12 on the internet as well as live at venues across Cape Town. These include the city’s Slave Church Museum, Gugu S’thebe in Langa and the Africa Centre on Long Street.
Among the Space Station’s many highlights is Bheki Khoza’s musical reimagining of Chilean Fernando Alegria’s novel War Chorale, performed on September 30.
It will also include popular Ghanaian rabble-rouser and musician Emmanuel Owusu-Bonsu, mixing pidgin rap with folk music; Malian Kora master musician Toumani Diabate; Udaba, a Xhosa praise-singing ensemble; Cape Town-based scientist and drummer Barry van Zyl; and offbeat Ndebele electric guitarist Nothembi Mkhwebane.
‘There’s a notion of Cape Town as a segregated space,” says Edjabe. ‘We have an event that encourages the notion of movement. In choosing the venues we were very careful to create an alternative map of the city.” Thus they have chosen All Nations, a reggae joint in Salt River, to include all subcultures.
Edjabe and company are playing around with the city’s image of itself — hosting jazz sessions at a reggae venue and occupying spaces not traditionally seen as places to hold music gigs, for example, St George’s Cathedral in the city, a scene of many struggle funerals in the past.
‘Each place has been given a particular character,” Edjabe says. ‘We are connecting all these spaces using music with which people are not necessarily familiar,” he says. ‘We are trying to change the notion that people in this country have of African music. We want to expand that notion.”
Having tantalisingly gestured at revolution, Edjabe is quick to dull its prickly edges: ‘This is nothing revolutionary. If you leave the borders of South Africa you will find that the people’s sense of what is considered African music is so much broader. They don’t listen to rap and think of it as American; they look at it as something someone from Nairobi or Dakar can do. They are not always looking out for the exotic,” he says.
This image of African music as quaint, he says, is one that’s been constructed by the BBCs and CNNs of the world. ‘We are saying that with the technologies available we are able to show the bigger picture to ourselves and the rest of the world.” Music coming out of Africa now or produced by Africans abroad, says Edjabe, is ‘sophisticated and complex”.
For instance, when you think of electronic music, he says, you immediately have images of Berlin, not Luanda: ‘If an African musician is booked [to perform at a show] they expect him to come with a kora or a djembe. They are not expected to come with their laptops. One must intervene in this.”
This reminds me of Kuduro, a raw street sound that infuses traditional Angolan rhythms with Western house and techno, hugely popular with Angolans in Luanda and Lisbon.
Edjabe is grateful to the Africa Centre, without which this project wouldn’t have kicked off. Already there’s talk of decentering the project, now in its second year, from Cape Town, and even taking the idea to Maputo — if they can find partners.
The Africa Centre, on Long Street, houses the studio-cum-auditorium. They have ‘broken the glass wall” that separates the studio from the audience. ‘The studio is now a performance venue. The broadcasting itself is a performance. All of this is streamed on the internet,” says Edjabe.
He doesn’t want to think of his latest idea as a music festival: ‘Let’s think of it as a series of activities with music at its centre — one must create a space for this kind of thing.”
The project’s website (www.panafricanspacestation.org.za/)
has old podcasts of previous shows called — Chimurenga‘s idiosycrantic argot — ‘Passcasts”.
Other acts include trombone player Siya Makuzeni, spoken-word author Kgafela oa Magogodi, DJ Yusuf Mahmoud from Tanzania and Cape Town’s Fong Kong Bantu Soundsystem.
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