On the sunny side
‘I go into the musical space with great respect because it comes from that spiritual and mystical realm,” says an introspective Neo Muyanga, one half of Blk Sonshine. He recently reunited with Malawian-born Masauko Chipembere, ending the band’s five-year absence from the music scene.
Speaking at a Melville guesthouse while preparing for a performance at Emmarentia Dam in Johannesburg to promote their new album, Good Life (Sony), the duet take care to emphasise the spiritual aspect that their careers have taken. The joyous chemistry of their initial encounter and the difficulties they’ve experienced are seen in the context of a grand spiritual force.
Muyanga grows passionate when he explains it: “Everything is spiritual like everything is political,” he says. “Even having sex can be an act of spiritual commitment if one pays attention.”
Explaining the Blk Sonshine creative process, Muyanga says: “I don’t know where songs come from. We claim to be songwriters, but I have a deep suspicion the songs existed long before me. I’ve just learned the skill to reveal them.”
To this, Chipembere says. “He is not writing the song but the song is writing him.”
This mystical outlook could help to explain their previous unsuccessful attempts to make a comeback. In 2006 the band went into the SABC studios in Cape Town to record what would have been their second album. But all the recordings were lost when the equipment broke down in a series of bizarre mishaps.
“It told us that it just wasn’t the right time to do it,” says Chipembere.
But, eventually, the universe yielded and the album is now out. The record features Concord Nkabinde, the 2006 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz, on bass and Cape Town-based Mozambican drummer Tony Paco. It also features pianist Brian Jackson, who will be remembered for the work he did with Gill-Scott Heron, particularly Heron’s 1974 album, Winter in America (Strata-East Records).
Things are going well for the band now and audiences countrywide are responding warmly to their return.
Their first Jo’burg reunion gig sold out at the Bassline in Newtown, the show’s success confirming the band’s near-religious following in Gauteng. Even problems with the sound system couldn’t diminish the high spirits of the gathered fans. In fact, the process of fixing the distortion became part of the collective musical experience of the night.
And when Chipembere sang Soul Smile from their first CD, the whole house burst into song.
To understand the Blk Sonshine experience one has to understand what they have come to represent in South African music. In the late 1990s a new generation of young people were becoming jaded with the dominant popular forms of music. Bands such as Bongo Muffin and TKZee were experimenting, while others were switching genres. Members of the burgeoning spokenword and poetry scene were wallowing in meaning. Kwaito—with its bling and gangster sheen—had come to signify a sublime mediocrity. Even though it had “fed the neighbourhood and kept a lot of brothers out of trouble”, Chipembere is quick to comment.
Then Blk Sonshine came along with their spiritual and intellectual tone. Their simple formula, two guitars and vocals, guaranteed a sincere reception. Born in a Taxi inaugurated a new era in local music.
The duo were seen as renaissance men. They were worldly, yet fully at home in the South African experience. Chipembere was raised in the United States and settled in Johannesburg while travelling through Africa. He is now based in New York. Muyanga, born and raised in Soweto, but resident in Cape Town, traces his family roots to Mozambique. He has lived in Italy and has studied 17th-century Italian madrigals.
The two have been an inspiration to a set of musicians searching for meaning: MXO, Sliq Angel and more form part of the Blk Sonshine family and continue to define this eclectic sound.
But Muyanga and Chipembere have simple ambitions: “We’re trying to figure out how to be decent people—through music,” Chipembere says.