/ 8 December 2010

Partying political with Gazelle

It’s been a week when African leaders are being their usual whimsical selves, and charitably trying to prove Afropessimists and racist pigs are actually reasonable and prophetic thinkers. There’s the whole Côte d’Ivoire losing their marbles debacle (read all about it in Verashni Pillay’s column), with both the losing and winning candidates inaugurating themselves as president.

Then there’s the statement by Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila “Big Boy” Odinga, whereby — apparently channelling Hegel — he said that if a man was caught having sex with the other “we jail them, or if a girl is caught with the other, we will jail them“. Just don’t put them in jails in South Africa, Mr Prime Minister, because our jails are apparently sodomite paradises. And then there’s the revelation (I use the word “revelation” advisedly here, of course) that over 40% of seized farm land in Zimbabwe has gone, not to the needy poor, but to allies of Mugabe. The beloved president and his wife, Grace, personally own 14 farms. Yes yes, my mad leetle African apologists, I too believe that “rather be a free cow starving under Farmer Bob, than have to bear the ignominy of being a fat cow enslaved under the despotic rule of a white farmer, or worse, some poor black Zimbabwean who actually supports the MDC.” Viva.

Idiots. But anyway — I could go on listing the sorry actions of the big men who are happily screwing up our continent. But why bother? If you’re a Mail & Guardian reader, you know it all. You also know that there are many, many good leaders from all levels who are doing their best to make this a great continent, despite the obvious and glaring arseholes we’re saddled with. So instead of bringing you down (and this has got to be one of the worst segues in column history), let me tell you about the band Gazelle, who do one of the funniest satirical takes on African despotism you could wish for, and also one of the few you can party down to. And the “party down” aspect is important, as we’ll see later.

Gazelle with their winning trophy. (Photo by: Liam Lynch)

I saw Gazelle last week at the Red Bull Soundclash, which is an incredibly fun event now in its second year in South Africa. Just how the makers of an energy drink came up with a killer concept like this, I don’t quite know. Maybe caffeine IS actually good for the brain. And I’m not sure that Red Bull are fully aware of the rich cultural implications of what they’re doing, but more on those later.

Francois van Coke (Photo by: Liam Lynch)

Essentially, the Red Bull Soundclash format is this: two bands — in this case “Afro Discoteque” band Gazelle and electropop boytjies Die Heuwels Fantasties — face up to each other on stages separated by the crowd and an applause metre. It’s a battle to win over the crowd. First they play three of their own songs, then the DJ cuts in a popular song (on this occasion, Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue”), and the bands play a cover version of that song in their own style.

Xander Ferreira of Gazelle (Photo by: Liam Lynch)

In the next round — called the Take Over — Gazelle play one of their hits and on cue from the MCs, Die Heuwels Fantasties take over the song in their style, and then vice versa. There’s more to it (go to the website for the full explanation), but essentially it’s a battle of different genres and cultures, all decided by the democratic voice of the crowd. And here, democracy is defined in its purest form as “the winner is the one who can make the most noise”. Very South African, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Highlights from Gazelle and Die Heuwels Fantasties at the Red Bull Sounclash in Durban.

The interesting thing is not just the clash of musical genres, but the ideological frameworks that fuel a particular band’s choice of material, stage persona, and general packaging. So Gazelle’s lead singer, Xander Ferreira, is dressed as your stereotypical African despot, leopard-skin pillbox hat, lamé gold jacket and all, and his band are a mix of South African peoples. By contrast, Pierre Greef, lead singer for Die Heuwels Fantasties, is wearing what appears to be his grandfather’s hand-me-down cardigan — and his band consists of white boys.

Let me point out that these are observations with an eye to describe different, legitimate responses to the South African conditions. They’re not value judgements. If we ever get to the days of proportional representation in bands, please kill me.

Although both singers are Afrikaans, Gazelle sing in English, predominantly, and Die Heuwels in Afrikaans. Both bands are contemporary, youthful interventions in the cultural milieu which we inhabit, best described as predatory post-colonial. But they differ in fairly fundamental ways. Die Heuwels are rooted in their Afrikaans-ness, and peddle a very provincial ethos and aesthetic. Gazelle, by contrast, attempt a more post-modern style, and embrace a semiotics that is continentally, if not globally, relevant.

Last year’s Red Bull Soundclash had Cape Town pop band The Dirty Skirts up against Joburg hiphoppers Tumi and the Volume, a clash configured on very obvious racial, generic and geographical differences. This year’s was a far subtler exploration of difference. Both bands are, for want of a better word, electro-dance bands, and both are very South African. But whereas Die Heuwels are almost tribal in their expression, Gazelle speak for a continent.

You just have to look at the surprise guests that each band brought on, to see this. Die Heuwels had Francois van Coke, the screechily charismatic singer for Fokofpolisiekar, the Whine of Afrikaans Youth, and also the increasingly polished Van Coke Kartel. This is about as surprising as the discovery that Zuma’s children get a lot of business deals. Gazelle had the incomparable Inge Beckmann, ex-Lark, as their guest, and this combination of the funky and the faerie turned the pastiche meter up to 11.

On the night, Gazelle were the worthy winners of the Soundclash, and I couldn’t help thinking that this kind of partying was as effective a way as any to deal with the disappointment of being a South African in a week of African idiocy. Increasingly, artistic responses to the corruption and criminality of governments, but also to the defects of even the best systems, are the most efficacious way to get the young ones of our continent politically sensitised.

So Gazelle give us two kinds of pleasure: the pleasure of dance, and the pleasure of exploiting the iconography of despotism for our own ends. Call it party politics. Die Heuwels Fantasties make it alright to situate yourself within a minority group, and still be nationally relevant. Call it niche nationalism.

Whether or not Red Bull are aware that their cultural contribution in South Africa is more than just keeping us awake and jittering past our bedtimes, the Red Bull Soundclash is a hugely interesting cultural event. We’re bombarded with news about Crazy Bob and his ilk, to the point where it all blurs into one depressing mass. Seeing young bands exploring and criticising the ramifications of the world around them in music is a positive expression of engagement. Let the Big Men of Africa know that the next revolution won’t only be televised, it’ll be viral.