Lots of heart and tons of guts
A youth approaches Siyabonga Mthembu, lead singer of the Brother Moves On, in a Weltevreden Park car park. The kid with his Led Zeppelin T-shirt and long, flowing brown hair eyes the frontman and asks: “Do you play reggae?”
Mthembu rolls his eyes at me.
Hours before, drinking beer at his home in Sandhurst, Johannesburg, we had been chatting about examples of the “whack shit” that people have said to members of the Brother Moves On.
Mthembu’s irritation stems from the fact that this young white kid has spotted a bunch of black musicians, some of whom have dreadlocks, and made the assumption that this must be a reggae band.
“No dog, we don’t play reggae,” says Mthembu, looking the kid up and down. “Actually, there are eight bars of reggae in one of our songs, so there’s a little reggae for you.”
Mthembu smirks and then walks into Rumours, the venue that is hosting The Brother Moves On tonight.
It is the kind of place that has burgers and chips on its specials board and it is brimming with drunk white men—screaming and yelling at flat-screen television sets as the Lions lose another rugby game.
As he goes past, the kid yells after him: “Play some Bob Marley for me.”
Mthembu turns in the entrance and says: “Write that down, Lloyd—whack shit that people say at gigs to the Brother Moves On.”
The Brother Moves On have been in existence for between three and four years now—it depends who you ask.
They don’t see themselves as a band but as a performance art collective and their name pays tribute to the changing personnel that could be involved in any one of their performances.
Tonight at Rumours, the line-up includes guitarist Raytheon Moorvan, drummer Simphiwe Tshabalala, bassist Ayanda Zalekile, guitarist Zelizwe Mthembu, Nkululeko Mthembu, Kyle de Boer and Mthembu.
The Brother Moves On had a massive year in 2011, playing more than 50 shows and recording their debut album, a live release titled The Golden Wake. For those connected to the Johannesburg live music scene, it was clear that it was a big year for the collective—they were the talk of the town.
They will be launching their new EP, The Golden Wake, digitally on March 21 for free download and will be playing a special free show at the Workers’ Museum in Newtown, Johannesburg, on the night of March 20.
The Golden Wake is a magnificent document of just what makes the Brother Moves On such a great live show.
Drawing on the work of artists such as Busi Mhlongo and Philip Tabane, as well as the extensive canon of South African jazz, the Brother Moves On have created a sound that is full-on funk machine meets intimate, psychedelic African folk.
But with the show so centred on performance, the music is only half the story.
So it is great news, then, that when the physical release of The Golden Wake happens in May, one of the packages on sale will include a DVD of the whole performance recorded live at the SABC.
Mthembu and Moorvan are the talkers in the Brother Moves On, so they agree to handle the interview. I ask them where the Brother Moves On is at in 2012.
“It feels like we are on the cusp,” says Moorvan. “If I look at last year this time, our lives were quite different. There weren’t as many gigs, we didn’t have as many prospects.
Now we are putting our first EP out and we have to sort out our website so it can be our own retail store.”
The Brother Moves On have chosen to release their debut EP themselves and will be distributing it through their website.
The talk of the collective’s self-releasing and self-financing model leads to a discussion about the South African music industry.
“People say ‘you should sign with these guys’ and I say ‘tell me why’. Give me a good reason why we should sign with people who have never been to one of our shows. They will rip us apart and change us and move us away from what we want to do,” says Mthembu. “It’s better for us to learn how to do these things than hand it over to someone else, who could drop us at any point.
“We don’t have problems writing songs, we don’t have a problem with ideas, we are just trying to get this thing to make financial and logistical sense right now. But we’re getting there, we’re learning.”
“We have been treated like kaffirs in Hoedspruit,” he says.
Then, chuckling, Moorvan chips in: “Yo, that was an eye-opening experience, man.”
By way of explanation, Mthembu tells an anecdote in which he had to say to a woman running the show: “Could you stop treating me like you treat the blacks from Hoedspruit?”
He continues: “In Jo’burg we are treated differently.”
“We watched the cogs in her brain turn and then she realised: ‘Oh my god, I am a racist and I never knew,’” says Moorvan.
“We were told in Kommetjie to play less spiritual music,” says Mthembu. “What does that even mean?” asks Moorvan.
The way the collective see it, they have a responsibility to be extra militant when it comes to putting up with this kind of treatment for the sake of all the black bands that will follow in their footsteps.
“The brown band scene suffers a lot, because it won’t stand up for itself and it won’t say in a clear voice that it is sick and tired of all the bullshit,” says Mthembu.
As the interview progresses it becomes clear that the Brother Moves On are a group of artists ready to challenge the status quo on every level, even in terms of being called a band.
“A band is limited to certain rules,” says Mthembu. “We want to change the discourse about who we are. It’s as if we have used the music scene to have a conversation with the art and theatre fields in South Africa.”
This is made clear when the Brother Moves On takes to the stage later that night. De Boer, dressed in character as the Black Diamond Butterfly, has the crowd bemused.
“Amandla, comrades! Order, comrades, order!” he cries in a moment of political satire. “We are here for the sci-fi taxidermy, we are here to deal with issues from the taxi industry. I have one question, comrades. Why don’t you white people want to take a taxi?” De Boer asks. “Are you scared?”
The almost exclusively white audience begins to boo.
The message is clear: we are happy to dance to your music, but we will not listen to your politics.
Then the band launches into the dark, throbbing rhythm of their song Black Diamond Butterfly and De Boer starts reciting lyrics about the white worm of history being a cocoon for the black diamond butterfly.
The audience, not enjoying the edgy politics, continues to rebel.
I think back to my chat with Mthembu and Moorvan and how they talked about uncomfortable moments and how the audience reacts to them: “Our show is not there to make people uncomfortable. It is there to say we are all in discomfort, so let’s get comfortable together,” Mthembu says.
“By the end of the gig, people tend to have let go of their discomfort and their set identities. Sometimes they even let go of being audience members and they hop on stage and start interacting with what we are doing.
“When you get the big eyes and the gaping mouths, then you are doing something right,” he says.
At this point an unreconstructed white male in a Lions rugby jersey, who earlier had been punching walls and kicking over chairs when his team was losing, walks into the venue. He takes one look at De Boer and mutters: “What is this shit?”
I cringe, but this is the weekly reality of the Brother Moves On—a collective with big ideas, a lot of heart and tons of guts.
Weltevreden Park may not provide the most receptive audience for the Brother Moves On, but this has not stopped them from playing there and it does not stop them from challenging the audience’s beliefs.
As the band winds down their fantastic performance, I feel an immense sense of pride. The Brother Moves On are perhaps exactly what South Africa needs right now—a giant kick up the arse.