Peasants get into Johannesburg's glorious groove
The sun is radiant on the mild winter day as I head south on Jan Smuts Avenue. Passing Zoo Lake, Motel Mari’s new single, Just like a King, springs to life on the car stereo. It lurches into gear; a clattering groove and then the gentle, murmuring voices begin.
“I want to live, just like a king,” sing the trio. “Free parking space and warm takeaways, just like a king.”
The lyrics of urban domesticity wash over me. Are Motel Mari reaching for the stars or are they retreating into suburban middle-class bliss? The song has warmed up now; it’s building up a head of steam. The off-kilter groove feels intimate and organic but at the same time is expansive, a grand vision.
This is where the suburb meets the city, where art rock meets ambient groove, where dreams are lived and shattered, crashing like waves against the shoreline of this African metropolis called Johannesburg.
“Send a message to the city: Get ready./ Lay out the banquet. It’s the return of the king./ I’m here to stay. I’ll never leave./ I’m cool with you if you’re cool with me./ It’s too late for apologies./ Let’s forget the formalities./ Start the festivities.”
Motel Mari are speaking to this city of golden dreams.
I begin to contemplate my mission. I am trying to track down the three purveyors of this transcendental music to find out just how they managed to craft this existential masterpiece that is called Eternal Peasant.
The album, the debut offering from the trio of João Orecchia and BLK JKS members Mpumi Mcata and Tshepang Ramoba, is set to be released on the Miami-based Other Electricities record label in August, but for the past month an advanced copy has been on constant rotation in my car.
Two weeks earlier, the band had launched the video for Just like a King, a directorial debut for guitarist Mcata at the Bioscope art house cinema in the gentrified Maboneng Precinct. The gig was mesmerising and the band’s new material electrifyingly cool.
My first stop is the University of the Witwatersrand’s art school where Motel Mari linchpin João Orecchia, an American who arrived in Johannesburg via Berlin eight years ago, is teaching sound design for film and completing his honours in digital art.
When I arrive to pick him up he is dressed all in navy, a smart jacket over his light jersey. His adventurous sideburns are charming.
We decamp to Post coffee shop in Braamfontein for our interview, but never even get round to the coffee. Orecchia is eager to talk about this new album and he is earnest, yet playful at times. I tell him how I have noticed that life is just happening to the characters in his songs, that they do not seem to be in control of their destiny.
“That is exactly what the album’s about,” he says. “Eternal Peasant explores the state of mind of just sticking with what has been given to you.
“Part of writing these songs was coming to grips with the idea that this attitude is a whole bunch of bullshit. You can make your life whatever you want. It’s not an easy thing to do, but if you can find a way, you can do it. I come from a class that dictates that you must just take what is given to you. It’s this middle-class attitude that says you are lucky to have what you have.”
I quiz Orecchia on the music’s relationship with Johannesburg.
“I think of myself as a Johannesburg artist and not a New York artist or a Berlin artist,” says Orecchia. “I have been here long enough and I feel at home enough and connected enough to have Johannesburg at the heart of whatever I am doing. It was really hard for a long time, trying to make sense of Johannesburg. It’s a difficult place to get, but after four years I really started to settle in. Once it clicked, it was amazing.
“If you work hard, you can find a lot of opportunity, but nothing comes easy. One of my songs is about that, the one titled Here is Today.”
The track, a funk monster with a great banjo riff and some awesome horns that punctuate the guitar riff, is a highlight on Eternal Peasant and is reminiscent of New York band Akron/Family’s work.
“If you want to be busy and engage and make things happen, then Johannesburg’s a great place,” says Orecchia. “If you want to just hang around and look at the scenery, then Cape Town is probably a better bet.”
I ask Orecchia about how his musical relationship with Mcata and Ramoba, who have been playing together on and off for five years now, has developed into this new band.
“It was coming for a long time, even though the last album was my album and had all these guests on it,” says Orecchia. “When we played it live, it was with this set-up, with Mpumi and Tshepang. Stuff started developing in a certain way and they started putting more and more of themselves into the music. With my music, it was normally an ambient sit-down, slow thing and now I was getting to rock out on stage and it was better than twiddling knobs.”
And so Motel Mari, which means “motel husbands” in Haitian Creole, was born.
“I wanted it to go in this band direction and it would have been very difficult if it carried on under my name. I wanted Mpumi and Tshepang to be invested and us to write the music together,” says Orecchia. “We would have these awkward moments at gigs where people would come up to us and say ‘hey cool, what’s your band called?’ and I would say nothing and Mpumi would say ‘err, João Orecchia’.
“It couldn’t really go on like that. Also, the BLK JKS are so much more famous than I am and often the gig flyer will say João Orecchia and the BLK JKS and I am like ‘no, they are not the BLK JKS, the BLK JKS is not my backing band’.”
We head back to the art school, where I drop off Orecchia and dial Ramoba’s number. He tells me he is at the Maboneng Precinct, so I head off to find him. As I pass over the Queen Elizabeth Bridge heading into the city centre, my eyes scan to the right and I catch a glimpse of the Ponte building, which adorns the cover of Eternal Peasant in a beautiful image captured by photographer Liam Lynch.
Cloud, the fifth track on Eternal Peasant, bursts from the car radio.
“If there’s a cloud hanging over me, there’s a cloud hanging over you,” repeats Orecchia.
The music struts in the background, driven by a great drum riff and a banjo line.
“Make it rain on these bitches, make it rain on these bitches, make it rain on motherfuckers,” sings a deep voice.
It is menacing, a threat of cleansing, a warning of fallout — a rather appropriate song for Johannesburg, considering the summer thunderstorms that cleanse the city.
I find Ramoba sitting on a bench outside Uncle Merv’s café near Main Street Life. He is dressed in black jeans and a T-shirt, with large golden sunglasses, his long dreads rounding off the rock star image.
On the table sits his ID, some change and a large picture of himself as a 14-year-old in the school uniform of Holy Family College in Parktown.
As we sit chatting, he plays with a straw, running it through his fingers. His patchy black nail polish is in desperate need of another application.
I ask Ramoba about the formation of Motel Mari.
“After the first album,” says Ramoba referring to Orecchia’s Hands and Feet, on which he played. “We were rehearsing material for the shows and we came up with new songs. I was happy to continue as a guest artist, but before we recorded the new material João said we should be a band, because we all worked on the songs.”
Ramoba says being in Motel Mari has been great for him as a drummer.
“It was very healthy for me technically,” says Ramoba. “I can play a lot of styles in my own way, but I learned a new way of drumming from this band. I learned to see things in a different way.”
I ask him about the genre of Motel Mari’s music, a question most musicians hate to discuss, but Ramoba is rather forthcoming. Are Motel Mari post-genre, I ask? He stares at me, toying with my question and then slowly offers: “I think our music is like a slow groove or chilled groove,” he says. “It’s got the groove for dancing, but it’s slowed down.”
Our interview is drawing to a close, because Ramoba has to get to the home affairs office in Harrison Street to collect his new passport. “My old one is full,” he says. Lifestyle of the global rock star.
As I head over the Nelson Mandela Bridge, the glorious sunshine that is See You Later blares on the stereo.
The song, a bonus track on the CD the band have given me, is a lilting little gem that shuffles off into the golden sunset. This album is going to make my spring.
A few days later I find myself inside guitarist Mpumi Mcata’s flat in the Main Street Life building.
Books and magazines are scattered everywhere. Irvine Welsh and Arundhati Roy’s names stand out. An old map of Africa is framed on the wall and nearby sits a rack of vinyl. Under the coffee table sit piles of CDs and DVDs.
Mcata is wearing a purple-and-grey hoodie and sits cross-legged on the couch. His beard juts out from under a hat with black trim.
Having interviewed Mcata before, I am aware that he loves to answer questions with long rolling anecdotes. And so I get comfortable when I ask him about the album title and concept.
“Eternal Peasant is everybody, everything, everywhere — that’s actually what we are,” says Mcata.
“So everyone is a peasant?” I ask.
“We are all peasants in some aspect of our lives. Everybody is a peasant, we’re all just off the boat, we’ve all just been born.”
The conversation veers to migrants moving to Johannesburg, seeking their pot of gold and how this relates to the album.
“You can be a peasant no matter what class you are in,” says Mcata. “In isiXhosa there is this word iqaba, which is like saying Jim comes to Jo’burg …” Mcata’s voice trails off and then he launches into a tale of a friend of his whose grandmother, an old Jewish lady, would go to a wedding and bring home food wrapped in serviettes for her grandchildren.
“He used to say to her ‘Ma it’s okay, the war is over, you don’t have to do this any more’,” says Mcata. “The peasant thing is here and no matter how much things around you change, you don’t lose that. It doesn’t mean that just because people come to Johannesburg to work that they have lost their peasant status. It is part of them, just like all the rich guys in the city who have been rich since birth; they are probably also peasants in some way.”
The conversation veers left and right and we spend a long time talking about such a Johannesburg album being recorded in Cape Town.
“The making of this album has been a really reflective period for me,” says Mcata.
“The personal connection between us was much stronger and we were quite candid about our private lives and used that as material in the music. Which was weird for me, because the BLK JKS is more mystical — it just happens and you don’t know what it means.
“We were all in strange spaces in our personal lives where we didn’t know whether we were coming or going. It could be like, fuck the BLK JKS, or my relationship is not going so well. The lyrics reflect these things.”
Mcata points to opening track According to Who, which he says sums up the introspective nature of the album.
“I tried to be good, I wish I could./ I sit at the foot of the bed with a lot of thoughts in my head./ I’m holding it together with a strength/ dreading the day it stops moving,” sings Orecchia on the song.
It bursts into life with a shit-kicking glorious groove. I ask him about Cloud, the song that has made such an impression on me.
“What type of rain are we talking about?”
He begins to explain that it is about popular culture and judgment and people pointing fingers at each other.
“In a way it kind of says if there is a cloud hanging over me, if you believe that, then there is probably a cloud hanging over you too,” he says. “It’s very angry, but not angry at anything in particular; just like someone venting in the desert with their arms flailing.”
A warning, a reflective, defiant yelp.
“With a lot of the songs we would just drive around Johannesburg in João’s car listening to them. Then we discussed them and how to make them better,” says Mcata. “Cloud was a brilliant moment, one of those ‘sitting at a traffic light in slow motion’ moments.”
I know exactly what he means. I have had all kinds of moments like that in Johannesburg this past month with Eternal Peasant as my soundtrack.
There is some undeniable bond between the two and it does not surprise me in the least that the guys behind this music are also responsible for last year’s Invisible Cities parties that wanted to create a new vision of what Johannesburg could be on a night in an abandoned building.
They are busy reimagining this city and its future. After all, Johannesburg is what you make of it and Motel Mari are painting a golden canvas.
Motel Mari are playing on August 30 as part of the Amaze Festival (amaze-interact.co.za). It’s an evening of audiovisual performances at the Alex Theatre. Also performing are Gangpol und Mit from France, a new solo project by Zamani from Dirty Paraffin called Dokta SpiZee