/ 6 November 2014

The evolution of the black band, a decade on

The cultural scene in Johannesburg’s inner city spawned the birth of a number of experimental black music acts. Kwanele Sosibo tracks their evolution.
The cultural scene in Johannesburg’s inner city spawned the birth of a number of experimental black music acts. Kwanele Sosibo tracks their evolution.

‘When we started there were a lot of people who were like: ‘This thing won’t happen. You have to blow up in South Africa before you blow up overseas, so it won’t happen.’?” Mpumi Mcata, guitarist for both the BLK JKS and Motel Mari, is standing outside the entrance of Boundless Café – a community space and bar in Fox Street, Johannesburg – having just completed a set with his Motel Mari band mates João Orrechia and fellow BLK JK Tshepang Ramoba.

Pondering the future of the generation of bands that emerged out of Johannesburg’s thriving live music scene of a decade ago, he says: “We did it [picked up instruments] because we knew about the Hararis and the like.”

Harari was a South African township soul and funk group formed in the 1960s as the Beaters. Its line-up changed several times, but initially consisted of Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, Selby Ntuli, Alec Khaoli and Monty Ndimande. Mcata has often mentioned members of this band and others, such as Stimela, as having inspired him and his peers to make music. Perhaps more a generational scene than a strictly racial one, some have wondered about the aftermath of the Johannesburg band movement that mushroomed around the turn of the century.

It spawned the likes of the BLK JKS, Kwani Experience, Tumi and the Volume, 340ml and early versions of Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness and the groups that more or less coalesced around the Bassline (formerly in Melville) and the now-gentrified cultural hub of Newtown. In their jamming formations, they often mingled with a flourishing poetry and hip-hop scene, with its attendant Afro-bohemian affectations and, in the best of cases, incisive social commentary.

‘The black band is not dead’
Musicians and fans alike have often theorised that the demise of this fertile scene, with the odd exception, took with it the future prospects of success for the band model. For black bands to achieve any measure of mainstream success these days, their repertoire has to be comparatively anodyne. Although some of these influential groups of yesteryear have disbanded, some former band members have gone on to form more streamlined, electronic-influenced projects – in some cases going solo and setting up independent record labels.

“I think the band thing is going back underground,” says BLK JKS drummer Ramoba. “Nowadays, people are like: ‘Computer, mic, we’re cool.’ In our generation there were so many bands I couldn’t keep up: Meat the Veggies, Skin to Skin – so much random stuff.” Mcata has a slightly more upbeat outlook. “By the way, we’re playing in December,” he says. “We’re playing a stadium gig. We’re opening for the Foo Fighters [an American rock band]. So the black band is not dead. It has gone from four members to five members. The same black band that started with three members.” Quirky turns of phrase are a staple technique that Mcata uses during interviews to wrest ­control of the process.

A fresh sound 
When the BLK JKS defied convention in the late 2000s, touring the world and signing with United States indie rock label Secretly Canadian – all without a local fan base to speak of – it was Mcata who was mostly quoted in the media space they were accruing. He curated the BLK JKS mythology with an offhand futurism, often tailored to locate the band simultaneously within a lineage of great predecessors and among contemporary South African urban culture. It was not a far-fetched proposition.

“In 2002, 2003, for our generation, the musicians wanted to play jazz,” says Ramoba. “They were listening to jazz. There was a lot of it at Shivava, Horror Café, Nikki’s Oasis, Songwriters’ Club [all Newtown music venues]. People now have more know-ledge about how difficult it is to do it [form a band].” MC Tumi Molekane agrees. “Back then we were a little bit more naive,” he says. “More importantly, the environment was more fresh. It felt like it was waiting. There were no easy comparisons. People were comparing us [Tumi and the Volume] to the Roots, Kwani to Arrested Development. But there were no close references. Like today you could say The Brother Moves On is like a Kwani with a blah blah, you know what I mean? With us it was pretty much like shooting in the dark, taking the big leap.”

Formed in 2002, Tumi and the Volume (which featured some members from 340ml), started out as a live hip-hop outfit, as best exemplified by their 2004 debut album, Live at the Bassline. However, they approached each subsequent album uniquely, until, as Tumi says, “ambition” meant that it was “harder to finish each other’s sentences”. Not unlike Mcata’s analysis, former Kwani Experience vocalist PO sees the dissolution of many of the bands that formed in the early 2000s as a kind of unspoken relay.

“I guess people grew up,” says PO, a veritable music industry insider at the Bohemian music venue in Westdene, Johannesburg. “When I was working at Motif [a record label that is home to the likes of rapper Reason and singer Zaki Ibrahim], we did a bit of a study on bands and hip-hop acts. We found that hip-hop acts usually have a life-span of five years and bands about 10 years. We broke it down generationally. Sankomota and Stimela, that’s the Eighties, right? You look at Tananas and Moodphase5ive, that’s like late Nineties going into early 2000s. Tumi and the Volume, 340ml, they start emerging early 2002. You look at Kwani and the BLK JKS, they emerge from early to mid 2000s. From there you get your Impande Cores and The Brother Moves On. So it’s a generational thing.

“Also, we existed before social media. Now it’s the age of information. Every­body wants to chow what’s new and be gone. That’s why I’m into doing songs and not albums now, but the album is still like a business card.” Earlier this year, PO pitched a new series of songs that make up his debut solo EP Maru: The Prelude to a tepid Alexander Theatre audience in Braamfontein. He was slightly out of place, performing with a DJ. Orienting himself for his solo project has been a learning curve. “It’s just a perfectionist thing where it feels like there’s a sound you’re hearing but no one else gets it,” he says. “I recorded the first songs in 2008, with [former Kwani Experience band mate] Mahlatsi Riba, actually. I wasn’t getting the sounds I was hearing until the Zim Ngqawana memorial in 2011. I bumped into Bra Vic [bass player Victor Masondo]. I told him I was looking for a sound and he said to me: ‘Why are you looking for a sound when you already have one, and that’s the Kwani sound’.”

Keeping the band together
PO believes he’s settled on a “digital” Kwani sound. More accurately, though, it is a sound more consistent with his personal journey after the band, including stints with rap rock (such as the short-lived collaboration project Battle Cock) and the sun-drenched bounce of Take Away, his collaboration with fellow rapper Bhubesii. Eastern Cape journeyman Johnny Cradle often works the core of his life experiences and involvement with dissolved bands into the texture of his sound. Johnny Cradle is both the stage name of Sakumzi Qumana and the name of his three-man “band”, consisting of himself on keyboards and vocals, Chris Lombard on guitar and Sisonke Manentsa on ­samples.

In his recent single, uLate, Qumana puts the migrant worker theme on its head, making it a statement of voluntary displacement and personal ­triumph. Formed in 2006 in Port Elizabeth, Johnny Cradle’s line-up has included everything from turntablists to flautists and saxophonists. In between, there have been wobbly, uneven shots at bands, one-man gigs and, finally, a three-man unit carved out of aesthetic coherence and financial pragmatism. “For me, right now, the hybrid is better, even feeling-wise,” he says over a slice of pizza at a Braamfontein bar. “You can’t match a hip-hop drum pattern, one that’s nicely done. The people that like hip-hop, they know you can’t get better than that. The guy that drums for Portishead live [Clive Deamer], he was saying that when they tune their drums, they over-compress them to try and get that sound. For me, the Johnny Cradle thing has to have that hardness to it and that very harsh, roots-reggae bass thing that’s over the top.”

From his recollections of band life, expanding the number of band members doesn’t seem to be on the cards anytime soon for Johnny Cradle. “If I think about band scenarios in my mind – the ones that are able to be in a proper band, they probably have to do with studying music and having access to proper rehearsal space and gear, or knowing someone who has been in music and is able to collate those things.”

‘Money is not everything’
For bands such as the East Rand’s Impande Core (who have had a frustrating stop-start career) and Soweto’s Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (BCUC) – the exhortation-roots ensemble that continues to flourish after 11 years – the future is bright, only now they have to be more circumspect when it comes to labels and industry politics. Covering his head in a large cloth scarf at a recent gig in Bez Valley, Johannesburg, Impande Core guitarist Ntsikelelo Machache says: “In this marathon, we’ve been told things like: ‘You guys must change one of your members, he doesn’t look hot enough. I can get you a nice boy who can replace that guy.’”

Trumpter Nyameko Nkondlwane adds: “Money is not everything at the end of the day. What matters is to be able to tell my daughter what her father did.” It’s an experience BCUC’s singer, Kgomotso Mokone, also at the gig, is familiar with: “Black females tell me all the time: I must dress like this, I must sing like this,” she says, adding that she shrugs off the unsolicited advice. We can’t be reprimanded now. What you might call politics is just my truth,” says lead vocalist Jovi Nkosi. “My struggle is just the story of black cats who are consistent and who are hitting that spot consistently for 11 years. What if what’s left is one hit of the shovel and then the oil comes out?”