Four Small Gods and the South African jazz link

John Withers, the man behind the lauded John Wizards band and eponymous album does a lot of work in the advertising industry to diversify his income. He has been involved in sound design for theatre productions, working with playwright and director Joanna Evans, who says Withers has an intuitive sense of what is needed from sound in a theatre production without upstaging it. Their collaboration The Year of the Bicycle won the Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award for excellence. The play Four Small Gods, which will again see Withers doing sound design, runs at the Magnet Theatre in Cape Town from October 30 to November 10. He speaks to the Mail & Guardian about preparing for his role in the play and working on new music.

How did you get involved with Four Small Gods?
I’ve worked with Joanna before, on a few of her plays. So that’s the only theatre work I’ve really done. Whenever she has a new play she always comes to me.

Is there something about the process of writing for this play that was a departure from how you’ve written for the theatre before?
What I usually do when I work on plays is that I take things I’m particularly interested in at the time and I work them into the music I’m making. I always run it by Joanna first.

With this one, the instruments I’m using are quite different. There will be a lot of hymns, church music, but also a lot of South African jazz, which is something I’ve just recently become interested in. So I’ve been doing my best to marry the two by using a lot of traditional jazz instruments. It’s mostly Catholic and Anglican psalm-based music.

How do you tie that to the theme?
The play is a flood myth. I guess that’s one of the things that made me think about using church music. In lots of different cultures, you have these flood myths that pop up all over the place. I guess that pointed me to vaguely religious music.

What jazz have you been listening to recently?
I guess I got into it like a year ago. I started listening to people like Johnny Dyani and Abdullah Ibrahim, Dudu Pukwana. The history is really interesting, I think that’s what initially drew me to it. I was reading about their stories of exile.

How would you describe your process with Joanna? Do you work from a finished script?
I go through it to get some impressions of things that would work with it. When you are reading it you have a picture of what it’s going to be like. And then I’ll go through it with Joanna, give her my ideas and I’ll get an idea of what she’s thinking. So I usually start writing once I’ve read the text. Then I will hold back a bit and watch the rehearsal. Once I record the rehearsal then I work from there, having had a better sense of the timing and how the music will fit without being a part of the foreground.

Are there people you have sought to emulate as far as that type of music making is concerned?
The best example I can think of is Neo Muyanga. A lot of his work is in theatre and he does such a wonderful job with the music he writes, the way he creates a very South African musical backdrop for all the plays that he is writing for. But I guess his work is different in that all of the works that I have seen, the music has been really foregrounded, it’s been a central part of the theatre.

How much of a role do you play once the production hits the stage? Do you play anything live?
If I had to work on something with a bigger budget I’d play a role. It would be fantastic to work with real musicians and have a sort of a live performance for a theatre piece, but that’s a totally different story.

As far as your music career goes, are you working on any new music?
It has been quite a long process. I got back from tour this time last year. So I’ve spent the last year just writing new music and settling into a new period of my life. I’ve moved into a new place and the last three years before this were very unsettled. The album came out and we did a lot of touring, which was very exciting but very strange too. So the dust has settled a bit.

Have you got an idea where you are going with the new music you are working on?
At the moment it is quite dispersed and quite diverse. I think people will be able to recognise that it’s me, but things have changed. I’m using more real instruments than electronic instruments. I’m doing my best to create a really unified feel to the music, but for the moment it is very dispersed. We have to see when it gets to the final stages, which is kind of like what happened with the last album.

For more information on Four Small Gods, visit webtickets.co.za

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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