/ 2 May 2016

Mushroom Hour Half-Hour: From pirate radio to podcasts

If Pravin Gordhan is probed in connection with the 'rogue unit' at Sars
If Pravin Gordhan is probed in connection with the 'rogue unit' at Sars

Nhlanhla Mngadi, of the Mushroom Hour Half-Hour podcast, is not being nostalgic when he reminds me that the artwork that greeted revellers as they entered the bowels of the now cultishly revered but short-lived Jo’burg downtown club Mind Your Head.  The piece was a Mzwandile Buthelezi artwork of a spinning B-boy inscribed with the tagline: “These people don’t dance no more.”

Far from one to indulge in sentimentality, he is merely making the point of how his parents’ vinyl collection freed him and his rapping peers from hypermasculinity’s shackles.

“There was always a sense that this music surrounded us,” he says of how he and his friends, such as Soul Diablo and DJ duo HypeJones, created a female-friendly dancing culture at Mind Your Head that was centred on digging.

“Because we were just so narrow with the hip-hop thing, we didn’t listen to the Jackson Five or anything else but that head-nod shit. The process of Mind Your Head grew us.”

The Mushroom Hour Half-Hour, which started off as a podcast on pirate station Invisible Cities Radio before turning into an online podcast portal and boutique vinyl-only label, is like Mind Your Head in Wonderland.

By the time Mngadi (Kool oNe Ebony), Soul Diablo and Andrew Curnow (Radio Robert) formed Mushroom Hour Half-Hour, the challenge had moved from filling dance floors to testing their and their peers’ oratorical skills on a treasure trove of local 45s.

In a Mushroom Hour Half-Hour podcast titled SLAMDhungied Mushrooms Part 1, you can hear Grandmaster Cap, Qba and Shorty Skillz fumble freestyles over Soweto Soul seven-inchers. Halfway through it, a quietly exasperated Cap fobs off the sluggish Shorty Skillz’s anticipatory ad-libs, denying him his next turn at the mic for not bringing the goods the first time around.

While they ride out the session, Qba and the host Cap do not fare that much better either. Cap’s hawkish hosting, though, points to a clear sense of direction behind the seeming chaos.

In the summer of 2014, the Mushroom gang headed southwest to Mofolo Central to meet up with scamtho legend Ike Muila. They set up a bed of twin turntables and a mixer, miked Muila up to a sound card and let the momentum build – this time through Mulatu’s chicken grease funk and languid Nyabinghi, courtesy of Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari’s Way Back Home.

As the repeater drum gives way to the perky trumpet funk of Blue Mitchell’s Swahili Suite, Muila’s nimble cadence slips through the crackle of the recording like an okapi sliding back from between a kleva’s perforated rib cage.

If you consulted the artwork for a road map as to how you got there, you may have, again, seen Buthelezi’s stamp – a plaid flannel M-shaped boombox – as an injunction daring you to dance. This time, however, either to the rhythm of The Brights’ Vaal Soul or The Sounds’ Bra Biza or in time to Muila’s gleaming blade-like voice.

“When Invisible Cities Radio lost its home, that’s when we decided to hit the road,” says Radio Robert. “That’s when volume two started and we started looking to create soundscapes that matched the poet. From getting that right, we then started thinking, well, ‘What else can we record?’

“We started experimenting to a point where we were recording musicians and these jam sessions were born where we put people together that normally would not record together.”

These jam sessions have included Tshepang Ramoba, Ariel Zamonsky, Mpumi Mcata, Malcolm Jiyane, Ben Sharpa and Nonku Phiri, to name a few.

In 2015, as part of the JHB Massive, Mushroom Hour went to Ghana where, quite fortuitously, they recorded a jam session with Highlife legend Pat Thomas, Ghanaian proto-rapper Gyedu-Blay Ambolley and Cameroonian sound artist Elsa M’bala.

“We’ve been working now since 2013 and hardly putting anything out,” says Radio Robert. “But they have been recorded, mixed, album art has been made. We want to put them out as albums.”

Radio Robert says this process, which will roll out in June when the new Mushroom Hour Half-Hour portal launches, will be honed into some kind of aural science, with Word on Wax podcasts jam sessions and vynil mixes being pounded out at a gentlemanly pace. A Word on Wax session featuring East Rand poet Makhafula Vilakazi will be used to launch the website.

Among the archive of material due for release will be Pretoria-based acoustic guitarist Sibusile Xaba’s Open Letter to Adoniah and The Unlearning Project double album, as well as a famed 2014 jam session that took place as part of an Ithuba residency, featuring among others Joao Orecchia on synthesisers, Molefi Makananise on bass, Nosisi Ngakane on vocals, Mcata on guitars and  Ramoba on drums.

With Mushroom Hour Half-Hour delving into podcasting and live recordings, the revival of South Africa’s unique vinyl legacy looks set for a B-boy, as opposed to a hipster, makeover.

Sun shines on archives

The Pan African Space Station (Pass) has cherished the Sun Ra idea that “there are other worlds out there that they have not told you about”. 

That is to say, in the not so distant future, when the planet is probably devoid of humankind, other more intelligent forms of life will be scouring the station’s servers for clues for the apex of human intelligence. 

They will probably find plenty to savour in the content that Pass has archived. Archiving, says live broadcast engineer Graeme Arendse, is the station’s principal focus. 

Since the beginning of Pass in 2008, where are you right now?
There have been slight changes but it’s been building on what we have. Initially we started out with 24/7 broadcasts over a month-long period to coincide with Pass. That consisted of free-form programming going out live. After the initial three-year period we had built up an archive of live performances and broadcasts from the festival. After that, we started using that archive as our broadcast material. 

Do you have enough of an archive to keep it interesting on a daily basis?
Every week or so we change the archive, so we’d select a series of programmes to run for a week, and every week we update that. The other thing that has happened over the past two years is that we have consolidated the Chimurenga Library and the Pan African Space Station and our other projects into an exhibition space. If the exhibition runs for a month, we’ll have four to five days of scheduled programming around particular themes that run throughout the Chimurenga Library. That programming would be streamed live. 

Were you able to check listenership patterns and make changes?
When we have livestreaming as part of the library, there is an increase in listenership. 

Have you been able to steadily make it bigger than what it is?
The intention was always to create an archive, not to make it reach a certain number of listeners. It was an online and physical archival process, so we were very selective about what we were broadcasting live and what we were recording. 

Have you drawn inspiration from people locally?
We see other interventions as points of reference for us rather than anything that blew our minds. When we initially started, there were plans to look at FM broadcasts, but the process would have involved jumping through hoops. The internet offered something less bureaucratic with no restrictions, no reliance on advertising to keep ourselves going.

The rise and rise of pop-up internet radio

Internet radio in South Africa runs the gamut from stations mimicking their commercial counterparts to those taking London’s pirate stations’ attitude and transposing that online. 

With Jozi Maboneng Radio, Mbulelo “Boyza” Dubasi took the “we play what we like” attitude of London’s illegal broadcasters as his muse, while setting his sights on giving commercial radio a run for its money. Going commercial hasn’t panned out but he is still literally popping up around Maboneng and online, provided you have the app. 

When did you start Jozi Maboneng Radio and why?
It started in 2014. The idea came from listening to pirate radio when I was in London (between 2005 and 2009). People such as Gilles Petersen had their own pirate radio stations back in the day. When I was there it was just cool listening to these radio stations that catered to their own target audiences and creative communities. YFM back in the day had proper DJs who used to come with their own selection and inform with dope sounds. That was the culture I loved about radio back in the days, before it was track-listed. 

How many shows did you have to keep it going?
We had, in total, about 12 proper shows: six shows during the week and six shows during the weekend. Then there were shows that I’d get as syndications from other radio stations abroad where it was an exchange. On a Monday, we’d rebroadcast and then have a live show from 6-9pm. We’d also use playlists that we had compiled from different DJs such as Ralf GUM or Kid Fonque. We also [host] live broadcast parties from [the] Museum of African Design in Maboneng. In the same way that Boiler Room would do it. 

What does it take to make it a viable business?
It’s just about growing the shows with good content and good music. The thing with internet radio is you need a team. Social media is big, marketing is big. With commercial radio, everything is poppy. If you’re into music but you’re not a digger, you will think that commercial radio is all there is. But the culture of good music is coming back with vinyl now. 

Who did you draw inspiration from?
As far as inspiration, there was no one really. The 2oceansvibe [Radio] was happening but it was not my vibe at all. 

Is having a talk element important to you?
That target audience is 18 to 35, and they are going through things and we need to be there to tackle those things. 

How important is a permanent studio?
What we are doing right now is pop-up radio where we broadcast in different spaces. 

When is your next one?
On Saturday we are broadcasting Sound of the Weekend Radio between 9am and midday. People can stream live from jozimabonengradio.co.za or download the app MR Radio.