Anticolonial misfits Original Swimming Party are in a class of their own
‘If the Original Swimming Party were a subject at school, they would be mathematics,” says band member, vocalist and guitarist Jeremy de Tolly. But their music suggests they could be a different subject – history.
“We are a nerdy band – our sound is very mathematical, with calculated beats. We love breaking the rules,” said De Tolly, who previously performed with alternative rock band The Dirty Skirts. He has since formed Original Swimming Party with band member Thomas Glendinning.
“I just wanted to do something different and we had a common vision to make weird left-field electronica music.”
Their sound swings from left-field electronica to dream pop with a hint of gqom, kwaito and house-inspired beats. When infused together, you could say their sound is Afrotronic. The band is working on its upcoming album, Hypergiant, which they hope to release in July this year. For this album, they have opted for an upbeat tempo, a switch from their previous work, which featured a lot of mellow songs.
“We love making super-gentle music but Hypergiant will feature a lot of thumping beats,” said De Tolly.
Their previous work leaned more towards the downtempo electronica category, but the new music aims to get audiences up on their feet, dancing. The band is transitioning into the dance music market after playing at various festivals and events including Littlegig (2016), Oppikoppi (2014, 2015), Design Indaba (2015) and Mammoth BI (2014).
For Hypergiant, they collaborated with accordionist Thuso Sebape, hip-hop artist Obie Mavuso, singer Sdumo Viwe, keyboardist for The City and The Kifness, Clem Carr, and guitarists Keenan Ahrends and Greg Abrahams. They plan to perform around the country and raise money for their United States tour, which would be a dream come true for the band. But for now their focus is to get their name into the mouths of local audiences.
“We just want to be successful and play our music all across South Africa,” said De Tolly.
For him, the band makes music for a niche market and it has been quite a challenge to get airplay.
“Radio doesn’t love the Original Swimming Party. We knew we were making quality music, but we just couldn’t get it on air so we are really excited about the 90% SABC music quota.”
Their latest single, Life in the Colony, which they released in May off of their forthcoming album, could be the crossover sound they need to appeal to a broader audience.
“We love South African beats because the local rhythm is so unique internationally. Western beats are so rehashed and boring; they keep using the same beats.
“Soon international artists will be all over the South African house, kwaito and house beats.”
If the home-brewed beats don’t hit the right spot, then the band’s lyrical content will definitely hit home for South Africans.
Life in the Colony opens with De Tolly’s entrancing voice uttering the date “1652”, over a high-tempo dance beat, referring to the contentious year that marked the beginnings of the violent creation of South Africa as we know it.
De Tolly sings: “Arrive in the Cape/ Enslave and dominate/ Convert or kill/ Dominate the land/ Shoot all the animals/ Dominate the people/ We’re a violent kind.”
These are not the pretty lyrics that one would expect to be sung over their gentle sound. “Lyrically the song explores the postcolonial and post-apartheid legacy that Cape Town and her people suffer from. It’s an exploration of the journey the city (and South Africa) are going through and informed by the dialogues of Cape Town’s Woke and #RhodesMustFall movements.’’ De Tolly acknowledges that their overall subject matter is heavy.
“There is an emotional tone to it but there is also release and acceptance in the music, even though it goes into the crazy reality of serious topics like colonialism.”
The lyrics continue: “These are my ancestors/ This is my inheritance/ Armour of white skin/ This is my empty voice/ (these are the shades of my privilege)/ The deeper I go inside/ Colonised/ Where to from here?/ Give back the land?”
For their song Moments before Discovering the Edge of the World, from the EP Wavs, they sampled a voice recording of Sanusi and author Credo Mutwa speaking about the arrival of white people in South Africa.
The calls for decolonisation that have captured public imagination in South Africa recently have inspired the Original Swimming Party (a name De Tolly came up with while swimming in Peru), whose intent is to create different ways of addressing the scars of colonisation.
“For us, the songs are a process of being schooled and learning about what is going on in our country. We are not teachers – we are learning along with the rest of the country,” he said.
Their social commentary on colonisation at times seems masked in the beats. You could easily miss the message behind the songs because vocalist De Tolly’s doesn’t always enunciate the words boldly, but his voice complements their sound.
The recurring theme and imagery of water has been central to the band’s exploration of the questions of identity and South Africa race politics in their EP. Their first offering was The Blue EP, which they released in 2014. The project was recorded at the Red Bull Studios Cape Town. The following year they came out with Wavs, which consisted of songs such as Light on the Water, Here I Am on a Boat.
Another distinguishing element is the visual work they include in their performances. The Original Swimming Party refer to themselves as an audiovisual band because they incorporate stills and motion pictures into the live performances. Their visual collaborators include Frank Latter, Thom Drier and Jannous Aukema. So, while they play their instruments on stage, videos and photos are projected on to the stage. According to De Tolly, “the visuals make the songs emotional. We script the visuals so that we are able tell the story with some humanity.”
Listen to the song Life in the Colony on Sound Cloud at mg.co.za/lifeinthecolony
*The earlier version of the article stated that Jeremy de Tolly formed Original Swimming Party with band members Frank Latter, Thom Drier and Jannous Aukema. This was incorrect. The article has been updated.