Extraordinary: Sun-Xa Experiment perform at the Soweto Theatre. At the feet of singer Buyisiwe Njoko is the masengane, an instrument that drummer Siphiwe Mgidi built for her. (Oupa Nkosi)
The momentum around the seven-piece Soweto-based outfit is hard to ignore. Initially a slow-building force that coalesced around the beats that manager Lebohang More and acoustic guitarist Tebogo Mkhize were making — beats that were framed on hip-hop drum patterns laid on top of Sun Ra and Ndikho Xaba’s music — the group has evolved into something of live translation of that initial idea.
To say the sound is befuddling, cacophonous and sprawling would not be gratuitous. Sun-Xa songs often come across as extended jams — invocations, even — centring performance and sound production as opposed to tightly arranged structures.
In essence, Sun-Xa build a vibe and aim to sustain it for the duration of their often ecstatic performances.
As lead singer Buyisiwe Njoko explains from their headquarters in Zondi, Soweto, theirs was a sound built on attrition as opposed to intricate layering. “Initially we sounded like an avant-garde jazz band,” she says. “But then we lost a keyboardist and a saxophonist, which is when I ended up playing the vuvuzela.” She says it as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to replace a saxophone with a plastic horn played at football matches.
“The departure of other members made us discover more of ourselves,” says Mkhize. “It was not about playing the lost members’ roles, but about enhancing ours. The direction the music was taking didn’t necessitate the replacing of anyone.” Electric guitarist Lerato Seitei joined the group after a jam in Zondi.
“One thing we have realised as Sun-Xa is that if we are not able to jam well with somebody for the first time,” says Njoko, “then our energies are probably going to clash in the future. When Lerato came through and played, we felt like this guy is not going to go anywhere.”
As various band members, including sound engineer Tiisetso Tsoabisi, percussionist Benedict Watte and Seitei, convene at their lodging and rehearsal space, Njoko drags a 10-litre bucket to her feet to show me another sonic weapon in the band’s arsenal of instruments.
“This is umasengane,” she says, to my initial confusion. “You have to wet the plastic for it to make a sound.” By tugging at the plastic contraption fastened to the bottom inside the bucket, she produces a deeply resonant, low-frequency sound.
It is an instrument created for her by drummer Siphiwe Mgidi, absent on the day, a sonic adventurer who plays the storotoro.
A front woman for the band, Njoko is quick to point out that she is not the band’s leader as such, but more a balancing force that complements the masculine energy she is surrounded by.
The masengane is detonated at opportune moments during the open-ended grooves that serve as Sun-Xa Experiment songs.
While an earlier iteration of the band started to solidify some time in 2014, it was the inauspicious beginnings in Johannesburg that prompted Sun-Xa to embark on an extended mission to Durban in 2016, where they resided at the Green Camp, a roofless urban farming site in an industrial corner of Durban.
“We had tried so hard to be booked, to play gigs, until we decided that we’d rather be scarce in Johannesburg,” says Njoko of their early Johannesburg days. “We played a gig and only one person from Pietermaritzburg came through. But, trust me, that gig was amazing.”
Away from the pressure of Johannesburg, the band were able to write songs, a freedom that continually came up against the practicalities of staying alive.
“Durban taught us survival,” says Mkhize, a slight figure almost overshadowed by his tree-like dreadlocks. “There were more of us then. We were a movement. There were times when we didn’t have money and we had to hustle, busk in restaurants — stuff that wasn’t even being done in Durban.”
Among the receptive venues were Khaya Records and Habesha Café.
Riding the momentum of a consistent work ethic that has seen them become a standard feature in festival lineups, Sun-Xa are giving off the vibe that they may just be the spawn of groups such as Kwani Experience, the BLK JKS and The Brother Moves On, who recently celebrated a decade as a unit.
Having recently completed a six-track recording in Gillits, near Durban, the only things that can stop Sun-Xa might be fatigue and the combustible chaos that is, for now at least, serving as their fuel.
Sun-Xa Experiment play at the Roving Bantu Kitchen on May 18 and at the Afrika Groove Day at the Soweto Theatre on May 25