/ 27 September 2019

Life’s odd times: Kwani is back

Life’s odd times: Kwani is back
New Year’s reunion: (from left) Kwani Experience’s Monde Mkhizwana, Nkoto Malebye and Kwelagobe Sekele. (Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

It’s been a long minute since Kwani Experience vocalist and rapper Kwela Sekele has seen some of his former bandmates.

“We haven’t been under one roof in a while, let alone a WhatsApp group,” he chuckles before sighing into his steaming cappuccino.

Following their hiatus, the music ensemble members have had no obligations to one another because it was music that brought them together.

Much like the families on Khumbul’ekhaya — a reality show centred around finding and reconciling estranged loved ones — the band needed an external force to bring them together. In mid-August AfroPunk announced its decision to add more artists to the 2019 Johannesburg leg of the festival. And Kwani Experience is on the list.

Between 2003 (when it was formed) and 2012 Kwani has taken on a variety of incarnations.
First it was an octet. Then it was a septet. Somewhere in between old members were replaced by new ones. By the time a sabbatical was on their horizon, the members were down to six.

At one point or another Nkoto Malebye (vocals), Nosisi Ngakane (vocals), Kwelagobe “Kwela” Sekele (vocals), Monde Mkhizwana (drums), Ribatone (keys), Jambo Dazana (saxophone), Gontse Makhene (percussion), Frank Magongwa (bass) and Bafana Nhlapo (vocals, percussion) have all been members of Kwani Experience. And after appearing in several different sizes and forms, all nine members will be performing on the AfroPunk stage.

READ MORE: Go funk yourselves

While this news of a reunion is good, it does not signal a full-on comeback. Instead of building expectation for a new album or a tour, the reunion can rather be viewed in the light of similar reformations over the past few years, which have seen outfits such as have seen Boom Shaka and TKZee getting together for a performance here and there.

Leading up to their performance, a handful of the band members talked to the Mail & Guardian about their time apart and getting on stage together after a seven-year sabbatical. Because liaising with a public relations officer to interview nine subjects proved difficult, the conversation took place in two parts. The first was at a Melrose Arch coffee joint with the pianist, drummer and one of the vocalists. The second was during a stroll through Sandton with another one of the vocalists, complete with some pears to snack on.

Locating the sound of Kwani

In 2003 a student collective, fresh from teenagehood, had a need to jam on their own terms. Together they formed Kwani Experience, the self-proclaimed “blesser and guardian of motherland funk”.

Since the release of Birth of The Mudaland Funk (2005) and Live After Birth (2007), Kwani Experience have taken their music on an Afro-Euro tour with destinations including Cape Verde, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Tanzania, Lesotho, Angola, Norway, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. While on tour they shared stages with the likes of Hugh Masekela, Mahotella Queens, Johnny Clegg, Thandiswa Mazwai and Blick Bassy.

The Kwani sound is a multilingual and genre-fluid space in which funk, soul, deep house, rap and reggae live in a clean and seamless groove. The band’s pianist, Ribatone, says it is because “we always wanted to understand one another’s sound until it was one thing”.

But their songs are not songs as such. They aren’t preplanned, carefully curated and boundary-bound compositions. Their songs are a Pan-African means of fellowship: intercessions for the subjugated, encouragement for the hopeless and unrelenting praise for those who keep at it. They play out like mantras for abundance or instrumental affirmations of joy.

With only two albums — and the last one being released more than a decade ago — Kwani’s superpower most likely lies in the band’s commitment to live performances. Live performances allow musicians to recreate their songs and stretch them past the standard three minute and thirty second duration. But central to Kwani’s preference is what Mkhizwana calls “feedback and reciprocal energy” from the crowd.

In Dipula, their words instruct rain to fall with a charge so sincere it encourages you to sing along in prayer-like unison. And when they let their instruments speak (like they do on Mess in the Kitchen), their pitch and the song’s dynamics tell a story that defies language barriers. “Being a part of Kwani has always been an act of service,” says Malebye. “It’s prayer — it’s fellowship — and you can’t do that alone.”

In the same WhatsApp group

While the collective isn’t open to disclosing what led to their sabbatical, they support the distance because of the individual growth that came with it. “We haven’t been okay with each other,” Mkhizwana says to fill in the silence, “But all of that is fading away, that’s the only way we can get on that stage with each other”. In addition to Kwani responsibilities, Malebye teaches, Ngakane forms a part of the Mushroom Hour Half Hour collective, Mkhizwana manages a production company, Ribatone forms one half of the house duo Sai & Ribatone, Sekele is pursuing a solo career and Gontse is a member of Shabaka and The Ancestors. “Imagine what all of that influence will sound like,” says Ribatone. “That’s why kere it feels so good to be good again.”

The 2019 festival will mark the first participation at AfroPunk for most of the band’s members. When asked for their sentiments about the festival and the opportunity to make use of that platform, the collective response is a sigh. Then Sekele breaks the silence. “I don’t know, man. A lot of people seem to dislike it but I think it’s a revolutionary space — its programming represents what we have been trying to do this whole time.” He then recalls that when Kwani Experience released its first album in 2005, US filmmaker James Spooner established Afropunk.com, the digital platform that became a mood board of expression for alternative and queer black bodies across the world.

Like WhatsApp groups that are created for a specific occasion, the Kwani Experience reunion could be the type of group chat that participants leave after the performance, or it could operate long after the festival. “It’s a tough thing to run away from,” sighs Sekele in reference to the bond between Kwani’s members. “We’re only back for this show but you never know how we’ll feel after the performance.”