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Interview Brother Moves On
Siyabonga Mthembu

We are kids from the Southern tip of Africa, the last country to come out of colonialism in essence with apartheid taking so long to end. The kind of music we make is music that is global in influence but very grounded in South African jazz. But to call South African jazz South African jazz is based on a very political issue as anybody was able to leave South Africa during racist apartheid stuck to that as a genre as a way of relating. We are not all playing the same music but it is based on the same routes.

What are your roots?

Busi Mhlongo, Batsumo, Bayete, Hugh Masekela, Tsepho Tshola, Sankomota, I can keep going for a while. Sakhile. It is bands that survived the apartheid government.

What about ancient influences?

I try my best not to be African who expresses African Utopia so the whole idea of an ancient tribal Africa is something I can't speak from an experiential position. My traditions and cultures are malleable and they contemporise as they go. Busi Mhlongo is playing mbaqanga music. Mbaqanga used to be a music just for men, the guitar tradition of Kwa Zulu Natal. She became the first women to play it and she mixes in quite a bit of gospel as well to make it happen. I don't like the idea of ancient Africa. I think it is the European guys trying to get us to go back to an ideal space where we don't make our politics complex.

There is a tradition?

I grew up in Johannesburg, I don't belong to the tribes any longer. All that you find that is tribal within me is so embedded I don't think it comes from trying to re-echo a tribe that existed years ago. My living is exactly what that is. To articulate it in a way that I am looking after a particular culture; if I was to say that, the particular culture I would be looking after would be music from the South African jazz era, the music that I was raised listening to by my parents.

Growing up in Johannesburg …

Joburg is the land of the contemporary black people. It is where everyone left the tribes to come to the mines and find their role in essence. A lot of what is made in Joburg is about an ability to not stay tribal and also at the same time there is the global influence of also not trying to mimic what is outside of South Africa. Being a Joburger has meant that I have listened to hip hop bands that have sounded like they are doing hip hop and poetry. I have listened to jazz bands that bring out that old John Coltrane vibe, grounded in Malombo and Philip Thabane's percussive and guitar relations. It is the melting pot of South Africa, the counter to Cape Town's very white aesthetic. It is obviously black, obviously welcoming. We have a saying wuwa ugezi ubangemi, which is “Wake up, wash and get out there.” Because regardless of how much money you have, Joburg finds a way to support what you are trying to do. If you are prepared to be slightly more open. But in the rest of the country, all the politics are at play, Joburgs politics is dealing with the idea of trying to be an African mega city. What is central to that is being African first.

How did Joburg fashion Brother Moves on coming together?

My brother and I were sitting. Our University band had moved up from Grahamstown to Johannesburg and slowly one by one all the members were immigrating. So at that point we thought of coming up with an idea. The Brother Moves On is a collective of artists that have this option of moving on. If we hadn't lived in Joburg, I don't think the Brother Moves On would exist. Many a time when we go to Cape Town people say why don't you guys stay here? You guys will make it here. But we kind of need what Joburg is to be the Brother Moves On. We are now week 3 in Europe and we miss being Joburgers.

 

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Does Joburg have a scene that supports this?

Joburg doesn't support that. We grew up with bands like 340 ml, Tumi and the Volume, Thandiswa Maswai and a lot of great musicians that came to Europe but could not find a footing at home. Our position is actually better because we are the next generation. There is an audience but the South African music scene tries to limit the scope and it thinks that the audience listening to the music will never understand that. We have performed at Bree which is the biggest taxi rank in Joburg with an estimated 2M people in the vicinity. It was really intense. People were coming in and buying 5 disks on the go, people were recording it on their phones so they could send it to their families. There is an ignored part of South African music which is everyday South Africans. A lot of it is the cool hipster kids that go to Rocking the Diasies and Oppikoppi and know the Instagram links where you connect with this, which means there is a huge gulf between people who say there is no audience and festivals that have an audience who are not prepared to pay people properly, and not prepared to look after the culture itself properly but are prepared to put out the equivalent of what they put out for the local line-up for one international act. And that international act was relevant ten years ago. It is that activism that we are all doing and we are trying to create a market that defies the South African music industry.

Is there a spirituality?

The word ngoma which is song is the root word for Sangoma which is the traditional healer. Even in the initiation of the traditional healer, song is used to put them into trance, to teach them how to heal, so they can engage the spirit. I don't think you can make black music from South Africa without a link to spirituality. Even house music, the really amazing house music that gets out there and breaks records, it comes from house producers who came from a very spiritual orientation to the music and try to find a global audience to it. I don't think you can do much in South Africa in the arts without being a spiritual person, where there is a need, unlike the black side of life, we didn't slaughter for 1994, for John Vorster square and at all these places where people got killed and are at essence in our minds and metaphors for cemetery. There is this awakening of a black spirituality as well and the fact that we need to remember our gods. Something I say at all our shows is we are stuck in this amazing gulf in Europe which is Islam vs Christianity, and yet humanity has forgotten the original gods of the original lands from which we came, i.e South Africa. It is all political and because it is all political it is all spiritual.

How does the spirituality translate into music?

I don't separate them. Freedom is such a white concept and a white word. The societal use for music is to create the space for discourse and catharsis to happen. When I am on stage, it is not me and my ideas and my lyrics, it is a letting go and giving into a sense of spirituality and humanity. The so called idea of freedom doesn't want us to engage with and express in a very Western democracy ideal of what freedom expression is?

Most of all a space for dialogue. I had a university professor who said to me you can't say something serious to people without first making them laugh. There is this need to play the clown. The Mr Gold relation is the tide so you don't look at us as threatening and you let down your guard and it is in letting down your guard that you find a common humanity with us, and at that point we start removing all your baggage and relate to the cathartic relation of you can't be listening to this music if you are a mysogenist, racist, genderist, homophobe. There needs to be an intersectionality of the politics and the spirituality of what I do., needs to meet. I try to use dramatic arts and costuming as a big entrance for the audience. The music has a very clear message of the need for memory. In the Zulu language there are words for keepers of the earth, these energies that have kept South Africa South Africa. There are words for them and I sing about these words and I sing about this forgotten language in essence. So it is a language that I try and use to wake us up to the fact that we all maybe a bunch of coconuts but we are still somehow connected to that earth because we do not own the earth, the earth owns us.

How the music is linking to a global trend of cross-over music and jam bands … ?

It is only possible that the world is moving on. As I spoke of earlier there were amazing bands, just the world was not ready. We might also be a piece of the onion that is pealing and a band might be lucky enough because of the work that we have done. We are here because of the work that the ones that came before us did. And because of the work that we do, there may one day be that commercial band that is able to speak about African and black spirituality and a free world in an easier setting with more money and more space. It is all based on the world. If the world was not ready for this, there would be no point to it.

Where is the Brother moving on to?

We have just signed with the Goodman gallery and we have our first exhibition on heritage day 24 th September. Our exhibition is on the idea of mourning, calling, and on the idea of playing because people are afraid of those three things all together. There is no space for mourning in the arts, there is no space for calling in the arts, yet these are big things with regards to cultural relevance. Beyond that we are in the search for a new deal. We have an album sitting in the back and we are finding the right people to release it. That is what this tour was about, moving us away from a do it yourself ankh space to an independent music industry space.

Electronic music ?

Purely live, purely organic. It is a unique aesthetic from our generation. Joburg is starting to become more and more interested in becoming live. Ray Phiri's daughter, the music that she listens to and the music she likes to jam at home is very organic. I am trying to get in touch with the electronic producers but more to bring the organic element into the electronic. That is how I fell in love with drum and base. If you play drum and bass in the hoods, if you realised how huge it will get. For me there is still a big problem with electronic music in that it is still very racialised. House is for blacks and everything else is for everyone else.

 

 

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