The flag-bearers of dub in South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa, has been undergoing somewhat of an electronic music revival over the past five years. The initial boom happened in the early 2000s when, aided by the pioneering African Dope record label, artists such as Felix Laband and The Constructus Corporation (an earlier incarnation of Die Antwoord) suddenly found themselves at the centre of discussions at high school and college campuses across South Africa. The label’s roster of gifted musicians demolished club shows and festivals everywhere they went, leaving critics with no choice but to declare the entire operation ‘the future of South African music’.
Yet Fletcher, dub maestro and co-founder of the label, says that it wasn’t so easy. “The market just wasn’t ready for it”, he revealed during a chat we had recently. However, judging from the talent emerging currently, it is hard to imagine a more receptive scene than Cape Town for all things electronic. Names such as Dank, Christian Tiger School and Card On Spokes (who also plays jazz as Shane Cooper) gig regularly on the club circuit.
An interesting facet of the scene has been the rise of dub. Pioneered by Lee “Scratch” Perry, the music has gone on to influence a range of genres across the globe. Cape Town also has its small but increasingly-influential set of producers; the afore-mentioned Fletcher, Pure Solid, and 7FT Soundsystem are all names worthy of consideration in this regard. Here’s a taste of 7FT:
For Damian Stephens, music and mission go hand-in-hand; they are the yin-yang brothers who confide in each other, sharing ancient secrets of meditative techniques and means to undercut the system. This England born-and-bred designer/producer/deejay started off as China White, releasing minimal techno tunes under the now-defunct Djaxed Up Beats label in the early nineties. After moving to South Africa in 1994, he lay low from music, re-emerging in 2003/4 as Dplanet, a name he’s gone on to reveal was influenced by Afrika Bambaata and Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock“. When Dplanet’s not busy being an artist or running his design firm, he handles Pioneer Unit, a six year-old independently-run imprint based in Cape Town.
In the Max Joseph-directed short film “12 Years of DFA: Too Old To Be New, Too New To Be Classic“, the narrating voice informs us that “the entire global operation of DFA is currently run by two people.” This is exactly how Pioneer Unit operates. Dplanet handles the musical side of the label, while Spo0ky, his partner, casts a keen eye on its visual output – from the elegant packaging of Driemanskap’s 2009 breakthrough album, “Iqghabukil’inyongo“, to the series of intriguing videos from the likes of Ben Sharpa, Rattex, Jaak, and the afore-mentioned Driemanskap whose video, “Camagu” (a phrase often used by traditional healers to pay homage to the ancestors), currently sits at around 59, 000 views on YouTube:
Dplanet and Spo0ky are also musical accomplices, collaborating as the DJ/VJ duo Pure Solid, a dubwise manifestation of Dplanet’s roots in early dub, techno, and Hip-Hop releases of the eighties and nineties. He once told the story of how he’d go to dances organised by two white Nyabhingi Rastas. “They spoke in a heavy patois accent, yet had never been to Jamaica”, he said. Jah Shaka’s soundsystem is still a vital point of reference for him. Pure Solid sees Dplanet utilising the template of dub, “the drum and the bass“, to make overtly-political commentary on the state of affairs in South Africa. If indeed the music is the message, then Pure Solid are worthy contenders in the category of bands who deliver it capably.
In December 2012, Pure Solid performed at Synergy, a music festival in Cape Town. Below are the notes I took while watching their set on a sunny Sunday morning:
“Alternating seamlessly between real-life imagery and technicolour vectors and geometric figures, Spo0ky’s work is both appealing to the senses, serving as the perfect counterpart and companion to Dplanet’s audio mash-ups. Dplanet’s a maverick at audio manipulation. Listening to a live Pure Solid set is akin to witnessing the planets collide, only in hyper sped-up time; the panning, the sirens – soundsystem culture version 2.0. Witness current political commentary when Pure Solid’s refix of Alborosie’s “Police” as Spo0ky’s visual cut between live footage and re-enactments of the toyi-toyi with the caption Marikana strike serving as the chilling undercurrent.”
Six months have elapsed since that performance; Pure Solid have done two tours, recorded a French-South Africa exchange project featuring Konfab, Jaak, and Driemanskap’s El-Nino – all of whom are, it must be pointed out, Pioneer Unit recording artists – to celebrate the tenth year the French-based Jarring FX label has been doing work with Cape Town-based artists. Electronic music wunderkids Markus Wormstorm and Sibot are among some of the artists with whom the French have done work. Pure Solid also performed at this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Recounting how the booking happened, Dplanet says:
“We were at the end of our first 4DLS European tour. It was our last gig, which was at IOMMA on Réunion Island. We had to change venue because the organisers realised that we couldn’t do video projections at the venue they originally intended for us to be at – which was outside.
“The change in line-up meant that we were performing after a Maloya (traditional music from Réunion) band and before Susheela Raman, which we thought was going to be quite a culture shock. The venue was packed to it’s 1000 person capacity with families and, I’m assuming, Susheela Raman fans.
“Anyway, we did our thing and it was quite disconcerting because, while no one left, people didn’t exactly go wild with excitement either. We got a small polite round of applause after each track. Most people just stared in what looked like disbelief.
“We came off stage thinking it was a bit of a disaster, but we gave it our best so what could we do? We went to the VIP lounge to get a beer and the large delegation of South Africans gave us a standing ovation. We literally looked behind us to see if someone famous had walked in behind us. One of the South African delegation was Rashid Lombard who immediately told us that he wanted to book us for the JazzFest. We thought that maybe he’d got carried away with the spirit of the occasion and it would never really happen. We saw him again the next day and he was still claiming that he loved our show and would definitely book us. He obviously saw the skeptical look on my face because he immediately called his daughter, Yana, who handles all the bookings, and she confirmed that he wasn’t joking.”
The “Cape Town Effects” project, a result of that French connection, is ready; in fact, the artists involved have just recently returned from their European tour. For a teaser, listen to Konfab and El-Nino’s “All rise” below.
Fletcher (above) has also just released a free project of seventeen dubs, or rather according to his website, “subsonic rumblings, glitched out melodies and frequencies from other dimensions.” He shared the following on working with Cape Town reggae godfather, Zolile Matikinga (alias Zoro):
“Everyone’s come up under Zoro; Teba, Dillinger, Crosby, they all learned from Zoro. Zoro’s special, [he] doesn’t write nothing down, ever! [He] steps up, does his choruses, and then he says ‘play it back, play it back’. And then he listens to it again, and then he does his harmonies; high, medium, low. Then he’s like ‘cool, run the verse’. [He] gets his words inside his head, lays it down. So Zoro’s a pleasure to work with, because you’ve finished a tune in thirty minutes. If you’ve got a riddim and you give him five minutes with the riddim, he’s got the tune. Zoro’s amazing, that’s how Zoro works!”