Moving forward but still apart
If you closed your eyes and woke up in The Assembly on a Saturday night, you would be hard pressed to figure out where in the world you’d landed. From the artfully dressed white kids in skinny jeans writhing in the audience, to the perfect shoe-gazing expressions on the band members’ faces, to the clanky guitars and dance pop beats pouring out of the speaker system, you could be in any hipper-than-thou music venue in New York, Berlin, London.
But you’re not – you’re in Cape Town, that beautiful seaside city on the bottom southwestern tip of Africa, with its fashionable boutiques, soaring mountains, and vast shanty-towns. Arriving in 2007 to a dodgy party of downtown, The Assembly quickly became Cape Town’s premier live music venue and a player in the country’s indie rock scene, which if you didn’t know, is in the process of exploding.
These days, in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and other major cities, there are bands, bands, and more bands. Bands everywhere you turn, and more popping up all the time. The Assembly’s website lists literally hundreds of local acts. There’s Kidofdoom, a sort of Ratatat-meets-Pink Floyd instrumental quartet from Pretoria. There’s The Frown, a female fronted electronic art-pop act. There’s Desmond & The Tutus, with their brand of lo-fi disco rock. And there’s countless, countless more.
South Africa – well, the elite world of white South Africa at least – has been a rock and roll kind of place for a long time. But ever since the MySpace revolution of the early 2000s, a new wave of artists has emerged, inspired by new sounds from the U.S. and U.K. and the global indie culture ricocheting around the internet. With them, a whole indie support network has sprung up with clubs (like The Assembly), music blogs (like Mahala.co.za), cultural magazines (like One Small Seed), and big outdoor festivals (like Oppikoppi).
New labels and management companies have also surfaced to help get all this new music out there, ranging from major bookers like Sovereign Express and Authentic Ideas, to small and scrappy imprints like Awesome Land Records and Jaunted Haunts Press, who put out intimate, experimental records from artists like Righard Kapp, Ampersand, and Benguela.
With so many groups around and a relatively small market for rock music, it can be hard for South African artists to break through the noise. A few groups, such as Springbok Nude Girls and Boo! managed to make some waves, achieving cult followings, major label signings, and international tours. All three of those groups since have disbanded, however. When I talked to Lance Herman, who performs in Cape Town in a the group Ginsburg & Herman, he said that wasn’t too unusual, and it has to do with South Africans’ geographical isolation from other indie hotspots.
“A common problem on the local scene is that bands reach a certain level of popularity but then exhaust their audience, and there’s nowhere to go,” says Lance. “Imagine a big New York band gets really big, but is restricted to playing only in New York? This is kind of what it feels like for some bands.”
What surprisingly few South African indie bands are doing is borrowing from their own country’s plentiful African pop sounds, as plenty of bands stateside are doing (see: Vampire Weekend). In an email interview, Johannesburg artist and musician Givan Lotz lamented the lack of connection in indie rock to what’s going on in the black scene. “Most local indie acts are some sort of watered down derivative of America or European bands,” complained Lotz. “The truly original, independent African music doesn’t feature in the lives of your average middle class South African.”
Part of that is that white and black South Africa, 15 years after the end of apartheid, are still incredibly separated. Both groups of South Africans live side-by-side without much real cultural contact, and that means a lily white indie rock scene for the most part.
Of course, there is one major exceptions. The indie rock band from South Africa to get the most international acclaim is BLK JKS (pronounced “Black Jacks”). They are a group from the Soweto township signed to the stylish Secretly Canadian label, and they combine heavy rock textures, ripping solos, funky horns, driving rhythms, and African pop sounds into a fresh, attention-grabbing sound. Thanks to that sound, BLK JKS earned themselves a FADER cover and some big international concert dates. It’s yet to be seen if other South African rock bands can replicate that success.
Feature image courtesy Desmond and the Tutus.