- Original publication date: 24 August 2013
In a country bearing the scars of a turbulent, unjust past, being honest and expressive about our identity as South Africans can be a rather confusing, risky and confrontational act. It is now almost two decades into democracy, and political correctness still often pervades our discourse, or is countered with racially-charged rhetoric, presenting an uneasy middle ground where an increasing number of born-free’s are left feeling ambivalent or indifferent, wondering what all the fuss is about. And in terms of creative expression through music, large swathes of the rich history of African and South African music might seem less relevant now to a culture raised in a globalised society. So what does it then mean to have a ‘Proudly South African’ story, and does every person have one to tell?
A past as storied and segregated as our nation’s resides in an ever-shallow grave, forced to be reassessed, acknowledged and used to create a future where many of those living in it are disconnected from those revolutionary roots, and not necessarily out of ignorance. Amidst this paralysis of analysis concerning identity, simple but authentic outlets of emotion are often the best antidote, returning to the raw instincts of our nature and who we are.
Former Beatle John Lennon was a famous advocate of primal therapy, which was a means for him to elicit the repressed pain of his childhood. Whilst the process of such therapy might be a bit extreme, the act of looking inward and confronting your base self is a universal route towards expressing a story that is yours and yours only.
I Walk Around Town, Quietly Contemplating
Take South African super group BEAST for example. Their formation, as documented in a Benitha Vlok-directed companion film to their debut album, came from a childlike notion of two friends wanting to do the same thing and, even if it was a ludicrous idea, follow through with it.
Rian Zietsman and Louis Nel (guitarist and drummer of alternative rockers Taxi Violence, respectively) both wanted to play bass in a band and assuming that role in duality, got to work on laying down some tracks (despite both never having played it before). Sasha Righini, drummer of the melodic indie rock group The Plastics, got behind the kit, and BEAST had limbered up, ready for an exploration into the dark, grimy corners of garage rock.
As with any beast, the grunts and moans of the band’s instrumental attack are its lifeblood, pumping sludgy sub-human fuel through the veins. But BEAST found its voice in Inge Beckmann, songstress of the avant-garde electronica act Lark, now appearing in a frighteningly sexy form as grungy she-devil. Her operatic feminine shrieks cut through the growling riff-fest, with simple, biting lyrics, a dynamic vocal range, and a punky attitude to boot.
This back-to-basics approach removes all pretension, leaving a lean, unapologetic, minimalist monster. Whilst BEAST’s actions might speak a lot louder than its words, Beckmann’s blunt, yet evocative tales spill out over the eight-song set like gasoline over a wildfire, sparking on album-opener ‘Fill The Hole’ in brutal one-liner fashion (“Blind the lover/Kiss her mouth/Drive the dagger/Now hang yourself”), or flowing in the stream-of-consciousness effluence of ‘Walls’ (“Walls in my head vibrate when I drill holes in them/Rapidly rising rampart/Enemies are closing in”). Vivid character sketches emerge in the ominous ‘Man In Between’ and comparatively light ‘Cat Lady’, whilst ‘Hand of God’ sees her snarl apocalyptic omens with religious fervour.
Twice As Nice
BEAST’s preposterous twin-bass setup is relatively unique, especially in the South African music scene, but Zietsman and Nel have felt their way towards something that works for them, the former playing a lower, rhythm-led role akin to a normal bassist, whilst the latter employs a higher, chord-based attack. On most songs, this matrimony manifests as a churning colossus of punk-influenced metal, occasionally channelling Queens of the Stone Age’s ‘robot-rock’ style, particularly on the deliciously melodic ‘The Grape’, where interwoven mid-fi murmurings are propelled by Righini’s relentlessly powerful drumming.
But overall, BEAST is left as untamed as it should be, which is not to say that substance is sacrificed for style, but rather that it does not get in the way of a rollicking ride to the heart of rock ‘n roll. Even the album title (Smoke Swig Swear) lays the band’s intentions bare, and to be honest, they don’t care how you interpret their primal urges.
Your Story. Your Voice.
In the keynote speech from this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference, Dave Grohl (of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame) outlined his path to rock stardom, and how he found his voice through persistent practice and solo adventuring. He recounted a story of how he learnt at 12 years old to create his own one-man-band through the creative use of his old handheld tape recorder. The results were not revolutionary, but they were his: “To my chagrin, though, what I got was not Sgt. Peppers. Rather a collection of songs about my dog, my bike, and my dad. Nevertheless, I had done this all myself, therefore making the reward even sweeter.”
Whether you’re taking tentative steps towards greatness a ’la Grohl, or making an unrefined return to the wild as in the case of BEAST, finding your voice through music shouldn’t be fraught with concern as to how it relates to the society you’re in. Everyone has a story to tell, and perhaps without political, religious or broader social connotations, it might not be ‘Proudly South African’ (at first). But tap into your inner beast, and you can reveal a story that screams something uniquely yours. Call it “Primally South African”.