SOUTH African musicians can seem to be branching off into a multitude of different strands, but two concerts at the National Arts Festival expose a common progressive thread.
Neolektra is a futuristic “post-apocalyptic” theatre-driven show. You’d battle to call it classical, but creator Naomi Tagg has combined classical wood and strings of violin, (Tagg) viola, (Kate Moore), cello (Ronald Davey) and double base Viwe Mkhizwane) to the electronic world of super-nerd through DJ and synth (Matthias Bakker), while funked up percusssion (Tlale Makhene) provides boom, rattle and roll.
It’s rocking stuff! The musos are in costume, black, flecked with bits of gold, a hint of Afro-Goth. With smoke and strobing lights, we are led by the wavy, willowy Tagg in endless black tights, on an electronic journey carried on the wings of strings.
There is a theme of a heroine rising from the ashes of the wasteland who travels through Spain, Argentina, the Arabian deserts and over the Scottish highlands and lands up somewhere in Game of Thrones and finally in someone’s gaming software. It’s a place where punk meets trippy meets geek.
It’s bold and expansive, almost big band, but played through the eyes of the next generation where digital and dragons cavort and war is like rugby – there is violence but nobody dies.
The audience was transfixed by this leather-clad groovey crew united by one thing: they are all South African music graduates drawn by allure of Tagg’s super-hip vision of a world where all the artistic senses come together for a gallop through the techno-verse.
A few small notes: Can someone fix frontwoman Tagg’s costume? Her leather corset/cummerbund kept on creeping up her waistline and was clearly asphyxiating the poor woman who at the end of every number would pull it down. I was sorely tempted to haul out my pocket knife and run up and hack the damn thing off, but that would have been highly inappropriate.
Secondly, the multi-media screen which hangs above the musos was underused. Foot-high text telling us bluntly which song we were hearing was too heavy and finally looked blank and distracting. That space can be used, as Odysseus Finn did at last year’s Fringe Festival in Cape Town, to take this exciting aural and visual extravaganza to completion.
It was hilarious to see the members of the purple rinse generation exhorting the hipster generation to get up off their hindies and give Neolektra the standing ovation they thoroughly deserve.
Down from the Monument on the hill, in the Rhodes chapel, Neo Muyanga’s months’-long project of getting three composers to combine Western classical to African, specifically Mpondo traditional instruments, came to glorious moment, despite the chilly air and fresco of a white baby Jesus, God and angels in the dome.
Dizu Plaatjies, described as the greatest living performer of the umrhubhe mouthbow, was mesmerising as she led Tsepo Pooe (cello), Kgaugelo Mpyane (viola), Jonathan Mayer (violin) and Waldo Alexander (violin). The group played ground-breaking compositions by Prince Bolo (More Za Tea), Lungiswa Plaatjies (Vuma-Ekhaya-Ndiyahamba) and Kingsley Buitendag (When we are Together).
In a panel discussion, guided by Muyanga, the musicians spoke about the dilemma of abandoning Western classical scores designed for note-perfect, bums-on-seats concert performances and get into the lived rhythms and harmonies of the mouthbow where everyone takes part in the music.
The point was made that despite hundreds of years of cohabitation, Western and African instruments had never really found each other. The players had to shift from “da da da dum” (Beethoven’s 5th) to “da da te, click, da da te da”, one musician said.
It was even stated that Western musical instruments seemed to have an inbuilt resistance to the new influences, but finally, after scores were abandoned, and stiff upper lips loosened, the musicians were all able to crossover. All that was needed to make the new Afro-classical sound popular was investment in infrastructure, technology and a social commitment, said Muyanga.
Whether they are heading out to the world, or exploring inner African connections, Neolektra and the Re Mixing Music project are expressions of sublime progress and being made by adventurous, courageous and immensly talented SA musicians.