It’s such an intangible thing, the reason certain music locks you out or invites you in. I don’t mean music that is vastly different in genre or form, like death metal as opposed to pop, or whatever, but music that has more similarities than differences.
Basically, I’m trying to understand why Hatchetman left me cold while Matthew van der Want and Chris Letcher, who also sing sad songs on the guitar, held me spellbound. I could have watched and listened to them for hours.
Sure, van der Want and Letcher have been writing and playing music for at least 20 years (van der Want’s debut album ‘Turn on You’ was released in 1996), and have been playing together for almost as long, and so the relaxed rapport they have with the audience and their music does lubricate delivery, but a band can be young and awkward and still give us music that contains the ability to hit a nerve. Sometimes they don’t even have to be very good musicians, or play complex configurations of chords and notes to impress. Authenticity and honesty can be far more moving than musical proficiency. Van der Want and Letcher possess both.
Van der Want’s candour is at times almost painful to watch, hunched over the guitar as if he were gently caressing a bellyache, he seems to reach in and tear a strip off his soul to hand us as talisman against the misfortunes of love and life.
When I first saw van der Want play, back in the late ’90s, at some broken-down bar in Jo’burg, the intensity of his lyrics, of his music and its delivery was almost too much to absorb. I recall feeling slightly dazed, not sure if I wanted more, could handle more, but being intrigued. That someone could be that honest in front of strangers was almost repellent.
Gangly Letcher, with hands like spiders, breaks us with his broken voice, his wonderfully cracked quaver which, in tandem with van der Want, cracks the uneven edifice we construct in order to deal with our days and sets us free to walk into the world without pretense. Having absorbed loss and pain, favour and fortune, both personal and political, and transformed it through music, they hand back the power of creative sublimation.
The simplicity of Letcher’s minimal piano and van der Want’s soulful delivery of James Phillips’ Africa is Dying was heart-rending, particularly because it is still valid, and van der Want’s ‘My Broken Heart’ was equally wrenching, the comic heavy Afrikaan accent, as Phillips sang it, holding it from falling off the cliff of black despair.
I think the newest track they played during their hour-long concert in the Standard Bank Studio at Cape Town Fringe, in which they were joined by the wonderfully understated Nicole Theron, was the strangely world-weary yet hopeful ‘Sweetie’, released by van der Want just over a month ago. They focussed on work off previous albums and delivered three James Phillip’s numbers, including Polling Day.
There’s a James Phillips theme at this year’s Fringe, commemorating 20 years since his untimely death following an accident on the way to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.
Shifty Records, the counter-culture bastion of South African music who recorded Philips and the host of musicians who pushed back against apartheid and National Party oppression in the ’80s, held the Voëlvry Heritage Festival as part of the Cape Town Fringe on Heritage Day, where fitting tribute was paid to Philips and Johannes Kerkorrel by Valiant Swart, The Gereformerde Blues Band, The Kerels, Sanni Fox and, taking musical heritage to the future, Francois van Coke, who performed a searing rendition of Kerkorrel’s ‘Energi’. They were also hilariously coerced to be back up singers to Sanni Fox in an easy-going musical mix ‘n match where egos were put aside in the name of great music that comprised the anthems for a generation pushing against Botha’s clampdown and seeking ways to express their rebellion that weren’t channeled second-hand through American rock or British punk.
Valiant Swart channeled James Phillips at the Shifty Voelvry Heritage jol
The heritage concert was under-attended, the Spier Ampitheatre was only about a third full on a gorgeously mild sunny day, but the crew who took the trouble had a jol.
Yes, we were all white, as were the musicians, but these bands were formed in a period of intense segregation when crossing racial lines to hang out and rehearse, nevermind find places to gig, was barred by barbed wire (literally), Buffels and brutality. But you’d be pretty safe betting that the grey-goatied jollers rocking at the Shifty jol was one group of whities who really did not vote for the NP, if they even voted back then at all.
It was one of the most easy-going concerts you’d ever be likely to see, yet although the songs were penned 20, 30 years ago, they remain frighteningly valid today. Just replace one or two words, like Botha for Zuma in Kerkorrel’s ‘Sit dit af’ and you’ve got a tune that still tjunes.
For about 15 years or so after 1994, the songs born out of ’80s rebellion looked like they might be consigned to the archives of an era. It would have been kief, from a political perspective, if it had stayed that way, but things don’t seem to be working out like that. A kak government is a kak government, no matter the decade.
Perhaps that was the turn-off when it came to Hatchetman, their songs were all inward-looking, predisposed toward a narcissistic view where everything was filtered through the singer’s own kak. They weren’t looking out at the world, at the shit that’s going on and interpreting it through music. It was effectively saying ‘look at how interesting and special I am with all my pain and sadness, come take part in my exclusive experience’ whereas van der Want and Letcher, although they sing songs that also deal with personal issues of love and loss, approach from a different, inclusive angle. ‘All this kak in the world makes me feel like this, do you feel it too?’ is kinda how van der Want’s approach feels. It’s more outward-looking, less self-involved. The political is added to the personal.
I’m wary of being swayed by generational experience. The Voëlvry okes who woke me up to homegrown music with meaning in my teens didn’t grow up with social media, so how that beast affects the way a generation deals with the world is second-hand news to me but I believe, and hope, that I’ll recognise the new revolution and say Howzit to it with as much joy as I did when I first heard Bernoldus sing the East Rand Blues.
— Steve Kretzmann