ART STATE publisher Mpho Matsitle searches for being in the music of John Paka, Sahrieda May and Duduetsang Matong.
Ever so often, music makes you wonder if there truly is a way out; some sort of escape, or rather, a higher being—a supernatural. It’s just the way it seems to have the capacity to elevate you to what feels to be a higher form of being. If this is what we resolute on, then we can only imagine what value music is to beings that are not! For those from whom their very being has been taken, music not only offers a sense of a higher being; it does something much more profound: it gives a sense of being.
One can almost imagine Alan Silinga taking a brisk stroll in a veld on a hot summer day. Amidst the cacophony of sounds, he picks out a specific one – or rather one reaches out to his inner ear – it touches on the essential, thus making it profound. This soothing sound emanates from a bird – probably incede – from yonder. He cannot but go and look; the melody is too luring, too commanding to be ignored. The sheer beauty of this bird beckons him to go to the other side – wa khangela, wa sondela, to hear the bird better. What sweet nothings does the bird whisper?
“Ilizwe lifile” – maigot!
Devastating news this, but Silinga surprisingly is adamant that “yamnandi lontsholo.” This is not devastatingly beautiful news; but rather news that is as devastating as it is beautifully rendered. That, I will wager, is a summation of our music. Black music. Music of pain. Beautiful music.
Where in Mangaung do we find this dichotomy most pronounced if not in Duduetsang Matong’s beautifully blasphemous rendition of Adam Salim’s Malaika? We saw it also in Sahrieda May’s sacrilegious irreverence to Bob Marley’s Holy Grail Redemtion Song. And in John Paka crooning the loss of Afrika as he resuscitates Sankomota’s Now or Never.
When Silinga’s bird declares that Olympus has fallen, what is it saying to him? I cannot accept that it’s mere reportage. I believe there’s a second unuttered leg to this statement, this provocation even. It is not only that the land is dying, there is also an injunction that goes beyond the obvious ‘what is to be done’ question; a command to do something. I imagine this bird as my mother when she says, “Metsi a bedile.” This is not a statement of fact. I know it to be a demand for tea.
The bird and my mother are of the same idiom. The bird calls on Silinga – calls on all of us who have not escaped its message – to revive the land. We all know the Azapo aphorism: “Free the land, free the people.” If ilizwe lifile, then the people are dead. The freeing of the land is a resurrection of the people. It is to bring them to being. It is a becoming.
How then do these three Mangaung troubadours beckon us to being?
The magic of John Paka
Paka is a man of two faces. The one face is light: he sings the modern hits. House hits. Afro-pop hits. RnB hits. He dances, he smiles, he laughs, has fun and generally entertains. He does this well enough, but demands little more than an occasional clap and dance along.
But Paka is not just an entertainer; far from it. He has a darker side. A shadier side. One that beckons us. Here he drags us to the pits of emotional gloom, kicking and screaming. Whenever John croons his opening incantation – “Father I Thank You So” – one is bound to hear screams from the audience, and if one somehow manages to tear their eyes off the stage (an impossible feat especially if he is accompanied by a talented pianist) you might catch someone kicking the air, going: “tjhessis!”
This is the magic of John Paka. He plays with his baritone voice to great effect, taking it and us as its unworthy companions through a litany of highs and lows. I daresay this: John Paka gets on stage to sing, to have a conversation with his godly voice, in some sort of vocal masturbation, and we, the audience, just happen to be there.
These are his two sides: the one that sings AKA’s Congratulate does so for us, the one that sings Sankomota’s Now or Never couldn’t give less of a fuck about us. And of course it is the latter that is more interesting. Music for the sake of music and not the audience. And it is exactly the reason why, in this mode, he manages to capture us.
Because of the thick wall his vibrating voice builds around him (and it doesn’t help that he usually has his eyes closed when in the thick of it), we have no access to him. We cannot steal a wink, blow a kiss nor throw a bra or two his way. We are left completely alone. He condemns us, by being so recluse on stage, to ourselves. He leads us into self-reflection.
With his commanding voice in the mix, we cannot help but accept our culpability as the Afrika he sings about that refuses to yank the yoke of oppression off its shoulder. We kick “tjhessis” to either expel the imposing heaviness of his voice from our heads, or to kick ourselves in the foot for our complicity in our oppression ala Biko, or, hopefully, to kick out the oppressor inside our heads ala Du Bois. But he beckons us to do something; to be something. We find our being in his music.
Sahrieda is all about the art
Sahrieda May is generally disrespectful. But no, we lie, she is rather easy going. One can even say irreverent, as is most of the fallist generation. You will find her in baggy clothes, with a generally slouched disposition, soft spoken, wide eyed. A gamine if there ever was one. She is no different on stage. She makes no pretences of owning it; or even wanting to. She has no stage presence whatsoever, which says a lot about her.
This lot: she is there to sing; everything else is just semantics, which is quite brave, and risqué, in an era where image trumps all—even art.
People are quick to do photo-shoots, print banners and find a delectable bae to prance about with at award shows and forget the art. After a song plays on radio we are not told who composed it, arranged it, played in the band or wrote the lyrics. We are not even offered perfunctory remarks on the possible meaning of the song; how it fits in with the zeitgeist or breaks boundaries. Rather, we are bombarded with gossip of the artist’s latest pregnancy, break-up, sex-tape or purchase.
Sahrieda is not about that life.
All she’s about is the music.
One can almost hear her mumble Nas’ famous words, “All I need is one mic,” which she approaches, as she does music, like an “intricate, malleable toy designed for [her] play.”i In so doing, she takes us back to the time when we birthed music; we the people of Nongoma. Music was not – is not – some deity out there we ought to worship. Music is us and we are music. Music is ours to do with as we please. And nowhere is this more evident than when she performs Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Redemption Song. Macy Gray, when speaking of her jazz album Stripped, registers her trepidation in covering that very song: decrying her massive respect for that Holy Grail.
Sahrieda has no such hang-ups; the song is a ‘malleable toy’ in her hands and boy does she play with it. She makes it her own – Bob Marley is dead after all – and in her heaven piercing voice, no one can deny that the redemption sought is her own; not Bob Marley’s. She owns the words. She does not just repeat them as many have done over the decades but rather commands them to relay her pain searching for, and her joy at finding, redemption. Sahrieda gives us back our music by usurping the songs written by others and making them translate her soul into decipherable language. She hands us back our language; so that we can be able to cry “ilizwe lifile” and see what passions can be borne therefrom.
Rousing and arousing: inside Duduetsang’s music ministry
I want to be so bold as to classify Duduetsang’s ministry of music as humorous— humorous in the Kundera sense: “humour is not laughter, not mockery, not satire, but a particular species of the comic, which … renders ambiguous everything it touches.”ii
This is not to say that it’s funny, but it does often reduce one to a chuckle. Why is this so? Laughter is a fuse that keeps the psychosis from short-circuiting when faced with multiple strong contradictory currents. And that is exactly what one faces when Duduetsang takes to stage. I liken her to Leonard Cohen’s Light as a Breeze feme fatale for whom “it don’t matter how you worship, as long as you’re down on your knees.”
You’re roused at the same time as you’re aroused, called on to twerk as you pray, to smile as you cry. There really is no alternative but to chuckle to prevent your body from convulsing from all the emotional turmoil she puts you through. Händel asked, “What passions cannot music raise?” Duduetsang raises all of them one time! What beautiful torture.
When she, like Sahrieda, takes ownership of Salin’s Malaika she provides a somewhat non-cathartic synthesis to Erykah Badu’s and Gregory Porter’s age-old duel. Badu has been curving would-be beaus for ages, even condemning one to ‘the next lifetime’ – what a long curve! Porter has come out in defence of these poor sods, riposting that “there will be no love dying here” to Badu’s curt (downright cruel) “who told you that it was alright to love me?”
Duduetsang comes in to bring these two opposing forces in one song, without providing a solution to either dilemma. She takes Malaika – a gloomy painful refrain of a man being curved intersectionally by both culture and landlessness from marrying the woman he loves – and in all the sensual femininity she can muster (which issa lot!) turns it into a buoyant jingle. Almost as if mocking the men who’ve told her to be patient as they hustle up that Moody’s AAA rating to secure the lobola structural adjustment loan. Almost as if using her broke bae’s pitiful prayer to seduce another man. Issa cruel! Issa sadistic! Issa blasphemy!
One is left conflicted: you want to protest and dance, you want to fuck and fight injustice. How is one supposed to respond to such provocation (because that is what Duduetsang does: provokes all of your senses at once)? I chuckle. Akere loso logolo ditshego?
This devilry has been seen before in Brenda Fassie’s Weekend Special. On the one hand, it is a sad ballad about a woman caught in a bootytrap; on the other a celebration of wanton sensuality. One is caught between pity and cheerleading. Brenda herself was everything rolled up into one; with her all possibilities were alive. Mother, heartbreaker, revolutionary, fuckgirl, meek, heterosexual, strong, dotting lover, pansexual, provocateur, pessimist. Anything you can imagine, she could be if and whenever she chose to be. It is this exact splendour that Duduetsang brings to the stage, and from there delivers it to our lives.
In essence, she beckons us to humanity. For humour is the highest expression of humanity, and that ambiguity it carries is the motif of humanity: infinite possibilities. And for too long we have been cast out of humanity (i.e. without ambiguity), reduced to mere sentient beings whose only purpose is to make life easy for others. Duduetsang’s music says no, you can be everything you choose to be.
Paka condemns us into self-reflection and action through his commanding voice and presence. Sahrieda on the other hand erases herself from stage, then plays a little tiki-taka with music to remind us once more that we are not slaves to music – or anything for that matter – but it is our toy to play, and tool to fight, with. Duduetsang “renders ambiguous everything [she] touches” and in that way opens up possibilities for us to imagine our humanity anew. That is how these Mangaung minstrels beckon us into becoming, how through their music they give us a sense of being: a command to action, giving us back our toys and humanity. Such is their Ntyilo Ntyilo, and by God yamnandi lontsholo!
i Toni Morrison, Jazz
ii Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
PICTURE: Sahrieda May at “Unplugged”. Credit: Art Fusion