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Littlegig: We Talk to Quintessentially South African Afro-Electro Group TheCITY

Last month, I went to Boston (a Cape Town restaurant) and chatted with TheCITY, a group that’s set to play at Littlegig on the last weekend of January.

TheCITY are an afro-electro group comprised of four young musicians who have collaborated with the who’s who of Cape Town’s avant-garde (including Petit Noir). They are vocalist Bongiwe (Bonj) Mpanza, Clem Carr on keyboards and sax, Ryan McArthur on bass, and Reuben Crowie on drums (not at interview)

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Image: courtesy TheCITY Facebook

They say they’re trying to change what music means to a culture and how musicians are seen in the country. They’ve also had a jam session with Grammy-winning producer Ron Feemster, who’s worked with some of the biggest artists in the world (including Michael Jackson.) They recently came off a two-week tour in Tanzania (Dar, Bagamoyo, and Zanzibar) which exposed them to an international audience.

Over very good burgers and decent craft beer, TheCITY talked to me about Lady Gaga’s drummer, Beyonce’s saxophonist at the CMAs, and how A Tribe Called Quest, Kendrick Lamar and Robert Glasper are inter-connected. Locally, they’re excited about The Brother Moves On, BCUC, Soul Housing Project and Nonku Phiri.

 

AfriPOP: The song “Just Act Normal” – it’s how I feel about this space, about this city. Just how the city receives you or doesn’t receive you.

Clem:  It’s sarcastic.

Bonj: Me and Ryan, and the drummer Reuben, write most of the lyrics.

AP: You have something unique in you, this beautiful raspy voice of yours, and sorry guys, I know we always give so much to the singer. How does that work when you’re sitting down to write a song? Like “This Time”, I was listening to it and I was like wow.

Bonj: Yeah, that’s so funny. I wrote that when I was still in college. The band started out as a male lead vocalist and I was a backup singer. It’s got a very special history because I get inspired by the people around me and just my environment, and the city.

This song was just me observing my friend’s long-time relationship, just watching it blossom. And the terror in between, and you know, the ups and downs of a relationship and still seeing that innocence in a relationship.

Ryan: [When I’ve] written lyrics Bonj always finishes off the song, she’s the one that cements all the directions together. And it’s always like, your voice, in the end.

AP: So what was your other life before being in the band?

Ryan: We all studied music.

AP: So you all studied music? So it’s not even another life, it’s THE life

TheCITY: yeah!

Clem: The two of us have been in a band since we were like teenagers…

Ryan: Yeah we were in high school together.

Clem:  Wynberg Boys. Super colonial. It was rough. Shorts had to be at least 15cm above your knees and khaki socks. So we were fighting very hard to be ourselves there. Music and culture and art was not really accepted. We did our own thing.

Bonj: I guess I was one of the privileged ones in the group to have gone to an arts school in high school, in Braamfontein, called the National School of the Arts. So that’s basically where I was thrown in.

AP: So you’re not a Capetonian, but you guys are born and bred Capetonians?

Bonj: No, I’m born and bred Soweto. I came here when I wanted to study jazz. I heard about the College of Music programme and there were more options than the one at Wits, so I decided to come here. Also, I wanted to be away from Joburg, I lived there all my life and I was mama’s baby. I wanted to be independent and just meet new people as well. And I met these guys.

AP: What are you most looking forward to at Littlegig?

Bonj: Looking most forward to at Littlegig: no-one has to stress about money as soon as you walk in, you just need to be in your dancing shoes and you’re just in a great vibe to move around. What’s nice about the venue is that there’s a nice lineup of DJs and also live acts to watch. It’s a killer line-up. And even to be considered to be on the line-up…

AP: What about this particular city brings out that kind of sound and the music you make, what do you think is the uniqueness in your sound?

Clem: It’s a rebellion to this particular city. From our perspective what’s big now is indie pop, rock. We wanted to do something different. We went to a jazz school but we don’t do jazz. We needed to find something that felt real to us but at the same doing something different that’s being done in the city. From a lyrical standpoint, being rebellious, because people don’t talk about issues in their music. Not in Cape Town anyway.

AP: And you guys do. I think that’s why I connected with you. I listened and I thought wow, this is refreshing. I’m excited because what’s coming out of this city is so reflective of it.

Ryan: What really is important about music college is the people you meet and the time you spend on your instrument. The important thing for a musician is that you’re in an environment where you’re encouraged to practice as much as possible, hours every day, on your instrument, getting technically better. And also meeting other musicians your age, and they expose you to [different music]

Bonj: That institution needs to transform as well. It’s a great space but I had a lecturer who was meant to be my vocal coach, but during second year I had issues. Doctors said there was nothing wrong but I was supposed to [use my voice to] conform to American jazz.

AP: So you couldn’t be yourself?

Clem (who is in a relationship with Bonj): No.

Bonj: I lost most of my confidence during that year and that was the time before TheCITY so I used it to write and reflect. I was pretty much told to stop singing for a while and that made me feel like this is suppression. But it’s still a beautiful space and I met some of my best friends in that institution. I got to work with one of the most amazing legends from there, Shane Cooper.

AP: The jazz scene has picked up so much steam amongst younger musicians. What do you think has been the impetus for this?

Clem: We’re getting to a point where young musicians are not pressured to make their music sound ‘super African’. Ten years ago it was a big thing, and big brands were putting money into what they thought could be export quality. Now people aren’t thinking that way, jazz musicians are taking a step back and treating their music more as an art instead of “how can I sell this?”

They are willing to starve for the month if it means that they are gonna say something that is meaningful to them, and the best musicians in this country are still not doing as well as they should be.

“Even though they’re not for us who can be against us? They can’t hold us down anymore” from “Undefeated

The group’s new headquarters will be in Joburg as Clem and Bonj are actually moving there.  They each perform in other projects to sustain themselves, and aren’t too bothered about the change in structure. This is their love project, and they’re serious about it. They say they can write music from wherever they are, and can hop on a plane to play a gig.

They don’t make a big deal of their racial make-up (though they admit they’ve had some heavy discussions) and they’re certainly not your older sister’s rainbow nation group (a term they quickly dispose of.) It’s a group of friends who live for music and that’s what makes them worth listening to.

TheCITY will be performing at Littlegig, 40 minutes from Cape Town, 28 – 29 January.

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