Straight as Arrows

2008-02-23 00:00

Outside the Willowvale Hotel in Umbilo Road, a throng of young Durbanites are milling about waiting for a band to start. The hotel, which has over the last year or so become one of Durban’s most popular spots for one-off events, normally has a very busy bar. But tonight, despite the size of the crowd, it is ridiculously easy to get a drink. This, me and my compadres quickly realise, is because the hip young things surrounding us are mostly Christian kids who have come to see rising Durban sensation the Arrows — a band whose ever so slightly raw and rocky blend of jazz-tinged pop bucks the usual conventions of Christian pop music. We look closer, and the gentle strain of wildness that tends to define events at the Willowvale is indeed kind of absent.

On stage however, a certain wildness is gathering pace in the form of Pam de Menezes, the slinky — but not sultry — lead singer of the Arrows, who doesn’t see her Christian faith as a reason to maintain a prim demeanour. De Menezes has an extraordinary voice, and a relaxed but loopy elegance, and, together with bassist Bongani Zondi and drummer Christie Desfontaine, she very quickly whips the crowd into a frenzy. Except she doesn’t. The crowd is loving her, but the sense of Christian moderation in the room precludes a frenzy. And I can’t help thinking how, with the band’s effortless talent and charisma, they could easily so froth a real rock audience into madness were they given the chance.

It’s four days later, and I am in Westville Mall sitting at a juice bar. I had planned on speaking to all three Arrows, but they are so busy rehearsing, recording and shooting music videos, that in the end I speak only to Desfontaine, a drummer who sees her drum kit not as an instrument, but as a weapon. We begin our conversation by talking about the fact that the Arrows are not by any means a gospel band, despite their Christian message. She says that the band’s lyrics clearly state what they believe and what they live by, but that their sound is jazz/pop/experimental.

“It’s not gospel music. The theme of our message is one thing, the sound is completely another.

“People often get boxed in by genre,” she continues. “If you think Christian band, you think hard rock, or, you know, Tree63. And they’re great cats — we know them — but that’s not what we are. We’re doing something completely different.”

So are the Arrows a Christian band or simply a band that play Christian music?

“I think we’re a jazz pop band who happen to be Christians and sing about what we believe. That’s what we are. It’s not about inserting a specific adjective. It’s about the way we live and what we believe.”

She says that song writers are inspired by something, and the Arrows write songs based on their inspiration. “And that’s what we communicate with. We’re by no means under cover, but at the same time we’re not going to market ourselves as a Christian band because people instantly dismiss you the second they hear the word ‘Christian’. We’re marketing ourselves as a jazz/pop/experimental band.”

The five songs on their gorgeously produced debut EP all deal quite specifically with Christianity. Do The Arrows receive any non-divine inspiration? Are they likely to ever sing songs about anything other than their faith?

“I’ll put it this way,” says Desfontaine. “Whatever inspir­es us we will sing about. We’re not going out there trying to write a Christian song. And I also don’t think that our music is exclusively for Christians. There are a lot of songs that aren’t on the EP that are on the coming album. Some of them might sound like love songs. And they are love songs, it’s just that they’re love songs to God.” She elaborates, “You know, it’s hip music. And I say that in all humility. We wouldn’t play it unless we liked it.”

I ask her if, when the band is on stage, and they get adulation or worship from the audience, does she see that as a conflict with her religious notions of worship? “People are people,” she says. “We all get amped about different things. Everybody has an inherent sense of the desire to worship, and some people just haven’t found the right platform for that, so they project the worship onto somebody else. And everybody does that in some way or another. So it happens, but we definitely don’t take it to heart and think ‘yes, we’re so wonderful’.”

Not even subconsciously? “No!” she laughs. “Seriously not. I guess I’ve been trained that way. We’ve all been trained that way — not to claim something that we don’t have a right to claim. I always use this analogy: would you go to an IT guy and tell him how wonderful his computer skills are? People admire specific attributes of different human beings. And musicians happen to be people that carry more sway. I believe that if you lined up all the musicians in the world and lined up all the politicians and told the young people to vote they would go with the musicians. So music is a means, a doorway.”

So the Arrows have a dual perspective. They are a hip young band who just happen to be Christian (and fairly spectacularly talented, and not bad looking). At the same time, as Christians, they possess a singular drive to convert others, to spread the word. But because their messages are so devout, there are many who will, once they’ve worked out the lyrical message, walk away.

On the other hand, there are many who will stay, rapt by their message and their music. Although Christianity is a beleaguered institution on the modern conceptual stage, it is enjoying a rise in numbers in many parts of the world, including Durban. That fact alone should guarantee the Arrows success — a very large, and increasingly global niche market. In fact, the Arrows so impress with their abilities, songs and charisma, that I would be surprised if they didn’t end up cracking the big time. And not just in the Bible belts of the world.

•The Arrows are playing on February 29 at the Leap Years Ahead party in the Tudor Room at the Playhouse, Durban. Also featured are the New Loud Rockets and Durban dance collective NoNoNo. Check out the Arrow’s MySpace page at www.myspace.com/thearrowssa

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