The Interview – Nakhane Touré rewrites the passage rites

Eastern Cape singer-songwriter talks to Percy Mabandu about music and manhood

Almost every review I read about Joburg’s latest fascination, the guitar-toting singer from Eastern Cape, Nakhane Touré, compares him to post-60s white Anglo-American musicians.

The 25-year-old singer was born Nakhane Mavuso in 1988. He was then adopted by his aunt, Nothemba, who gave him Mahlakahlaka for a surname.

The young singer has taken on the Touré moniker as a way of honouring his hero, Ali Farka Touré, the Malian guitar wizard.

You’d be hard-pressed to find media appraisals that locate the Malian maestro’s influences on the young musician. It’s a development he, too, finds hard to explain when we meet at a coffee shop in Rosebank, Joburg, for this interview.

Touré follows on a growing male lineage of singing guitarists from Eastern Cape. It includes crooners like MXO, Sliq Angel and Bongeziwe Mabandla, among many others.

MXO also took the rock and roll route before going off the popular radar.

It is perhaps because of similar rock permutations in Touré’s practice that he is linked to the people he is compared to. “I’ve had people tell me that my music sounds white.

It’s something I absolutely disagree with. To me, it sounds like soul music. I don’t think it even requires serious listening to get that there’s a deep stream of soul music in there.”

Touré tells me that he grew up on Motown and Western choral music. He used to tag along with his mother, who sang Mozart and Handel compositions in the choir. He says this is why there’s so many vocal harmonies in his own music.

Our chat takes a digressive chinwag into the history of coffee, the point of smoking and the monstrosity of the prince of darkness, Miles Davis.

Touré sports a T-shirt decorated with a portrait of the jazz giant from 1969, the year Davis released In A Silent Way – the magnum opus that saw him change the course of music history for the fourth time. He was giving birth to the genre we now know as fusion.

This is arguably his most crossover album of all.

Touré has teamed the T-shirt with a black denim jacket, sunglasses and an Irish hat made with multicolour Dutch wax fabric. His skintight chinos and soiled high-top All Stars break what could easily have been urban street fashionista styling.

He speaks with a slight guttural touch to his voice. It’s only halfway through our chat that his effeminate mannerisms become obvious.

He tells me the title of his debut album, Brave Confusion, is derived from James Baldwin’s seminal novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Baldwin lived a tortured, brave and often confused existence as a homosexual African-American civil rights campaigner and novelist.

He often wrote explicitly about queer relations. Touré takes on this leaf in his own work.

The opening track, Christopher, is a dedication to a boy lover of the same name. He is a Manchester (England) expat whom Touré met online.

Describing the affair to Rolling Stone magazine, Touré says: “We are not an item, we are lovers. I love Christopher so much it hurts.”

My curiosity whetted, I take him down this lane. How does this work when one is born in Eastern Cape – Alice, to be specific?

Touré’s voice grows more focused as he explains with a roundabout stream of consciousness: “I can’t speak for other cultures.

I’m Xhosa and there’s a huge spotlight on masculinity and what it means to be a man in Eastern Cape. So I did everything. I went through the rites of passage of being Xhosa. I went to the mountain,” he says. This despite him not wanting to go.

“I remember my mother used to tell me: ‘Just go, and get it over with. Satisfy your father and after that, you can do whatever you like with your life,’” he says.

Sips of cappuccino punctuate what is now grave conversation. Touré says his uncle, Langa Mavuso, is a tribal chief in Alice.

This makes him the custodian of culture in his community. It also means pressure for boys in his family, including Touré, who at this stage was battling with his sexual orientation.

The two came face to face on gender issues during a family lunch when Mavuso was being inaugurated into the chieftaincy.

“I remember we were talking about these things and I said to him: ‘But malume, phaya ebuhlanti (there at the kraal or initiation school), there are men having sex with other men.’ And he didn’t even try to get away from it.

He said: ‘Yes, but we don’t talk about it.’ I couldn’t believe it. Then I said I wanted to talk about it.”

But there came a point when the struggle had to end, says Touré with a sigh. “I began to accept that maybe I might never always agree with certain people about how I should behave,” he says.

“Who I’m in bed with, who I’m supposed to love, and what consumes my mind, and who I’m supposed to write songs about.”

That is all behind him now. He has since been signed by Just Music and tours regularly.

The rising star says that however complex his music and identity may be, he hates being described as a crossover.

“Perhaps hybrid is a better word,” he says. “Crossover means you sit down and say: ‘I can add this thing, that thing and then I can get these people here, and those ones there to like me.’ I don’t do that.”

What’s in the music?

Percy Mabandu shares his thoughts on Touré’s tunes:

At first breath, the music in Nakhane Touré’s Brave Confusion is fun and makes light of searing matters of the heart.

The opening track, Christopher, for instance, is a celebratory cathartic jam in the form of a gay dance ballad beaming to entertain heterosexual dance floors. Its clever subversive coding starts with the Christ in Christopher, the object of Touré’s homoromantic focus.

Lyrics like, “I’ll go far if you need/Christopher I can see you’re afraid of this deed/At the bar we will meet/I’m afraid too, yes indeed”, only suggest the pathos masked by the apparent high spirit of the uptempo tune.

Its long notes and harmonies are reminiscent of U2’s exploration of the uncertainty and pain of a spiritual pilgrimage through a bleak and harsh world, as Thom Duffy once observed of the Irish band.

Utopia is by far the only track that sonically connects Nakhane with his Malian inspiration, Ali Farka Touré. Its use of plucked guitar melodies deployed in a repeated cyclic pattern is unmistakably a derivative of the desert nation’s tradition.

The heartbeat percussive factor turns the whole affair into a trance encounter. This is popular rock clawing at the condition of the spirituals.

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