The art of falling apart

Joanne Olivier

You will be changed forever after you have witnessed the potent, political musical force and dervish spirit of The Brother Moves On live on stage. They talk to Lloyd Gedye about their new project, Black Tax.

In a country where “making it” in the music industry does not guarantee you a financially sustainable life, Siyabonga Mthembu is cynical about fame.

“You’ll be walking down the street and you’ll hear, ‘The Brother Moves On! When’s your next gig?’,” he says. “But it’s in Braamfontein or Melville. When you are in Kempton Park, you are not a factor.”

Mthembu and his fellow collaborators in performance art collective The Brother Moves On (TBMO) are not buying into the status quo when it comes to taking their art to their audience.

In six years, the collective has launched two EPs, a debut album, toured Europe and Africa multiple times, and has just begun the launch of its new project, Black Tax, with 10 songs set to be released over the next nine months.

It has done this without the backing of a record label and, for most of this time, did not even have a manager.

It’s not that the record labels weren’t interested. Two came offering large sums to sign the collective, but the terms did not suit it, and its members felt they were “exploitative”.

For Mthembu and TBMO, the most important thing is that they want to leave a legacy of young black artists who don’t have to compromise their art to be able to live.

. . .

Mthembu recalls the last time he spent proper time with his late younger brother Nkululeko Mthembu, who died on November 10 2013.

“He told me to quit TBMO. He said I should do more interesting stuff,” says Mthembu. “He had technically quit and was planning a hip-hop project,” he adds.

Nkululeko was a founding member of TBMO and is described by the collective as “the glue” that held it together.

The past two years have been rough for TBMO as it had to find a way to stay stuck without its glue while also mourning his passing.

It’s become a bit of a friendly joke that Mthembu needs to be reminded that his performance art collective is called The Brother Moves On.

This generally happens when a brother has decided to move on and Mthembu is anxious about the impact of another upcoming departure.

In total, 42 artists have represented the collective between 2009 and 2015. The latest to move on is guitarist Raytheon Moorvan, who played his last show with the band earlier this month. Now a father, he will head to Europe with his family.

Moorvan was a core member, having played with the collective since 2009. The two longest-serving members left are Mthembu and his cousin, guitarist Zelizwe Mthembu.

Mthembu is uncertain about the future, but what is certain is that TBMO will pull inwards and reconstitute itself, both in personnel and sound.

“Letting go has been the biggest lesson,” says Mthembu.

This evolution of sound seems to happen organically in TBMO as members drift away and new ones join.

However, it is hard work to keep a collective open enough to embrace change and also ensure it has enough of a work ethic to grow artistically.

Moorvan was an integral part of the TBMO sound at the time of the debut album, A New Myth. As Mthembu explains, there was always tension in TBMO between the twin guitar attack of Mthembu and Moorvan.

Moorvan brings the psychedelic twirls of prog rock, while Mthembu dips deep into the well of influence provided by mbaqanga and maskandi. The guitar duelling was part of what made TBMO such a compelling live act. One minute, the group sound like Led Zeppelin, the next like Madala Kunene.

Mthembu says Moorvan also opened bassist Ayanda Zalekile up to the potential of prog rock and jazz bass.

Zalekile’s growth as a bassist over the past few years has been a treat to watch and currently he feels like the TBMO fulcrum, the guy holding it all down and driving the collective to new heights.

As a multi-instrumentalist, Zalekile is an example of a brother who moved on and then moved back.

He first played trombone in the early days and rejoined the group in 2012 as one half of the rhythm section.

The other half of the rhythm section is drummer Siphiwe Tshabalala, who began playing with TBMO in 2009 and then left, only to return in 2011.

Zalekile’s fellow horn man in those early days, saxophonist Oscar Kgware, has also returned, joining TBMO for many of its 2015 shows, and he has had a big influence on the sound.

And then there are the lyrics. With TBMO, you never get a straight song.

On Dagiwe, Mthembu may sing about getting legless, but he also throws in social commentary about alcohol being used as a crutch and its effect on the family unit.

When, in Good Times, he sings about a mine worker being robbed after a night out drinking, you know that this is no hard luck tale, rather a comment on the vulnerable situations that South African mines place workers in. A narrative that is ever more real after the events of Marikana.

. . .

The last two months of 2013 were almost the undoing of TBMO.

Fresh from their self-funded debut tour of France and a subsequent tour of Zimbabwe, the band returned home to take part in the British Council’s Future Music Rising competition.

Six bands went head-to-head to win two slots to play at the Roundhouse Rising festival in London in 2014.

The Johannesburg leg of the competition took place on Friday, November 8. TBMO, by all accounts, slayed it.

However, Nkululeko was in hospital as the members went on stage to play the gig. Two days later, on the Sunday evening, he died.

The next week, Siyabonga Mthembu got a call.

“Congratulations, you’ve won the Roundhouse Rising competition,” said a voice at the other end of the line. “It was a bittersweet pill,” he says.

On December 5 2013, TBMO released its debut full-length studio album. A New Myth was, understandably, pregnant with the themes of death and mourning.

Later that night, President Jacob Zuma announced that Nelson Mandela had died.

Like great art should, A New Myth’s songs became vehicles through which TBMO spoke about its personal mourning and also the state of the nation. The performance art collective whose first EP, The Golden Wake, was a staged funeral, seemed to be capturing the zeitgeist.

The night after Mandela passed, I caught TBMO live at The Lighthouse in Melville. “No matter how hard-hearted you are with a certain old man and his choices,” said Mthembu, “today we get to mourn.” This was from an artist who had been a vocal critic of the negotiated settlement and Mandela’s rainbow nation myth.

But TBMO was still mourning its own fallen brother.

When they launched A New Myth at the Museum of African Design on December 14, images of Nkululeko flanked the band. Their gig that night was a monster, delivered in two sets.

Mthembu says the band just disintegrated afterwards.

“We were finished, man,” he says. “We didn’t see each other again till the end of January.” But the members found a way to come back together and continue, which has culminated in the launch of their new “project”, Black Tax.

. . .

“Albums are so 2014,” says Mthembu.

The first song to be released from Black Tax is Shiyanomayini, which can be loosely translated as “leave whatever you have” – a phrase often uttered by muggers in Joburg.

Guitarist Zelizwe Mthembu wrote the song after being mugged four times in the CBD. One of these incidents informs the lyrics: “Ngo’ six o’ clock/ ePark Station/ amagents anghlukanisa/ Athathi ucash/ athati phone, athati bag/ ne ice cream cone [At six o’clock/ Park Station/ gangsters mugged me/ they took my cash/ they took my phone/ they took my bag/ and my ice cream cone],” sings Mthembu.

He used this experience as a jumping-off point for exploring the world of crime from many viewpoints.

The song explores narratives of victims, township hoods, vicious career criminals and the elders of society.

Mthembu says the second verse is where a township hood is justifying theft because of inequality, while Ma’leven – a ruthless gangster who British documentary film maker Louis Theroux once interviewed for a documentary on South Africa – inspires the third verse.

“Your baby boy/ she’s in the oven/ I’ll make example/ just to show them.”

The sheer horror of the thought of putting a baby in an oven to incentivise parents to open their safes speaks to how South Africans have developed a numbness to violent crime.

However, when something truly brutal occurs, like the rape and murder of people in Rhodes Park in Kensington, we suddenly become outraged, when all around us – every day – South Africans are being murdered.

The song is asking the question: what is to be done?

Siyabonga Mthembu says you can’t live in South Africa and not be affected by crime – but by living in such an unequal society, you also understand what the root causes of crime are.

He likens Shiyanomayini to the poem Makhafula Vilakazi by Matodzi Gift Ramashia, delivered in a combination of tsotsitaal and English, creating a vivid portrait of the conditions that gave birth to a ruthless criminal named Makhafula Vilakazi.

The poem delivers a scathing critique of how the township perpetuates criminality.

. . .

Black Tax will consist of 10 songs when it’s fully released.

Shiyanomayini and Bayagoloza were dropped at the end of October and will be followed with a new track every month until the end of July 2016.

On November 30, TBMO will release Don’t Be Stupid, a collaboration with Tshepo Tshola, who the collective refers to as “the sage” or the “Philosopher King Don Mecca”.

The song used to be called Greyhound, but is now called Don’t Be Stupid or #DBS.

Its subject matter is homelessness.

Mthembu wonders aloud if TBMO will be sick of releasing material by July next year.

“Let’s hope the world doesn’t end before it all comes out,” he says with a grin on his face.

The collective has also dipped into its early history, and reissued a mastered and expanded version of The Golden Wake. This has been expanded to a nine-track, 50-minute release.

Initially, the band had planned to release the concert recorded at the SABC studios in various phases, including a de luxe DVD release.

“This legacy thing started happening in my head,” says Mthembu. “The EP alone was a misrepresentation of that night – it was a magical night.”

So the collective decided to put out the full audio release. The video footage had been lost.

By way of explanation, Mthembu says: “We had fire then, we could do it all, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.”

He adds that the mastered and expanded release of The Golden Wake is just the start, with live shows from Paris and Réunion Island scheduled to be released too.

“We want to put them out there,” says Mthembu. “We want to take care of our audience, rather than trying to be big.

“When are you big?” he asks rhetorically. “Questions like that are just a fight with your ego.

“We are against celebritydom,” he says defiantly.

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