The Soweto ensemble, one of the most striking music projects coming from South Africa in the recent years, is a sort of revelation, no matter the music you usually listen to. The energy they unleash on stage, their artistic impetus, social engagement and entrancing sound are what makes a band different, unexpected and in its own way, extraordinary.
That’s also what transpired from a recent interview we had with the band, in which we chatted about their country and its latest happenings, where BCUC draw their inspiration from, and their perspective of African music.
“We think that South Africa is a very special place and it’s important to the world. The world has learned a lot from the mistakes of South Africa’s past and is learning from the possibilities of the future of South Africa.
To represent South Africa is both a joy and a burden; it’s a joy because not a lot of people are that exposed to the urban, traditional sounds from home. The burden is that every time we enter the stage, we have to live up to or surpass the legends that came before us and who touched the world with South Africa’s magic“.
The love-hate relationship that BCUC has with their country is also mirrored by the South African cultural elements that the musicians are keen to symbolise when they walk on stage, as well as the ones they aim to challenge and even replace.
“We are keen at exposing the spirituality and the African ceremonial ambience that we have been secretly honing and living as the people of South Africa. We would like to change the perception that South Africa revolves around Nelson Mandela. As we always say, ‘Nelson Mandela did not make South Africa, but he was made by South Africa’.
As important and imposing a figure he was, he was made by the same soil that made Winnie Mandela, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and Brenda Fassie; that same soil which made the people who were gunned down for being South African, but who never ran away. The same soil that took care of its widows and orphans and was still capable of producing peace-loving people – the people of Ubuntu – and that is what we want to share with the world“.
Only a few weeks ago, something significant, almost historic, happened in South Africa. Valentine’s Day brought about long-awaited changes to the political scene. We asked the musicians if Jacob Zuma’s resignation was simply a flash-in-the-pan or the spark for real change, and they answered us coherently with BCUC credo…
“That is a very beautiful and important question, but we are not in the business of lobbying political affiliations. We think that every president, even the worst ones from the past or the present past, depending on who your worst was, in their minds, twisted or not, they believed they were doing what is right for the people. We do not care about who is shaking whose hand and to what end. At the end of the day, it is politics. We are life and we are the people for the people by the people with the people“.
If considering its political situation, South Africa has struggled during the last few decades, the same cannot be said about its music. From kwaito to gqom, passing through more traditional or post-traditional projects like BCUC, South African and Johannesburg-based bands are playing all over the world, and their songs are being played by DJs and radio worldwide. We tried to figure out why this is happening and if the increased hype surrounding the scene is helping local musicians too.
“From our side, we do not know why there has been such a recent surge in demand for South African music, but we know that South African music has been healthy for a long time. Maybe it is because there are younger, funkier, and trendier modern tourists who visit South Africa and get hooked by the music scene and they share it with their friends and that makes it more accessible to international audiences. The thing that we must praise is the unique nightlife in most big cities. We believe it is not a fad, it’s not a trend, and most South African music is just different because it does not pretend to be what it is not.
About the Soweto music scene specifically, I can say that Johannesburg has been expanding in reach, which means that Soweto is now part of the network of other townships that surround the Johannesburg metropolitan. With that being said, we think very highly of Nonku Phiri, Moonchild, Madala Kunene, and the whole gqom fraternity”.
In one way or another, BCUC is finally being recognised abroad too. They’ve started playing extensively in Europe (just have a look at their recent tour) and their name is being spread all over the world.
“Maybe it is because we believe in our formula and we have stuck with it for a long time. We think that people deserve honest and untainted or undiluted music that has heart, fire, and compassion, yet which hits straight to the mark. We are normal, blue-collar, hard-working people, and although we might be considered amazing, we do not have even a faint touch of superstar about us. That seems to hold more weight in the hearts of the people”.
BCUC is also running an eatery in Soweto, called Food Zone, which has become a popular music venue. As much as the eatery, BCUC’s sound is local, all-embracing, and authentic, intrinsically urban, genre-defying, but also well-rooted in tradition. With the musicians, we tried to trace back its origins and understand where it derives from.
“It was in 2003, a friendship sparked between two kids from Soweto; one had a flute and the other a book of rhymes and a minidisc recorder. A cypher ensued; the energy was shared and something in their souls ignited. These two friends introduced each other to each other’s friends, and they started jamming in the local park, and then word got around that there were midday music sessions at Thokoza Park. By now we are talking about at least 12 musicians that would meet once or twice a week to play music out in the open for people. A promoter visited and was impressed so much that she wanted to book the band, but then the band still didn’t have a name, and that’s when Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (BCUC) was conceived, on that fateful day.
Since then, our sound has changed very much; I can say that it evolves every day, yet it is still the same soul and spiritual sound from those kids in the park, but, of course, they are now adults“.
On the 16th of March, French label Buda Musique released EMAKHOSINI, the second BCUC work. Even if on paper it is composed of only three songs, it is an album with all the trimmings, summing up what BCUC and their music stand for.
“We are very happy about how the album has been received so far. It has exceeded our expectations. We have always believed in what our music is and the spirit it carries within it. We feel like we are beginning to walk the road that we always dreamt of. EMAKHOSINI to us is a very special and important place; it is not a physical place. It is “a place of Kings and Queens”, as its title says, but it also means a people that are led and guided by their ancestors.
We put all of ourselves into each and every word or sound that touches our music; that means one might not understand the words, but the sound captures the mood, the tone and the intention of each and every song. For those that understand the language, the music captures the depth, the strength, the humility, and the intentions of the words they carry“.
BCUC’s lyrics have an undeniably strong social and political drive. Jovi, as much as the other members of the band, deeply believes that music is a powerful instrument which can push for change and people to act.
“We all dream and wish for a fairer and better world for all, but most of us are passive, procrastinating, wishful, bedroom, bar and dinner table activists for social change. In all of the above-mentioned places, the conditions can quickly have an undesirable result. We choose the stage as our medium, and we actively curate the future that we wish instead of putting our wishes and dreams in the hands of men and women in suits at the political roundtables and in the corridors. We think Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore, Erykah Badu (especially during interviews) and Simphiwe Dana are the ones for us.
Lastly, there is Sjava. He is the cat that has it all in truckloads. In fact, if there is one South African musician that the world deserves to know, Sjava is the man“.
That’s why, even if they are thoroughly capable of opening your eyes and ears with their studio works, their natural habitat is on stage, and their chosen dimension is the live one. That’s where and when BCUC fully express themselves and give life to an all-embracing and revealing experience.
“We do not think that we are the type of band that yearns to attract people to come to our shows. We believe that what it is, is what it is meant to be. From our shows, people should expect what they have never seen before. It is everything that they have seen before but have never experienced it mashed up like what they are about to see.
BCUC is this weird and wonderful, energetic, vibey, surprising and interesting band from South Africa that you need to experience. You have to attend at least one BCUC concert in your lifetime!”
So stay tuned to the Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness frequency, because in a few months’ time, they’ll be back in Europe to give you the live music experience of your lifetime.
Photo ©: Jeanne Abrahams