An interview with The Brother Moves On
‘WE BREAK THE BULLION – ASTONISH THE GODS – MIRRORS WILL FALL – DAMN IT’S COLD – SEE YOU TONIGHT’
Ten minutes into my interview slot with the Brother Moves On and we are finally done laughing, making rude noises at the death metal band that’s playing upstairs and adjusting our tights. The lead singer Siyabonga and guitarist Ray promise between fits of giggles that they will answer my questions sincerely. Little did I know that I would be taken on a journey through South Africa’s history and brought back to a time where a young art collective was making their own mark in the political time line.
Mana: Tell me a little bit about the idea behind the band and how it all began.
Siyabonga: Me and my brother were sitting around watching an episode of the wire and a character called brother Muzone was on it. The interpretation to that is the brother Judicious. We were already thinking of creating a band where people could move in an out and brothers could move on. I wouldn’t say changing is the word, it’s more of an open door policy. The band isn’t reliant on the personnel for the energy to carry on. That’s how the band began.
Ray: Nkululeko, Siyabonga and Zelizwe Mthembu are related so there has always been this music in them since forever. I knew Siya years before we started playing. One day his brother practically lied to me saying there was this thriving band and I should come play for it because he thought I was cool. I went there and he wasn’t there. He had never heard me play either so Si took me back to his mums house, we jammed for the first time and a week after that we played our first gig with Simphiwe the drummer and another bassist we were jamming with at the time. We were all post varsity and it wasn’t like we had much else to do besides play music. Two weeks after that we went for our first festival and after that it’s just been an influx of people coming in and going out. Ideologically, the ethos is that the brother must move on. We don’t hold on to the fact that we are in this band and its going to last forever. We see it as a stepping-stone to something else eventually.
Mana: Stani Goma was telling me a little bit about how the fact that you are a post apartheid generation which plays a large role in your music and what you sing about.
Siya: In South Africa you have the apartheid kids, the transition kids (also known as Mandela’s kids) and the born frees. The transition kids were the generation that when the change came over were integrated into multi racial schools. The born frees are the generation that came after. They were also known as Thabo Mbeki’s kids (the last president before Jacob Zuma). We come in somewhere in between, creating a link of sorts. We are holding both sides to the relation of what the dream used to be. We were force-fed the dream, being made to play with Indian, black, coloured, and white kids, all going to schools together, even dating. We were born in difficult times during the mid 80’s. It was a strange time, a state of hectic violence while South Africa was pushing so hard for peace. We have both binaries so we understand our history.
Ray: If you think of it in terms of time after the revolution we haven’t had much. America has had around 200 years to heal and understand what value is, what freedom is, what it means to be a citizen etc. We’ve had only 14 years and it is expected of us that we have all these qualities that free nations are supposed to have. But we don’t. We haven’t fully digested what has happened to us.
Siya: A friend of ours has an amazing analogy about our country. The cow with a broken leg that is told the race is tomorrow and if he doesn’t run he is never going to do it again. Here we are running to keep up when we haven’t given ourselves time to heal. Servitude in relation to that idea is not something we are scared of. We need to re learn what it means to be a South African citizen. We need time and space.
Our songs are prayers. Prayers about our country, the rural to urban relation even prayers for rain. Some of it is an ode to Local musicians who never got to leave and travel like we are doing now. It’s always in the space of paying homage.
If its not paying homage its social ills. We wrote a song called Dagiwe and it talks about how yesterday I was drunk today I am drunk and tomorrow I will be drunk because alcohol is my bliss. South Africa has a drinking problem and it’s a take on it. We’re not preachers we’re not going to tell people not to do it instead we take on a first person narrative saying I also have this problem. Which is weird because by the end of it kids are enjoying it but they also get the underlying message. This method comes from a professor of mine at varsity who said if you ever want to get to people about a social issue make them laugh. Take the first person and locate yourself within those people. At some point they will open up to the issues.
Mana: A lot of your songs are a mix of different languages. Was this a conscious choice?
Siya: Most young South Africans don’t understand their mother tongues, which is why I sing in mine: Zulu. I’m not trying to propagate it but I want people to understand that language is valuable and open. Some of the songs we sang tonight aren’t a particular language its just sort of chants and meditation that have turned into song.
All we want is for people to engage. It’s not to literally tell you something. You might not have known what it’s about but you felt something and it’s going to leave you curious to come feel it again. A lot of our music is beyond language.
Mana: I’ve realized that as an outsider South Africa is a black hole in terms of historical knowledge. So much was censored during Apartheid that we got very little knowledge of what was actually happening.
Siya: It’s true. So much of the positive has been lost in the negative. Our history is never looked at from a multitude of perspectives there’s always this one view and its all doom and gloom.
There were mothers; the black sash. Women of all races came together to re-work the constitution during the beginnings of Apartheid. All these organizations seem to have withered away from our minds. Student movements and feminist movements are what essentially drove the change. It’s the people on the ground that really fought but whenever the story of apartheid is told its about the ANC and the national party not about people.
That’s why I tell stories from a first person narrative. People keeping throwing this phrase at us: ‘Voice of a generation.’ I don’t believe in that at all. It’s such a wasted alienated idea of understanding the reality of how things work. No, I can’t be the ‘Voice of a Generation’; I’m influenced by so many other voices. I grew up with an understanding that I am what I am because of the collective and its known as Ubuntu. The saying goes: A person is a person through people. How can you have a voice of a generation if this is true?
Mana: So the collective is something you strongly believe in?
Siya: For us it’s all about the collective. We have run this band on our own steam. Through shows when venues weren’t available. We’ve built each other. We are a tribe.
Mana: How is your music received within South Africa?
Siya: Music at home is still racially demarcated. If you’re a black musician you will be playing jazz or a traditional African form. If you’re white you would probably be listening to techno, psy-trance, drum and bass. So we show up, take all these influences and just chuck ‘em into this pan. What tends to happen is we end up having people from a variety of genre spaces that relate to a specific aspect of our music. When we are making music we are constantly thinking of how we can re-engineer the social space. People love it for that. It reminds them that there was a dream, there was a direction we were going in and though we have veered off the road we still have a relation to it.
Mana: On a more technical note, in terms of your sound with so many people moving in and out how do you hold on to an identity? Do you want to?
Ray: I suppose we’ve had a long run since we’ve started doing the festival routes. But before we started playing on big stages we had more variety of what we would do on stage. We’ve had just two guitars to singing and clapping and even DJ’s with their samplers coming in to collaborate. It started out as very organic. Our compositions were more just jam spaces. Once we started playing the larger stages though we realized that we needed to start solidifying our repertoire. That’s when Simphiwe began to lock it down rhythmically. Our sound began to become more ‘big stagey’. We want to push to become a big stage act. We are thinking trapeze artists…
Mana: Which brings me to my next question. There’s a lot of performance art in your shows. It seems as if your band is much more than just a group of musicians.
Siya: (Laughs) It’s going to be a circus people! We are about the music but it’s also about the politics of the stage space. We want to bring in more performance art. We want to make sure that if the audience follows us on a tour they will never see the same show. As soon as the audience gets used to us we are off on a different tangent. They say this to us in Johannesburg all the time: You guys are just getting better and better. They can’t compare it because it’s not the same thing. That’s why we don’t like calling it a band. It’s more an art collective so we are constantly running away from being stuck in the same place.
Ray: We are mortally afraid of coming to the point where we begin to stagnate.
Mana: Are all of you full time musicians now?
Ray: For the last two years. Once the festivals started happening it was time to make a decision. We took the jump and we’re fine. We’ve paid rents, done an exhibition, done a lot actually.
Mana: No regrets?
Siya: None! Ok that’s a lie. We live like one person. We’re friends and we know that we have time to be human after all of this. At some point though we will be dad’s and laugh about these moments.
Ray: Like the one where we crashed my car?
Siya: (Laughs) The girlfriends we’ve lost. We realize it’s a sacrifice but we also understand that we are servants of it.
Ray: It’s our burden and it’s an awesome burden to have. I mean what else are you going to do?
Siya: We are in the Reunion Island with this ‘burden’.
Mana: How is the festival circuit influencing you or feeding into your music?
Ray: It’s really refreshing to perform in places that you have never been to. We’ve been travelling quite a bit now and we’ve experienced that the red thread through all these places is that people experience joy in the same way. It’s comforting. Again you don’t need to understand what we are saying to feel it.
Mana: In conclusion…
Ray: Everything coffee, advertising, even sleep is geared to push us away from the idea that we are Gods among men and we need to push it to the point where we realize why we are here. That’s a question that has been long forgotten.
An Exclusive by IndiEarth.com