Reviewed by Sam van Heerden
Layered, ethereal chanting reverberates through the air in an old power station on the outskirts of Makhanda. Spoken word interweaves the rich history of this frontier town with the soft sounds of Afro-jazz, “Stillness to the sounds of resistance, builds on the backs of our forefathers… Listen. Listen to the sounds of this resistance.”
Composed and workshopped over the last three days at The Black Power Station in Makhanda, the music of the rotating recording ensemble, SPAZA, was grounded in themes of prophecy, re-birth, and black power. The familiar swing of jazz morphs into an introspective ambience, loop pedals echoing the otherworldly vocals of Nosisi Ngakane and prayer beads emulating rain before lifting into the upbeat rhythms of Afro-soul and a lyrical call to “dance forever”.
Filled with colourful, geometric art and stacked bookshelves in every corner, and under the watchful eye of Che Guevara, whose poster hangs on the wall, the power station is a space for dialogue. It was here that SPAZA found its inspiration – in the pages, conversations, and thoughts which transpired in that forgotten space now reborn. Their creation was anchored as much in the past, channelling the history of the prophet and warrior Makhanda Nxele, as in the innovative present.
SPAZA represents, like its namesake, ‘the most necessary things at the most opportune of times.’ Site-specific and emergent, this musical collaboration has no static form: it has no permanent members and platforms, the kind of innovation that can only arise from diverse musicians coming together to create something truly ephemeral.
The ensemble was curated by Mushroom Lab, an experimental sound lab emerging from the creative hub of Johannesburg. Four unique SPAZA albums have been released, each with different musicians and sounds. This workshopped composition will be recorded for vinyl, and the ensemble will take it to Europe at the end of the month, including France, the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, and Belgium.
Although out of sync here and there and not quite the party suggested by its blurb, the six-person performance was undoubtedly powerful. Ngakane’s haunting and dynamic voice is a highlight, as are the rhythm keepers, Gontse Makhene on percussion and Lungile Kunene on drums. Melancholic at times and celebratory at others. Its experimental and collaborative style stood out as something unique: a spontaneous creation grounded in the soil of The Black Power Station in Makhanda at the National Arts Festival 2022; the here and now.