« When you don’t know where you’re going, turn around and look where you’re from. “. The four South African musicians of the Urban Village group from Soweto could have signed this Senegalese proverb. Celebrating the return to roots and ancestor worship, their debut album Stick * brews Western aesthetics with musical traditions inherited from the different ethnicities of their township.Rlinking vivid memories and “Afro-Futurism”, lour unclassifiable music is a harmonious patchwork in zulus colors – such as maskandi, mbaqanga -, rock, jazz, funk, folk, choirs inspired by Isicathamiya vocal harmonies … It is natural that they approach the music as a spiritual transport, an almost sacred elevation, in the manner of the ritual trance ceremonies of the past. The philosophy of fraternity, of solidarity Ubuntu, notably defended by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, irrigates their conscious texts, sung in Zulu, Sesotho, Xhosa or English. On the occasion of the release of the documentary Urban Village** quileur est dedicated, a film directed by Vladimir Cagnolari, drummer Xolani “Cush” Mtshali explained the artistic approach of the group.
The Africa Point: What is the cornerstone of your music?
Xolani «Cush» Mtshali: We grew up in the township of Soweto, famous in particular for the fight of Nelson Mandela, of Desmond Tutu, and the various uprisings which put an end to the apartheid regime. During the Gold Rush, many people from different rural parts of the country migrated to Johannesburg to work in the mines. They brought their social and cultural practices, all these ethnic groups made up this “urban village”. In its formulation, its arrangements, its sounds, our way of playing, our music carries this DNA. It takes its roots in the folk of the ancients and combines with aesthetics, current and Western instrumentations. We have gathered, compiled all these cultural influences, we embody them through our voice of contemporary urban youth, our Afro-Futurist signature.
Is this link to ancestors essential for you?
Yes, because if you don’t know where you’re from, you probably won’t know where you’re going. It is a call from our ancestors, we give them what they transmitted to us. Through our music, we carry their voices, we are an extension of them. Our elders need to be heard and express themselves through us. During the apartheid era, most South African music was banned. The artists were not free to play what they wanted. Today that is no longer the case, so those lost voices can be heard again. We felt the need to do research on this music, to be, in a way, sound archivists. And currently, local, traditional music is disappearing in Africa. However, they are part of our identities. We must therefore create to show who we are and what the music of our country is.
What does the word zulu mean Stick, title of your album?
It designates a staff used by travelers during their journey. It is a representation, the symbol of an ancestral wisdom, of the knowledge and the lessons that can be lavished on us by these people who have traveled the roads, rich in experiences.
You learned to play the drums at church where you still perform every Sunday. Does this instrument allow you to access a spiritual dimension? Is it a perpetuation of an ancestral heritage?
Totally. During ceremonies, our traditional healers, even today, establish a link with spirituality through percussion and dance. They are in direct line with the spirit of the ancestors, who transmit certain messages to them, and share them with us. Artists are like satellites, we pick up certain signs and messages. Music connects us with the world of the ancients, it is the highest form of transcendence. It uplifts us, makes us move beyond our bodily limits. Like a totem pole, music also helps us connect with each other.
It is a house and brings together people from different cultures, languages, who form unity by dancing to the same rhythm. Africans have always been spiritual people. And South Africans have completely reappropriated Christianity, adapting it to their cultural practices, to their identities. We have moved away from the original content that was preached to enslave us, to colonize us. We have transposed this principle of relating to our Supreme Being in our own way. In these places of spirituality, secret meetings of political resistance were held during apartheid. Today, they are also a way of escaping the current capitalist system, of freeing itself from it, and of finding answers.
Do you deplore this capitalist, consumerist system and this individualist model?
Yes. In our song Sakhisizwe, we call to build a nation thanks to this philosophy of life, this concept called “Ubuntu”: we are interdependent, we exist thanks to the others, humanity forms a single soul. We need each other to live, it is about ignoring our differences, to coexist, to respect each other, to come together. Hand in hand, we are stronger than alone. This is true within any ecosystem, especially when one is in communion with nature. You realize that you are made of this same nature, you belong to her, you have to take care of her as she takes care of us, for example with the trees which give us oxygen. We think we are disconnected from each other, but no. Proof of this is the pandemic caused by Covid-19, which affects the entire human species. We must all get involved together to fight the disease, to survive. And in this current capitalist system, those who own the most wealth are those who cause the most damage. They would do better to help the poorest because this model creates poverty and promotes individualism above all. Your possessions don’t define you. Of course, it’s important to have a place to live, to have money, but it’s the moments shared with others that make us happy.
What are your memories of your early childhood during the apartheid regime?
I remember the police raids, trucks and military tanks that disembarked and tracked the gatherings of certain organizations like the ANC. Our environment was punctuated by these wars, political assassinations, battles for domination, gunshots … But even today, South Africa remains deeply governed by racial segregation. If the apartheid regime has been officially abolished in law, we are still suffering the consequences.
* Album Urban Village, Stick, No format! January 2021.
** Documentary “Urban village” directed by Vladimir Cagnolari.