One could be excused for thinking that having an open-minded, culturally driven artistic community in Pretoria is something akin only to visions of utopia. On the surface, Pretoria seems like one of those few cities that sleep at night. Upon closer inspection, however, one will find an ongoing process of redefining and owning the city. Amongst the many forms of art that are prevalent in the city, music is a prime example of the tangible rewards that are born of such an artistic community – indeed, a youthful community too; a community that has illustrated the feasibility of collectivism.
Friday the 22nd of April 2016, featured one of the most memorable nights that Pretoria’s music scene has experienced in recent times. The place was the Tshwane Arts, Craft and Design Hub, popularly known as The Old Fire Station. The hub is host to several Pretoria-based artists in residence, ranging from visual artists to musicians and poets. As such, it was the perfect space to host Nono Nkoane’s 30th birthday celebration. Having released her debut album, True Call, Nono has set music circles ablaze, in jazz and beyond. As a new and commanding voice, she has been able to highlight the path ahead for South African music, particularly for those of us who were never creative enough to imagine what could be.
Prior to the event, Nono had invited numerous artists and art lovers to come celebrate with her, as she had so correctly enthused, Pretoria was not ready. This was to be Pretoria’s seminal event in illustrating camaraderie, communitas and a movement towards autonomy through artistry. The line-up of performers had been announced as featuring Mshengu Project, Sibusile Xaba, Tumi Mogorosi, Dani Mali, Spha Mdlalose, Gabisile Motuba, Linda Skhakhane, Beat Box Campus, Kevin Maduna, Nkoto Malebye, Viwe Mkhizwane and of course, Nono Nkoane. With such a lineup, the event would present something beyond a statement of intent by artists.
I arrived at the Hub at 4pm, curious about what was happening behind the scenes of the birthday gig. It was a very sunny day, in contrast to the clouds that had threatened outdoor live music on the previous day. I met Nono Nkoane and Gabisile Motuba outside. They shared with me the magnificence that one ought to have expected for the night. I walked into one of the communal areas in which several paintings, books, and music were on display. Beyond this area, on the far north side, was a few artists sat on the veranda in conversation. Tumi Mogorosi, Mandla Mlangeni, Malcolm Jiyane, Sibusile Xaba and Nhlanhla Mahlangu were there, glibly going about their business. These are musicians that have contributed to the currently progressive nature of making music in South Africa, illustrating that ‘jazz’ was never set in stone. On any other day, they could have been performing at a festival with exclusionary ticket prices in a bourgeois neighbourhood. Instead, they had taken their time to occupy this changing and wonderful space in Pretoria. So much could be said about the implications of having these spaces in the city. Behind these musicians, a stage was being set up, backline and all. Without any funding for the event, or source of income whatsoever, this would be a testament of collectivism in a difficult and tricky industry. Musicians had agreed to perform pro-bono, people entered freely and DBSPL Productions provided equipment and sound engineering pro-bono. Other collaborators in organizing the event were Magoose community and Langa Lethu Arts Creation , curators of the hub. The event was based solely on creative industry.
On the night, music became a reflection of what Pretoria was currently experiencing in the arts. The night had brought together musicians in a way that formal institutions could not. Experiencing the likes of Kevin Maduna and Sibusile Xaba was about more than the aesthetics of performance and technical ability. Rather, a sense of direction towards what should be, what Pretoria should be having more of. When mainstream media does their customary Johannesburg – Pretoria lifestyle comparisons, they hardly ever cover alternative spaces in which art thrives. Beyond talent and skill, artists are making endeavours towards changing the status quo. Nono’s birthday gig becomes relevant within this context of occupying and transforming space. Live music in Pretoria is becoming a cultural movement, one that is difficult to define, yet welcome. The notion that artists can organize and create all by themselves, speaks to a newly found autonomy.
On Friday the 22nd of April, with music playing till the early hours of the 23rd, Pretoria went through a rite of passage; it is up to the Pretoria community to characterize this new found identity. For that, we need the continued inspiration of art.
Photography: Tshepo ‘Gaza’ Maseko and Xolani Masaka