Sounding off on Design Indaba Music 2015

Music writer Jon Monsoon reflects on the sonic variety on offer at Design Indaba Music 2015, from happy downbeats to violent shoegaze.

It would not be exaggerating to say that music is interwoven into the DNA of the Design Indaba Festival. The aptly named Design Indabar, a live musical backdrop to complement each day’s talks at the Conference, provides fresh local talent a platform from which to reach an influential audience while exposing some of our continent’s most progressive sounds.

Presented by Grolsch, Design Indabar 2015 gave conference and simulcast delegates, exhibitors, speakers and curious members of the public a fine and eclectic sampler of just how intrinsically linked modern music and modern design can be – a celebration of the spirit of creativity.  

One of Cape Town’s most talked-about new acts, Original Swimming Party – a three-piece band exploring the outer realms of experimental electronica – perfected the art of looking “uninvolved” in their own performance on stage at Indabar. Their languorous compositions singlehandedly illustrated Cape Town at sundown. It was up to "Nu World" DJ Maoriginal – aka Ma’or Harris, the beat-bringer who is the brains behind the Balkanology and Fiddle East parties – to get the delegates and their ilk a swingin’ into the early night.

The following evening brought more grooves 'n Grolsch to the green, this time with Nongoma and the DJ, Lieutenant Fizzer, in command. Nongoma Ndlovu hails from Joburg but was born in Germany and raised in Switzerland. Her rapid-fire R&B/rap vocals a lá Lauren Hill at first seemed out of place in the sedate garden-setting at sunset, but her dares to “come on and dance!” soon had a young, hip and outwardly stylish crowd swaying along and cheering her on.

Decked out in granddad’s old army get-up, Lieutenant Fizzer then took the helm. His swing jazz/big band/silly vintage ditties brought broad smiles and Monty Pythonesque dance moves out in the sparse remaining crowd – most, it seems, having headed over to the main party a few blocks away at The Side Show.

Described as “a sonic explosion of African talent”, the main music event’s nine-act lineup meant attendees were in for a long night.

First up was Angel-Ho, a performance artist in wigs, body paint and leopard print leotards. With his self-composed drill ’n bass backtracks, Angel-Ho’s show is a musical mindfuck. His hour-long performance included monologues about Ebola, Marikana, Zuma, Nkandla and ’mshini wam, mock devil worship, wig changes, twerking models, destruction of computer hardware and a selfie stick. The audience was impressed, confused or just plain weirded out. Design Indaba will always challenge perceptions of what is acceptable and creative in art and music, and Angel-Ho was no exception. Long live the weird!

Next up, artist Amy Ayanda and friend/soundscapist Thor Rixon brought their delicate hippy tones, trumpet, dreadlocks and deep house grooves to the stage. After the sonic insanity of Angel-Ho, their happy downbeats were a welcome reprieve. People stood and watched or swayed politely, eventually giving more energy to the twosome’s trancier tracks. Amy is endearingly awkward between songs.

If there was one act people had come to see, it was the internationally acclaimed, award-winning Ghanaian musician, M.anifest. Described as “Ghana’s rapper supreme”, he has recorded with luminaries no less well-known than Damon Albarn (Gorillaz), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Afrobeat co-founder Tony Allen and Erykah Badu. He stepped up to the mic and dropped lyrical detonations. The crowd, clustered front of stage, got right into it. With little more than two djembes and a microphone, he got the room involved and ended an energetic set getting the audience to chant his lyric, “You’ll never know joy if you’ve never had to suffer”. Indeed.

The four Cape Town-based musos who comprise indie-rock outfit the Sakawa Boys had a tough act to follow. They did a great job of sounding like all of my favourite alternative ’80s acts – Bauhaus, Joy Division, The Cure. Theirs is a genre they call “violent shoegaze”. While yet to find their feet, the Boys did a good job of convincing everyone in the place that they, at least, were having a good time.

Then, a projected movie clip of a man walking in the snow looking lost while reading a poem announced the second of the evening’s highlights: the acclaimed Angolan multimedia performance artist with the catchy name, Nástio Mosquito.  Working with music, videos, spoken-word poetry and acappella rants (mostly in Portuguese), he got the crowd charged and ready for revolution! As his set built to a cinematic climax, Nástio threw down his mic and flipped the room the bird before sauntering off stage to wild applause.

At this point rumours of a surprise international act were laid to rest as Daddy G, the founder of seminal ’90s trip-hop band Massive Attack, took to the decks and casually got right into a searing set of drum ‘n bass, dancehall reggae and dubstep cuts. It was a rare opportunity to witness a master of these genres dropping sonic science on the crowd.

For local DJ RVWR, it was a tough act to follow. He sent it in a trap direction and the crowd expressed its gratitude by shaking what their mamas gave them with wild abandon.

Producer Jumping Back Slash had the unenviable job of getting dancing people to carry on dancing at 3am on a school night, but his trademark gqom-style turned out to be just what the beat doctor ordered at this confusingly fun time of the morning.

Closing proceedings was the task of another ex-Brit now enjoying sunnier skies in this hemisphere: Duce Duce. With a graphic design and advertising background, Duce Duce used her grounding to create montages of abstract images, motion graphics, texture and geometry.

It brought the evening to a suitably festive close leaving only the following day’s music at Indabar to sample.

DJ Zulufunk dropped some smooth, soul-tinged Afro grooves on the crowd of punters on the last evening at Design Indabar. It was beautiful background music for people reflecting on their best Design Indaba moments.

Rose Lombard closed it all out in style with an eclectic mix of electro-bangers and strange beats. It was easy to see why she is Felix Laband’s favourite DJ.   

Thus ended another multi-day musical adventure provided by Design Indaba. If, as Beethoven mused, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy”, than we cannot wait to see and hear what the festival will “reveal” for us next year, as music and design meet head-on once again.