Bridges for Music

“I tried to combine this South African House, they call it tribal, nê. I tried to combine it with electro, electro is more international. I’m trying to fuse them both in one song.” Siphe Tebeka is going over how he put his last track, Uzondilinda together. A female Xhosa vocal interjects him before he gets a chance to finish his next sentence and the house-hybrid track suddenly has the whole room shaking as the sub-woofer kicks in. I meet Siphe in his home-come-studio in the heart of the Gugulethu township with Cape Town’s Table Mountain looming in the distance. He only got to bed 5AM that morning after pulling an all-nighter on another piece of music, and the sentences take some time to form through his sleep-deprived state. He finds his form, however when we get into his recent trip to Belgium. “The crowd was huge, jo.” Siphe has recently returned from playing Tomorrowland as part of a Bridges for Music campaign to bring the sound of the townships to an international audience and to shed some light on the organisation’s objectives. For a self-taught musician/producer that’s never even sat on aeroplane, it is a remarkable accomplishment. He believes this experience alone has improved his own music, while a scholarship through Bridges of Music in association with SAE will help him hone his craft further.

It’s at the world-class mixed-media institution, SAE Woodstock where I meet Trenton Birch, the director of the African operations of Bridges for Music. “The basic foundation of Bridges for Music is to use electronic music to empower people from disadvantage communities.” The organization has thus far achieved this by taking musicians/producers/DJs from these disadvantaged communities to the world stage and bringing artists like Richie Hawtin and Boys Noize to the same communities for workshops. “We’ve realised that the workshops have been short term. So at the moment our main project is trying to build a music school in Langa township.” It was through this project and its primary fundraising event, a bike race from London to Amsterdam ahead of ADE, that I was introduced to organisation. “We are hoping to rise €100 000 and that money will go to building school.” Trenton takes me on a short tour of the recording facilities at SAE, which include a $100 000 Neve console and a room stuffed with iMacs. It’s only a 15-minute drive (or 30-minute taxi ride) from Siphe’s modest township room/studio, and the producer hopes that the school will give more people the same opportunity he has been afforded by Bridges for Music. “We’re all looking in the future, to have some recognition in the city, being a public figure and I think I’m getting there. Most people here in Gugs (Gugulethu) are inspired by my job, by the way I produce.” Siphe eventually hopes to teach at the school in his neighbouring community Langa, in the hope to share some of his experiences with others like him, but Trenton is quick to point out that this is not just going to be another failed community centre. “It’s a school and the guys have to pay fees. Fees are very low, but we don’t feel that giving things away for free sends the right message. The message that Bridges for Music is trying to send is one of empowerment through education. The school in Langa came from an early realisation that these exchange programmes between the townships and the international community could only reach a point. “It’s all good and well taking the guys overseas but what happens when they get back? You can’t spoon feed people.” Bridges for Music’s vision for this school is more than just giving the individual an opportunity. Trenton believes that the skills acquired through the SAE curriculum taught at the new school, will be transferable to everyday life. “The important thing is that we are here to educate people. So if we educate a hundred people and one becomes a superstar that’s great for PR, but if fifty of them could make a living even if it’s not directly from music then we are doing our Job. “ And what about the other fifty? “Our philosophy is that if you empower one individual to be successful it will affect his whole community. The township community is very tight knit, so if one person is empowered it affects a whole multitude of people. If you look at the level of unemployment in townships people would just die if there wasn’t that internal network.”

Back in Siphe’s studio he is playing me the song he had been up all night working on. It’s a blend of Kwaito and House and he goes into the fine detail required to make the VST synth sound like a live bass. There’s a professionalism inherit in his work that is only accomplished through talent, and I was a little surprised to learn that he’s not played in his home town since his return from Europe. His fusion of different styles –something that the bridges for music experience has solidified – seems to alienate the producer from the local scene, but what is more significant is that it does it from two opposing fronts. His blend of South African influences in an international style makes it difficult for him to perform in his own community. “In Gugs, we listen to this commercial music. Whenever it’s a hit, we tend to follow. There are places and there are plenty of them, but the problem is that they play this certain type of genre. Everyone can’t just go and play. For example I can’t just go and play my brand of electro there. No-one will go and dance to that.” But this doesn’t necessarily mean that his sound is freely adopted in the more upscale venues of Cape Town either. In between these two interviews, I attended a night at ERA, in the city centre. The Funktion one system and expert lighting was closer to the super-clubs of Europe and the sound emanating from its expensive sound system only re-enforced that idea.

Trenton is of the opinion that “one of the problems with Cape Town is that it is still totally segregated.” Trenton’s own label/magement company Black Mango, which he has described as the “engine room for bridges”, has been trying very hard to diversify audiences in the city. “We did this event called unity Jam. So we did this in Langa and had 1200 people there, which had more white people in one space in the township than there’s ever been, but the event was totally mixed.” This is also the reason for the school’s location. As the oldest Township in Cape Town, Langa is also the closest to the CBD making it easier for the disparity between the two areas to narrow. “Langa is accessible to the city population, to the white producers that live in the suburbs and to the international visitors. It also means we can facilitate good collaboration. Because at the moment there is a great divide between the music in the city and the music in the townships.”

Siphe corroborates this sentiment in our interview, but instead of perpetuating this situation he tends to find a middle ground within his music that should be able to accommodate both worlds in a truly unique voice. “I grew up listening to Kwaito and Soul candy compilations. That’s when I got interested in this music.“ He has also picked up some influences from abroad through Bridges for Music. “My production now is improving because I’ve been listening to more international music.” He doesn’t want to conscribe to a particular sound however and is very liberal in the influences he calls upon. I produce what I feel like making. I try to be unique.“ Siphe is very critical of South African music and it’s tendencies to adopt a standard European or American approach. “In SA whatever we do, we try and take something that’s been done before.” This statement particularly surprised me. Hip Hop is currently enjoying a very big revival in South Africa and its vernacular-form has been blasting through various local and national radio stations since my arrival. Trenton is of the same opinion as Siphe and puts it down to the musical identity, or lack of that has been left behind from the political turmoil of the past. “We suffer badly from cultural colonisation and we have an identity crisis.” He believes that as a result South African music lacks definition and this forms another part of the reason why Bridges for Music is focussing on house music from the townships rather than the Afrikaans vernacular hip-hop coming out of Mitchells Plain, for instance. “You look at the house music industry or kwaito that comes form the suppressed black population and there’s a very strong sense of self because of where they came from and who they are.“ It’s also no surprise that this music is completely reliant on the electronic format. As the most cost effective option around electronic music is also the most accessible music today, requiring only a meagre budget and the will to experiment. Siphe’s working environment is made up of little more than a computer and midi controller, but already he is crafting music that supersedes even some established international producers in terms of creativity. He hopes to upgrade it eventually and to fully establish his Messive Muzik label in the near future and in electronic music’s current dominating role this is easily accomplished. Trenton sees the situation on South Africa particularly hopeful. “In terms of developing markets, electronic music is booming everywhere because it’s so easy to make. At the moment we are the biggest producers of house music and the biggest consumers. They recon there’s more DJs per capita than anywhere else in the world. It also makes sense to go into what the masses are into because that’s where the poor people come from.”

It is also the right time for electronic music to be giving something back after thirty years of self-indulgent excess according to Trenton. “It’s very over inflated and there’s huge money flowing around it. The timing feels right.” This is the crux of what got Bridges for Music up and running. “Valentino (Barrioseta), he had the idea while he was running all the marketing for amnesia in Ibiza. He looked at the situation and went dance music needs to give back. It’s a very hedonistic part of the industry and it’s getting older. Much of the older guys who’ve been playing for thirty years now, kind of have been there done that and now they want to make a difference.” And the difference they want to make, and what Bridges for Music particularly strive to do, is to annul the differences and give everybody an equal opportunity through electronic music. Whether it’s an international divide between Cape Town and Belgium, or a local divide between Gugulethu and the City centre of Cape Town, Bridges for Music‘s intention is to span the divide using music as its intermediary. Eventually the idea will be to transcend the music completely as more schools open around Africa, and indeed the world, empowering more people through various skills that can be adapted to everyday life.