Uncompromising – An interview with Bruno Morphet

brunoIt’s as if the deep click of the plucked bass-line stirred something in my neighbours to incite the tussle that suddenly breaks out on the dance floor. The DJ’s exodus from Techno into deep-house territory clearly had an effect as a shoving match ensues, but the aggression dissipates quickly as the testosterone levels of the young men are restored to the abnormally high levels of the average 19 year-old male. I’m the oldest member of the public here by some years, save the DJ, Bruno Morphet, who is currently acclimatising Cape Town’s Dragon Room for Matt Tolfrey. “I really enjoy warming up for people, warming up the dance floor for someone that you really respect.” Bruno wears his years much better than most with an athletic frame and lightly salted cropped hair that denies even an educated guess. He elicits a respect from his audience only experience can bring, and it’s even established in the context of a conversation. I am reminded of something he mentioned earlier that day during our interview in a busy little café in Cape Town’s trendy Bree Street. His voice barely breaks through the noise from the people sharing the table with us: “SA has this weird thing – it’s quite a white middle class thing – that there is an amount of guilt attached to going out after a certain age.” As a DJ that has been active on Cape Town’s dance scene since 1995, friends often ask Bruno if he’s still actively involved in the club scene, and he finds the response is always the same to his affirmation; “I don’t know how you do it, I haven’t been to a club in ten years.” I assume it is a result of the conservative attitude instilled by the previous generation and Bruno agrees, but it seems that for the latest generation, who were in the rapture of his set that evening, Bruno’s age is irrelevant…

Bruno’s love of music propelled his career as a DJ in the shadow of the first democratic South African elections. Music had been very difficult to come by before this seminal moment in history as the boycott on South Africa had crippled the import of music while the conservative government banned much of its trade. “I remember as a Hip Hop fan in the late eighties early nineties, It was almost impossible to get music that didn’t come from major labels, you had to rely on imports and those records only came in as 1 or 2 copies. You had to know people in record stores to get your hands on those copies.” It was only after 1994 however that Bruno opted to take to the decks. Armed with a bag full of CDs –vinyl was still too expensive and exclusive – he badgered a friend for a spot at the now defunct club, Magnet. “Back then I was playing a mixture of jazz, classic Latin American, down tempo and very eclectic stuff. I was a very big Giles Peterson fan.” He honed his craft further on some very rudimentary equipment, including a mixer with only half a channel and a turntable with a pitch wheel, and the gigs naturally followed, with a little promotional graft from Bruno himself. “In those early days you had to fight to get your name out there. There was a lot of following club owners around and then phoning people, just trying to hustle.” Shortly after, Bruno’s taste developed along a different line as he got bored with the contemporary situation of dance music and its predilection in South Africa to what he refers to as ‘coffee-table-house’; deep house, with an emphasis on emotive riffs supplied by a ubiquitous saxophone or scat vocal. This trend, coinciding with two releases, turned Bruno to the darker side of Techno. “There were two seminal CDs: One was Jeff Mills live at the liquid room Tokyo and the other one was Claude Young’s DJ kicks. They kind of got me started on Techno.” It was a sound that established Bruno’s voice as we hear it today and really brought the DJ to prominence in the nightclubs of Cape Town. It wasn’t however smooth sailing as Bruno’s distinct style behind the decks was met with fierce apprehension from promoters, who thought him uncompromising. “I think they assume I’ll just go down a dark tunnel and take the whole dance floor with me. Which doesn’t really happen.”

This certainly wasn’t the case for his set that evening. His eclectically menacing tone already had a fight on its hands, but even that did little to deter the packed dance floor during Bruno’s set. His approach speaks to the disenfranchised youth of South Africa, tired of the hold the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has on the proliferation of music in the region. It’s something that I found Bruno is very critical of during the course of our conversation and the light-hearted nature of his chronicled biography soon veers off course and adopts a serious tone when we delve into this subject. Bruno’s grin loosens while his composure adopts a stiffness I haven’t witnessed as yet, and its evident the matter conflicts him. “We still have a very sad music media monopoly on local airwaves”. With every radio channel controlled by the mighty SABC, there is no independent influence on what music the South African audiences get exposed to. The Internet is still available, but low bandwidths and download caps as controlled by the only service provider, Telkom – another notorious telecommunication cartel – make in it inaccessible to the majority, according to Bruno. “It disenfranchises half the population. It’s a monopoly. In the same way SABC is a monopoly for media, Telkom is a monopoly for bandwidth access.” These factors play a major role in the dissemination of music in SA and its not reserved for the airwaves only, but filter through to popular dance floors around the country. Radio jocks, who have the ear of the population, often get booked in favour of a DJ like Morphet. “The DJs from 5fm extort large fees in return for promotion on national radio. So you have the situation where you get completely talentless DJs, like Euphonik appearing in clubs playing horrible music for an extortionate amount of money because the promoters know they’ll get national coverage if they book these people.”

Throughout our interview, Bruno’s critical responses about the South Africa and it’s music scene are concise and supported by evidence with examples of where these situations exist, whether it be a specific DJ, club or promoter. As a DJ that’s been around for 18 years and is still very active in the scene, he is in the perfect position to comment on these situations, and we often get sucked in to the hole that are these issues in developing countries. Bruno’s optimistic demeanour eventually shines through the cloud of cynicism surrounding the music business in South Africa, when we consider Cape Town. “The scene in Cape Town has exploded in the last ten years it’s unrecognisable to what it was before.” Although there’s still, what Bruno believes is a “cartel of promoters” in the city, he is adamant that there are a lot more opportunities for DJs in SA especially considering that DJ platforms are readily available today thanks to computer technology. The rise in popularity in electronic music also coincides with South African DJs like Alan Abrahams (aka Portable) returning to its shores for festivals like Cape Town Electronic Music Festival, a festival where local acts get as much headlining attention as internationals. “CTEMF is at it’s most successful when it can welcome back acts that have made it big overseas and can now perform to a local crowd.” Even restrictive alcohol laws brought on by the ruling DA party in the last few years hasn’t been able to curb the rise in electronic music and its culture in the city. “Cape Town’s scene has moved outdoors to a much greater extend than it was previously.” It circumvents the early closing times imposed on the city, which Bruno says is “a real nanny state mentality and a defective logic”. Moving outside the city, something that the Trance scene pioneered, electronic music around Cape Town enjoys a unique privilege in combining the music with picturesque landscapes. Alongside festivals like CTEMF this has had a magnanimous impact on the scene, but I believe Bruno too had a major hand to play in its most recent surge.

In 2006 alongside friend and fellow DJ, Ivan Turanjanin, Bruno established Killer Robot at Fiction, a night that brought Techno to Cape Town with significant results. “Initially we just played for free because they just wanted to see if the sound would take.” Encompassing the ideas behind the venue Killer Robot slotted in perfectly alongside the rest of the weekly line-ups. “Fiction’s promotions were styled in a b-movie aesthetic. So we came up with Killer Robot as a B-movie title that would encompass the type of music we were playing: tough and electronic.” It was around the time that Berlin Berghain sound was really taking hold in Europe and the pair capitalised on South Africa’s Eurocentric tastes, bringing the likes of the Visionquest crew and The Hacker to Cape Town on a regular basis by way of promotion for the weekly nights. “We never made any money on the nights the internationals played.” The party eventually came to an end after a successful five-year stint when booking fees and flights reached an amount to exuberant to validate the promotion, but it wasn’t quite the end for Killer Robot. Ivan and Bruno still perform as Killer Robot, playing back to back when the mood strikes them. Bruno describes their sound as slightly lighter pitched than his solo sets, and the previous week, I had an opportunity to see them perform at ERA, one of the newest venues popping up around Cape Town. Playing a Techno set that spanned a few generations and encompassed the genre completely, the duo doesn’t disappoint with a raw and engaging performance. Bruno’s personal approach is also noticeable, and it hasn’t changed much since that eponymous meeting with Jeff Mills’ Live at the liquid room. “Often it’s not my taste that changes. The artists producing the music evolves and I evolve with them.” Later that night he is about to hand over the reigns to Matt Tolfrey. He’s set the mood perfectly with his change in the direction to the deeper end, a perfect starting point for a DJ like Tolfrey to develop his set from. It isn’t the trendy deep-house currently making waves in Europe but something with a darker edge to it, more akin to Kompakt than AUS. It’s similar to the sound I heard emanating from the Afrika Burns bus last year when Bruno played the sunrise set: minimalist and solemn music transcending trends in favour for the cerebral. “I try to steer a way from trends, when I see them coming.” He has been disillusioned by the hype that lately surrounds a release a month in advance by labels like Innervisions and tends to avoid those at all cost. “By the time it comes out, every DJ in the world owns that track.” This comment brings the subject of Bruno’s uncompromising attitude to the fore again as the café slowly peters out into the street and we are left in the quiet aftermath of the post-lunch rush. A mischievous grin falls over his face as he tells me that he’s recently fallen out of favour with the promoters behind another pre-eminent Cape Town music festival, and his future there seems uncertain for the moment. It’s hard to believe, since what these promoters see as uncompromising his audience appreciates as a distinction. He doesn’t dwell on these details however, citing age as the calming force behind the artistic storm. “I’m old enough now to not care if I’m by myself on a gig free weekend. I’m just as happy spending a Friday night watching an old Alfred Hitchcock movie than I am going out to DJ.” Bruno Morphet is a DJs DJ however and even if he’s perceived as uncompromising by some, his natural talent lays behind a set of turntables. Before our interview ends, and with his last words still floating in the air between us, he quips as if to avoid any superstitious value the previous sentence might hold; “I might get a bit itchy if I don’t get to play for two weeks.”