I CAME HERE TO SING – Review of Felix Laband’s Deaf Safari

I did not come to solve anything.
I came here to sing
and for you to sing with me.  
Pablo Neruda

There’s an old metaphysical stumper about whether art can ever be honest. Stanley Kubrick, but one among countless respondents, was fond of saying the artist doesn’t depict the reality of reality, but rather photographs the photograph of reality. Which is to say that what we have, at any given time, is at best a picture of the world; approaching accuracy or not as the case may be, but a picture merely, and what the artist does is take a certain picture of that picture. A considered rendering that may ultimately reveal and edify; a neccesary lie, as Picasso suggested, which if told properly, tells the truth.

On reading a recent interview in which Felix Laband describes his new album, Deaf Safari, as “the sound of an honest white guy”, I was instantly struck by the avowal of ‘honesty’ as a point of departure for an album of electronic music (which I had yet to listen to at the time). What could he mean? Is it possible, even, to talk about honesty in art in the 21st century? Under the reign of universal deceit, commercial skullduggery, easy fixes and moral relativism, how does an artist tell the truth? How does one accommodate the mess, as Beckett urged?

The South African artist faces, perhaps, an especially onerous challenge in this regard. In a time defined by anxious bewilderment and mistrust, ancient grudges and new mutinies, we yearn more than ever for truth that is unambiguous, simple and focused, hanging for all to see, like a clear, full moon in a cloudless sky. But there is no such clarity. There is no South Africa. And yet, the more our shared hallucination of multicultural harmony and prosperous growth and the moral integrity of our leaders is exposed as a perniciously naïve fantasy, the more it is insisted upon. The worse things get, the oilier the reassurances, the more guileful the denials, the more maniacal the fat man’s laughter.

The artist who means to create work of sociopolitical and emotional relevance in South Africa today must, even if it comes at their peril, defy the expectation of an exact image; the mandate to serve up a story as dry as a shelled and salted nut, that reduces complex history and an increasingly opaque present to little more than a morality play, with the villains and heroes immutably consigned to their respective camps, the lines of demarcation clearly drawn, and the received account of events retold so often as to become hollow, however unassailable. In the rare cases where some reflective distance is actually achieved, it is too often weighed down by the urge to find some kind of redemption, some abstract, supposed good that has or might come of it all – a distinctly South African brand of sentimentality.

As a subject, South Africa sucks away clarity; all that’s visible is smoke and haze, and the twinkling upon it of external light. There are no simple answers, only the uncertainty that exhausts us, the ambivalence that paralyses us, and the discordant echoes of consciousness we fear. We’re afraid of our own stories; stories about meaninglessness, uncertainty, loss, brutality, death, yet it’s a fear most cannot own up to, so they take comfort in the certainty of moral judgments, which they brandish like burning branches waved in the night to keep off the wolves. But there is no right and wrong to loss, to grief. The pain is circular; it is its own fulfilment. Summoning the strength to break free of this cycle of chicanery, cliché and sentimentality, this is the task the South African artist faces now.

Popular music with a sociopolitcal angle is relatively rare in South Africa. For the most part, what passes for social commentary is little more than bearded nostalgia or smug, flatulent lampoonery. There are exceptions of course, and among those Deaf Safari – Laband’s first explicitly political outing, and no small feat considering it contains not one original lyric – ranks as the most significant in my view. Its scope is simultaneously intimate and universal; it has much to say about the mess, but its language is something far beyond the friable moral calculus of right and wrong. Part rhapsody, part lament, the album is an ode to the schizophrenic dissonance, the bewildering complexity underlying the South African experience.

Deaf Safari is Laband’s fourth full-length studio album and his first in a decade, the last being 2005’s Dark Days Exit. Essentially an excercise in collage, Deaf Safari weaves together a capacious array of sampled recordings with original composition and arrangement influenced primarily by South African Kwaito house and American Roots music from the early 20th century. With regard to the latter, Laband cites Alan Lomax’s field recordings of Negro prison and chain gang work songs and the early recordings of Leadbelly as significant influences.

For Laband, one of the most important developments on Deaf Safari is the use of the spoken word. The album comprises a myriad of sampled recordings taken from the media landscape that has been the soundtrack to his and our life over the last decade, and arranged to tell a very difficult, but (at least to South African ears) instantly familiar and deeply felt story. We hear, for example, religious sermons of the type common to African Evangelist churches, a movement whose ethos and practises fall somewhere between tribal spiritualism and Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity; a phonetic unpacking – spoken in Afrikaans – of the different clicks in Khoisan languages; animal calls at dusk; a press conference held by President Jacob Zuma’s legal counsel, describing his back-and-forth appeal process as a “ding-dong thing”; Julius Malema calling himself “the leader of THE revolution”; lines from feature films and documetaries like: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, The Night of the Hunter, Enki Bilal’s Immortal (Ad Vitam), Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine, Argento’s Suspiria and Bertha Egnos’ famous Ipi Tombi.

While some of the referential content might get lost on the foreign listener, it is not a prerequisite for enjoying the music. The album is, after all, also simply gorgeous, filled with heart and charm and artistry. Musically, its appeal is wholly universal.

On Deaf Safari, Laband reaches in deep for the heart of the South African experience, and squeezes. The emission, by turns joyous and melancholic, steeped in feeling and social commentary, is a thing of wonder: a truly outstanding, perfectly polished, emotionally enthralling album about what it feels like to be a part of this country, this time, this world, entirely free of posturing. Laband hasn’t come to preach, he has no position to expound, he hasn’t come to solve anything – he’s simply telling a story, our story. He came here to sing, and for us to sing with him; and beautiful it is, and honest, and good.