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It seems new meaning has been given to the idiom “touch wood”. For Julia Johnson, Tessa Johnson and Ruth De Freitas are indeed touching wood, or rather striking their much-loved wooden instruments – marimbas – and resonating beats that entertain audiences.
It was at the Greenpop Reforestation Festival in Platbos Forest, near Gansbaai, last month that I had the honour of witnessing the fresh talent that is TouchWood.
These bubbly women used marimbas, cellos, electric violins, the ukulele, guitars and vocal harmonies to create a uniquely African folk sound.
And you could be forgiven for thinking you’d seen a body double on stage because Tessa and Julia are, in fact, twins. As luck would have it, the band’s formation was sparked at the very same festival last year.
“We were asked to play at the festival because we play for the organisation amaAmbush (of which their brother is the founder), so we play at many functions. Because it’s in the family, we were sort of birthed on the marimbas.
“My sister and I did classical violin and cello and were like: ‘We’re never touching those instruments again,’ “ Johnson chuckles.
“I started playing in high school bands and also joined the organ-isation where I met the twins,” says De Freitas.
Their first performance at last year’s festival was a hit, which brought them together again.
“No one’s mixing all these instruments and we thought we’d throw it all together,” says Johnson.
Coming up with a band name proved quite a task with names that ranged from Tree Musketeers, Treeo’s, and Marimba Maidens, but it was TouchWood that stuck.
“It’s a name that sticks. We played at Flamjangle and it was funny because they were ripping us to shreds about our name, but in a fun way,” laughs De Freitas.
As white women playing the marimbas, they have received a fair amount of flak. “People would say: ‘Here these white girls are, trying to be an authentically African band. Why aren’t you at a game lodge somewhere?’ We don’t want to do typical stuff that’s in the jungle, we want to break down that stereotype that we belong at the Waterfront Amphitheatre,” says De Freitas.
The group is all about present-ation and watching them is not a bore when they move to their beats.
“You have to make yourself watchable, give out the same energy you want from the crowd,” explains De Freitas.
TouchWood played their first major gig at the The Assembly last year which saw them feature at The Flamjangle Tea Festival, too.
“Our band career started off with a bang, not in some dingy old club with drunk old men cheering us on for wearing the right bra,” laughs De Freitas.
In a time when electro and drum ’n’ bass is big, Tessa says it makes it quite difficult for live acoustic music to thrive, so they try to spice things up with chord variations.
“Jules and I try to not just have your standard four chords of a rock band, but have fifths and harmo-nies. It’s the rhythms and the bridges where we stop and sing a capella.”
With De Freitas taking care of the lyrics, their music comprises upbeat, youthful sounds. There are not many all-female bands on the Cape Town scene and these women are definitely something to watch.