Playing Oppikoppi for the third consecutive year, BCUC is one of the most anticipated acts at the festival. Helen Herimbi hung out with the crew
A Rea Vaya bus snakes around the big traffic circle behind me. Maybe two or three of them drive by. I’m not sure. I’m watching Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness, popularly and simply referred to as BCUC – who will perform at Oppikoppi next month – rehearse.
They are inside a rectangular container which faces a busy street in Soweto. The kind of container that has become the new age spaza shop in the ’hood. A scene of the sun setting and three turbaned black women walking towards a tree is painted on the inside of the door. Behind the band, a nearly- bare Pepsi fridge houses two Tupperware tins and next to it, an old TV – one that has a back, you know – clashes with a Chinese lamp.
It’s a strange thing to watch. Here are seven musicians singing, ululating, sweating onto congas, beating cowbells and dancing in a tiny space that’s open to the public to gawk or join in if they please. A tween boy in an Orlando Pirates jersey – of course – comes to sit next to me. He must watch BCUC rehearse a lot since he knows some of the lyrics. At one point, they’re all speaking at once and I feel like I’m watching a spiritual takeover.
And I’m not sure how many buses have passed by because they’ve been rehearsing one song – a moving jam about losing lives along the way. But when I look at my watch, 20 minutes have gone by.
BCUC is made up of six people: Kgomotso Mokone (backing vocals), Jovi Zadani (lead vocals), Hloni Mathunye (percussion, raps), Thabo Ngope (raps, bass, backing vocals), Skhumbuzo Mahlangu (bass drum) and Thabo Mangel (conga). When we meet, they are playing with bass guitarist, Mosebetsi Nzimande.
Zadani is quick to explain why their performances – and even rehearsals as I saw – comprise of elongated songs that feel more like a divine meeting than a chance to dot the I’s and cross the T’s for the benefit of the audience. “We don’t do music,” he smiles, “we do energy conversion. We take our audience on a spiritual ride. Now, we think lots more people know us so at Oppikoppi, we can take them deeper.
“We call some of what we do chants because they’re inspired by Shembe, the boys from the mountain and sangomas. Here (in South Africa), you can’t play that with conviction. It offends the neo-black people. The post-colonial blacks who want to instil their man on the cross to us.”
This ideology is entrenched in BCUC. I mean, the name of the band is a dead giveaway. It’s evident in the music, which they’ve been making since 2003, that they take immense pride in themselves and their people. It’s clear on songs like Vumani, Sebelele (Native Minds), Spiritual Train and more that they have chosen to take the road less travelled.
“We’re trying to say to other black bands that you can still be you and be able to play alongside people on TV and radio,” says Zadani. BCUC will perform alongside artists like Karen Zoid, Okmalumkoolkat, Matthew Gold, Black Coffee and more at Oppikoppi.
Mokone (the only woman in BCUC) said: “Oppikoppi has such a legacy so the more they do, the better. It’s a matwezi, it has an old soul.”
Speaking of soul, retaining the essence of theirs is important to the band. As such, they felt that their crowd-funded 2012 digital offering, The Can’t Cool Can’t Quench EP, compromised their artistry.
“That’s when we still believed in the machine,” remembers Zadani. “The songs were much shorter.”
Mathunye adds: “They were more radio- friendly.”
Mokone fiercely interjects: “They were NOT radio-friendly!”
Zadani quickly says: “It was supposed to play on radio. We are over it,” he turns to look at me: “We’re not looking for a (record) deal.”
To that, Mokone responds: “It was just a tough time. But studio was fun, no pressure.”
They are quick to call each other out, but don’t bring that into their performances. Or their new music. “We’re still traditional, still indigenous, but with swagger,” explains Mokone. “We’re still in the kitchen working on a new level of sound for BCUC.”
As I’m watching them rehearse, a guy who has been standing on the grass singing along suddenly goes into the container. He ties a plastic apron around his waist and begins deep frying chips. I distract myself from the enticing smell to pay attention to the band and remember what Zadani said: “We don’t do encores. By the time we finish performing, we’re spent. When you hear that last drum, we’ve finished. We are finished.”
l Catch BCUC on the Skellum stage at Oppikoppi on Sunday, August 9.