By Jannike Bergh
I was first told about BCUC – Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness – after having settled in France: it was around four years ago that my brother had been to Soweto to audition for what he told me was “a raw afro-psychedelic band tapping into their roots, playing for and through their ancestors.” I distinctly remember how he emphasized how he thought they were the real deal. My brother was so hungry to play with other musicians who explored more, and thought and played differently. He drove there in our late grandfather’s red Peugeot 504, picked up the band members and drove to the rehearsal space. The car being red is somehow important, it adds a distinct colour to this day: it helps me to picture the unfolding of events. It turned out my brother wasn’t the best fit for the band at the time, and in some strange premonitory way, his guitar amp blew a fuse as soon as he plugged his guitar in to play. The ancestors weren’t feeling it, the band said.
My brother was not offended. “Fair enough,” I can just imagine him responding. Because my brother, though he loves playing music, does not do it purely for the kicks. There is a space where all of this comes from, the same space where it stirs us, and where egos evaporate like mist into an open fire. He was more intrigued by this otherworldly dimension that clearly steers the band’s musical direction – and beyond: the ways they interact with people around them, as though it is self-evident to be so kind and affirming all at once. They remain grounded even when, through their rhythmic playing and chanting, their music connects with a transcendental space where the present moment becomes timeless, shapeless. And it might seem as though the undertaking is an effortless one for them, but their drive to heal and revive can only come from hardship, however one may wish to define or view it. It is raw and kicks you in the gut. Who said positivity needs to be docile?
This kind of optimism is not naïve, because it has lived through many things. It grows and learns and constantly reconfigures perspectives. This is why the shape of BCUC’s songs is endless.
2 December 2016, Rennes: I’m finding myself in a kebab shop in Rennes and the energy is electric. We are helping the seven members of BCUC place their orders in French. The space is tiny, and there’s a lot of singing and chatter going on; but everything flows, the food soon arrives and the festive spirit continues. We’ve just come back from a two-hour long interview the band did with French-German TV channel Arte. During the interview, the band explained their special brand of ‘enraged positivity’, of positive rebellion; and it really is contagious. “All I see is just human beings,” frontman Jovi sings on “Asazani”, off the band’s newly released LP, Our Truth. The band’s mission to be a positive force through their music, and through the connectedness that it enables, is also lived off-screen and off-stage. The things they say during interviews are the same things they say when sharing a meal or a quick chat. The things they say are the same things they do. Walking back from the interview, Jovi has a dancing gait; Luja, one of the group’s percussionists and back-up singers, is joining in on the groove. We’ve caught up with our friends Jake and Noémie, an American/French couple whom the band met earlier the day. Jake, a street musician, has been carrying a ukulele with him. He starts playing on it and Jovi joins in, doing an improvised version of Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up”. They jam while crossing busy boulevards, all the way into the kebab shop. The singing and the tapping continue even as everyone receives their food. They hear that it’s Jake’s birthday, and the entire band break out in song.
Almost a week has passed since BCUC played their final show in France, after having conquered the famed music showcase festival, Les Rencontres Trans Musicales de Rennes, and having entranced the crowd at their sold-out show as part of Africolor Festival at La Dynamo de Banlieues Bleues in Pantin, Paris.
I have been looking forward to their arrival in France the whole year. Last December, I burned a copy of The Healer and sent it to the artistic director of Les Trans Musicales, as per his request. He was intrigued by what I’d told him about them and wanted to hear their album. The year 2016 kicked off with the good news that the festival was very interested in booking them, having recognised their unpretentious, fun spirit, but also the stubborn way in which they refuse to follow any formulas. The festival suggested that the band work with Antoine Rajon, a very competent music promotor and agent who also co-runs a small record label, Nyami Nyami Records. He is passionate about the artists he works with and immediately loved the band. We managed to organise a meet-up with Antoine and the band in Soweto earlier this year, while he was on tour in Southern Africa with French-Togolese act, Vaudou Game. There was an immediate connection. Things just seemed to fall into place quite seamlessly. And so, this year is ending on a high note, with the release of the band’s latest album in France (through Nyami Nyami) and an explosive week of shows all over Rennes, finishing off in Paris – with tour dates across Europe already pencilled in for 2017.
And now that they have come and gone, leaving their energy behind, there is no doubt that the power of BCUC lies here: to transmit, and to transform – and ultimately, to heal – through their music. While the band pride themselves on their memorable performances, now spreading their sound and their message to overseas audiences, they would not have done it any differently if they were in Soweto or Reunion Island, in Paris or Pretoria. They never play the same show twice, but when they start playing, their rhythms and chants revive your limbs; the build-ups, the mighty explosions go to the core of each and everyone absorbing their performance. Their plead to heal, to love is so truthful that it can leave no one unaffected. “Even if we are harsh, it comes from love,” frontman Jovi exclaims.
4 December 2016, Rennes: “Your elders are here even when they are gone because their blood is in you. They live in you,” Jovi tells the crowd that have gathered to see them play in a metro station in Rennes, the Sunday afternoon after their explosive show on the main stage at Les Trans Musicales the night before.
After playing the big stage on Saturday night, they said they were looking forward to the gig in the metro station; they were more comfortable with the setup.
The show is free of the pressure, free for the public, free from microphones so the band can move around as they please. It is a free-form show, and they played differently from the night before.
They have had an intense few days behind them, playing at the mayor’s reception, at a local prison, and done many interviews leading up to the big night on Saturday. You’d think they’d be exhausted from their full days, and the cold. It’s all been rather overwhelming. But today’s show is like a release. Kgomotso is radiant, playing the shaker and smiling, seeming elated. The percussions build up, the chants grow, Jovi seems to be carried by a trance. The organic energy is striking.
The band has the uncanny ability to point to that unsayable Thing inside all of us that yearns for connection and that lights up when we are exposed to it. And it is that same Thing that makes optimists out of South Africans (regardless of growing problems, the country is also growing up in other ways). That unsayable Thing can be found in Luja and Skhumbuzo’s rousing marching drums that harness energy slowly and then pound at you, empowering you. That Thing is Jovi’s positive rage. He yells, he screams, he pleads, fists clenched: he is outraged, but he is not seeking to curse, he is seeking to build, through communion, through transmission. It is the power of Kgomotso’s voice affirming itself gracefully, holding the melody, carrying all that sound: the marching drums, Cheex’s congas and Mosebetsi’s deep bass grooves. It is Hloni wandering around stage playing whistles and cow-bells, making light of the intensity.
And this Thing, for them, manifests itself in the transformative power of music. “Music is everything. Music is all we have,” the band repeats wherever they go.
The Trans Musicales festival is about discovering and transporting: BCUC is meant for a festival like this. A festival like this is meant for them.
BCUC is not just a fresh sound, it is a force. The sound would not exist without the humanity that compounds it.
6 December 2016, Paris: The band plays a sold-out, intimate concert at La Dynamo, alongside saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, from the London-based band The Comet is Coming. It is a seated concert, but a few minutes into the first song, a middle-aged Japanese man goes to the front of the stage and loses himself in the music. Jovi runs towards him and does a dance-off with him. Since their collaboration with Shabaka is once-off and improvised, the atmosphere is abuzz with the novelty of the moment. It feels as though everybody there is soaking in and stretching out every second of the interaction. Soon, children move down to the stage area and start dancing. And eventually, the entire venue is on their feet, and the band and the audience are completely connected.
The band are clearly overjoyed by seeing the different ages responding to them. It is a very appropriate way to end their week in France, and the spontaneity that they carry and have evoked in their French audiences has, for me, defined this tour.
The band manage to stir up a mighty swell of ‘positivity’ – one that is raw and imperfect … Perhaps it is a kind of positivity that stems from the friction of South Africa’s “in-between” space: despite our complex behaviours seeping out through the disconnections in our confused past and present, South Africa can only reconfigure itself constantly, and move forward, towards wholeness. And certainly, all of us around the world carry this struggle within us.
BCUC have had such an effect on their audiences everywhere I’ve seen them play, because their approach cannot be invented. It just flows out of them, in song, to heal.
When the world has been turned on its head and everything has gone dark, how sweet it is to be released. //