Feature Interview

Native Young: Seeking Wilder Roots

“We were on a South African budget but we were also running on South African luck,” says Yannick Meyer, his guitar leaning against one hip.

It’s lunch time and Truth Coffee is positively splitting at the seams. It’s taking a while for a table to come available and as myself and the present three members of the band wait outside on a bustling Buitenkant street, the topic of Native Young’s 2016 European tour bubbles up. “We had a whole lot of people just help us out and give us places to stay for free for a lot of our time there.”

Essentially the brainchild of Yannick Meyer, Native Young was formed almost three years ago through a serendipitous busking encounter with percussionist Mark Sikile’s marimba band and an equally lucky connection with Spanish backpacker Alejandro Serra. The result was a jam session in Guglethu township, in the garage and workshop of a legendary marimba maker Andile Siyo, and the swift inception of Native Young as a band. “From there we found a community centre in Philippi – they provided us with a space for rehearsing and gave us marimbas – and we started rehearsing once or twice a week,” explains Meyer.

At that time the band had manifested as an eight piece – three marimba players, two guitarists, a saxophonist, a bassist and a drummer. “From there we organically evolved and we managed to whittle the band down,” he adds. Drummer and marimba player Vuyani, who lived just across the road, joined the ranks to solidify the group, and their make-up changed only last year when the band headed to Europe and Serra’s imminent ban from South Africa approached thanks to an overstayed visa – all in the name of music. Mohau “Mo” slipped into the outfit as a replacement of sorts, armed with a guitar, a fresh face with a handful of songs.

Europe itself proved to be a pivotal point for the band, having been booked for Germany’s largest music festival, Fusion. “I was the biggest thing we’d ever done,” says Sikile. “But Les Escales was probably our biggest crowd.” They played to an audience of roughly 10 000 at the French festival. “They really loved our music – most of Europe was surprised at the sound we do,” he adds. “We’re really hoping to go back this year.” Having been shortlisted for Midem Festival, and under the wing of a new manager, the band is making tentative plans for another European trip come June, with Berlin once again high on the agenda.

“Berlin felt like home,” explains Sikile. Being the creative hub of Germany – and perhaps Europe at large at the moment – Berlin is positively brimming with opportunity for musicians on every corner. “We would go and busk, and come home at 4am after making shit-loads of money,” adds Meyer. “We were taking the train with a trolley full of marimbas. All the other street musicians really received us well. It was great.”

New music is imminently on the cards and the band has decided to flip their debut offering’s concept on its head. “Native Young is in a very interesting space right now,” explains Meyer. “Mohau is the primary writer of the new album we’re working on. So instead of folky pop songs with Xhosa influences we’re going to go the other way around – with a sort of Africa disco style with the pop element coming in on top.” They’re looking at gradually bringing this inverted concept to their live performances and by doing so, integrating a far deeper Africanised tone into their shows – as well as a new image.

“We’re going to have a very different look on stage,” he explains. “Native – very native.” Which seems fitting. When I mention the face paint they donned at a recent Café Roux gig he assures me that was enormously tame compared to what they have in store. This adaption of image pertains as well to where their shows will be based.  In spite of their successes and receptions at various local and international festivals, they are looking to take their music more regularly to township venues.

“We’re quite strict with what shows we do. We get a lot of offers for shows but we really pick and choose those we take on,” says Meyer. “Now we want to start doing more shows in Khayelitsha and Philippi – it’s really important to us to not only play shows where I and Alejandro come from but from also where Vuyani, Mark and Mo do.” This being particularly important what with their diversion towards the Africa disco style music they are in the process of creating. And for Native Young, it’s the joy of making the music which needs to be held true to in order for their project to be a success. “We always have a lot of fun,” says Meyer. “As long as it’s fun and as long as we’re making music that we enjoy then we know that we’re on the right track.”

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