The best way to experience Afronaut’s debut EP for the first time is to close your eyes and feel the beauty of the music, jettisoning the stereotypes and notions of genre that reliably filter into your music consumption.
At least, that’s the recommendation of the three-piece’s vocalist, Fumane Mahane who knows that when people encounter Afronaut’s country slash blues slash punk sound “it’s going to be a mindfuck that these guys from Soweto can make such music”.
“But why should it be a mindfuck?” asks Mahane who earned the moniker Fumez On The Mic as an accomplished rapper on the Joburg hip hop scene. “Amazing comes from anywhere – and we’re Afronauts from outta space, bringing a different perspective and a different view that comes from experiencing ourselves through music.”
Fumes is referencing Africans From Outta Space – the title of the debut EP that he’s releasing with bandmates, guitarist Thulasizwe Nkosi and violin player Zakhele Mangwanyane.
The six-track release is preceded by first single, “Birdhouse” which makes its appearance today (November 27th). The song – all jangling guitar-pop meets tropical rockabilly – references the band’s formation around a year ago. Like much of Afronaut’s material, it was written on the fly – this time on a day of hanging in the park, Mahane’s opening clucks arising spontaneously from Nkosi’s guitar notes to create an irresistible rallying cry for the madness of the current times. And that deranged chicken call is, once heard, never forgotten: as one wry commentator put it “I can’t think of a single record that would not be improved by the addition of a rooster…!”
“Fumes and I had been friends for about 10 years and we’d both tried different musical directions, but they didn’t work out,” reveals Nkosi, who was previously a member of Soweto thrash punk band TCIYF. “Last year we decided to create something that was outside of what we’d been doing until that point. I wanted to play music that was different from straight punk, Fumes wouldn’t rap for a change and instead would sing and Mazakaza (Mangwanyane) would use his violin in a very un-orchestral way; a way that is quite different from his playing with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra”.
The result of this is captured on Afronaut’s six track debut, produced by Barry Berk at his The Bass Station Studio in Johannesburg and released via The Good Times Co.
The EP – due for release on December 11th – has the swagger of Iggy Pop circa Raw Power and the jumped-up blues sprawl of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. spliced in with the DIY-anarchy of the skateboard and music-driven SoPunk – Soweto Punk – movement that Afronaut inhabits. At times you’re thinking Captain Beefheart or Violent Femmes or even eerie Anglo folk music.
But tracks like “Life Spiral” – an outsider anthem if I’ve ever heard one – with its softly sung refrain “I don’t fit in”, and the strange and beautiful “Youthless’ – which hijacks lines from the 19th Century poet Francis William Bourdillon for its chorus – are indicative of the way Afronaut is able to mine artistic influences while creating a singular sonic statement of its own.
This is reflected, too, in the songs’ lyrics. “We want to bring in some good vibes with our music,” says Nkosi. More than that, the band wants to share particular experiences that they encounter in their daily lives, in a way that people anywhere in the world can connect with. One of these is “Barfight”. “Somewhere in the world right now/There’s a bar fight,” sings Mahane with the authority of a singer born to issue statements of indisputable fact. “We were chilling at my uncle’s tavern in Soweto and a fight broke out – bottles and fists were flying,” remembers Nkosi. “Later we just freestyled that scene and it became a song.”
For Nkosi, Mahane and Mangwanyane, making music isn’t something that exists outside of their day-to-day lives. Every song carries the imprint of experience and observations of life in Soweto as it unwinds and unfolds in and around Afronaut’s members. Central to this is skateboarding, with Nkosi among a group of skaters who DIY-ed a park in Soweto a few years back.
“’Life Spiral’ was written at the skate park, in front of everyone who was there that day,” recalls Mahane. The song is one of Africans From Outta Space’s highlights, the sparse production exposing what it means, what it takes to live the creative life. “Ghost on the Roof” is also autobiographical – detailing the ghost that Mahane and Nkosi believe was haunting a house they were staying in, making a sound on the roof nightly but impossible to see.
Taking the songs from rehearsal spaces and stages into the studio was easy for the band. “We jam all the time, so we got into the studio and delivered the songs as quickly as possible,” says Nkosi. “It was pretty cool to have extra percussion and some more instruments to try. But what you hear on the EP is how you’ll hear the songs when you see us play live, just with a few more spices”.
With their art-punk aesthetic and rough-and-ready energy, Afronaut are thrilling to watch live and will play the SoPunk event at The Boxshop Lifestyle in Vilakazi Street, Soweto on December 5th. Yndian Mynah, Baq, Themba The Jazz Child and Lucas J are also on the bill. R50 entrance fee gets you in.
· The cover image of Africans from Outta Space was shot by artist, photographer, videographer and filmmaker, Ben Jay Crossman.
· Band images courtesy of Nick Boulton