Few months ago, when we interviewed the legendary South African music regents Mahotella Queens after their gig at WOMAD, they revealed something to us.
“We recently played in London with a band called Count Drachma: three white guys playing Zulu music. They were playing our music and they were white! Can you see what I am saying? South African guys are going to be shocked!”
As soon as we had the opportunity we seized it and met those three white guys playing Zulu music minutes before their London show at The Old Queen’s Head organised by the Nest Collective. We discovered that their relationship with the South African tradition is deeper and more conscious than just playing Zulu music. We spoke with Oli Steadman who, along with his brother Rob, is the founder of the project and member of the folk band Stornoway.
The first thing we tried to understand was Count Drachma’s relationship with South Africa. Oli explained to us:
“I was born and grew up there. However, from a musical perspective I learnt to read music and play instruments only when I arrived in the UK. In South Africa I was learning music by ear and phonetically, but also learning the languages helped me a lot so I could say that I grew up with South African traditional music”.
In fact, the Zulu tradition was an essential in Oli’s formative years:
“South African traditional tunes and Zulu music were what part of my family was listening to. Then when I was fifteen I visited the US and UK and the music I encountered there seemed almost foreign to me because, at that time I was listening to artists like Juluka, Johnny Clegg and Mahotella Queens. As well as those bands there was something a little different too, like Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ and Elton John when he sounded more global. Those musicians sounded to me like an accessible way into new Western music. But most of what I listened to was South African musicians. It’s funny, but the first time I listened to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin they were a nightmare for me: I was very confused! And it went on in this way until I was fifteen”.
Then, Oli’s family moved to Oxford and his life and approach to music radically changed:
“Actually, I wasn’t meant to stay for long in the UK. It was supposed to have been only one year, and when that year was almost over I was really excited about going back to South Africa, my friends and music. But then my father was offered a job and the opportunity to stay longer in England, so suddenly the whole thing turned upside down for me. My parents said ‘why don’t you go back to live with your grandparents and finish your school’, but I thought that I would miss my family too much and decided to stay in Oxford. And it was the same for my brother who was twelve at that time. Both of us came over with no intention of staying and then, when we did stay it made us very homesick. For that reason, the sentiment to play music from our homeland and get in touch with it was much bigger. It makes us feel more at home”.
As a consequence, Oli always looks forward to buying a ticket to South Africa.
“Since I’ve been living in England I go back once a year on average, but, all the time I want to go back more often because I have a lot of reasons to go back. It’s not just because part of my family still lives there, but also because now the better I get at maskandi guitar, the more I can go there and play shows”.
So we asked him what he felt when he played Count Drachma tunes in South Africa and where that music comes from.
“It ‘s very exciting because the people I played for have never embraced that kind of music. They’re people from backgrounds in which you usually never hear that music. My family is a little more liberal than those people because the average white South African doesn’t really grapple with rural traditional styles. However, since it was me playing that music for them, that made it ok. Suddenly I was opening their ears to a world that had been in front of them all the time, but which they’d never come in contact with. As well as this experience, I also played with some traditional musicians and some maskandi guitarists. There are some places in Zululand where I can travel and meet up with people and learn from them. A lot of what I’m playing today is due to having met up with those guys”.
But it wasn’t always a bed of roses, because Oli has also had some weird encounters.
“It happened once that I met with a guy who I though was one of the most authentic maskandi guitar masters. So I asked him ‘can you play me some maskandi?’and he answered ’why don’t you play something first?’ So I played what I knew and then I said, ‘now you have to give me a tune’ and he started playing Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ – and that was the only tune he was able to play on the guitar. So I had obviously got the wrong message!”
Since his South African roots have influenced Oli so much we tried to understand the health of the local music scene. Saddly he confirmed what the Mahotella Queens’ had said: his country’s music has deeply changed during the last few decades.
“Today the South African music scene is more oriented towards pop and electronic music. Many artists are obviously trying to do what they’ve seen as successful elsewhere in the world. But I think that South Africa, like many other countries, should instead be really proud of its tradition. If it would just embrace what it already has on its doorstep, like traditional sounds from its own countryside, it can achieve some kind of new success and recognition”.
So inevitably we asked him who are the most interesting new exponents of the new wave of traditional music.
“There are a lot of young South African electronic musicians that I could recommend, but my two favouritse are two traditional artists who play authentic maskandi music. The first is Ntombethongo, who’s from the Eastern Cape and used to be a sangoma or a witch doctor. I identify myself a little with his experience because I also left chemistry to move into music. He left his ‘rural traditional chemistry’ and started to sing and play guitar. He’s a fascinating and sinister person to watch because on stage he still enacts rituals and declares himself to be in touch with spirits from his previous career. Then, there’s another musician I admire called Qadasi. He has just been to the UK for the first time and is one of the musicians I learned with. He’s a white Zulu like me, who grow up in Empangeni and is very dedicated to the history and culture of the Zulu people. So in many ways he’s very authentic and will become an important figure for South Africa. Looking back at this time people will recognise that it was thanks to Qadasi (David Jenkins) that a lot of our music has been preserved and played in the right way.”
On the other hand, Count Drachma is an up-and-coming act in the UK music scene, so we wondered how Oli feels when he introduces his music and South African roots to the British audience.
“Well the best moments happened when I was playing during some festivals in in Oxfordshire in places where you’d never have occasion to listen to this kind of music. And suddenly the audience, who doesn’t even know what is being sung, gets up and dances, because the music we play is a universal rhythm that people like wherever they are from. Maybe it’s a little bit patronising to say, but it seems to me that a lot of African music has this deep, rootsy connection with people of all nationalities. So it doesn’t matter what you sing, because people enjoy the music anyway. That’s why I don’t think too much about how I am presenting my music, because the less I worry about it the better it works”.
We also asked Oli about the relationship between the two bands he’s playing in. Even though Stornoway and Count Drachma play two different genres, their approaches to music have a lot of common ground.
“I have to say that both bands share elements of the same background, even though Count Drachma is physical and visceral and Stornoway is more cerebral and focused on the lyrics. Stornoway is influenced by Irish melodies, while Count Drachma by Irish dance music like reels and jigs. In addition, Stornoway has soul influences and a soulful character, while Count Drachma is incredibly soulful, but not looking at soul music at all. I also think that playing with these two projects has helped me immensely. For example, the things that I learnt during Stornoway recording sessions, like how to string a guitar, were things that I’ve had to have in place before I could have done Count Drachma. However, the two projects are diverging and Count Drachma is finally becoming its own thing”.
Does that mean that we’re going to listen and enjoy Count Drachma’s first album soon?
“Unfortunately there’s still no album and you can only listen to a demo right now. That’s because I still need to find a producer and set aside some time. I’ve got all the songs and ideas in place, but I just want to get them right the first time. I need to take the plunge and set them down on tape: it’s just about commitment”.
Looking forward to taking that plunge, we brought the interview to a close asking Oli how he wanted to introduce his band to people who’re still unaware of Count Drachma.
“I call Count Drachma a ‘post-folk’ band because it takes South African folk culture and looks at it from multiple separations on the other side of the world. To explain it, I usually say that I can read the news in Zulu, but it still doesn’t connect me as if I was in the country. So I’m sort of removed from contemporary Zulu music and people who are making it because I’m looking back in time too. Even if defining Count Drachma as ‘post-folk’ can sound a little pretentious, I still like to say that it’s my ‘post-folk South African maskandi project’, and this is very exciting because I have all this music ready to go and just need to make it happen!”.