Interview: Urban Village – The Documentary (March 2021)

We can’t welcome enough every opportunity we are presented to reach and write about Urban Village. Not only because we never made it a secret that we are fans of the music of the Soweto-based quartet, but also because their cultural relevance and topical drive- when it comes to narrating their city’s everyday life- is a gift to everyone willing to immerse in and understand the South African present day.

In early March, NØ FØRMAT! (the band’s label) & Oléo Films released a documentary portraying the daily life of the four musicians in their very own habitat: Soweto. Directed by Vladimir Cagnolari and filmed by Julien Borel, the film follows the band members in a guided tour throughout their ‘urban village’, meeting some symbolic characters both for the local community and musicians’ experience.

We wanted to hear more about the documentary, so a few days ago, we got in touch with Urban Village for a short interview delving into their first ‘cinematic’ experience…

In a few words, can you introduce and describe the documentary for us?

The documentary is designed to project the true story of the four band members, Lerato, Xolani, Smanga and Tubatsi. This documentary is directed in such a way that it showcases issues that take place in and around the Johannesburg community and surrounding areas. Mostly its history of where the members come from, where they are at present, an honestly true story.

How did the project come about and develop?

So we finished recording the album Udondolo with No Format! and they always make it a point that they shoot a documentary for their new members to introduce them to the No Format catalogue. This was really a great opportunity for us since we were also a new band and this was a great way to introduce ourselves to a European audience and the world.

Throughout the documentary, you narrated your very own life, career and experiences as well as introducing and celebrating local Sowetan characters. How did you choose the subjects of the documentary and which stories to tell?

So it was really interesting, we wanted to tell a real story about the band over and above apartheid and the negative things that have happened in our past and in our country, but a lot more about the 4 individuals and our stories. All 4 of us are different in many ways and our passion for music has brought us together, and together we form Urban Village. The first time we visited France we also had an opportunity to meet Vladimier, who is the director of the documentary and he then presented to us his amazing ideas and how he intended to tell the story. That obviously involved endless chats and hours of strategic planning of the shooting dates and how everything was going to roll out. It was fun and interesting as we had never done anything like this before.

The documentary is not just about your band and your music, but it depicts an accurate portrait of Soweto as well. How was it to film there and how did people react and interact when you were filming?

People were really supportive and were really willing to be involved in the story as we really made the time to meet and discuss our plans with them upfront. We also explained how it will work and what the overall intention of the film was. So yes we did receive a lot of support from the villagers.

Your videoclips are pretty cinematic experiences. So, it is possible to say that you were already used to the format/medium. Still, how was it to record a proper documentary?

The idea was to trust Vlad and his processes really, since we had never done anything of this magnitude before. Also to trust the energies we aligned and each and every one of us knew what the plans were in terms of shooting dates, times, locations etc. And all families were also really supportive.

How did your music interact with and relate to the documentary?

The songs really related to the documentary in perfect harmony since the idea was also to promote and talk in depth with our audience about the following subjects which are as follows :

(ubaba) the father figure

(Mdume) greatins, as this is one of the most important things in black culture.

(Sakhisizwe) building a nation, and this was inspired by the need to talk about the taboo of xenophobia, statelessness and migration in our country.

(ubusuku) the night. A story about the darkness in its entirety and the things that individuals have to go through in order to face their fears and all other skeletons in their closets.

Is the documentary just a one-off or you are already thinking about a second episode/part?

The documentary is a one-off that supports the release of the album Udondolo and is primarily focused on that subject. But yes, given the opportunity we would be delighted to shoot a second part to it.

I read that you launched the documentary in a Johannesburg venue with a screening preceded by a live performance, which was also your first gig of the year. What were your feelings about being back on stage after so long and in such an extraordinary period? 

So we have to date been on lockdown and going through the pandemic for almost 12 months and this has been the toughest thing we all had to deal with as it has changed our lives. Not in just one but in many ways where we had to find other ways of remaining relevant and present with our villagers (supporters). An online presence was the one big platform we had and Soda Studios, Oppikoppi Festival presented us with those opportunities through live streamed shows, and we appreciate that too. I must say being able to do the two live shows in the past few weeks was such a treat, people came out to see the documentary and catch a little bit of live music. We had time to do a Q&A as well where we discussed the new songs on the album, the documentary and the process used to create it. But most importantly for me it was the personal connections and the energy in the room. Nothing beats live music and we understand that we all have an equal responsibility to look after the universe and one another and that is how we play our part.


You can watch the documentary below. In addition, thanks to some suggestions from the musicians themselves, you can also understand a bit more about Soweto’s past, present and future and Urban Village’s background following their words…

We would also like to share a few things for your audience to experience:

Book: I Want To Go Home Forever (Stories Of Becoming And Belonging In South Africa’s Great Metropolis) by Sisonke Msimang

Music: Malombo by Philip Tabane

Art: Contemporary Sculptures In The Landscapes by Nicholas Hlobo