[25 September 2012]
You know it’s an odd world when a group of musicians can be promoted with this piece of information sitting prime at the front of the list of facts that anyone might want to know about them: they made their instruments themselves. Built them from scratch, sometimes using sticks. The four men were shepherds in Lesotho, in a place called the Maluti Mountains, minding their sheep, when the idea of musical instruments occurred to them, a group, a band, so they hunted down materials and began to build – “wood, tin, metal, and wire,” says the booklet – an activity that will not seem strange to anyone who, bored at work, has decided to set up a balancing act with rubber bands, pen lids, and tape or start a soccer match with an empty water bottle for a ball and table legs for the goal posts.
It would have been good to see their activity put into context, and for someone to have pointed out that manufacturing your own instruments is not totally a novelty in southern Africa – Lesotho is a self-governed blob of nationhood at a precipitously high altitude with South Africa all around – these men are not the first in their area to have opened a metal tin along the side, added a neck and strings, and called it a fiddle or guitar. The tall gumboots they’re wearing in one of their promotional pictures are instruments as well, and evidence of local musical ingenuity, the gumboot dance being a piece of culture, decades old, around the South African mines where many Lesotho men have worked in the past and are still working now. The rubber boots are drums, you stamp them, you slap them, they’re percussive.
So if the label is going to use this as a selling point, then it would be nice to hear, seriously, how these musicians diverged from that, and how they are unique, how they are unusually innovative even in a landscape where innovation is a known thing, how their homemade drums are not like the homemade drums of other people, or how their tin can fiddles are exceptional, or how they are not. The songs themselves can be put in the same taxonomic basket as the music that has been introduced elsewhere under names like, “the Soweto sound” or “township music”, a musical sensibility sustained by a profoundly deep rolling heave that rises without losing mass and then runs into the next heave with a weight that suggests something physical, whales coming up for air, or some other bulky organism following its regular cycles. Then there are the contrasting noises, there are teasing larrikin whistles, fluttering wet warbling whistles, the men singing together, a group of women joining in with a more piercing sound, a single male voice intensely rough in one song, another song sung at rap speed, the metal fiddles with their good hollow echo, and so on, each noise discretely textured, which justifies the interest in Sotho Sounds as an acoustic band, these well-composed clots of texture they make, timing a whistle so that it distracts you from the deep heave, complicates it, and creates a push and pull against the regularity.
The costumes they wear in the photographs, those unnatural strawberry wigs, traditional skirts, oversized striped glasses, dozens of sleek beads wrapped around one wrist and practically none around the other – suggest that they’ve taken on this idea of scavenging as a deliberate aesthetic, and that, like Lady Gaga, they’ve decided that anyone who wants to work them out deserves to be kept on their toes with signs that say, we play. On the album they’re most radically like that in the tracks named “Intro” and “Outro”, or “Be Ea Bojoa” parts one and two, two flying-apart collections of whistles, cries, and dog barks, which, like the costumes and the publicity blurb, seem to be trying to defend them against anyone who might think they were normal.