Spoek Mathambo: Father Creeper

Jez Collins
Photo: Sean Metelerkamp

With a lot going on, South African Spoek Mathambo's second album unleashes township tech on unsuspecting passers by. While it's good, it doesn't quite fully hang together.

Spoek Mathambo

Father Creeper

US Release: 2012-03-13
Label: Sub Pop
UK Release: 2012-03-12
Label Website


Such a varied and beautiful continent; deep, rich heritages, ancient cultures, incredible wildlife, lush forests and arid deserts, colourful and vibrant communities, yet it is also scarred by war, drought and poverty, subjected to centuries of colonial control and order followed by years of indifference and neglect.

African music reflects and speaks to this diversity and history. Musicians such as the great, and I mean great, Fela Kuti and his afro-beat systematically pummeled the Nigerian state through his music (he got it back tenfold). Cheb Mami, Cheb Khalid, Rachid Taha, and Souad Massi were thorns in the sides of both the Algerian government and insurgents with their political and morally corrupting rai and rock music. And the Arab Uprising has been sound tracked by the beats and rhymes of hip-hop from artists such as El General from Tunisia, Ibn Thabit from Libya, and Arabian Knightz from Egypt.

South African Miriam Makeba, Ethiopian Mulatu Astatke, and Seneglese Baaba Maal, to name but three, have brought the groove to African music. Crossing African blues, rock, township jive, soul, funk and everything in between, the music is seriously ingrained and embedded in the culture of Africans, from the very top of the North to the very bottom of the South.

This hodge-podge of styles, maybe one could even say schizophrenic outlook, is writ large all over Spoek Mathambo’s new album Father Creeper.

From Soweto, a township in Johannesburg in South Africa, Spoek -- a Rapper/Producer/DJ, one time member of Glam-Rap duo Sweat-X, and all-round creative tour-de force -- has pronounced his sound as "township tech," and there are definitely elements of both the township and tech in his music.

“Kites” opens the album with a chopped guitar, sparse drumbeat, and throbbing synth before the vocals cut in. Spoek has a light touch, which instantly calls to mind Pharrell; there is a very easy, effortless flow to his delivery. Also coming through though is what I can only describe as the bleeping noises taken from the much-loved '80s arcade game Space Invaders. If it doesn’t actually make you get up and dance, “Kites” certainly gets your feet tapping as it pulls you into its bouncy groove.

“Venison Fingers” has an electronic township jive and feels like an extension of “Kites”. It’s an odd track that veers between tempos and sets little alarm bells ringing for the rest of the album.

Better is “Put Some Red on It”. Spoek allows space in this song about the African diamond trade, and in doing so lets the song breathe. This is late night smokers' music and would sit happily alongside A$AP Rocky and OFWGKTA.

The album then turns toward Vampire Weekend territory with a straightforward indie track called “Let Them Talk”. The lead guitar brings the African highlife sound as Spoek and guest vocalist Yolanda plead with each other to "Let them talk / Let them talk" as the drums bring an off kilter beat to proceedings. For this reviewer it's the standout track on the album.

“Dog to Bone” continues the African highlife guitar sound but adds elements of dubstep and even Radiohead to the mix. It’s slightly disconcerting and confused. Title track “Father Creeper”, named after a reference to a dodgy South African TV jingle, is all dark and brooding synths and treated vocals. “Stuck Together” is another straight ahead indie/rock track with a lovely melody and vocals that brings to mind Living Colour and even Lenny Kravitz.

The last two tracks on the album “Grave (Intro)” and “Grave” sum up the album as a whole. “Grave (Intro)" is an instrumental full of feedback and piano, with elements of dub and electro peering through the murkiness before giving way to clean guitars and a '60s/'00s Buffalo Springfield/Animal Collective vibe.

There is much to admire on this album. Clearly Spoek Mathambo is a creative and restless talent. His South African heritage and culture alone do not appear enough to satisfy his wanderlust; he’s looking to merge it with the sounds of the world that surround him (a nice inversion of the glib title of "World music" thrown at non-Western music).

But the magpie-collecting element also lets him down a touch. I’m not sure if it's this or the programming and sequencing on the album, but it doesn’t quite hang together as a whole. There are too many ebbs and flows, highs and lows, for this to be a great album, but one has to credit Spoek and Sub Pop for having the courage of their convictions, and trust in one another, to release such a genre defying album.

I have a feeling that live, Spoek would tear the house down. Such boundless energy and restlessness would find a natural home on stage in front of an audience, allowing Spoek and his band to stretch out and improvise. I also think he is definitely amongst those musicians worth keeping an eye just to see where he goes next on his musical adventures and to watch his development unfold.

I look forward to seeing (or should that be hearing?) where he goes next.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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