Diane Coetzer talks to the South African band BCUC who are exporting their traditional Soweto music across the globe and mesmerising audiences, one transcendental show at a time
Lead singer Zithulele ‘Jovi’ Zabani Nkosi performing at Africa Oyé in Liverpool in June (photo: Mark McNulty)
On an autumn day back in 2012, I headed to Pata Pata, a restaurant in Johannesburg’s downtown Maboneng precinct named after the iconic Miriam Makeba song. There were just a handful of people in the room for a performance by a Soweto-based outfit that was starting to make ripples on the South African music scene.
I had mostly been drawn by the group’s name – Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness, shortened to BCUC – which I imagined, signalled a political lineage that went back to Bantu Stephen Biko, the anti-apartheid activist and black consciousness philosopher who was tortured and died at the hands of the security police.
I wasn’t wrong. The centrepiece of that night’s performance was ‘Mr Van der Merwe’, an extended composition that managed to weave the anguish of young Africans being pushed off their land and into low-paying mining jobs with a commentary on the dark side of bush safaris. The song is a defiant re-examination of South Africa’s political heroes, and a lyrical reference to Fela Kuti’s ‘Sorrow, Tears & Blood’ is here morphed into an urgent – and repetitive – cry of ‘sorry, tears, pain and blood.’ And that was just for starters.
But what was most striking – and, to this day, memorable – about the performance was the sheer visceral force delivered by BCUC in a live setting. Sprawling, kinetic, unfettered by genre or rules, that night was a demonstration of music’s transcendent possibilities – here carried by a group that first began germinating in Zithulele ‘Jovi’ Zabani Nkosi’s mind in the opening years of the 21st century.
Shortly after the performance, Nkosi talks about what BCUC call “the moment.” “Where we are from – from the shebeens and the hood – people only care about the moment; they remember the experience, not who was singing what or in what genre. There, people sing for atmosphere and for transporting the listener… what it is really about is letting go.”
Fast forward seven years, and BCUC have taken “the moment,” that “letting go,” to a global audience. Together with his bandmates – Kgomotso Neo Mokone (backing vocals, tambourine, shaker), Letlhogonolo Atlarelang Maphunye (backing vocals, whistles and cow bell), Thabo Saul ‘Luja’ Ngoepe (backing vocals, rap and bass drum), Daniel Thabo ‘Cheex’ Mangel (congas), Ephraim Skhumbuzo Mahlangu (bass drum) and Mosebetsi Jan Nzimande (bass guitar) – Nkosi is ensuring BCUC are one of South Africa’s most successful live exports.
The band are in the midst of a massive 40-date European, UK and US trek to promote their latest album, The Healing, including an appearance at Glastonbury. “We are fortunate and humbled for even being considered by more than half of the festivals that are in our schedule,” says Mokone. “It’s a daunting and gruelling schedule but we are up for it.”
Although the recently released The Healing has received unstinting critical acclaim, and the band have been championed by Gilles Peterson, BCUC are drawing European, UK and, increasingly, American audiences primarily through festival- and show-goers sharing their personal experiences. A glance at BCUC’s social media reveals that the language used by those who witness a live show in 2019 has not strayed from my own reaction back in Johannesburg, all those years ago. ‘It is a real musical deflagration that offers us BCUC at the end of the afternoon,’ notes Festival Art Rock while words like ‘transcendent,’ ‘unique,’ ‘mesmerising’ and ‘exhilarating’ are recurring responses to a BCUC performance.
So how do BCUC maintain their full-throttle energy – during which every one of the seven band members packs a musical and performing punch – on an extended, almost four-month tour like this one? “We prepare by sleeping a lot and talking about what areas of the music needs to be improved,” says Nkosi. “We recover by sleeping a lot and talking about what worked and needs to be improved. We stay inspired by not getting lost in the buzz and knowing that there is still a long way to go and there is so much room for improvement. Yes, we critique ourselves but we never bash ourselves. We try as much as we can to be kind to ourselves while we demand a lot from ourselves.”
This answer is reflective of what makes BCUC’s journey one of perpetual forward momentum – right from those early days of jamming in Soweto’s Thokoza Park, when a revolutionary zeal drove an irresistible urge to make ‘music for the people, by the people, with the people.’ There’s no room for complacency in this band – or of being overtaken by the near ecstatic buzz that’s following them around.
I put it to Nkosi that even though BCUC now have a growing audience of devotees (I don’t use that word lightly), the group’s creative impulse remains true to its roots, even as its reach expands across the globe. “We are an ever-evolving indigenous or traditional sound system,” he avers. “Nothing has changed in terms of where the source of the music lies. It’s a weird thing because we feel like there is so much change, in sound and the show, but we also feel like nothing has changed.”
But while the band work with intensity at crafting the most memorable sets, there are moments of surprise, even for them – like at La Cigale in Paris at the start of The Healing tour. “We knew we were going to do well but we were not ready for the show that it became,” says Nkosi of that night. “Paris is becoming our favourite hunting ground.”
Capturing the incendiary power of a live show, with its ebbs and flows and free-ranging song cycles and part-ancestral, part-punk energy, is something BCUC have near-perfected on The Healing. The third in a trilogy, after Our Truth (2016) and Emakhosini (2018), the album features just a trio of tracks – ‘The Journey with Mr Van Der Merwe’ coming in at 19 minutes and 18 seconds, and pulling an enthralling thread from the song I first witnessed live seven years ago. “We are from a culture of spiritual endurance and our music transcends sound,” says Nkosi of BCUC’s sustained, collectively-composed songs. “We can’t really reach that point with five minutes or less. We immerse ourselves in the subject matter and surrender ourselves to what the song wants to be.”
“Because The Healing is the last chapter of our trilogy, we always knew it was supposed to stand out from the three albums,” adds Mokone. “All we needed was perfect features and our vintage, ‘always hungry’ attitude. The rest was up to fate, karma and our ancestors.”
Collaborations with Nigerian saxophonist Femi Kuti and African American poet Saul Williams on The Healing’s other two tracks came through a desire to work with people that have “forever spoken musically and ideologically from the same wavelength as BCUC. We could have chosen to go with the more pop or mainstream like-minded artists but we wanted a BCUC voice to be visible and authentic,” reflects Nkosi.
What next for this remarkable South African export? “If we knew we would be magicians… We don’t know what lies ahead,” he says. “We are equally excited as we are scared of what lies ahead. What we are certain of is that we will proceed as a unified force that has all its trust in love.”
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2019 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!