When Maverick Life meets up with the six-person band that is Sun Xa Experiment, their music is wafting through the windows of their recording and rehearsal studio on to a buzzing Thaga Street in Zondi, Soweto.
“We believe that everything is spiritual, so everything must flow with energy. Even with our music, no one ever comes and is like, ‘Guys, I have C major scale.’ Everything starts with a jam, so it’s basically free flowing,” says front woman Buyisiwe Njoko.
The words of Njoko encapsulate the type of sound Sun Xa seeks to put out to the public. When they are in full swing and performing, if you are in the audience it’s easy to be seized by the impression that you’re being transferred to another dimension. In its purest essence, their sound carries flashes of a traditional rain dance.
“It’s unorthodox, it’s not like anything out there. But, of course, it has some reference to what has been done before. But this is something unique, it has a different energy to it. Even with ourselves, when we play the music it shapes how we end up feeling, and it shapes how the audience receives it,” says one of the founding members, Tebogo Mkhize.
“It’s a whole spiritual bomb, because we all come from different backgrounds. But I feel like our ancestors combine when we get on stage, and something happens around us – and we can’t control, it’s bigger than us.”
The band was formed in 2014, when regular jam sessions with friends transformed into something bigger. It is comprised of Njoko (lead vocals), Mkhize (acoustic guitar), Lerato Seitei (electric guitar), Simphiwe Watte (percussion), Siphiwe Mgidi (drums) and Karolo More (spiritual dance invocations, back-up vocals).
The “Sun Xa” part of their name has a dual meaning. First, it means “the sun is up” in the Khoisan language. The second meaning is derived from two artists who greatly inspired and influenced the band: the late Sun Ra and Ndikho Xaba – who were both avant-garde jazz musicians.
The members of the band say they also draw inspiration from all the different places they travel to when performing. Additionally, they are inspired by elements of nature, such as the wind and sun, and their expansive taste in music is also a contributor.
With Covid-19 and the lockdown restrictions they have not been able to perform as often as they typically would. However, they’ve used this time to fine-tune their sound and bond.
“We’ve taken this time during lockdown to lock ourselves in and reconnect and rekindle, because we spend so much time on the road. Most of the time we’ll be playing from one gig to another, and we never find time to really just sit and dissect our music… We’ve been focusing on our music and polishing our sound,” says Njoko.
September has brought a welcome change for the band. They were recruited by the Soweto Theatre to be part of the venue’s online celebration of Heritage Month. The showcase is titled Latavula Cultural Fiesta, and is directed by Makhaola Ndebele. It is currently streaming on the theatre’s YouTube channel and will run until 26 September.
The band has also used the lockdown to fine-tune their upcoming album, Umculo Umuthi, which translates to Music is Medicine. The album’s release is imminent and the band has been gearing up to perform some of their new songs once they can get back to performing and touring full-time.
On the significance of their music to society, the band hopes that it provides healing and self-identity.
“Our music gives people a chance to remember who they are and where they come from when they connect to the music. One, we burn impepho [an indigenous plant], meaning we’re connecting with everyone who is watching us at that time, and their ancestors. Secondly, the healing aspect – everyone is going through trials and tribulations in life, and we’re trying to be that vessel that will give meaning to people’s lives through music,” shared Mkhize.
The band also does a significant amount of charity work, teaching children how to play instruments and giving back to their community and beyond however they can.
They are waiting for their official certificate to add the title of “non-profit organisation” to their CV. The members say they want to transcend just being a musical band to leave a long-lasting legacy.
“My wish for the brand is that it lives on way beyond us the founders, like Coca-Cola, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I want the whole world to know about it. After 50 years, in fact after 100 years, it must still be present. I’d be thrilled if that could happen,” Mgidi tells Maverick Life.
More than anything, they wish to preserve our heritage, which according to them means being different but united and is also a celebration of our intertwined cultures.
“Celebrating our differences, but finding similarities – that’s what it’s about. We’re all different, we all have different colours, but we’re painting one picture,” says Mkhize. DM/ML
"You know you're in trouble when your own imagination starts punishing you." ~ Eoin Colfer