Watching the Joburg-based performance outfit The Brother Moves On at play is cathartic. Frontman Siya Mthembu draws on his training as a theatre-maker to impress on the audience the need to pay attention when he delivers free-form sermons from the pulpit. A Brother show can feel like compacted transcendence; instead of a lifetime, the audience’s thoughts and views are reconfigured, challenged, diced with – all in 45 minutes.
Guitarist Zelizwe Mthembu, bassist Ayanda Zalekile and drummer Simphiwe Tshabalala are the immediate panel, while the audience are the cheerleaders hanging on to the orchestrated and freestyled aspects of this artfit.
As a performance art ensemble, spoken word features strongly.
A 2012 appearance alongside the band Bateleur at The Waiting Room in Cape Town centred on a request by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to boycott the inaugural World Music Festival (later renamed the Nu World Music Festival). The Israeli embassy had covered the travel costs of one of the bands performing, whose logo featured on the event’s official press packages.
A 2014 show at the Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg was concerned with the politics of space. “Which people are we bringing back to the city?” asked Siya rhetorically, in response to the organiser’s earlier utterances.
A 2016 show alongside Johnny Cradle at 1Fox in Johannesburg, held at the time of municipal electioneering, included a monologue directed at uBaba (Jacob Zuma) about what his cohort of captured cadres had been allowed to get away with during the Great Guptaisation of Mzansi.
Grounding Siya’s epic spoken word musings are songs composed by the other Mthembu in the outfit. Known on the streets as Yusuf Makongela or bra Quincy, Zweli Mthembu’s precious mind and vicious pen deserve to be declared a national treasure.
Nozuko Mapoma, who sang two of Zweli’s compositions on her band Zuko Collective’s Relationtrips album, attests to his brilliance. “Zweli is a spirit place. He is undeniably linked to a place most will only ever experience through death. There are a handful of guitarists you recognise by their signature and he is one of them.”
‘Beyond just ourselves’
“Here’s the truth to it. A lot of us are well-versed in music [theory],” said Zweli in an earlier interview. He studied a variety of guitar styles under different mentors. Zalekile studied jazz and classical music while Tshabalala grew up playing in church, a grounding that laid the foundation for the compelling drummer he is today.
“We do have the ability to just make music, but when we’re in the space that we’re in together, the point is to do the opposite of that. To channel something that’s beyond just ourselves.”
There was a different set of brothers on the stage of The Orbit in Braamfontein towards the end of 2018, a month before the announcement that the venue would close down. Manjik (the South African contingent of Shabaka and the Ancestors, UK-based thinker, composer and deep-lunged tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings’ solo outing) presented their magic.
Joining them – Gontse Makhene on percussion, Tumi Mogorosi on drums and Ariel Zamonsky on bass; saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu was unavailable on the day – was Bowrain, the Slovenia-based composer, pianist and producer whom The Brother met at a festival in 2018. Immigration officials had not allowed Zweli to board the connecting flight in Nairobi, which meant he couldn’t travel with the brethren for their European shows.
Siya’s backstage room at The Orbit was relaxed at first, but turned into a hive of activity as game-time drew near. Food arrived, conversation flowed and jazz seeped through the walls at an increasing volume as patrons took their seats in anticipation of the first set.
Nkululeko Mthembu first conceived of The Brother Moves On in 2009. He pitched it to his brother Siya as a halfway house where brothers could come and contribute to the music, and then transition out when they felt their work was done.
While The Brother didn’t single-handedly blaze the trail for their generation of live bands, they did crack many of the codes to surviving as a live, independent performance outfit – from working the local circuit to getting booked at major festivals and organising multi-date, multi-city international tours.
Life happened after the outfit released A New Myth, their first studio offering.
“We all had bigger expectations than what the reality of things really is. Ray [second guitarist Raytheon Moodley] had left, Nkush [Nkululeko] had passed. It was empty. It was like gigging for nothing. And I can truthfully say that I’ve gotten over that over the last four to five months,” says Mthembu.
The journey towards healing began around the same time Shabaka asked him to become part of his jazz outfit.
“I was gigging, but [I needed to return to] my own central energy building up to [The Brother’s forthcoming] album release. When it’s done, there’ll be people who’ll be receptive to it.”
Mthembu admits that there was no strategy or explicit, expected outcomes for that album.
“But that’s always been the calamity of what we sometimes do, and the beauty,” he says.
There is a plan “coming into place” for their forthcoming album, which follows on from their 2015 EP Black Tax 1: Shiyanomayini.
“We know we’re [going for] management because we’re all doing other things. We love doing it, but when it’s for it, not the work around it.” The “it” being the music. The “other things” include fatherhood and additional projects for the members.
Tshabalala plays drums for Okmalumkoolkat, and he and Zalekile play with Sakhile Moleshe as The Shapeshifters. Zalekile works with trombonist Malcolm Jiyane, while Zweli Mthembu plays with outfits such as Leomile’s live unit and does solo work as Yusuf Makongela. Besides being part of Shabaka and the Ancestors, Siya Mthembu has a project on the side with The Brother collaborator Itai Hakim, called Fucc Boi, and a solo project as Hymn Self.
“It’s an archival project. I want to take the Hosanna and redo tracks. I want to do a flip on the other side. I’ve asked people who are deejays to send me tracks. I’m not limited by a style,” he says. His mother will choose 12 of her favourite songs from the hymnal and Shabaka is on board as one of the producers of the project.
Shabaka and The Brother’s relationship stretches back to “that house in Cape Town”.
“[Berkely House] was the home for lots of musicians. The people who lived there were friendly and were musicians themselves, or producers themselves in the music sense. Kesivan [Naidoo, drummer] has been there, Sakhile has been there. Most of the people we met … I met Bokani [Dyer, pianist] there, properly. That was also the space, when we went to Cape Town for the first time, we could stay there for nine shows that we were doing,” Mthembu recalls.
Joburg had been ignoring them, so they packed up and decided to go to Cape Town to play shows.
There’s a fascinating story about how they built their strong following down there when Joburg venues and events did not share their vision. It involves Jesse Clegg and a last-minute stage switch by the venue owners.
“We [were moved] from the small room to the big room, but they hadn’t told his audience. So our audience [that night] was so mixed, it broke down the cliquiness in Cape Town relations. Those spaces where we knew that artists like us [weren’t welcome], started fitting. Cape Town showed us the model.”
It’s 8.46pm and The Brother has a show to do in the next room. Our time is up.