Difficulties of touring for SA musicians

A lack of support makes touring difficult for South African musicians, who have to play many roles and generally fund their own tours if they want to perform across the country.

American jazz impresario Jeff Siegel’s five-year plan to perform his collaborative works with the Mzansi-based trumpeter Feya Faku were shattered at the last minute this year. Bra Feya, a devout master of the craft with a storied presence on the scene stretching back to the 1970s, had a family emergency that induced health-related complications, barring him from playing his instrument.

Last-minute replacements meant Siegel’s plan to give his band a few days off to rest before playing gigs in Joburg, Tshwane, Mbabane and Makhanda had to be put off. Distraught and dejected, words fail to convey the feelings of both musicians, whose initial encounter occurred a few years ago in Woodstock, New York.

“We’re not giving up. I know I’m gonna need to recover from all the work I did. I have to try again man. He’s my brother and … I don’t like to give up on anything … So I just always keep trying. And that’s what it takes, it’s tenacity to have a career in this music,” said Siegel on the eve of his showcase at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival, held during the annual National Arts Festival in Makhanda.

The realities of tour planning

Planning a tour of any magnitude, with no access to funding opportunities, is how most musicians do it. Siegel did it by applying for several grants from various institutions. Members of his sextet also tapped their connections and chipped in to the funding basket from their own pockets. This is how they managed to travel to South Africa. 

How it is ideally meant to work is that a booking agent reaches out to an event promoter, who then contacts live music venues to check for available dates to schedule a show. The rules aren’t set in stone, however, and there are plenty of people who have figured out their own way to tour, including the creation of organisations such as Jozi Unsigned.

“The support from Concerts SA allows Jozi Unsigned to create performance opportunities for emerging artists,” says Christine Msibi, who partnered with two other badass women to create the entry-level organisation to support musicians. As developmental promoters, they aim to create value beyond “immediate exposure” to audiences.

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She continues: “Almost all the time our booking [of] acts is the first time anything that remotely resembles a bio is written about them, and high-res images taken, and sometimes video, too. Those three are generally key components that are essential to an act being booked in future by promoters on a bigger scale than ours.”

Jozi Unsigned has booked musicians such as Msaki, BCUC, Bongeziwe Mabandla, Sun Xa and Urban Village in the past. It has experience running music workshops at schools and is the current curator of the University of Johannesburg’s Weekend of Jazz, a two-day festival that featured The Brother Moves On, Nduduzo Makhathini, Titi Luzipo and Spha Mdlalose this year. 

“JU hasn’t quite put our finger on where the money is. However, the acts we work with are bankable and have lived up to this in impressive ways after going through the JU crèche. So our pay is, in essence, by association. We tend to be sought out for live music-related projects like planning tours and programming festivals purely because of the calibre of musicians we’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with,” says Msibi.

The administration of touring

When musician Titi Luzipho undertook her national tour in 2017, supported by Concerts SA’s Mobility Fund, her main worry was getting the administrative aspects right. “Fortunately, I’m a person who loves administration, and living with anxiety means that I want [clarity]. Otherwise, it just messes with my whole system.” 

Maintaining clear lines of communication with the musicians she’d be touring with was her main focus. 

“[On] some of the tours, I didn’t travel with my Johannesburg-based band. I would get to Cape Town and use the musicians that I met when I was still [there]. You learn that performance is just maybe 15% of the entire business. There’s a bigger picture, there’s a whole business development structure, a whole administrative side of the industry that we need to learn, and we need to commit to.”

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Concerts SA project coordinator Ignacio Priego is responsible for liaising with recipients of the organisation’s Mobility Fund programme. He says the organisation was the “first of [its] kind” on the continent. 

A pilot project of this sort has many limitations, mainly financial. Its scope is also limited to musicians based in Mzansi. “In the last five years or so, other music mobility initiatives have been initiated in Morocco [Africa Art Lines] and in post-conflict countries [through Music in Africa]. We hope that strengthening and expanding these initiatives will lead to a pan-African touring support programme.”

International endeavours

Europe remains where it’s at for artists on the continent, it seems. Nakhane, BCUC and Thandi Ntuli are among the new crop of musicians who’ve been making waves overseas. Emcee extraordinaire Yugen Blakrok has been ripping mics all over that continent for the greater part of this year. 

“There definitely ain’t no popularity contest out here. You can literally survive on merit,” says Blakrok following her well-received appearance at the Hip Hop Kemp festival in the Czech Republic, where she performed alongside hip-hop greats such as Smif-N-Wessun, Pharoahe Monch and Masta Ace & Marco Polo. 

“Just make sure that you’ve got a good show, and [that] your skills are honed. There’s a space for you. It gives you hope, it gives you space to breathe, it gives you space to learn. Because, also, the way the artists interact among each other, there isn’t that negative competitiveness. We’re not fighting over some tiny little pie or whatever. It’s also because the industry here is older, it’s bigger, it’s been working well for longer than ours,” she concludes. 

No doubt, the effects of history from colonialism through to apartheid and beyond continue to impact the South African industry, a space that is still growing. But right now, touring life is difficult for artists who have to be creator, performer, administrator, booker, public relations officer and myriad other roles, all at the same time.

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