Why bands break up

Talent and passion are no longer enough in an industry that’s increasingly difficult to break into and earn a livelihood. Bands need structure, leadership and finance.

The silence enshrouding Braamfontein’s streets tonight lends disquiet to the concrete jungle. It is the antithesis to the weekend mayhem custom-made to fit the class-aware constructs of Jozi’s cool-kid capital. A noisy Braam is less of a distraction than it is a part of the precinct’s aesthetic.

The night is young. It’s midweek. The status quo makes sense.

Hei Cafe, a secluded spot up the road from the De Korte-Melle Street intersection, is hosting a listening session for a duo called 8 Bars Short, comprising Itai Hakim and Tamati Biskit. The room is full of music and entertainment industry insiders, with a sprinkle of suits and hipsters thrown in for balance.

Indie label Motif Records, a partnership between Bradley Williams and Tumi Molekane, has organised the event.

Williams, a deejay and businessman whose roots run deep as far as the South African hip-hop scene is concerned, says that usually an activity like tonight’s would’ve been held within the confines of their homes, “but we decided to open it up”.

Pelonomi Moiloa (aka Tamati Biskit) greets the audience.

“We’re gonna give you everything that we have to give. We’re gonna give you all the messages that we want to give. From our hearts, to your hearts,” she says, followed by their Soundcloud hit – it’s had almost 23 000 plays as of writing – called Kombela, a Xitsonga word that Hakim explains as coming from a curious place that keeps wondering “where we’re from, in order to know where to go”.

Hakim, whose given name is Itani Thalefi, mouths a trumpet on one song while maintaining a steady groove with his foot and strumming the guitar, and Moiloa’s strings swim in and out of his cyclical pattern, in synch. The warmth of her haunting, melody-embracing voice jerks up tear ducts, clogs arterioles and renders auditory canals mute. Thalefi’s follows, in pitch-perfect harmony. Everyone listens keenly from different quarters, 8 Bars Short complement one another beautifully.

Five years to the day and nothing has emerged from that deal.

Intertwined livelihoods

Lifetimes ago, Nosisi Ngakane was the commanding presence we heard singing goodbye’s to déjà vu on the lead single of Kwani Experience’s 2005 debut album, The Birth of the Mudaland Funk.

She’s sort of, kind of, never ceased her involvement with music following her departure from the group five years after they formed. She has released once-off singles, guested on other bands’ songs, recorded an as-yet-to-be-released album with Siya Makuzeni and employed her skills in other music industry-related fields like marketing and record label admin.

Ngakane’s still doin’ it, to corrupt a lyric by Bra Hugh.

“Why do bands break up?” she redirects the question at me, rhetorically. “Because no one ever talks about psychology.

“You know when you work in a business, you have a human resources department and they deal with all the mental health issues of employees. If you’re an alcoholic, if your mama’s sick, there’s someone that you can go to, who’s an intermediary, who’s actually there for your emotional health, so that you can function in this collective and be a valuable member. In bands, you don’t have that,” she says.

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Ngakane equates band life to a communal plot of land. One person knows a bit about securing the land, another may know about the season-appropriate crops to plough, while yet another one may have intel regarding water retention and where to find manure to ensure the crop’s steady growth, and so forth.

“We all just came together because we enjoy the same music. But there’s life outside of that, especially when my livelihood is intricately [intertwined] with [yours]. I depend on you to make money now. It changes the dynamic, completely.”

Ngakane says disintegration begins once “people start knowing you, people start following you … And then the dynamics start to come into play: who’s the leader of the band? When we do media interviews, who’s speaking? Whose opinion is taken when we’re deciding [on the set list]?”

Her prognosis is that the novelty of that 50/50, hippie mentality rife around art types in bands wears off once the realisation comes that shit’s finna get lit.

Structure, she says, guarantees that things won’t fall apart.

Power struggles

Andrew Curnow, who co-founded the indie label Mushroom Hour Half Hour with emcee, graffiti artist and former Basemental Platform Crew member Nhlanhla Mngadi, agrees that “the power struggles kill shit”.

Curnow is deeply invested in the musical landscape in Africa and abroad. He’s also a legal practitioner, which places him in a special position whereby he’s able to pull intel from the mainstream music world to further enhance his understanding of the space in which he operates.

“Bands who establish [a leader] are the ones that do well. You look at The Roots, it was never in question that although Tariq is the one on the front, Questlove is the leader. The fact that [it] was set out early on, I think, made things much simpler.”

He gives other examples, like Shabaka Hutchings’ Shabaka and the Ancestors and Shane Cooper’s Mabuta.

“[Those are bands that have been formed], but everyone knows that cool, that cat is running the business side of things. He’s got it. I don’t have to compete with him, because from the onset we know that it’s his baby. Let him run with it,” he says.

Voice for the youth

In Soweto, across the road from the Rea Vaya bus station and not far from Regina Mundi church, is a spot directly opposite Thokoza Park called Food Zone. The restaurant housed in a container doubles up as a rehearsal space for the collective Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (BCUC). What some people may not be aware of is that [the now seven piece] has been grindin’ and hustlin’ since Kwani Experience and ’em were a thing.

These connections are important to highlight as they fade into obscurity once international recognition and regular tours to various places around the world become a regular occurrence in a band’s existence, as has been the case with BCUC, especially in the past three years. They’ll be gracing one of the stages at the world-renowned Glastonbury Festival in the United Kingdom in June.

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I ask leading vocalist and mbombu specialist Jovi Nkosi how they’ve managed to keep the seams intact for so long compared with their peers, who’ve all but withered away.

“I reckon they wanted to make money with the music and thina, we wanted to make music and then money will follow. We wanted to be this voice for the black urban [youth, who] are culturally inclined [and] proud of [our] musical heritage,” he says.

Financial viability

“We had a management deal with Motif, but there was a lot of stuff happening that year. A lot of artists leaving, and management structures within the space also changing quite rapidly. As young artists at the time, we were just watching, pretty much,” says Thalefi.

It’s been five years since that night in Braamfontein, and he’s has had time to reflect on what could have been. We speak over the phone about how the deal transpired and the lessons he absorbed along the way.

“Nosisi was the person that was managing us. She’s one of the best people that I’ve come across, in terms of knowing how to look after a band or knowing what bands need, and possibly that came from her experience from being a part of a band,” he says.

In his view, 8 Bars Short occupied an uncertain place on a roster of chart-dominant acts like Riky Rick and Reason. Additionally, both of them were still studying, meaning that little time was available to focus on anything else.

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“When we decided to part ways, it was also because Nomi had school commitments and I was like, look man, I’m done with school, I wanna focus a little bit more on the music. And that’s pretty much how 8 Bars came to a close. But we’re good man.”

In his view, healthy start-up capital is essential, especially for independent outfits.

“I think that’s why a lot of bands eventually split up, just because you don’t make enough money within a period of a year to see the project as a financially viable thing.”

This is the first part of a series that explores once-celebrated bands that have broken up, yet remain central to black public consciousness.

Additionally, it looks at the state of the music industry at the time, interpersonal relationships, institutional structures, financial restrictions and other factors that led to their demise.

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