Shangaan Electro Review

Last Thursday I had an opportunity that is rarely found these days; to see a gig in a genre of music I had never before experienced. For those of you who aren’t aware Shangaan Electro are a South African dance group who have taken elements from local traditional music and mixed it with various elements of contemporary dance music, with frankly marvellous results.

The first thing I noticed after the group took the stage was the genuine party atmosphere present in the Sugar Club (which is so often the go to venue for fringe or bizarre evenings such as the one which had just gotten underway) and  it was clear the sizeable crowd were all here to dance the night away. As for the group itself Shangaan Electro were comprised of DJ Nozinja Mthethwa aka “Dog” and a two female, two male vocal/dance ensemble.

As the music began it became evident that South African dance music was a very different proposition to what we are used to in Europe, various drumbeats and different percussion instruments took the place of the more instrumental hook based offerings that we are familiar with, and while these were still present to varying degrees they were much more understated and definitely took a back seat to the booming sound of constant drums. This music is frantic and charged and it is almost impossible not to be swept away by its sheer energy; this is hardly surprising when you consider that the concert started with a song containing roughly 180 beats per minute!  Considering that most dance typically contains between 120-140bpm it’s not hard to see why the urge to move is so infectious.

Dog tells us regularly throughout the show that we will finish at 189bpm and gradually cranks up the speed, with the crowd alternately chanting “189” and “Shangaan Electro” when prompted to by the charismatic DJ. As for the rest of the group they are in an almost constant state of movement; alternating between singing, freestyle dancing, synchronized dancing and whistle-blowing. All members have whistles and while I’m sure on some level it has something to do with helping them keep track of what dance moves to do next it added to the overall sound immensely.

We are hitting around the 185bpm mark when the group asks for three ladies to join them onstage to “see if they can shake it” and it doesn’t take long for the three volunteers to step forward. Each is paired with one of the group and they are taken through a quick crash course on how to move like a member of Shangaan. The results are almost instantaneous, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the male participants when the experiment was repeated a few minutes later but again such was the festival/party feeling present in the air that it made no difference; the crowd and group were feeding off each other and having a fantastic time while doing so.

After this experiment in audience participation we are finally ready to reach the 189bpm mark, the group are moving even faster and more energetically than ever before despite the length of time onstage. The crowds’ chants become even more frequent and practically everyone in the building is dancing right in front of the stage. The finale of the show involves Dog, who had been hidden away behind his turntables moving to front and centre of the stage to show off his moves which produces a fantastic reaction from the crowd.

Shangaan Electro are a bit of a difficult proposition if truth be told; I simply cannot imagine that there would be too many instances where I would choose to stick on one of their records in my free time. In that way they are a bit like The Flaming Lips, meaning that their live show is simply so entertaining that it more than makes up for any shortcomings that the group may have present or reservations you yourself may have on the genre of music they play. For that reason I would strongly suggest that if the opportunity ever arises again that you get yourself to a show, the athleticism, feel good factor and music on display when combined will make it more than worth your while.

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Robert Curgenven Gig Review

Upon first arriving at The Joinery to interview Robert Curgenven and see him perform along with Anthony Kelly and David Stalling, what immediately struck both Thom and I was the magnificent combination of these three artists’ set-up. On either side of Curgenven’s central desk you had Kelly and Stalling’s set-up, a vast array of equipment including a variety of homemade instruments, bug boards and a luminist garden; a dream for anyone interested in DIY-instruments and electronics, and which made Thom in particular giddy with excitement.

In the centre you then had Curgenven’s set-up, two turntables and a mixer; simple, not in any way out of the ordinary, yet positioned in between and in contrast to the two tables of glorious ragbag instruments, there was truly something imposing about it; both a focal and a control point. Listening to Curgenven’s music prior to this evening I was prepared and hoping for something both open-ended and precise; something governed by both utter chance and strict purpose. The glorious set-up of these three artists seemed to suggest just that, and I was not to be disappointed.

First up was an improvisational performance between Anthony Kelly and David Stalling, founders of the Dublin-based sound art label Farpoint Recordings. That these two artists have known each other for many years and have performed together on multiple occasions came as no surprise after witnessing them play, for although the performance was completely improvised, the various layers of sounds that emerged were pulsating, tribal, tactile and at times jarring, yet always managed to seamlessly coalesce into each other. They created a soundscape that to me was most affective in the way that it allowed associations to form and dissolve, for me to find myself singling out a particular sound, to try and ‘work it out’ just as it had escaped me. As they themselves confessed at the end, their sound on this day was significantly dark, resulting in something that was both challenging and brooding, whilst retaining soothing qualities.

Next up was Robert Curgenven. Before starting his performance, he tried to lay out the context of his works with a short spoken introduction. Not something you see often before a show, it felt particularly relevant to Curgenven’s approach to and intention for making the music that he does. As he told me in the interview, there is a distinct dramaturgy involved in making and performing his work, further demonstrated by the very inclusion of an introduction. What stuck out in particular was the overarching question that he raised in relation to the particular compositions he was going to perform for us that evening; how to “encounter the ‘other’ in the desert”. For this, Curgenven recorded some of the most remote parts of the Australian desert, desolate places with nothing for more than 100km in each direction. He then performs these separate resulting field recordings by mixing them together in what he himself referred to as a more “cinematic” way, and through the employment and heavy reliance of bass turns these recordings into something that not only documents vast areas of space, but that also manages to create a shallow space within the listener’s perception. The heavy bass tinges you viscerally, pushing you into your seat, or as Thom put it rather nicely, creates the impression of being “dragged along the floor”, while you still remain free to roam the vast terrain of sound that is being offered to the audience. Curgenven seems to have a true mastery over that difficult process of taking something so wholly contingent and governed by chance as recordings of a desert, and controlling them with such precision as to invest them with something that emerges as a determinable physical sensation.

The heightened smell of overheating dust that stopped the performance short was disappointing, although at the same time strangely rather fitting, in particular because it was not clear at first where the smell came from: was it the amp overheating, as was our first guess; was it the PA dying; or was it just the dust on the walls? The room was ripe with a sense of something almost visceral, but it was difficult to discern which component it was that was achieving this effect.

As a final performance Curgenven, Stalling and Kelly, improvised together; never having collaborated before. Disparate sounds managed to form a crackling harmony full of feedback and bass, with all three artists assuredly adapting to the unforeseeable trajectories of the emerging sounds. It was an impressive ending to an enthralling evening, which on a whole was as defiant as it was consoling; an experience that made one think whilst at the same time warming our chilled hearts cold from the dreary, rainy Dublin outside.