Cross-cultural exploration with Pan African Space Station

The annual Pan African Space Station started on Biko Day and runs to mid-October, and features live music from kora maestro Toumani Diabate, Ndebele guitar legend Nothembi Mkhwebane, Chicago jazz-twisters Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Cameroon’s Massak Afroletric and local work by Bheki Khoza and celebrating Bheki Mseleku.

Pan African Space Station - Toumani Diabate

This feature originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 26/27 September 2009.

The programme for PASS-live reads like a map of culture and the mind  as much as it does an exploration of global African music and a genre- busting series of superb sonic art. Now in its second year, the  “cross-cultural and cyber-spatial exploration” brings diverse pan- African sounds “from ancient grooves to future hip-hop” to the  southern tip for four days of music that, frankly, no self-respecting Mother City dweller should overlook.

Toumani Diabate (“The Mande Variations”, 2008; “New Ancient Strings”,  1999) is an acknowledged master of the kora, that entrancing West African precursor to the western lute, guitar and harp – expect a  modern take on the music from Mali’s Mandé Empire from the Bamako- based master who recorded the world’s first solo kora album (“Kaira”, 1991) and has played with everyone from Björk to Ali Farka Toure and  Damon Albarn to Taj Mahal. South African collective, Udaba, explores a collaboration with spoken-word author and filmmaker Kgafela oa Magogodi (“Bua Fela”) and features local music mover-shakers Grenville Williams (Godessa, Nine) and Lwanda Gogwana (MIAGI  Orchestra, Hanepoot Big Band) inspired by Xhosa literature,  fusing  “vernacular lyricism, Xhosa praise singing and African indigenous  music” and playing music off their debut album, “Umculo  Buciko” (“musical essays”). The impressive and, quite literally,  inspiring list of PASS musicians continues in similar vein…

     “Songs for Biko

The Pan African Space Station is described as “a 30-day music  intervention on the internet and in venues across greater Cape Town”  and started on 12 September with “Songs For Biko”, 24-hours of music dedicated to slain Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, and  includes “Songs for Bheki”, a musical tribute to the late philosopher  and musician Bheki Mseleku. “PASS is a multi-layered programme,” says. Neo Muyanga, ever the master of understatement. He co-founded and co- curates PASS with Ntone Edjabe, the publisher of the “Chimurenga”  journal and DJ for the Fong Kong Bantu Sound System. “It’s put together by people who love music and appreciate its gifts. The first  part is PASS-radio, an internet radio station that exists in multiple dimensions, with sound, but also with the blogging, the pictures and  the video as an important feature. The (four day) live festival is just one part of it, after that, the radio still remains as a  reference, a satellite, featuring PASS-casts of the live shows and  other music curated and presented by various contributors.”

Neo is no musical slouch himself – many Mother City residents will  recall him from the BLK Sonshine “Born In A Taxi” heyday, although  they may not know of his work as a composer – “Fire, Famine, Flood  and Earthquake” came out of the score for “Cargo”, the Jazzart /  Magnet Theatre exploration of slavery in the Cape. He has worked as Artist-in-Residence at UCT Drama School, has a piece for a National Youth Theatre going live in London soon; he’s toured extensively, and  relocated to Los Angeles to record the “BLK Sonshine debut (good news for fans is that a follow-up is all but complete).

A music ‘intervention’

The Pan African Space Station is called an “intervention” – why is  this term used? “It’s a way of saying that we are playing with what  exists in fixed space,” explains Neo. “We step into that space and  add a little bit of a twist. We’ve taken iconic venues – the Slave Church in Long Street, St. George’s Cathedral, Guga S’thebe Centre in Langa, the All Nations club in Salt River – and people have  assumptions about these venues are and what they represent, which  PASS is exploring. I have played a lot of festivals and the idea is  that you come in, you play your set and dazzle the audience and then  you are out. PASS is about a transforming experience, both for  ourselves as listeners and, hopefully, for the musicians too.”

Neo cites the “War Chorale” as a key example. “It is based on the  novella by Fernando Alegria, from Chile,” he says. “We sent the story to Bheki Khoza (student of bebop jazz elder Jackie McLean, musical  director for “Sophiatown” and “Drum” and producer/arranger for the  SAMA-garnering “One Love Movement” by Simphiwe Dana). The story is  about violence and transcending violence, about the dispensation of  Augusto Pinochet. He read the story in the space of a few hours and he got back to us to say, ‘This is a very hectic love song’. We said,  ‘That is exactly what we were thinking – how do you feel about  composing a musical response to it?’ So that opens the live festival,  with a 20-piece choir from Gugulethu and a jazz combo. So the  ‘festival’ part of PASS is not really a festival in the normal way –  people engage with it long before they arrive in Cape Town.”

With the Pan African Space Station constructed, in part, as an active  engagement with the city, and hosting events all around it, it seems  an interesting counterpoint to the events spread across our city this  weekend as the advertising industry’s Loerie Awards take over venues  and hosts a brace of musical events. Neo smiles at the reference and  again answers with understatement: “I know what the Loeries are, but I don’t know what they’re doing – I am not conscious of what they mean. I suppose the difference might be that the Pan African Space  Station is not driven by a marketing strategy. If you look at our  posters, they have been made by an artist we commissioned, Kaduji,  originally from the Congo, but based in Paris. These are largely  artworks – the information about the music is not necessarily  obvious. We want to put things of step into the cityscape and put  things of beauty into it. We don’t have a big strategy about how to  market ourselves as a thing.  Music to us is a joy and a gift, and we try to create spaces for sharing the music – that’s the drive and the  sole technique.”

The Pan African Space Station live performances include:
Wednesday 30 September – Fernando Alegria’s “War Chorale” with Bheki  Khoza (St George’s Cathedral, c/o Adderley & Wale St, 7pm).

Thursday  1 October – Toumani Diabate and Wanlov The Kubulo (Slave Church, Long  St (between Hout & Castle), 7pm); Udaba and Franck Biyong & Massak  (Centre For The Book, Queen Victoria St, 9pm); Fong Kong Bantu  Soundsystem, Andy Williams and Yusuf Mahmoud (All Nations, 281 Victoria Rd, Salt River, 10pm).

Friday 2 October – Toumani Diabate  and Culture Musical Club (St George’s Cathedral, 7pm); Hypnotic Brass  Ensemble, Barry van Zyl & Baboti and Nothembi Mkhwebane and (Centre  For The Book, 9pm); Ras Yellow and Ras G & Afrikan Space Program and  Funafuji (All Nations, 10pm).

Saturday 3 October – Hypnotic Brass  Ensemble, Udaba and Nothembi Mkhwebane (Guga S’thebe, Washington Ave,
Langa, 12noon); Culture Musical Club and Wanlov (Slave Church, 7pm);  Franck Biyong & Massak, Barry van Zyl & Baboti (Centre For The Book,  9pm); Andy Williams, Ras Yellow, Ras G & Afrikan Space Program (All  Nations, 10pm).

Sunday 4 October – “Songs For Bheki” (PASS Radio,   Africa Centre, 44 Long St).


This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 26/27 September 2009. Find out more on