Pan African Space Station: Philip Tabane, Brice Wassy, Thandiswa and more

Now in it’s third year, the annual Pan African Space Station offers thirty-days of curated radio for the diaspora – and live shows by legends like Dr Philip Tabane, Brice Wassy and the Swiss-Ethiopian collaborations that is the Imperial Tiger Orchestra.

Toumani Diabate, master kora player ffom Mali

Toumani Diabate, master kora player from Mali

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 11 – 12 September 2010.

Curated by Neo Muyanga (BLK Sonshine) and Ntone Edjabe (“Chimurenga”), the Pan African Space Station (PASS) is an annual 30-day music intervention, which starts on Steve Biko day (12 September) and runs to October 12, with live events at St George’s Cathedral, City Hall and the Slave Church in the city centre, Guga S’thebe in Langa and the Albert Hall in Woodstock, as well as unique live radio “PASScasts” from the Africa Centre in Long Street out to the city, the continent and the diaspora. Following two successful previous editions (remember kora master Toumani Diabete winning over Cape Town, DJ Spooky with our own Funafuji or Lenny Kravtiz’s drummer, Cindy Blackwell, exploring the far reaches of jazz with local master Carlo Mombelli?), PASS returns in 2010 to “continue its cross-cultural and cyber-spatial exploration, bringing together diverse pan-African sounds from ancient techno to future roots.”

The Pan African Space Station has been hailed – and justifiably so – as one of the most significant musical and cultural offerings that both Cape Town and South Africa have to offer the country and the world. It has it’s origins, though, in a much simpler seed of a vision. “PASS comes out of our love for all varieties of music, and the fact that it is difficult to find the variety we like in one place, whether that is on radio, or in a live sense,” says co-founder and co-curator Neo Muyanga. “It comes from us talking about how to make that collection of music happen, which saw us curating a musical intervention that does two things: it plays out like a radio station, and you can also see performances that really inspire you, live, in front of you.”

PASS is curated

Muyanga uses the term “curating” when referring to the impressively diverse range of PASS events. Perhaps cheekily, I query whether that is not, in fact, an admission of an arrogant and self-centred set of choices for the programme? He smiles as he answers, “You could say that, and perhaps that is exactly the point. The act of curating is self-referential. You assume that you have a context that can define a particular set of artistic interventions. To get that kind of thread, you have to put your head on a block in what you present and say, “This is what I’m talking about.’ It is an opinionated stance to take, but what is presented for the Pan African Space Station comes from our engagement with music and artists in what we do.”

Muyanga explains further, but is guilty of understatement when he says, simply,”Ntone has a weekly DJ slot, and I write and occasionally play some music.” In truth, Ntone Edjabe is far more than a DJ – amongst other African cultural projects, he is the founder of the “Chimurenga” African journal and  an integral component of the Fong Kong Bantu Soundsystem collective. For his part, Muyanga is one half of the acclaimed duo BLK Sonshine (“Born In A Taxi”, “Good Life”) as well as composing for stage (National Youth Theatre, “Cargo”, UCT Drama School Artist-in-Residence) and releasing solo material (“Fire, Famine, Flood and Earthquake”) and composing for film, choir and chamber ensembles.

   Radio Pan Africa

PASS Radio offers thirty days of internet-based series of live streams from the Space Station’s headquarters at the Africa Centre in Long Street, as well as “PASScasts” – podcasts which can be downloaded for later listening. Why the choice of the internet as a medium, rather than FM or shortwave? “In 2008, we applied to ICASA for a short-term FM licence,” explains Muyanga. “The application was ignored – we never even got a response from them – so, instead of waiting and complaining, we did the next best thing. We interrogated how communications happen amongst Africans across the continent, and amongst the diaspora. The internet was the obvious channel, and so the web-radio idea was born.”

Pressed to pick out some highlights of the live artists playing at PASS, Muyanga eventually relents. “When I first started conceptualising PASS, I asked the question, ‘Who is doing experimental music work in an African context?’ At the top of my list was Philip Tabane (who, born in 1934, was awarded an honorary doctorate in the Philosophy of Music from the University of Venda in 1998), but did you know that when you Google ‘African music’ and ‘experimental’, that tag is blank? It’s just a tag, of course, but it’s interesting, especially when we know that Bra Philip has been giving a different spin to music for decades. Some people think of him as that old guy with the guitar, living in Mamelodi, but he’s a master of inventing a new language for African music.”

Beats meet… beats

Then there’s Georgia Anne Muldrow. “She’s an exciting find, especially when we look at PASS focusing on women band-leaders,” says Muyanga. “She straddles so many genres, with a background in jazz piano, an incredible voice, and now getting more and more acclaim as a hip hop producer (listen, for example, to Erykah Badu‘s “Amerykah”). She is establishing a growing following for herself in the cross-pollinated jazz and hip hop world, and we wanted to catch her before she becomes too big and out of the ballpark for us.”

With names like legendary African percussion master Brice Wassy (Cameroon), pioneering Detroit DJ Theo Parrish, the Kisangi (DRC) dance collective Studio Kabako and famed guitarist Flamme Kapaya, and our own multiple SAMA and Kora All Africa Music Award winner Thandiswa Mazwai on the bill, Muyanga’s point is an interesting one. How does PASS afford a line-up of such local and international heavyweights? “It’s the advantage of what Ntone and do, working in the cultural and musical space,” he says, and smiles as he adds, “So, we use and abuse what we know. Often, these are people we know or have worked with, or we know people who know them. We engage with the artists first on a philosophical level, telling them what PASS is and what it is about and usually we find that we share a political outlook – we share a desire to see new innovation come out of the continent. We have our sponsors and our grants, and then we say to the artists, ‘By the way, we have this much to spend,’ and, usually, they are very kind and work out what they can do’. It helps us with what we are trying to do: for me, live music is not just about going out with a “Party hey, party ho”, it is important to ask, ‘What does this music do? How does it change your worldview?'”

On Tuesday 28 September, Studio Kabako More Future perform at the City Hall 7-10pm); on Wednesday 29, Brice Wassy Trio (Cameroon) and Imperial Tiger Orchestra (Ethiopia) play Slave Church (7-9.30pm), with Mbuso T Mas & So and Theo Parrish at Albert Hall (10.30pm-2.30am). On Thursday 30, Dr. Philip Tabane & Malombo (Mamelodi) and Kyle Shepherd Trio (Cape Town) play St George’s Cathedral (7.30-9.30pm), then Johnny Cradle and Georgia Anne Muldrow & Declaime play Albert Hall (10.30-2.30am). On Friday 1 October, Thandiswa Mazwai Trio play Slave Church (7-9.30pm), while Imperial Tiger Orchestra and Brice Wassy Trio are at Albert Hall (10.30pm-2.30am). On Saturday 2, Dr. Philip Tabane & Malombo, Thandiswa Mazwai Trio, Johnny Cradle and Georgia Anne Muldrow & Declaime, and Mbuso T Mas & So all play Guga S’Thebe Centre (2-6pm), with an after-party at Pass Radio (Africa Centre,  44 Long St, 8pm onwards). All shows R30 (from Computicket.com) or R50 (door). Please see www.panafricanspacestation.org.za for details, and to hear PASS Radio and archived “PASScasts”.

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 11 – 12 September 2010. Find out more on Tonight.co.za

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