It’s just underground, in the nooks and niches of Grahamstown, a small town in the Eastern Cape, celebrated for its arts and culture and all that is considered ‘alternative’.
Pop-culture loves to commercialize anything positioned as ‘the other.’ This creates a flux of hype around these cultures and provides the cool kids with some much needed ‘edge’.
Grahamstown’s live music scene is a perfect example of this. Steven Ellery, bassist of local band, Shackles and Bones, said, “six years ago the LMS Battle of the Bands had 22 bands playing in it and then three years ago the battle of the bands had to be cancelled because three bands entered. I think just a lot of musicians have left and not many have come back in.”
So there is hope. “Both JC and Mike from Champs and Slipstream respectively are working really hard to keep the music scene alive in Grahamstown,” says Ellery. Venues such as the Acoustic Café also play their part. “Every second Thursday the Acoustic Café has that kinda thing going where you go there and you listen to the music and you have your meal and its really intimate and its really nice and you often go and listen to people there who will come and watch your shows at other places.”
Grahamstown’s youth also provide a ray of light. Local schools encourage kids to explore music. “There are a lot of bands that are attached to schools like the Graeme College steel band and the DSG rock band.” There is also an annual choir festival, Masicule, which showcases the voices of the youth.
LMS works with a diverse group of musicians. “The uniqueness is that there is so many different genres of music being performed in Grahamstown. There are many, many different alternative types of music here; there is gospel, heavy metal, eclectic, jazz, the list goes on,” says Bell. Defining genres is absurd. One does not create art with specific parameters in mind; it is fluid and interpretable. “People often compare us to the Black Keys but I don’t really agree with them. It’s like rock ‘n roll and lots of different genres infused into it,” says Ellery. “We all listen to such different music. I come from a very reggae and heavy metal oriented background and our guitarist has come from very punk and ska, and our drummer has done some hip-hop and acoustic things.”
Artists keep creating no matter who is listening, or even despite no one listening. That’s the beauty of it. Shackles and Bones once played a gig where no-one came. “We really were just despondent after that so we played really, really badly and one of the other members of the other band [Lu-Fukit] came up to us and he said ‘that was terrible you played the worst show ever. After we play you guys are gonna get back on that stage and you’re gonna play again,’ because that’s why we do it; because we love it…It was a terrible show but it was important.”
The alternative music scene is slowly rebuilding itself. “The spaces where alternative culture was allowed to breed and be by itself but also invite people in has kinda been lost” says Ellery.
“It’s about building spaces, allowing spaces for that alternative culture to be present and to explore itself as well. There are people and places that are trying to incorporate that alternative culture.”
This is despite the large student population. “[They] don’t really enjoy live music which is…fair but it’s not cool for a practicing musician,” says Ellery. We spend a lot of time really working through our songs and crafting them and creating them so that the message is succinct and clear and can be interpreted from many angles.”
The youth are angry. They want to destroy systems that try to impose normative values and silence their screams. Rock ‘n roll should thrive in Grahamstown, with its complicated cultural position, segmentation and white liberalism. “We were all very involved in the protests last year at Rhodes. We’re trying to send a message of positivity and hope…Grahamstown is a good place [to do that] because there is a lot of social stimulus and society is what really inspires us.”
It’s easy to assume rock ‘n roll died somewhere between the birth of MTV and the death of Kurt Cobain. But it’s still around, reveling in its ‘fuck it and whatever’ attitude. Jimi Hendrix and the 27 Club may no longer be with us, but the spirit of rock ‘n roll lives on. This is because it is an attitude, an ideology and a way of life. It is an energy and energy can never die. As Einstein says, “it can only be changed from one form to another.”