Africans from Outta Space EP: The Afronaut trio who prides themselves from being ‘out-of-this-world’
“Afronaut is not in a race, we are a race,” says Afronaut band guitarist, Thulasizwe Nkosi when we speak. The band which hails from Soweto and which is still relatively new, just released their first EP, Africans from Outta Space, a six-song, twenty-minute long project, with an eye-catching album cover that depicts two old taxis without wheels, hovering above the road like the flying vehicles from the 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner.
The album’s released single Birdhouse is a commentary on turbulent contemporary times, with lyrics that harness 2020 ambience — confusion and desperation.
“Everybody’s going crazy, Everybody’s going cuckoo, The whole world’s going crazy, The whole world’s going cuckoo!”, chants Afronaut’s lead singer, Fumane Mahane, who starts off the song with a mix of deranged and hilarious chicken calls.
He is soon joined by Nkosi on the guitar and violinist Zakhele Mangwanyane. Although not improbable, the use of classical music instruments like the violin rarely feature in punk band ensembles. Yet, Mangwanyane finds a way to make the instrument feel at home within the group’s sound.
His musical journey started in primary school which he credits as his creative springboard. “Growing up in primary school, they told us we need to teach ourselves something (an instrument) and from there, I never looked back,” he says.
On this, Nkosi adds with a laugh, “He was forced to play classical music! If he didn’t learn it he would have gotten whipped!”
Mangwanyane jokes, “I was going to get beaten!”
The EP’s tracks follow the continuous theme of musically interpreting the unpredictable and chaotic elements of modern times, as well as issues affecting many listeners.
“Songs like Hell For Sinners, talks about people not fitting in; Life Spiral talks about people not fitting in and anti-bullying; there’s also Youthless which talks about kids not being able to play anymore… kids aren’t going to the river to swim, playing on trees, coming home with one missing shoe, they’re on their phones,” explains Nkosi.
Afronaut’s members met in Soweto’s music circles; now they share the local punk rock scene with the Soweto Skate Society band TCIYF, which Afronaut guitarist Nkosi was also a part of.
Even though they’re not as consistently robust in their sound as TCIYF, the EP offers a nice mixture of downtempo and softly sung tunes, like the second song on the project, Life Spiral.
Mahane slowly sings continuously, “I don’t fit it” in what the band consider an anthem for people who see themselves as outsiders, outcasts, people who have difficulties to connect with the world around us. The easy to sing-along chorus could also be seen as a representative of how the band approaches their music, a sort of flowing improvisation — something one can clearly pick up on in Birdhouse.
“The music is entirely improvisation. Hence why it’s broken down the way it is, that’s why it’s so minimalistic. It’s supposed to include room for improvisation,” says Mahane, who also encourages his audience on stage to join him in his improv act.
The band does arrange, write and organise chords but they allow themselves room to express their creative freedom: “Anyone can add their own flavour to the mix,” says Nkosi.
Although the band is heavily influenced by their surroundings and where they come from musically, Mahane is inspired by and wants to emulate the global greats, such as James Brown.
“I like him, his performances are great. Every time I get on stage I envision him. I wish I could do the shuffle just like him, but I am practising,” he says. “Those kind-of performances, the high octane, the high energy performance, that’s what inspires me: the vibrations,” he adds.
So, how different is Afronaut’s ‘So Punk’ (Soweto punk) in comparison to more commercial punk music in South Africa? Mahane feels their punk sound is influenced by hip-hop, where his musical background comes from.
“Let’s look at the background, punk is just like hip-hop. It’s a musical rebellion… this is our message, this is how we do things and ‘So Punk’ or Afronaut is us doing this our own way. We see how [other punk acts] do things but we’re not trying to imitate that or anyone,” he says.
The band also wants to bring positive music into the industry, “Music is gangster now, man. Everyone is being violent,” he says. And although Barfight speaks about violence in drinking spaces, the melody of the guitar makes it a fun song to listen to. Hell For Sinners sees Mahane chanting “Ariba riba riba riba,” to get the energy up; until he adds the words “Welcome to your demise,” like a sudden verdict, the sentence that reminds us of a world falling apart. Some of the lyrics may feel rather doom and gloom but the group dynamic conjures a tropical rock sound, while the dynamic use of the violin brings the tone of Youthless to life. The tempo swings between the chords of the violin — a sound unlike anything you’d hear in an orchestra.
Afronaut’s Africans from Outta Space shows the wide musical scope and experience of the musicians and nothing sounds out of place — not the violin (that can be hard to pick up at times), or even Mahane’s sort of ‘rambling’ on the first song of the EP. If the pandemic allows, it would be reasonable to expect this trio to sell out rock venues around the country. And with improvisation playing a huge part in their creative process, it’s hard to predict how they’ll behave on stage — but then again, who wants a predictable punk rock band? DM/ML