Benguela: soundscaping trio return for 'Black South Easter'  

by Evan Milton

After a decade of improvised music, break-ups and make-ups, collaborations with Tony Cox, Breyten Breytenbach and Koos Kombuis, soundscape-trio Benguela have reunited to release a new album, 'Black South Easter'.

I track down Benguela in Maclear. It's in the Eastern Cape, somewhere between Kokstad and East London, they tell me - on the R56, which runs parallel to the N2 but closer to the Lesotho mountains. "It's a less populated road," they say by telephone while packing up the trailer to continue their "Black South Easter" launch tour and it's almost as though the interview could end there. The unpopulated road is almost an emblem of what Benguela represents - both musically and in terms of the three artists in the band. They're independent in the extreme, but comfortably so, rather than ostentatiously; accustomed to doing things differently, but because that way appeals, rather than just for the sake of it. Benguela's music, too, is a less populated road - their shows are drifting swathes of improvised live sound rather than being "songs" in any traditional sense. Even within the ouevre of improvised music, the new album is a path they've not walked before. Rather than recording a live performance, or a carefully set-up studio recording, "Black South Easter" saw Benguela tracking their live instruments - guitar, double-bass and drums, mainly, but also bouzouki and envrionmental sounds like slapped water - and then editing and re-editing these for almost a year with producer Dirk Hugo.
 
Initially, the album was a logjam," says Alex Bozas (guitars, bouzouki, glockenspiel, synth and e-bow). "We'd gone into the studio and recorded a whole heap of stuff with Dan Manojlovic and Dirk, and then had to select the material to do further work on . That took some time - you know how Benguela is; we can never quite agree on everything. Finally, we settled on ten or so tracks to work on, as time went by. Dirk was getting quite frustrated with us, I think, so he started on one edit, and then it all started. He's definitely the producer; without him, this album would not be here. He approached us after we reformed, and suggested the album, and then worked for hours editing, and recording all the things like overdubs, and more guitar, and me on bouzouki. His was a very pivotal role; doing all the editing and re-editing, but also as a bit of a pilot - driving us to try something different."
 
It doesn't sound like the simplest method to create an album. Bozas concurs. "It's easy enough to improvise, but it's difficult to finish something off; it's easy enough to press record, but adding the other elements takes time. Also, it's not as easy as a traditional song-based structure where you go, 'Here's an eight bar section', and make something and say, 'Ok, that goes there'. Ross changes drums from back to front; Brydon never plays the same bass-line twice ; I'm doing my thing on guitar. You sit there with lots of overdubs and Dirk is saying, 'That's great', but one of us is saying, 'It's horrible! There's one note that's wrong.' It was bleak at times - we thought we'd never get this done, because whenever you add another element, you hear more possibilities. If we could afford to do it, it would be interesting to do the recording non-stop for a month, like a day job, instead of an ad-hoc Tues here, and Friday evening there, and then a Sunday afternoon. Still, I think it came out remarkably well."
 
The current Benguela tour - before heading back to the Cape, they will have visited Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria, Grahamstown, East London, Port Elizabeth, Jeffrey's Bay and, of course, Eshowe - has seen the trio meet with appreciation, and even acclaim - as well as an acceptance of their style of music. Brydon Bolton (double bass,  electric bass) notes that "people are excited that we are still playing together", and seem to enjoy the music, whatever its alleged genre. "I don't know if people understand or need to understand that it's improvised," he says. "The audience is as much part of the moment as the musicians are, and I don't know that at that moment, it's necessary to know what's going on or how the music is made. Once they start listening to the music, they go with it."
 
Asked to pin-point a highlight track, Bolton pleads the Benguela fifth and takes the road less populated. "Musicians always say they like the whole album, which is a bit of a cop-out, so I think I'll start with the one I least like, 'Meridian'. It's just a filler, it doesn't motor anywhere, but I suppose it's necessary on the album." Pressed, the man recently compared to Jerry Garcia and Farmer Brown (search Mahala.co.za for an inspired review of the band, and one which had Bolton almost weeping with laughter), admits he's rather fond of "Killer Frog Fungus". "It stands out for me, probably because of the freedom of my playing. All the things we do involve spontaneity, but this was wild spontaneity that pushed me into a corner - you either have to control it, or let it loose. Do you ride the horse, or let it control you?"
 
What, then, should audiences expect from Benguela's live performances, given the multiple additional layers added to the recording. Ross Campbell (drums, percussion, water sounds, frogs), allows himself a small guffaw. "Except right in the beginning, we've never performed any of our songs live, in the traditional sense," he says. "We realised that the tunes we improvise are much more exciting. There may be smatterings of whatever is on the album in the songs - a bouzouki track or a guitar line that sounds similar - but the audience doesn't seem to mind. You don't come to a Benguela show and remember an exact theme or sound or melody. We have waily bits and groovy bits and heavy bits - but it's all Benguela and it sounds like us. We like how it's sounding, and the people we are playing for also seem to."
 
Again comes the metaphor of the road - less populated, perhaps, but invigorating to travel on, and rewarding to tread - and where the loops and lay-byes of the journey are easily as important as the windswept destination.

 
"Black South Easter" is available now on the Jaunted Haunts record label (www.RighardKapp.co.za/JauntedHaunts). For something almost entirely different, hear Benguela live at Die Boer on Tuesday 24 August (6 Chenoweth Str, Durbanville, 021-9791911). Get more on www.Benguela.co.za




Music journalist, Digital marketing strategist, SA Music Awards judge and radio DJ for Fine Music Radio.

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