By Dave Mann
Wordsuntame, a four-piece band from Grahamstown walked into a Cape Town bar for a performance. The Bar patrons, sometimes distracted and cold, quickly warmed up to the group as it belted out its mix of jazz, kwaito, reggae and funk.
Cape Town is a fairly disingenuous place at the best of times. It’s a pretty city at face value, and its venues – be they restaurants, music venues, theatres, or bars – do well to follow suit. In its city centre, nearly everything is polished. The venues, the patrons, the musical acts. People dress well, drink better, and know more than you do about good music. It’s a thinly veiled gloss that puts up a hard front, and rather successfully too. The moment a small-town, travelling band took to the stage of a Kloofstreet bar however, everybody cracked.
“W-O-R-D-S-U-N-T-A-M-E,” spells out guitarist and vocalist, Words Booi for the first of many times to come. “That’s the name of the band and we’re all the way from Grahamstown. How are you all doing tonight?”
Spare a few clinking glasses and the odd cough, he is met with silence. The gig is Blah Blah Bar on a Thursday night. Various artworks line the walls, a disco ball reflecting multi-coloured light hangs lazily from the roof and the four-piece Eastern Cape band are squeezed onto a small platform acting as a stage. Drumsticks count down the intro and the band launches into their first few tracks, a heady and jubilant mix of jazz, kwaito, reggae, and funk.
The audience – a standard white, middle class mix of Cape Town’s young and old – start to self-consciously sway to the beat. The constellations at the bar, previously engaged in their individual conversations, drift over to the stage area and sip their beers, enthused. In Cape Town, the live music scene is often premised entirely on status. No matter how good the music, the crowd will be cold if they don’t know you. It’s just the way it goes over there.
In light of this, Wordsuntame seem to be doing surprisingly well. The band cools down and Words leans into the mic again. “W-O-R-D-S-U-N-T-A-M-E. That’s the name of the band and we’re all the way from Grahamstown. How are you all doing tonight?” This time, he’s met with whistling, clapping and resounding, beer soaked enthusiasm – more than any unknown band in Cape Town can ask for.
Is it their unassuming Grahamstown origins that had the crowd so malleable? Or maybe they just caught Cape Town on a good night. To be honest, it’s probably because they’re just so goddamn happy.
The first time I saw Wordsuntame, they were still a vocal and keyboard two- piece comprising Words and Sane Booi. It was 2012 and the duo were a supporting musical act at a spoken word event that raised awareness for HIV/Aids at the university currently known as Rhodes. Later, they were joined by Julian Arenzon on drums and shortly after, came bass guitar in the form of the dreadlocked Steve Ellery, who the band regularly refer to as ‘Rasta Umlungu’. They’ve come a long way and played a considerable amount of shows around South Africa since that quiet poetry gig. They’re stoked, and deservedly so. It’s not just their well- earned, slow garnered local celebrity that keeps a smile on their faces, they’re genuine. And it shines through in their performances.
In their track, ‘Water’, Sane lays sprightly foundations for Steve’s bassline to tip toe along, the two musicians constantly in conversation with one another. ‘Ndonwabile’ sounds out with rolling drum beats and a swarm of harmonised vocals. Sane’s vocals in ‘Momentary Basking’ ride a beautiful falsetto to cry through far flung Eastern Cape hillsides, taking you straight to the group’s essence. In between sets, Words throws anecdotes out to the crowd – “Remember when you were a child and you had no worries, you were just excited about everything? It’s still in you. That childlike happiness is still in you. Go find it.” These aren’t half baked, musical mantras, but rather words that the group live by.
South Africa’s musical audiences need more bands like Wordsuntame. If only to give a light hearted nudge, reminding us that it’s okay to dance to a band you’ve never heard before, because as Words so gracefully puts it, “We call ourselves Wordsuntame because we’re true to ourselves. When the words are untamed and they pour out, they are true. That’s how we like to live, and we hope our words can help you find a bit of your own truth.”
Images courtesy of Wordsuntame