By BRUCE DENNILL
Singer Given Nkanyane, guitarist Manfred Klose and drummer Eduan Joubert are Stone Jets, a Cape Town band that sounds like a Cape Town band. By that, it is meant that there is are the mbaqanga guitar rhythms made familiar by everyone from Bright Blue to Beatenberg, and the crossover vocal style (pop, but also folk-tinged) that complements that style so well.
Was there ever an intended or conscious design behind creating that sound?
“On the technical side, we didn’t plan too much – it was a natural process,” says Klose. “In the studio, we all go in with an idea. But by the time we walk out, the song will sound slightly different, and we find out what our real sound is through that process.”
“We threw everything at the wall to see what would stick,” adds Nkanyane. “And once we’d figured out what we naturally sounded like, we knew what we had to work with. We like to workshop our songs after Manfred and I write them. At first, we didn’t have a permanent drummer, so we also had to come up with ideas to work around that.”
“Sometimes, in the studio, there will be a malfunction,” says Klose, “and we’ll sit back and thing, ‘That works well with the song, actually,’ so there is that unexpected creativity as well.”
“It’s also about making sure that everything is about the music,” comments Nkanyane. “As individuals, we try not to project too much of ourselves, but to give people a chance to make up their own minds.”
“With all of that involved, it makes sense that we sound local, though people also use words like ‘indie’ and even ‘jazz’ to describe our sound,” says Joubert.
If distinctions do matter, the blanket term “Afro-pop” might be the most applicable. How does that affect the perceptions of potential audiences?
“At the centre of what we do is our being South African,” states Nkanyane. “So we need to portray what South Africans do. It’s important to talk about your identity in such a way that people know you’re from a certain place.”
He pauses to consider his next remark.
“Before that flow happens, there’s a time of sorting out what we want to be rather than what we’re forced to be once a song is picked up a people form an opinion of us based on that. I don’t want to be do anything just to be in fashion. I think that being yourself is always in fashion.”
Nkanyane gestures to his bandmates.
“We’re honest with each other. We assess what’s happening as we go, and try to take the road less travelled by. People who want a stake of what we’re doing must buy into us.”
Stone Jets is a small band – a trio now, a duo in the past. That makes setting up in any context relatively easy, and delivering their music acoustically, without power, possible. The band tours regularly, and can all fit into a van. How do these practicalities affect the musicians’ shared goals?
“Our set-up is easy and adaptable,” agrees Klose. “We can be in a coffee shop without a microphone one night and can do a full-band club set the next night. We’re able to go to places where there’s often no music otherwise.
“Our music is driven by the vocals and the guitar, so as long as we have those two elements, it’ll work,” says Joubert, diplomatically.
“Also, this band creates the core of our sound,” adds Klose. “We have done collaborations, in which we’ll have other people on stage with us.”
“Those collaborations are inconsequential in the long run, but always relevant in the moment,” qualifies Nkanyane.
That suggests that there’s a long-term plan to protect the integrity of the music as it is.
“Yes,” nods Nkanyane, “but also to try and connect with our audience. We need to understand South Africans, which means going to as many places as possible to play. Your average person doesn’t often go to a fancy venue to listen to band, so it might be at a sports club, a country pub or wherever. But subconsciously – and consciously – it all ties into being South African and embodying all aspects of our culture, which is why we’ve gone from Cape Town to Johanessburg and back via Durban, Kimberley and the Garden Route on our recent national tour. And we’ll see commonalities with those communities when we tour overseas, too.”
Nkanyane’s voice is a distinctive instrument and a major sales hook for the Stone Jets sound. Does he feel pressure to not only keep it in good health, but to use it in ways that are easily marketed rather than artistically satisfying?
“It’s a yin and yang situation,” reckons Nkanyane. “I realise I have an instrument that adds value to the band, but it’s not independent of the band. As much as I need to look after my voice, I need to look after my bass playing and Manfred needs to look after his fingers. We make a chord as a band. It’s not like singing in the shower – it’s together. Sometimes an audience doesn’t get that. They’re conditioned, with most music, to focus on the the vocal and forget the backing.
“In terms of what is marketable, we adhere to the expectations we have of each other. We want to put our stamp of approval on it. We won’t leave that to anyone else. And as for looking after my voice, I do get some strange looks when I order a mug of boiling water at a bar so I can steam my vocal chords. But equally, I need to use it as a normal part of me. Professional runners still need to walk, you know?”
The rich tone of Nkanyane’s voice is mirrored in the guitars.
“I grew up with classic rock and classical music, but I was always fascinated by African guitar techniques – I just wanted to play them in a classic rock way,” explains Klose.
“Meeting and writing with Given gave me a chance to put that into practice. We like to work with single focal points, keeping it simple. If the vocals aren’t doing much in a particular place, for example, I can paint that space with guitars.
“I plug straight into a valve amp and play. It’s a clean sound – I’ve never been one for too many effects. Softer or louder is the only kind of distortion I have, and the dynamics can be adapted to the venue.”
As yet, there is not much of a catalogue to draw from, but the songs Stone Jets have released already feature a range of tempo and emotion. Some of those will be more popular than others with fans, while the band will have their own – possibly different – favourites. How are expectations of what is still to come balanced in that light?
“We have two EPs out, but we withdrew the first one after a while,” says Nkanyane. “As we improved, it became a bit cringeworthy for us. It’s like your first kiss – important, but not really what you imagined it would be. The EP was released when we first got together and thought that we needed something to show around so that people would book us. We do play the songs from that collection live, though.”
“We’d only been together for a month at that point,” mutters Klose.
“There is a different reaction to the released stuff and the unreleased stuff,” says Nkanyane. “People say, ‘What cover is that?’ and we’ll say, ‘No, it’s ours’. Expectations are different, I suppose. I heard one woman telling her friend to watch our videos online before coming to a gig and I thought, ‘No pressure – those are all carefully edited and directed and everything.’
“Live, we reflect what we see. If the crowd gets wild and crazy, we’ll get wild and crazy. But there’s also that alchemy where we can bring them down again with a slow song. And we’re happy people. Other people might have different views, but we don’t want to have [funeral services company] Avbob on standby, you know?”
“Each gig teaches us something,” says Klose. “When you’re on stage, you don’t tend to think of the impact of a song. You’re just focusing on playing it right. But someone might tell you something specific and unexpected. We’re in it for the long haul, so this experience is a great teacher. We’re patient – we know that progress might take time. We’re learning to plan better and to ask the right questions when we choose venues. And we’ll take the lessons we’ve learned in Johannesburg and elsewhere back to Cape Town and share them with other bands there.”
Logically, it would seem that there’s a need to stay top of mind in terms of listeners, even while undertaking the challenge of building the catalogue.
“We have no fear of vanishing by next week,” smiles Nkanyane. “We haven’t even really surfaced yet! It goes back to what I said earlier about being ourselves; like being that friend you can always rely on to play the same role in your life. We’re not interested in trends, and being a little bit under the radar actually gives us more opportunities, in some ways.
“For now, people may not realise that they’re hearing us, but the six songs we’ve released so far have been played [at the time of writing] 140 times on radio and 250 times on shopping centre playlists. Now, when people see us, having heard the songs, they’ll recognise us.”
To see when Stone Jets are playing or to listen to their What I Say EP, go to stonejets.com.