By BRUCE DENNILL
Returning to the stage after a pandemic-enforced break that also allowed space for two of its members to explore solo avenues, popular a capella trio The Soil were always going to cause a considerable buzz. As circumstance would have it, Covid regulations were changed a couple of days before their Emperors Palace shows, meaning that all the seats in the venue became available at short notice (rather than the 50% capacity sold to that point). This – plus the fact that the first of their two shows here was being filmed – helped to delay the start time of the concert by an hour, aided and abetted by impatient punters who had taken the seats getting up to get another round of drinks outside, adding to the throng at the doors.
The enthusiasm with which The Soil were greeted when they did emerge on stage suggested that, having waited around three years to see the group, most of the audience had not been too put out by postponing matters an extra hour. Writers wanting a single term to define the trio’s sound often call it “Kasi soul”, but once the full-throated harmonies of a now nearly full house start to join the singers on harmonies even before the end of the first verse, the only label that feels applicable is gospel – in this room, you’re being taken to church.
As it happens, that’s in keeping with much of The Soil’s collective worldview, with the super-smooth Ntsika Fana Ngxanga (introduced as both “The President” and “South Africa’s Pharrell Williams) often drawing intention to the spiritual inspiration behind many of the group’s songs. Each of the members of the outfit are individually popular, with beatboxer Masta P (Luphindo Ngxanga) and singer Buhle Mda drawing huge cheers for actions and attitude beyond their core capacities – Masta P for pronounced physical movements accompanying his vocal rhythms and Mda for her stylish sassiness as she controls the rowdy crowd between songs.
Almost all of the songs start with a little conference between Ntsika and Luphindo, apparently to decide on the key in which to start each tune. If that’s true, it’s the only apparent guide the performers have in terms of starting on pitch and together every time, and the blend of the voices, rhythms and harmonies is as good as ever.
It might be expected that with “only” voices in the mix, there would be both a limit to the variety of arrangements and the amount of music actually making up each track. There is a hint of truth to the first point in that the bulk of the tracks reveal aspects of the template for a shared genre – big hit Joy (We Are Family), incidentally, is one song that stands out for its stylistic differences. But in terms of vocal stamina and the ability to shape an arrangement to fit a response, The Soil work a room brilliantly. Each intro raises a cheer – even brand new (and excellent) material debuted towards the end of the show – and there is an almost delirious interplay between performers and audience as sections of songs are repeated or drawn out to support the endlessly vociferous supporters who are both creating and enjoying their own vibe.
The song Selfie seems engineered to take advantage of such a mood, and when it is sung, fans mob the front of the stage to follow the instructions in the lyrics. The result is, instantly, hundreds of photos that will later be shared on social media, keeping the group’s profile high, underlining their close connection to their fans and generally making the most of what is already a potently positive situation.
If such extended exuberance is not your thing, such a show might feel like a slight test, with songs extending to seven or eight minutes to accommodate call-and-response sections or similar. But even if you do feel it necessary to check your watch regularly, you’ll be doing it with your head bobbing and your foot tapping, carried along by the collective energy of the performers and your fellow fans.