Internationally-acclaimed outfit The Brother Moves On are part of a musical underground that connects London and their home city of Johannesburg.
They exist in a powerful lineage of protest music and in the role that sound and music has in combating while soaking in the everyday struggles of life. They were described as ‘the most important band in the country’ by the Mail and Guardian and ‘the last remaining protest band’ by saxophonist Steve Dyer, who was pivotal in the creation of Indaba Is, which frontman Siyabonga produced with pianist Thandi Ntuli.
8 October 2012: Siya Mthembu of The Brother Moves On performing at the OppiKoppi music festival.
Their first gig in London, in 2014 was supporting The Comet is Coming at the storied Total Refreshment Centre and Yussef Kamaal opened for them the following year at a sold out gig at Bussey Building in Peckham. TBMO front person Siyabonga Mthembu got a sense of how they were being received back then by standing in the queue outside their gig;. “I wanted to hear what people were saying. This young lady says ‘have you heard them? They sound like a night in Johannesburg.’ I was like wow, that is dope.”
The Brother Moves On were named after Brother Mouzone, the sharply dressed enforcer from The Wire, and they began as a DIY collective of visual and performance artists rehearsing in family bedrooms and lounges. This genesis shines through in the creative way they draw from past, present and future in their phenomenal live shows, and in masterful resistance music that heals and challenges in equal measure. The band released two independent albums from the first half of the 2010s A New Myth and The Golden Wake, the former re-released on vinyl in 2020 as part of a Shabaka curation for Joyful Noise Records
Fast forward and word has been spreading beyond the two cities. The Brother Moves On’s exceptional 2021 album Tolika Mtoliki rebirthed classic South African music and messages into a stunning collection that made Apple Music’s Top Releases list of that year. Mthembu co-produced the 2021 Gilles Peterson-released compilation Indaba Is, and is part of the critically-acclaimed Shabaka And The Ancestors. Now, $/He Who Feeds You… Owns You is being released on Shabaka Hutchings’ Native Rebel label.
The album title comes from a speech by pan-African revolutionary Thomas Sankara to the Organisation of African Unity. “It takes his words into this time. It has a lot to do with food sovereignty and land – whoever feeds you, whoever owns your food system runs you.”
The songs on $/He Who Feed You… Owns You have been bubbling away for years. The work is described as ‘a time capsule of a moment before the pandemic when they were away from home, touring Europe a lot. “All the songs became harder, stronger, thicker. They had to find their source of meaning because we were chanting them into spaces of people who got the energy but may not have got the words.”
This album has a different genesis than the first two Native Rebel releases by Chelsea Carmichael and CoN& KwAkE where Shabaka composed a framework for the artists to improvise into shape. Instead, The Brother Moves On’s fourth album is made of existing songs, recorded in studio at Asylum Studios in Pretoria and live in front of an audience Dyertribe Studios, with additional flute, clarinet and production from Hutchings himself. It was mixed by top-flight engineer Dilip Harris, who also worked on the Sons of Kemet albums and Indaba Is amongst much else
The album begins with a prayer ‘Puleng’, one of the oldest TBMO songs, a song full of depth-charged emotion and forward motion.. ‘Bayakhala’ follows and draws from deep histories, old languages and the idea of ‘keepers of the land’ communicating a calling to higher selfhood from the other side. ‘Sphila’ flips the famous Black consciousness chant ‘Amandla! Awethu, playing with the words and replacing the famous ‘amandla’ with “amanga” which means ‘lies’. Like most South Africans, TBMO’s six members(Ayanda Zalekile, Simphiwe Tshabalala, Zelizwe Mthembu, Mthunzi Mvubu, Muhammad Dawjee and Siyabonga Mthembu) speak multiple languages and consequently the songs are multi-lingual, too, using the nuances available in Tswana, Zulu or Xhosa to convey their messages as vital in their home languages to the global black consciousness struggle.
There’s a heavily beautiful version of ‘Itumeleng’ by famous 1970s Soweto band Batsumi. New composition ‘ ‘Sweetie Love Oh” features plangent guitar in an adolescent love song that begins at a taxi rank. The elegiac ‘Hamba’connects The Brother Moves On with Shabaka and the Ancestors (it appears on We Are Sent Here By History as ‘Go My Heart, Go To Heaven’) as well as family histories – it was Siyabonga’s dad’s favourite church song and a South African-famous piece of music which is sung at funerals, and ‘at struggle situations, where people have lost all hope’. ‘Mazel’ was written directly after Siyabonga and Zelizwe’s brother, bandmate and TBMO founder Nkululelo died in 2013 – and uses his nickname for the title. “It’s a whale of a song,” he says. “It cries.”
The album ends with ‘Ta Tom’, which aims to give septuagenarian guitarist Madala Kunene his flowers. “Madala decided to stay when everyone went overseas because his mom was sick. He didn’t have this international lucrative scene. He is our father of guitar and this last track is an ode to him… It’s him saying that the ancestors are saying ‘thank you’,$/He Who Feeds You… Owns You is an incredible collection of musical transmissions. It connects contemporary South African music with fearless lineages of resistance worldwide and it does so with spectacular grace, power and groove. It is beautiful. It rages. It channels the spirits,
How did you guys get started out in the music industry?
I think it was less the music industry, more the arts industry. Then it ended up in the music industry where like the bands we grew up with stopped playing at a certain time in the venues we were going to, and there was a gap. And so we got on stage and started doing our weird thing. We weren’t really great musicians at that time. And then we started rehearsing and rehearsing more and we really became really good at what we did. I think our big break, if there was like a break moment in the UK scene was we won, the Roundhouse Rising Battle of the Bands and got to play a night in Roundhouse. But the night at Roundhouse didn’t kind of like give us that feeling of oh yeah, we’ve arrived. So after our show, I think we were opening for Little Simz at the time after our show. We went outside, had to have a smoke, and Shaba Hutchings walked by and was like, do you guys want to come plays the TRC on Sunday? And it’s at that show where we found our kindred souls in the UK scene.
So, can you us about the new single, is it ‘Bayakhala’?
‘Bayak’ would be the prefix for “they are” right and Hala is crying, right? So, the song speaks of my ‘Bayak’ which they are crying. So, in our old Angolan traditions and philosophies and ways of being, he the earth keeps us, and we don’t keep the earth and they are beings that keep that, that union for real. And they’re called the keepers of the Earth. So the song sings of how the keepers of the earth are crying to us because we are not enjoying our incarnation.
Can you explain the title of the album “$/He Who Feeds You…Owns You,”?
SIYA: Sure. Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s the upright president says in a speech prior to his assassination to the presidents of the organization of African Unity. He says, Whoever feeds you, owns you, he who feeds you, owns you. knowing the kind of president he was, he was pro feminine in a time, which that wasn’t the norm. We remixed it to S/he who Feed Who Owns You, in conversation with a playgroup, which we are staging a takeover of a cafe, on Seventh Street Melbourne and Johannesburg, the conversation moved it beyond a heteronormative understanding to them who feed you, own you. So it’s a conversation and a meditation on his words in the idea that those who feed you, be it communication, be it food systems, be it culture, be it a sense of understanding of who you are actually own you. So, if you want to go to a sense of sovereignty, you need to own those, modes of relating to yourself.
ALT A caught up with The Brother Moves On, Shabaka and the Ancestors lead Siyabonga Mthembu and Muhammad Dawjee band member and tenor saxophonist,
And then do you have a favorite, track on the album?
Favorite track on the album? I’d have to go with hamba is a track that, my dad, used to really love. It’s a remake of a track that sung at funerals at churches, at Shoobins when people are drunk thinking of the G o d, you know, and we’ve done a remix of it and it’s close to my heart because it’s a shout out to my Pops.
You were quoted saying that your music is grounded in the roots of protest. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, the sense of South African music at a certain time was about protest. We wrote about the daily living and life when freedom came it was also about protest. And if we actually really look at Mama properly, it’s also about protest. So, if you are asking me, I think the essence of true traditional South African music is music rooted in protest, but protest does not necessarily mean antagonistic relations or dissent, active citizenry is protest. It’s in that relation of protest as something that is vital to now. And, one of the South African greats horn players was like you, one of my last remaining protest bands. And that kind of worried me as a full protest because I think our tradition is rooted in protest.
It was the last couple of days we lost him Pharoah Sanders, what does his legacy mean to you?
Papa Pharoah is huge for me. Even before I met him, my dad and my uncles, were big impulse hits, and loved horns. And I’d hear horns growing up. The Creators, the Master Plan is a song I’d sing to myself at the darkest of times to keep up and keep my head up and when my dad’s around. then I got the privilege of meeting, Papa Pharoah in New York for our first show. The beauty of the man who was still able to, I like, looked at him and I was like, you’re still blowing. This, this is scary!! You know. And then the second time we met him, we were at a festival in France and we walked in and he called us close and he said, My boys, they won’t let me smoke weed. I need you boys to go find me some weed <laugh>.
So, the whole other Shabaka and the Ancestors crew spent the whole festival looking for joints for Papa Pharoah. We finally got a guy to drive out and fetch us two joints and come back. We had one, he had one, Shabaka sat up with him all night talking to him. And Papa asked Shabaka, Where’s the other hone player? Where, where’s he gone? I want to see him too. But he called us his boys and to be able to be called that man’s voice boy is a pleasure and honor and something that points me back to my dad and my uncles.
Who are some of the other great artists that you’ve worked with who stand out for you?
I mean, for me locally, my references would mostly be rooted here, you know, in this city. I think the, the Indaba is compilation was a great moment even though we didn’t necessarily work with each other in bands. But having that community around, for the space of a week was an incredible experience for me as a young musician. And, you know, being in the space of people like Thandi Ntuli and seeing them work you know, conceptualized ideas and, keep, the spirit kind of alive and moving, in that space was really inspiring for me at that time.
Yeah. Being on the beach with Saul Williams was really great. Saul was like the, essential South African poet, like when we got introduced to Poetry Saul Williams was, I am a negro! Yes negro, negro. That poem everyone kind of knew it. And then we were on a beach, going to open for Saul Williams and he’s the only person on the beach and he was accepting and loving of us, which was really, really like amazing. hanging out with Kamasi Washington’s dad was one of the most like, beautiful moments in the world. And then Kamasi and Shabaka going and playing a one on one was a really beautiful moment, to witness. And I also think seeing Grace Jones play like, like I think every Black child should be given that that’s, especially ones who grew up in the period of Grace Jones being a thing. But like seeing Grace Jones play was one of the most biggest highlights in my world.
Why do you celebrate improvisation?
Cause I’m Black <laugh> cause I’m Black. We’ve been improvising for 400 years. <laugh>, our, our sense of being is to improvise a sense of seeing a supervisor. We’ve been evolving this thing for ever. It’s one of the closest things I can do to celebrating my Blackness daily, you know, without having to write about it, without having to explain it, without having to be affirmed by a white gazes and a white world. So, I like music of Black origin for that reason because I get to be Black I without needing anyone you know.
What do you have next? You are playing at the London Jazz Festival in November?
We’ve got the 2022 European Tour Dates: 03/11: Berlin, Berlin Jazz Fest 05/11: Bruxelles, Flagey
08/11: Ljubljana, Cankarjev dom, 10/11: Amsterdam, Bimhuis, 12/11: Sofia, Sofia Live Club, 15/11: London, EFG London Jazz Festival, 20/11: Wroclaw, Jazztopad Festival
Where do you call home?
So, when anyone in tells you to come to South Africa, they’ll tell you to go to Cape Town. but the place you need to go to is Johannesburg because that’s the land of the Blacks. We’re from that space. No problems. We’re from the land of the blacks, we’re from the land where Black people from different places in Africa come to congregate and have made a history for the last 400 years. We’re not a specific country really. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we fight for that every few years because people want to keep it, but you know, we’re improvising.
Thank you so much for talking to ALT A. Very appreciated.
‘$/He Who Feeds You . . . Owns You’ is released by Native Rebel Recordings