October 2015 Cover Story

Written by:

Malcolm Ché

 

 

“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.” – Salman Rushdie

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The only way I can make anything real or honest is to look at it through the lens that is me

 

 

“I always hated band leaders. They’d give us sheet music and I’d be looking for the harmony. I would fight with leaders and teachers, because I wanted to impart an individual sense of experience into the music.”

It’s a beautiful metaphor. The sheet music is enforced unquestioningly by the authorities, while the custodian of their culture tries to introduce individual nuances, and so offer a new take on that which came before; a take that introduces harmony. The sheet music, the grounding for the song, remains the same, but the individual’s experience of it allows a different aspect to be added in its performance, thereby expanding the culture’s lexicon.

Nakhane Touré, even once you peel back the layers, is an enigma; an ever-changing chameleon of culture. His debut album Brave Confusion won the South African Music Award for Best Alternative Album in 2014. 

2015 has been a busy year for him, seeing him feature on a Black Coffee track, and his first novel, Piggy Boy’s Blues, is set for release in September. He’s also busy finishing off his follow-up EP, due for release early in 2016. When you look at his collected body of work, you’ll find an artist who is not afraid to unpack his experience, and take his audience along through his very personal journey of discovery. If Baudrillard is correct that in our Post-Modern epoch “everything has already happened… nothing new can occur,” Nakhane retorts, “it all boils down to one thing: the only way I can make anything real or honest is to look at it through the lens that is me.”

Born in Alice in the Eastern Cape, Nakhane is nephew to Chief Langa Mavuso. This essentially makes him the custodian of his community’s culture. The Mfengu people have an oral history that he describes in the prologue to his first novel as one where “the marginalised, motley and disillusioned collective of wanderers, panted instead after the gleanings of their cousins, AmaXhosa.” This legacy of establishing identity is one which Nakhane follows as his life’s work, and he’s not afraid to share that process publicly.

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The first sign that he is a man committed to forging his own identity is his penchant for changing his name. Originally Nakhane Mavuso, his name was changed by his aunt when he was adopted by her at the age of twelve to Nakhane Mahlakahlaka. He officially dropped his middle name at the same time, which he says he never identified with. Redefining himself once more, he changed his name to Nakhane Touré, after Malian guitarist Ali Farla Touré. Today he goes by Nakhane Mavuso on Facebook, but after peeling away all the layers, he’s decided to simply go by Nakhane for now. “I always felt like I don’t belong anywhere, which is why it was so easy for me to become Nakhane Touré. It was my own concoction, it was my own decision. It wasn’t this passed on thing.” Heritage, for him, is something we work with and build on through exploring new paradigms. Today, he describes himself as a Xhosa-indebted Agnostic. “Making sense of the world comes from finding new lexicons of understanding. I had this dictionary, with only these words, now I have this new dictionary, with new words. But, that first dictionary will always be important because that’s how I learnt to speak. Christianity is and always will be such a big part of who I am, whether I believe in it or not… because that’s how I learnt to be a person.”
He does best in a turbulent sea; left, right, here, there. “I do best in that space, in understanding that I don’t know anything. Knowing things has done nothing good for me. Ever.”

Like preaching against homosexuality.

Nakhane makes no secret of the fact that he is gay. Love is love at the end of the day. But, as he insists, “It’s not the fulcrum of who I am.” Yet, coming out was a trying time in his life; a time that saw him trying ceaselessly to please a church that believed he could be cured through prayer. Telling his conservative family was painless by comparison. He tried so hard to reconcile the idea of grace and the imposed definitions of sin, that he compromised himself when he stood in front of a congregation and preached against homosexuality. “To look twice is a sin,” as he was warned, and proclaimed in return. But when the church was nowhere to be found during his toughest time, and the so-called heathens that he was warned about were the only ones who were there to support him and offer a couch to sleep on, he re-evaluated the place the church played in his life. That, and the fact that he was excommunicated. But that’s a conversation he believes is only relevant in the 1600’s…

“I don’t mind being judged. Judge me. F**k. I’ve been judged all my life… Actually, judge me. I expect people not to like it, because there’s truth in it. And that truth explores something in that person that they don’t like in themselves. I’m that artist.

 

 

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I’m a pretentious artist, which I’m proud of. Pretentious people move things forward.

 

 

“The point of taking an audience member along for the journey is that you can say, “I feel just as isolated as you do. In fact, I’m going to tell you my story. I’m going to take you along on my journey”. Along the way, the audience has been questioning it, but they’ve been told to stop questioning it, he can go; I’m going to buy his book, I’m going to buy his music, I’m going to be in the front row cheering at his concerts because he’s talking to me! He’s talking about the journey that I’ve gone on. And that’s what an artist does.” And art, for the artist, allows them to traverse that journey. In Piggy Boy’s Blues he describes a character’s eyes with such succinct detail, it’s as if he’s studied those eyes long and hard. That speaks to a man who has spent a long time studying the windows to his own soul, and emerged with a desire to contextualise his inner process in a way that others can relate. As he points out, Henry James says, “every character is me, but every character is not me”.

 

 

 

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“I’m always trying to negotiate what the world means to me. I’d rather move things forward than contribute to fridge buzz.” This “fridge buzz” is what keeps him pushing to turn out the best work he can, for that moment in his life. It’s also what makes him seem aloof at times; even to those he’s closest too. “If I have nothing to say, I’m not going to say anything.” However, when it comes to music and literature, he believes that just because his work may seem unfamiliar, or not following popular trends, it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be putting it out; quite the contrary. “When I started writing music, it didn’t sound like what I was hearing on radio.” Quoting Toni Morrison, he outlines a key motivator for finding and following his own voice; “If nobody’s written it, write it”.

And he’s written it. The difficulty faced by many South Africans is how to reconcile tradition and the modern world. Initiation rites and traditional obligations are unpacked and recounted in intimate detail, along with the struggle of witnessing that which goes on at said rites, but which no one talks about. The protagonist is told how he needs to go through the custom to please his father; after that he can do whatever he

pleases. And that’s where we find ourselves as South Africans today; doing things to appease cultural expectations and our ancestors, while moving on to do what fits with our new world view.

He sees traumatic experiences as something akin to the dregs in coffee or wine. You stir it up and it comes to the surface. But then it settles. And only once you finish it do you realise they’e been there all along. Ironically, it’s also these dregs that flavour life. “I don’t think I’ve written an easy book. I understand why so many writers kill themselves. It’s excruciating.”

 

“There’s always a bit of salt in my sugar.”

 

 

He has a board on his wall called ‘The Wall of Argument’, He posts pages on the wall describing “all the things I hate about myself, and the best things about myself. And when I work, I am faced with all these things. And one of the things I work with is humiliation.” Get humble or get humiliated.

On an autobiographical note, he draws a parallel between his career and one of his novel’s characters who re-appropriates the mean nicknames given to him. He describes the character’s sentiment as “I’m going to take all these things, all these negative things, all these bad things that have ever happened to me, and use them as power.”

He’s excited about how the novel will be received. It’s going to be very different to putting out music, where there is feedback from an audience when he performs live. Either they sing along, or they get bored. But it’s an immediate measure of how people react to his work. That’s lacking when releasing a book out into the world. But, always ready with a quote to sum up how he feels, he shares the good advice he received from his drama teacher. “Once it’s out there, it’s not yours anymore; people can do what they want with it.”

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“I hope people like it. And I hope people feel something visceral and they see themselves in it.”

 

 

Nakhane is certainly a man who knows what he’s good at, and works at that which he wishes he could do better. As with any artist, he’s filled with unbridled confidence, as well as great moments of self-doubt. “I hate put-on humility. Do I know that I’m good at what I do? You know? Do I know that I’m good at what I do all the time? No. Most of the time I think what I’m doing is bullshit. Other days I’ll wake up and be like, “why hasn’t anyone woken up to the fact that this is brilliant?!” After all he’s been through, at the age of 27, he maintains a strength all around which is drawn from his humility and desire to get to know himself better. It’s perfectly summed up in his rendition of Radiohead’s Optimistic. The stripped back piano adds gravitas to the fractured pain in his voice; “You can try the best you can. The best you can is good enough.”

 

 

 

 


Information:

Brave Confusion is out on Just Music, and available on iTunes

Piggy Boy’s Blues is published by Jacana Media, and available in good bookstores.

 

Credits:

Photography: Nick Bolton

Styling: Andrew Chandler

Hair and Make-up: Ian Swann

Wardrobe by: Beware the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, Superdry

Shoes by: Kurt Geiger

Accessories by: MJ Collection and Stylist’s own