Slip Slaan Toe: Inzync Inner Town Sessions, 9 March 2012, Café Art, Stellenbosch
The March SLiP poetry evening, hosted for the second time by Café Art, presented us with a main event that was a wonderful “mixed bag”, an assortment of three poets remarkably different in their styles but also very similar in their abilities to use poetry to strengthen bonds of tolerance, understanding and bonhomie. How the three poets went about this couldn’t be more incongruent but therein lies the magic of what made this most recent SLiP poetry event so special. Our host, the ever-energetic Adrian Different, started the evening off with a poem he’d just composed after witnessing a couple fighting in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs earlier that day. Immediately, a theme of personal conflict and social disharmony that is universal was expounded, with Adrian brilliantly making the universal so intimate and literally, close to home. After that, he proceeded to encourage us to find “real hip-hop” poetry later that night at selected venues in Stellenbosch. This little suggestion would prove to be somewhat prescient if one considers how the evening unfolded from there, but more about that later.
Our first poet, elegant in green, was Kate Ellis-Cole, who took part in the Slip Slam in October last year, when she was elegant in red. Her first poem emphatically but not blindly spoke of her love for her country, and considering that Kate is in her first year of postgraduate studies, it was impressive how maturely she selected her phrases and her emphasis on our tender connections to our geography. It was evident that she was using the stagger-rhyme that is very prevalent in modern urban poetry, but it was also evident that Kate was not limited to that. She also revisited the poem she shared with us at last year’s slam, and it was clear that Kate operates in politely assertive and confident humanitarian idiom, with a notable touch of the pastoral in her imagery. The pastoral continued into a poem she delivered in Afrikaans, and for the intricate word weaving at work it was even more impressive that, while she held her book of poems in her hand, she hardly looked at it. Quite surprisingly but undoubtedly also pleasing for old-school enthusiasts, she then proceeded to segue from an ee cummings poem into a wonderfully silky but still hard-hitting feminine verse form with her fifth poem, inhabiting the world of the woman verbally abused. It was a biting but “proper”, orderly reprimand to those who so easily insult others, commiting what Toni Morrison calls “little murders”. With the restraint of her message, it then came as quite a jolt, albeit a pleasant one, when Kate ended the poem with a counter blow of her own. Her last item was a collection of voices of her favourite poets over the decades, and this underscored the versatility of Kate’s set for the evening, as she showed herself to have a commendable range and great diversity. She even included and appropriated a hip hop form as well as returning to the stagger rhyming style she used in her first poem, telling us that here was a new poet on the block, one that was going to be there for a while.
And then it was the turn of Jethro Louw and normality didn’t just go out the window, it left petrified and yelping. Adrian informed the crowd that Jethro was an impossibly well-informed man, knowledgeable on many topics, but he didn’t tell us that hostage-taking was one of them. Introducing himself, “Maniak” Marko and bassist “Uitgegrawe” David as the Hottentot Trio, or Khoi-San Brethren, the wildly unpredictable Jethro started off nicely enough, paying tribute to Kate Ellis-Cole, calling her “Juffrou”. It was sweet, thoughtful and, dare I say it, conventional, because it was at this moment already that anything resembling convention got spayed and rendered useless. What followed from there was madness SLiP’s poetry evenings won’t easily see again.
How can I best describe it? Perhaps it was like the moment Eugene Ionesco invented Absurdist Theatre as we know it with The Bald Soprano, because this was Absurdist Poetry Performance, without a shadow of a drunken doubt. The crowd only reacted because, quite possibly, it didn’t know what else to do. Those present didn’t know their own area code, their dearly loved old mothers or their pets’ names after a few minutes. With David keeping the bass steady and playing along to the backing tracks, a miming Marko was practically trying to bump the resolute Jethro off the stage to get attention from the word go. This peregrinating poetry started with a mellow reggae beat and echoed vocals by Jethro delivering lyrics no-one could make out in an opener that went on far too long. But an opener going on too long was as nothing compared to exactly how uncomfortable Jethro was planning to make the crowd feel; this was just him getting started. The second back track evoked Namaqua soundscapes, and Jethro posited himself and Marko as thirsty, almost Beckett-ian local wanderers on a journey, strongly bringing the Namaqua twang and bray to his voice while conjuring up images of sun-baked horizons of sand. At some point he switched to English to deliver snide commentary on the negligence of Hottentot history and Adrian Different’s earlier point about exactly how informed a man Jethro is became clear. How the hell David even found a bass line to this is mind-jarring because this was as about as certifiable as a poem could be, yet the three men on stage kept the pace true and worked in sync with their backing track. Jethro’s steel-wool-on-the-teeth pauses baffled all of us who couldn’t tell whether he was forgetting his words, whether he was as drunk as a drama student, or whether he was completely and utterly in control of what was happening on stage. If the latter, well, then, it’s frightening: Jacob Zuma isn’t even that in control in his own living room. The audience smiled like the Victorian English middle class must have done on colonial visits to Australia with that “Ahaha, please don’t kill and eat me” ring to it whenever rugby league players got too close to them to say hello. The audience smiled this way because Jethro was giving them no choice: he had taken SLiP hostage and was busy making sure he’d never, ever be forgotten. This was pure cunning, like when The Beatles recorded Revolution 9 and ignorant parents put their kids to bed with it, and the kids grew up and became Helen Zille. Nobody knew what the fuck to do because Jethro’s poetry was playing with our bones; we wanted to leave but couldn’t move. Only art can do that.
The fearless Jitsvinger had seen all this before, having shared the stage a few times with Jethro, and impatiently went over to the stage and told Jethro, whom he calls “Tandeman”, to speed things up. At this point, Jethro told the sound controller that “Ons is nou al by nommer drie”, persisting with the journey metaphor the previous poem had established and indicating that he would still like to take the young people in the audience on a taxi ride through life as he sees it. A more upbeat backing track with pre-recorded vocals on the chorus sections burst forth and picked up the pace, but I still doubt anyone heard what Jethro was saying. Instead, there was an awkward but untamed theatricality to behold, especially as Marko was trying harder and harder to get some limelight for himself and Jethro remained in the driver’s seat of this undaunted taxi. It was utter mania. It was fantastic. Eventually Marko got his chance on the last item when the beat served his rhyming and miming skills more closely, although the poem ended abruptly owing to some confusion between the performers and the sound controller playing the backing track. This ending came just as it seemed Marko could go on and on and the impulsive Jethro pulled the plug, like the Godfather does on rival Mafia families. It was apt, because the set ended as unpredictably as it had begun. A third of the crowd left for a reprieve and cigarettes they probably chewed more than smoked. The evening had become the stomping ground of Jethro Louw: his poems were about displacement and the brutal side-lining of Khoi-San culture, caught in modernity and barely remembered in postmodernity in a mad, mad morass of ignorance and negligence. These poems could not but take on the tone of the chaos and sadness that engulfed their origins. No-one was going to forget him.
Ah, but let’s also not forget Jitsvinger, who came to dutifully tidy things up after the Hottentot Trio’s set, and proceeded to clean out the SLiP record books in the process. Why would I say that? Shame on you if you weren’t there: Jitsvinger performed what was quite possibly the most exciting and masterful set we’ve yet witnessed at one of our poetry events. That’s a bold statement if you remember that we’ve had the likes of Marlene Van Niekerk, Blaq Pearl and Croc E Moses as some of our former headlining poets, but then there’s no-one out there quite like Jitsvinger. Armed with a nylon string guitar and body language that most people pay their grand-parents’ life-savings for, the Afrikaaps artist wedged the crowd somewhere between the frets of his guitar and played them. I doubt I’ve ever seen an audience so willingly played, for that matter. He controlled their silence, he made them laugh, he made them complicit in his lyrical schemes and he made them love themselves for being there. It was good vibes all around and you begin to think maybe this was what being a hippie was all about in 1967. Also, in offering us an increment to the regular Cape salutation of “Ma se kind”, he persuaded, probably for the first and only time in poetry history, a crowd of young, mostly academic types to chant “Pa se sperm”. That’s right, he got everyone in the house to say the word “sperm”, and when they did, he admonished them with, “Julle’s morsag!” This was a master at work, and we were thrilled.
It was a controlled set from Jitsvinger, but as such it gave a framework in which his words could run rampant and in which his guitar playing could soothe. He started off with mellow guitar phrases, lulling everyone into respectful silence but eventually he brought smooth, supple wordplay into it, getting the audience clicking their fingers and ad-lib lyrics with him. A crowd sing-along preluded a very catchy guitar jive, and suddenly we knew why he is called Jitsvinger. He then offered a wonderfully provocative “history lesson” on coloured and Khoi-San cultures, very much in keeping with Jethro Louw and raising that old, contentious question of “Who were the first South Africans?” But Jits wasn’t here to point or wag his fast finger at anyone, and with Jethro he performed his second item, in which the topic was explored in stately, humanitarian idiom. Jethro revelled in sharing this message with Jits, who in turn owned the crowd by bringing his speed-of-light rhymes to the party. The sound of everyone finger-clicking reminded me of the sound of castanets, and together with Jethro, Jits was creating a proper rainbow nation there and then.
And the rainbow was rocking to the rhythm he produced. Coloured people in the audience felt proud. Foreigners in the audience couldn’t believe their luck even if they didn’t understand a word of it. Black people in the audience saw the boy had skill. White girls in the audience were grooving to him, switched on by their discovery of Jits. Fuck me, it was so contagious even I wanted to be a white girl then.
On the next item, Jits’ guitar found its voice with a strident jazz scale being run along its neck before his words took over, and once again we were all silent and in awe. Sensing this, the top-of-his-game poet hit us by asking, “Ken julle nie my songs nie?” and the laughter it produced wasn’t relief, it was a promise from many people that they would indeed go out and get his CD’s, even if they had to steal from thieves. By the time he reached his fourth item, he had us eating out of his hand, which helped him plenty when he twice flubbed a very leisurely, very raunchy “slow jam” that referenced the Kama Sutra in its intro. Embarrassed by his own naughty lyrics, Jits stumbled and could only laugh at himself but it further endeared him to this audience. For his closing song, he instructed us to say the words “Maak dit aan!” on cue, and suddenly we all felt we were very cool, even though we couldn’t hope to keep up with the almost heavy metal meter of his rhymes. For good measure, Jethro couldn’t resist and burst on stage to start dancing to what Jits was coming up with. Die Antwoord and Jack Parow will deferentially walk cautious circles around Jits when he is this incendiary, and they’d acknowledge (as they do) that this is not a performer to be fucked with on any given day. For my money, this was SliP’s best featured poet yet, but then again I said similar things last month, so the space ahead isn’t just pregnant with possibility, it’s positively breeding. I cannot wait to see what happens next month; we’ll probably be offering our services as groupies by then.
If Adrian Different is an influential man, then it is quite possible we saw traces of that at the Open Mic. The hip-hop flavour to the evening’s proceedings was dominant, and when Adrian opened the main event earlier, his introduction and welcoming emphasised the importance of hip-hop to poetry. Now, there is no disputing this and we can all agree that Adrian is one of the most talented poets out there and a legendary MC in the making. The only problem is that not everyone is that good. I’m not knocking expression or style, but the open mic event betrayed a few performers that could’ve been more comfortable taking their words out of the hip-hop context. As with all forms of urban poetry, hip hop-influenced pieces are a joy to experience but they are a skill to perform. There again, not everyone around is going to be an Adrian Different or a Rimestein. It’s no-one’s fault that the main event had a strong hip-hop/urban poetry feel to it, with even Kate Ellis-Cole acknowledging it in her last piece, so it’s definitely no-one’s fault that the majority of the open mic performers were using backing tracks and rhyme schemes we’ve heard before. No beef there, because we invite anyone to “gooi their poems” in whichever way they want to. It’s not about being original; it’s about being passionate, right? But if almost everyone’s doing it, then how’s a young, up-and-coming poet going to stand out? Let’s not beat about the bush here—some of us want to stand out, we want to be remembered, we want to be asked to return. Adrian Different killed the first SLiP open mic he attended and was immediately asked to MC the open mic event in 2011. Because he was so good at doing that, he was then asked to MC the main event, and as our host he always starts us off with one of his own pieces, almost as if reminding the up-and-comers that they’ll have to take that stage away from him if they want to get on it. This is inspiring and keeps everyone on their toes.
Again, it’s just the way things are if six poets show up and all their poems have similar thematic patterns and all use backing tracks. No worries, but the danger is that we start having difficulty separating the one from the other because, ideally, a poetry event showcases all forms of poetry. That’s why the original SLAMS in America needed to branch out and start separating into more specific categories. I don’t entirely hold with that because I think all poems are equal but the reality is that when you’re in, say, Detroit, you are going to have a specific target audience in mind and when you are, say, in Paris you’ll have a different target audience in mind, even if those audiences, too, mix things up in terms of their expectations. I’m a lover of rock music, for instance, but if I go to a music festival I expect to hear all genres and styles of music, not just rock.
So, with the most recent SLiP open mic, I felt a possible inference lurking of things going in a one-way traffic direction, and that isn’t exactly what these events are about, which is cosmopolitanism. I repeat that no-one is to “blame” for this because “blame” doesn’t come into it, and if anyone, the audience can also determine what they want to see by signing up for the open mic themselves. What concerned me was seeing one or two open mic performers show up only for their own performance, and then leaving without checking out the other poets to gauge exactly how the night went as a whole, and where they fit in. The cosmopolitanism lies not only in the difference but in the ability of “difference” to be “normal”. Therein lies the communal aspect of poetry performance: it creates communities rather than just defining specific communities represented by so-and-so. I remember our resident poetry queen, Khanyisile, at a SLiP open mic last year, wanting to bond with the female audience, calling it “vaginal to vaginal”, but did that imply that she was alienating the male component of the audience? No, of course not. The entire audience, that night, just followed a certain discourse, that’s all, and the community was all the better for it.
Anyway, I’m not tirading against hip-hop poetry and I don’t think it’s suddenly some “new thing” that’s happening based on only one night, but if anything I’m encouraging all potential open mic performers to contribute to the cosmopolitanism so that we have many different voices, but more importantly, many different tones. Carlos Santana said that tone is everything in guitar music, else you sound like every other jack-ass that came before you. With our voices, it’s exactly the same thing.
The open mic report proper:
We started off with Neil Goldie, who is fast becoming our local angry young man type with some aplomb. Those of us who remember Neil’s brief stint as an English student will know that you always have to provide Neil with something to rebel against, or at the very least to rant at, and he won’t let you down. In fact, if you watch the video you’ll see that Neil does very well to stay within the three-minute time-limit Adrian set for all the open mic performers, so he can definitely structure his vehemence. Following him we had The Spitologist who, after a clumsy introduction, settled to a nice beat from the back-track with the item called “Blue, Black, Yellow”, showcasing subtle rhymes but exposing an awkward delivery. Rimestein, as he did last year, pointed to the perils of alcohol abuse in a searing piece, name-dropping the late, great Devious (Blaq Pearl’s brother). He was locked into a steady flow on his second item, grooving to his backtrack, but Adrian Different showed why he was the master of ceremonies by calling time at three minutes. Pumi was next, delivering a first item dealing with class and racial imbalances that felt quite played-out and sluggish in his stolid meter, but then that may have been the point. He delivered a straight and assured performance on the second item, where he tuned the subject to a more intimate dynamic. The Flip Maniacs, two young men who came out of nowhere and left just as quickly, sneakily bought some time with an off-the-cuff poem as they waited for their backtrack to be set up. They launched into a riveting performance, fusing an epic beat with stinging verbal sparring. They had “heard” that there was a poetry event, dropped in to do their thing, and, as far as I could tell, disappeared again. After them it was the turn of The Man Gun, and this turned out to be none other than Marko Snyders again, reminding me of a WWE Royal Rumble match many years back in which the same wrestler entered the Rumble as three different personas. This was indeed Marko’s Rumble, as he now had a stage he did not have to share with Jethro, and we saw again what a clearly unhinged poet he is, shooting words like machine-gun bullets and not missing a beat. When Marko finished, Adrian brilliantly stepped up to the stage with a mock-serious disclaimer about the views of the performers not necessarily being the views of Slip, and then proceeded to share a few administrative notices before introducing Danny Sway, who had missed his chance earlier when his laptop froze on him as he was about to read a poem off of it. That poem turned out to be the late Gil Scot-Heron’s Black History, a powerful, resonating work that was sadly marred by Danny’s somewhat stumbling reading of it. A group of international students sitting at the back with me were disappointed that the selected reading wasn’t the more provocative Whitey on the Moon. Mr T was up next, giving a rap performance that I felt was just too stereotypically “popular” American, rendering the notion of identity problematic, but against that there was an agitation in his rhymes that was very convincing, almost as if he’d styled himself on the great Nas. The open mic ended sweetly with the spoken word and vocal quartet Away, The Sound Within, who’d apparently brought the house down at the previous SLiP open mic even, and Adrian introduced them with great enthusiasm. Indeed, they were something to behold, performing My Love Letter to Africa with consolidating words of harmony, hope and peace that were too earnest and vulnerable to be saccharine, supported by gorgeous humming and singing. It was a great way to end the night.