Musician Neo Muyanga, and DJ/Editor Ntone Edjabe’s Pan African Space Station is an experiment in music, writing and city mapping. They tell us how it all began.

Words by Tau Tavengwa | 06 Jun, 2011

Founded in 2008, and held annually in Cape Town’s early spring months, the Pan African Space Station is a genre-busting 30-day musical intervention held in a variety of non-musical communal venues, churches and town halls included. The curatorial team of Ntone Edjabe and Neo Muyanga, in partnership with the Africa Centre, spearheads it. The event, which encompasses a range of on/offline musical happenings, has showcased a range of artists, including the virtuoso guitarist Doctor Philip Tabane and his band Malombo, Cameroonian percussionist Brice Wassy, Ethiopian singer Endress Hassen and Kisangani-based dance collective Studio Kabako, to name but a few. PASS is distinguished not only by its duration but also its innovative approach to programming, which, in its own temporal fashion, reconfigured a fragmented, racially ghettoised city into a series of interconnected episodes. CityScape’s editor Tau Tavengwa met up with Edjabe and Muyanga to trace origins, achievements and future pathways of PASS.

Neo Muyanga: Yeoville in the 1990s is where the Pan African Space Station (PASS) really began. There were a lot of people in Yeoville at the time trying the change the world, a kind of Afro hippy community.

Tau Tavengwa: And that’s lost now?

Ntone Edjabe: No, no.

TT: Yeoville really built its identity as a place, I think, on that community, which has since been widely dispersed. You two ended up here in Cape Town, at the centre of a very similar community, you, Neo, as a composer and musician, and you, Ntone, as editor and publisher of Chimurenga. What prompted you to start thinking of creating PASS?

NM: We had been speaking about music a lot over the years. I used to go to the places where Ntone was DJing and we’d talk about where stuff comes from and how that relates to what people are doing. I think we listen to music in similar ways: we’re attracted to stuff that breaks out of itself, that isn’t bound by a narrow definition. Around 2006, maybe the year after, we started having this conversation about creating a space where we could have very simple and cheap food, a place that would have easy access and allow people to dance to music that you can’t necessarily dance to in Cape Town. Then Ntone was invited into the Africa Centre founding process. One of the questions that came about through that process was how to create a music festival that could be a pan-African platform, that didn’t shut things down as opposed to celebrate them—something that doesn’t freeze frame culture.

TT: Explain that some more.

NM: Well, the western idea of a museum cleans a square where a curio object will sit rarefied, untouched and preserved. The Africa Centre was interrogating how to make a museum of the living, an exhibition platform of the essential, the mundane, the everyday—you know, the usable. This conversation came out of the reference team set up to think about an arts intervention. We quickly realised we didn’t want to do a music festival; we wanted to have an intervention that lasted longer, that was much more about how to get in contact with what moves people as opposed to what hypes people to pay for the coolest shit in town. So we started thinking about how to make this thing, something that touches people, something that is philosophically and ideologically owned by a community, a greater community, as opposed to directed and marketed by a handful of clever and rich people with access.

TT: You’ve spoken about this a lot before. What is the difference between a music intervention and a festival?

NE: It’s about the celebratory aspect that is inherent in a festival manifestation. Remember, we are in 2011 here and there seems to be a singular motto as far as African culture is concerned in this country. At the time we were reflecting on how we could contribute in a broader public platform that showcased true music, true literature and so forth. The motto of the festival is different: to have fun, to forget everything, to spend your money. There’s nothing to think about, the struggle is over. You choose whatever sentences fit here, but it all says one thing: we’re now just consuming culture. That for me is the difference. If you can afford the ticket you pay, you go to the festival and you swallow its offerings like you would eat food at a restaurant, go home and tell your wife, your girlfriend, boyfriend, children, ‘Oh, I did something great today.’ But the truth is that you’ve in no way participated in what is being produced—you’re no longer a cultural producer. That is how festivals are conceived. Whether it’s a music festival, theatre festival or literature festival, it’s always about who’s the big star coming this year, and who can afford to go see them, and why you should go and consume them.

We wanted to create something that forced people to think differently about their participation in the thing. Although there is an element gift giving by the performer, we wanted to enhance the participatory aspect—everyone who is at the event is part of the event. It is like the many playwrights and directors who tried to break that fort wall, you know what I’m saying, the classic performative space of a theatre. We wanted to break that fort wall in a broader citywide event, to create an event where everybody who is in the city is participating in making the event. We wanted to remind audiences that they were part of the making of an event, as opposed to just consumers. So we had to imagine a place, one singular place that was that, and try and expand it across the city. We had to create a space, a very physical space, where there was no stage, where the moment you enter that space you were the performer, a physical space that could function as a metaphor for how one thinks about the festival or the performances across the city.

NM: I play a lot of festivals, so I approached it from a performer’s perspective. Typically, a festival organiser will call you with a date and ask what your fee is; you give them a quote, and they say they can have you on that day. Most bands arrive that morning, two hours before, going straight from the airport to backstage. You do your line check, sound check, and then you’re on. You’re supposed to be professional, polished and smooth. You get there and you dazzle your crowd immediately in the first ten minutes. You’ve got probably 45 to an hour, and then after that you leave through the back door—you’re gone, back onto your plane, onto the next city. There’s been no transformation of you as a creator or co-creator with the audience.

What we wanted was something that played itself out over a longer period. We wanted to create a space where we could take visitors out of their fast lane lives into a small town—Cape Town is actually a small town—and introduce them to a few people who know certain things that are interesting about the space, tell them a bit of the history, put them in spaces that are awkward, and ask everybody to extend themselves beyond themselves. The spaces we chose over the past three years haven’t been the easiest spaces. In fact, our sound company, Eastern Acoustics, constantly looked at us as if we were mad. ‘Why here, the acoustics are wrong.’ We’d say, ‘Yes, but the history is right, the iconography is right.’

TT: Let’s pull back a little bit. Your curatorial team, The Heliotronics, get this opportunity to do a festival, or intervention. Given that you guys had all these spatial ideas for your intervention, what made you name it the Pan African Space Station?

NM: We both think of ourselves as contemporary beings, but also as quite futuristic. We exist as hybrids of analogue and digital personalities, if you like. We exist with the history that has built us, and as Africans that is who we are. We come with baggage, but we also realise that Africa has an opportunity to leapfrog itself, and everybody else. We don’t have tried and tested ideas of what it means to be avant-garde on our streets, in our townships, in our cultural spaces. We can go from having nothing, from a rural market space, to suddenly a futuristic stock exchange where cell phones are used to exchange the latest figures, not just from that environment, but from the global, and we can buy and sell in quite technologically evolved ways, because we are not tied to an old architecture. We very much wanted to see ourselves playing with that dichotomy. We asked ourselves what does that signify, what does that mean?

Using the internet you can now create content that inhabits space, not just a physical space anymore, but the virtual space. It can be shared almost instantaneously with people around the globe, people who are like us. At the beginning people would ask us, ‘Who is your market? Who are you talking to?’ Our answer generally was, ‘We’re talking to everybody.’ The reality is that there are many people like us, people who think like us, and they are stationed everywhere on the planet. So it was this idea of reaching out to that community, not just the Cape Town community.

TT: Cape Town seems to have been almost incidental as a host venue, because your audience, the majority of people who got really excited about PASS, were everywhere else.

NE: I guess that’s what makes it a ‘space station,’ quite literally, that it’s out of its own context and beaming into an undetermined kind of scape, right. But the name, PASS, I don’t want to put too much emphasis on the name because that’s really, as we were talking earlier, about heliotronics, heliocentric, heliotropics, whatever. We really have not talked very self-consciously about the naming process. We didn’t create it to historicise it, to put it in a glass cage. We spent our time trying to identify the content: all the things we kept playing to each other, a lot of it had to do with an exploratory feel. I wouldn’t call it avant-garde, but it had this searching, this complexity. It wasn’t the kind of polished and recognisable ‘African music’ thing.

The ‘space station’ in the name refers to something exploratory, like technological advancement. We were talking about and thinking about this from an African context, perhaps, because African states did not participate in the space race, did not participate in this kind of technological posturing. We have other ways to show the inventiveness, the creativeness, and really the core innovation that happens on a day-to-day basis on this continent.

We really struggled to find a way to describe this thing when we were first formulating it, and the name PASS was actually the closest description we could come to for what we were doing. It just came up at one of the meetings. People kept asking what we were doing. We eventually started to say, ‘We’re doing a space station.’ There just wasn’t enough terminology to say what someone like Philip Tabane was doing—really, he is a space traveller—enough language to describe it, so we had to create another language to really describe it.

TT: Let’s speak of the iconography and aesthetic choices that you made, which have come to represent PASS. It’s futuristic, but on another level it’s very surreal. I don’t even know what to call it. There’s always this very interesting allusion to the whole idea of time and space.

NM: Science fiction in the township.

TT: Sun Ra.

NE: Very good.

NM: When we first did the posters one of the things that was very clear to us was that it had to celebrate itself like a work of art, a work of art on the street, something that could potentially be stolen in the middle of the night, because it is so attractive. When we made that map of the city for PASS 2008, it was response to everybody who says Cape Town is so segregated, racist and un-African, all of this rubbish that probably was relevant 20 years ago. I don’t know if that’s a true reflection of what is happening now. The leap from Long Street to Langa is not that far, so the proposal we made was, ‘Hey, look, you can do this.’ It is just another way of looking at your thinking and design of this place, another way of looking at your transport system. We tried very hard to invent a shuttle that would go through these places, but we didn’t have enough resources to do that. But that’s why we don’t call it a festival, because thinking always went around where are the posters going to go. Are the posters being exhibited, and is the city then becoming our gallery, and how does the gallery speak to the live music stage, and how do we celebrate that before the hype night? The radio station became an important node. Festivals are over in a flash. They last one or two nights, whereas what we wanted to do was to impact on somebody’s life over a period of time.

NE: That’s why there are three aspects to PASS. There is a blog, which involves a live broadcast stream and podcast. It also involves the creation of writing and making images. People sometimes just participate there, not through listening or producing sound, but through writing an impression or an article about artists. The second level is the live performances, and the third level was the visual art exhibition where we always insisted that we use the city as an exhibition platform in creating these artworks. We commissioned artists and asked them to create images— posters, very well put together original works that could have been in a gallery— which we’d use for mass distribution and consumption. So those three aspects were always running together.

We didn’t have the money to do what the bigwigs do all the time, you know, splash radio and TV with advertising. We have to come up with very inventive ways to touch individuals, as opposed to nameless faces. So, for instance, a lot of our communication about the festival happened through small, beautifully made and informative cards that we handed out to people individually. It might have a beautiful photograph of Philip Tabane, a short original text about the artist and some links. It served the purpose of communicating the project, but also established a personal connection to the thing. It’s not just information you grab along the way while watching TV. Our thing was always, ‘Let’s try to communicate as much as possible to individual persons.’ For us that’s what disrupted the mapping of the city, because the city deals with itself in terms of groups of nameless faces. Black people go there, coloureds go there, etcetera. In a way this illustrates the success of apartheid, but our project was an attempt to disrupt these divisions.

TT: What you say is perfect because I was hoping we would talk about that disruptive nature of PASS.

NE: We wanted to connect individuals. You like Tabane, I like Tabane, regardless of where you are, and so that becomes our connection. That was the one was creating a disruption, through communication. The second disruptive element was our choice of venue. We focused on venues where people get together as opposed to premeditated or expected music spaces. We tried to find spaces where, historically, people got together—churches, civic halls—and then transform them. These spaces already have value and meaning for individual people and citizens. Let’s then bring content, a different kind of content, to these spaces. St George’s Cathedral, for example, was a place where people went to listen to Desmond Tutu and participate in the struggle, a lot of built-in memories, which are very different for each and every one of us. We wanted to tap into that and on some level disrupt the way we look at this space and the city.

The third attempt was around the circulation of bodies. We wanted to create a system that would allow people to go to places they don’t usually go to. We tried, for example, to create a transport system that allowed audiences move from the Slave Church on Long Street to Guga S’Thebe in Langa, to offer audiences the possibility to navigate the city in ways other than how they normally would. It wasn’t very successful. Of course, what you place where disrupts how bodies circulate: placing a sound, which is seen as avant-garde and exploratory, into a place like Guga S’Thebe where a clever marketing guru would put ‘music for the people’.

Not everyone in Langa is interested in the poppy shit that is broadcast on Metro FM or whatever, so our programming was an attempt to disrupt all these assumptions we have of the city and how it functions. We wanted to tap into the really avant-garde jazz and funk cultural pockets of Langa, people who get together every Saturday and listen to music that no one else in Cape Town is listening to, also the young electronica crowd who have this little club in Gugelethu. We really wanted to explore the city differently.

NM: We also wanted to get out of the prison of genre. These songs can be played together but not these, because they have guitars in them and the others have drum machines. This is traditional and that is hip-hop. Bullshit! These are just people making music. Some of it is good; some of it is not good. There are lots of us who listen across the board.

TT: Let’s talk a little bit about the programming of the performances. You guys obviously have very eclectic listening tastes. How do you go about inviting someone to play? Some of the choices were pretty interesting. I listened to Culture Musical Club from Zanzibar and Cindy Blackman, a drummer with Lenny Kravitz’s band, on the same night. It was very schizophrenic. Everybody was asking, ‘Who the hell put this together?’

The reality of our continent, the reality of our lives is that this is a complicated place. It’s contested. There’s lots of beauty, there is a lot of violence, there’s a lot of need, but there is a lot of surplus, a lot of greed, so we wanted to speak to that in a sense

NE: Actually it’s very simple. One of the things we worked really hard on was having a programming that felt good to both of us.

NM: One of the problems we always had was money. We also don’t have the time and the space to put up the stuff we want. On any given day we could have come up with 20 acts that we thought everybody in Cape Town should see back to back, because that progression says something. The problem was we had to limit ourselves to what we could afford, to what was manageable for us. It took us months to agree on the daily content. By contrast, the online radio station was pretty free-for-all, quite improvised. People would come and contributed whatever they wanted.

NE: You didn’t know what was going to be on the radio.

NM: We never knew. We were never gatekeepers of the process. All we asked was somebody to tell us beforehand, ‘Look, I’m going to be popping by the studio in the next 20 minutes or so.’ We never asked people about the quality. Actually, it was anti quality control. But the stages, because people are paying a fee and because of all the organisational stuff that goes into ...

NE: The limitations of space ...

NM: ... preparing a night that actually works for people. We discussed that ad nauseam, because we wanted the feeling at the end of an occasion to be the right one. One of the things that was very important for us was connecting roots, old school and new school.

TT: Explain that?

NM: To illustrate how Philip Tabane can be as futuristic as Johnny Cradle. There would be no Johnny Cradle if there had been no Philip Tabane. Whether Johnny Cradle knows that or not is immaterial. The visual was equally important. If I think how I constitute my bands when I perform, I constantly think of what it looks like. Is it full of black people? Is it full of white people? Is it full of men? Not because I want to make everything equal and politically correct. It’s about questioning these modes that we inhabit of just assuming that something is going to be like this because that’s what you’ve seen. Interrogating things visually and aesthetically was always a very important part of how we programmed PASS. We would come up with all kinds of acts that we love and then we had to sift through the progression. We thought a lot about who went first, second, third, what feeling it would create about the event at the end of that day, and whether it would make people join the celebration the following day and the following day, as opposed to what is the show that is going to sell the biggest. We never sold tickets based on a big name. Our job was to find out who those people are going to be big in a year or two, and make sure you could see them in Cape Town for R30.

TT: Studio Kabako [from Kisangani, DRC] was an interesting choice because they were the first act to play in 2010. They set the bar so high.

NE: They have an unbelievably busy schedule. We had to find ways to structure the entire festival around having them open PASS that year. We really wanted to start as big as possible instead of work the usual chronology, with your biggest thing at the end. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s our intention. You won’t always stay at that level, but at some point you just focus and say this is our first performance, this is what PASS is about, or this is what we’d like it to be about. It’s not in the linear progression of entertainment where you build and, boom, big show. That’s the festival’s rhythm. We had Thandiswa Mazwai, who is understandably a popular act, open the evening’s line-up, with Georgia Anne Muldrow playing later. The point is not to challenge for the sake of it; the point is really that there are other possibilities of experiencing this thing. We’re always looking for those.

TT: Let’s talk about ‘African music’. Is there such a thing anymore? Was there ever?

NM: The thing about the continent and its diasporas is that it is defined by complexity. Everybody tries to collapse them into these smooth or cleanly defined spaces. Some people will tell you African music is happy, it’s major scale, it’s call and response—all of that stuff. The reality of our continent, the reality of our lives is that this is a complicated place. It’s contested. There’s lots of beauty, there is a lot of violence, there’s a lot of need, but there is a lot of surplus, a lot of greed, so we wanted to speak to that in a sense. Take Cindy Blackman, for example. She lives in New York and for her there’s this need to connect to the root, and that root is a worldview that binds us together. To define something as African music, that’s too simple. There are two kinds of simplicity: the one is superficial and lazy, but the other simplicity is more akin to elegance in its true complexity. It is about getting to a space where you understand the deeper links between divergent points. Those are the connections we’re looking for mostly.

Another example, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. I was listening to them play at Gugulethu and I overheard some people behind me whisper, ‘Why are these American here to play at an African music festival?’ I was like, ‘Hmm.’ The first thing they played was Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica because their father, who is from the generation of Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets, brought them up on that song. They thought it was the coolest shit. In a way it facilitates us looking at ourselves in a completely different way, and that increases the connections. That’s the skill, that’s the outlook.

NE: Africa is a concept. There is also Africa as a place, very physical, geographical space. So you are describing one engagement, but it’s one of many engagements. There is also the engagement with place, which is very important. We travelled to Cameroon for a week, to my house in Limbe, and every single night we went to listen to music, DJs, bands playing covers of The Beatles, bands playing original music, whatever. One wants to get to a place where you are never just following a particular trajectory. It is about uprooting yourself and inhabiting this kind of cerebral place where you are connecting with loose individuals, always dealing with real people on the ground who are doing things, making music, performing music.

TT: Let’s talk about Cape Town. Some of your shows were in historical buildings in the city bowl, which has 54,000 residents and about 450,000 people coming in on a daily basis. But at the same time you put on shows in Langa, at Guga S’Thebe, with the idea that people travel between the spaces. Did that actually happen? Did people come into the city bowl from the townships, places like Mitchells Plain and Khayelitsha? The city doesn’t easily allow for that sort of mobility, especially at night.

NM: To be honest, we really were not so scientific about that. Our show last year at Guga S’Thebe was sold out. It was full of people who drove in from Sea Point and Kommetjie, but there were also lots of people Langa and nearby Gugulethu. I think something had happened over time, people had gained trust and understanding of where you come from and what your intention was. It was a similar thing with the city. It’s a very strange thing that places like the Slave Church Museum didn’t see themselves as economically viable spaces not so long ago. When we first approached them they didn’t have a pricing structure because they’d never been asked to host an event like this, and they didn’t see themselves as relevant.

TT: They are a museum.

NM: We’re a museum too. People kept asking us where the Slave Church Museum is. It’s at the top of Long Street, near the KFC, which we used as a landmark. It’s very difficult—these symbolic places are invisible to people now. One of the biggest compliments I got was at PASS one night. Some people who didn’t really know that we were the organisers we saying, ‘You know, I’ve never been in a space like this where I don’t feel uncomfortable because of my race.’ We tried to create a comfortable space, something that wasn’t racialised—a black space, a white space—just a space where people who love music could hang out.

TT: In Cape Town those are the terms in which people look at spaces. Space has got a race, which is very interesting.

NM: That’s your currency. That’s how you sell your club, that’s how you sell your bar.

TT: You guys even had a concert in the dark.

NE: And no handbags went missing.

TT: That’s a measure of success … forget how good the music was.

NM: On that note, one of the very important things, again, about engaging the artists and challenging everybody to stretch themselves: a lot of the ideas came from the artists. Our approach, usually, to the artists was, ‘Look, we happen to have some money and we’ve got influence for the time being. What kind of thing would you like to do that you’ve never been able to do before? What kind of thing would you like us to support you with that you’ve never been able to do before? And how do we put resources together to make that happen?’ The idea for the blind show came from Madala Kunene. We asked him what kind of setup he wanted to work with. He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to play a show in the dark because I want people who are sighted to get an inkling of what it feels like to be blind.’

We always put ourselves in the place of the inventor, the innovator, as opposed to one who is supposed to be carrying out a particular tradition

TT: You got Bheki Khoza to compose a piece.

NM: We initially asked if we could commission him to do something. He said yes, so we gave him a book to read and asked him to write music. He complained: ‘I’ve never been invited to a gig and given a book to read.’

NE: He’s a very beautiful and important musician, and I think he brings back this thing we were saying about how we receive, how we package, how we present the music so that we are able to experience it differently. Bheki has been around since forever, but needed to create a context where he could come out with all his knowledge, experience and sensibility, because he is totally in charge. We just said, ‘You’re a thinker and as a creator here is a platform, just do whatever choose.’ I think that kind of freedom played a lot into the quality of the content that we received, and not just for Bheki but for major stars like Toumani Diabaté, who had never been in a context such as this. Diabaté’s such a big star that when he gets to New York he plays at the Carnegie Hall, but here he is playing in a small slave church.

He had to rethink everything when he got here because of this kind of human level experience. He only has it in Bamako, where he lives, where he really engages with people as people, not as a $100 ticket paying audience. How do you allow this person to say something that other platforms do not allow them to say, to feel at home, so to speak, in the same way that we would like the audiences to. The artists’ engagement with the audience on that level was very crucial.

About the city, I just wanted to say something else about Cape Town. I haven’t thought this through completely but I continuously feel that, for all the terrible things that we know about the city because we live here and we experience it daily, in many ways Cape Town gives us the opportunity to explore in these kinds of ways, perhaps because of what is pushed down our throats in terms of the African experience in the city. We always put ourselves in the place of the inventor, the innovator, as opposed to one who is supposed to be carrying out a particular tradition. I do know that this initiative would have been possible, and perhaps even more possible, in Joburg, or in Kinshasa or Lagos, but in very different ways.

TT: It would never have been the same.

NE: You know what I’m saying. The complete denial and deletion of an African presence and history and experience of life in this city forced us to be quite radical about how we presented things. The chances we took may not have been possible in a place that self-consciously sees itself and lives out its African-ness.

TT: One gets the feeling Cape Town always looks to Europe, it never looks to Africa except for tourist friendly curios, but in terms of culture and stuff it aspires to Europe. So it was very interesting to this African event in this environment. It forces the city’s residents to rethink their positions on stuff. But let’s shift gears and talk about the funding. You’ve already spoken about how you managed to do this despite the fact that you didn’t have enough money. In a place where you don’t have much state support for the arts sector everything ends up becoming quite corporatised. Can you discuss your relationship with the Africa Centre? How did that whole relationship come about, and how did it work. Also how sustainable is this model? What is the ideal model, particularly in an environment that doesn’t really value arts funding?

NM: For the past three years we had core funding from the Africa Centre, a scenario where an organisation that was cash flush could say we dedicate these resources to do what you have envisioned for the next three years. It allowed us to play a radical game. It was also a big luxury to be able to do that, because that allowed us to play, I think, in the correct ideological space for our purposes. But that three-year window is up and we are now in the process of exploring what else we can do with other partners.

We are in a position of strength now because, of course, we’ve got a track record and we’ve got ideas that have worked in the marketplace, as well as artistically. We didn’t make huge amounts of money, but PASS does attract a whole group of people. One of the things we’re very clear about now is that PASS has got to become a bigger intervention, while retaining its homeliness. One of the things is to take it out of a month cycle, one month of the year cycle, and to make it happen throughout the year.

NE: We want it to be a permanent installation as opposed to an intervention.

Tau Tavengwa is the founder, editor and publisher of Cityscapes Magazine