Live: Spoek Mathambo Gets Loose At S.O.B.’s


Spoek Mathambo
Thursday, March 22

Better than: Probably any other African rap act.

“So much posse in the house!” exulted Spoek Mathambo at the beginning of his midnight set. “It’s a family thing—like a coke family.” Or maybe he meant the Koch family; hard to say. Nevertheless, half a dozen acts had preceded the Johannesburg rapper-producer, ranging from a casual dorm-room reggae session by his electronics-wielding saxophonist, the American expatriate Chllngr, to Brooklyn-based rapper Cerebral Vortex, whom Spoek joined for the Douster-produced party favor “Drunk Like That.”

Over the past few years, Spoek Mathambo (born Nthato Mokgata) has evolved from intriguing MIA-inspired rapper to ambitious experimental rap-rocker. In the interim between his 2009 debut Mshini Wam and his terrific new Father Creeper, he picked up a scruffy quartet that bashes and blows and bleeps with the loose-limbed counter-virtuosity of an afrobeat Pavement. But what on record sounds seriously sculpted comes off onstage as good sloppy fun. Which doesn’t suggest lack of discipline so much as—what up Experience Music Project Pop Conference just down the street at NYU?—strategic performance practice inna Soweto stylee. Mathambo’s blowing some dark changes out there, and you can’t help but dig the disjunction between party rocking and party politics. So it was no real surprise that Spoek kicked things off with the title track of his first album, which contains a tightly packed onomatopoeic Kalashnikov of allusions to arms, insofar as “Unshini Wami” (Bring Me My Machine Gun) was a favorite Zulu song of the African National Congress’s pro-violence faction; or that Mathambo introduced the greed and violence of “Venison Fingers” (“”Burn your village steal your woman”) as “great exercise music.” This ain’t no party/disco, etc.

Father Creeper covers a lot of ground, and so did Spoek & Co., who sped through the adolescent agonies of “Kites” and the DJ-dissing effronteries of “I Don’t Mean to Be Rude” (“all you shit talkers can eat my ass out”) on their way to the show’s funereal centerpiece, “Grave,” a long, bluesy cemetery walk through Prince territory. Mathambo doesn’t quite have the vocal chops to pull off this sort of thing onstage, alas. But damn if lines describing bright red lips gone old and saggy don’t sagely sum up a lifetime’s love.

Guitarist Nicolaas Van Reenen, introduced by Mathambo as “the man who changed my life,” doesn’t sound anything like all those Williamsburg wannabe highlife plinkers, which is all for the best. The only thing missing from this show, in fact, was the sort of jazzy rhythmic abstractions Van Reenen appeared to be pulling from somewhere near the base of his spine. The hour-long, encoreless set ended with the thrilling thrum of Father Creeper‘s “Let Them Talk,” which suggested that the only thing missing from a Spoek Mathambo mambo is—and I don’t mean to be rude—more Zulutastic music of an improvisational nature. Spoek has the group; now he only needs to take advantage of it.

Critical bias: Having interviewed Spoek Mathambo and reviewed Father Creeper elsewhere, hitting the critical trifecta by covering this show probably tempted the law of diminishing returns.

Overheard: “I’m not a comedian; I only make beats and sing.”—Suzi Analog, killing time as a technical difficulty is resolved.

Random notebook dump: ¡Que viva Two-Tone!

Set list:
Mshini Wam
Venison Fingers
I Don’t Mean to Be Rude
Dog to Bone
Let Them Talk

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