Urban Village have mastered the art of returning home and have taken an oath to share that power with the world
Consider this. The device you’re reading this from – mostly likely a smartphone – has consumed so much of your life, you can’t remember how you lived before without it. Yesterday, I was having a conversation with my best friend about how, of all the animals on the planet, humans are the most fucked. When the papa impala is feeling the mama impala, he knows because he’s sensitive to her pheromones. Us lousy humans, we supplement that broken part of us with things, like the smartphone you’re likely reading this from, cologne, status, money or whatever in order to get the guy or the girl.
Lerato Lichaba, Smanga Dlamini, Tubatsi Moloi and Xolani Mtshali know all about this. So they got together and formed Urban Village, a four-piece band with a sole mission. “I love tackling this one, man,” Mtshali offers. “Every time we go back, we just tryna find identity. But every time you move forward, you tryna move back in time. So it’s actually being timeless.”
If we’re going to stop to remember ourselves, we’re going to need a constant reminder, and that’s what Urban Village has set out to be. A significant part of that work for the band is fostering a sense of ubuntu. “It’s just a constant reminder to not forget where we come from and who we really are as abantu aba mnyama,” Moloi explains. “Even though we living in the urban spaces but the message is not only for the people from eSoweto versus Joburg. The message is also for people that come from all the rural parts of eAfrika yonke.”
Every time we go back, we just tryna find identity. But every time you move forward, you tryna move back in time. So it’s actually being timeless
That same message is central to their approach to music: you need to go back to that guttural place of spontaneity in order to move forward with creating something new. “If ubheka the creation of the music, it’s something that keeps growing and it keeps changing,” Moloi says. “How we compose a song, it’s so amazing because it happens organically. Someone just starts playing a melody, and then someone picks it up and starts running with it. How this chord makes me feel – it takes me to a jungle. It makes me feel like a rainy day. And then we write a rainy day; we write a song about a rainy day.”
This music is for everyone because everyone has a village inside of them which they need to return to. I’m the writer and interviewer in this scene so it’s my job to keep things under my control and make sure it’s never about me. What I will learn very quickly is that Urban Village’s mandate is not just in their music but it’s in everything they say and do.
I’m meeting with the band at The Immigrant in Braamfontein. Braamfontein is in the centre of Johannesburg and forms part of its CBD. It’s also where I live. I have been living in cities all my life. Lichaba sits directly in front of me at our table and although he speaks the least of all his bandmates throughout the interview, when he does speak, he speaks with resonance. “What does Urban Village mean to you?” he asks me, flipping the script. “That’s a very good question. See I’m not used to being asked questions. I ask the questions,” I defend. “You’re welcome,” he insists, forcing me to find the village within myself.
If you trace it back to your ancestors, there’s a village in yourself
“If you trace it back to your ancestors, there’s a village in yourself,” Mtshali reminds me. “The village is always around and such sounds, people can relate to.” And by ‘people’, he means those from all walks of life. I discovered Urban Village at the Back to the City festival in Johannesburg. While it’s true that theirs is a sound unique to themselves, the idea of an Urban Village performing at a hip hop festival intrigued and jogged my mind (albeit they were there to perform on the dedicated fringe band stage). “We’re not so conscious about spaces but we’re conscious that everyone needs to hear the sound,” Mtshali explains. “We’ve played in Trackside – that’s a hip hop thing happening in Soweto. Hip hop. And we go there. And we are also a bit, ‘How will they receive this thing?’ and they receive it very well coz everyone in them [they have] got a certain village.”
It’s how they were able to keep a crowd entertained which had just witnessed the magical works of Hugh Masekela, Ringo Madlingozi and Phuzekhemisi. But it may also have to do with the band’s sensitivities to energies. When I ask each member what they know for sure (thanks, Gene Siskel), Lichaba says, “I know for sure the universe is one, including the people and the human race and the energy and everything. I don’t wanna go further.” When I ask why, he stops me in my tracks saying, “No. I don’t wanna politik.”
Going through my notes post the interview, I realise he’d actually explained it in a question just before this. I asked each member what they were reading. “No. I don’t read at all. It’s not that I can’t read – I can but I don’t read. I’m not a reader. I’m more of a thinker.” I’m tempted to posit what I believe a thinker to be thanks to my university philosophy days but I allow him answer the question himself instead: “What are you thinking about?” “Life, in general. How can I be a super human being in this time and age? Deep neh?”
A super human? It’s someone which doesn’t exist – now, currently. Unless he gets aligned with our energies properly – which doubt it will ever happen
You don’t need me to tell you what my next question was. “A super human? It’s someone which doesn’t exist – now, currently. Unless he gets aligned with our energies properly – which doubt it will ever happen – then I guess we’ll reach that stage.” He goes on to tell me that he’s not quite at that level yet and we agree to park it until next interview.
I’d like to believe all four band members are already superhumans. I know this because none of them can answer the question of what their most memorable performance is. Instead they all agree that each one comes with its own magic which they make the point of acknowledging each time it happens. “When you play, people are crying, it’s memorable. We play, people are just moving and dancing. Like places like this – they’re quite empty, you start playing and it’s filled. It’s memorable,” Mtshali says, referring to the show they’re going to play after this interview at the Immigrant. “The reactions are always different. You play some places, they already dancing for you. You play some places, they are in awe. It means that the crowd is a bit more eclectic so they trying to break it down coz the music is bit different from what they were expecting.”
If anything, a song like “Sakh’isizwe” is the clearest expression of Urban Village’s superhuman philosophy and the return to the internal ancestral village. “Music is about unifying everything, the uniform, making us be one, and not so focused on our differences coz they are very minute,” Mtshali explains. “At the end of the day, we all have to survive on this earth and take care of each other. We all affected by anything – whoever does whatever, we all affected. [“Sakh’isizwe”] is actually about moving away from races and all these things and all these stereotypes we living in. It is a place where, if we can just co-exist, in-line with nature, that to me is a basic form of living: just being in line with nature. That’s why when people have to recalibrate, they go to nature because the city chews them.”
Music is about unifying everything, the uniform, making us be one, and not so focused on our differences coz they are very minute
If this is all sounding like a utopian theory which needs a practical litmus test, the band wants you to know they’re aware that up ’til now, you’d have to catch them out in the wild to experience the Village but they’re doing something about it. A music video is on its way as well as new music. Until then, do catch them on tour and listen to what they’ve currently got via SoundCloud below.