Vana and the Oh So Serious

Words/ Photographs: Chelsea Haith
“I wish I had a little green box, to put my best friends in. I’d take them out one by one, and put them back again.” – Little Green Box, Vana and The Oh So Serious

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Archetype caught up with Vana, front man of the Oh So Serious, a blues and folk collective from Pretoria on a sunny winter afternoon at 44 Stanley, Johannesburg. During the break we took a quick stroll to the Spar to buy water and a Lunch Bar, fuel for the enthusiastic vocalist before he kicked off what was to be the second of four sets. The band has recorded several albums together including Live at Tweefontein Melkery. This album was recorded at the old dairy and is in turns foot-stomping and haunting. The songs feel like ghosts of old friends from childhood infused with enough irony and self-awareness to make you feel as though they are grinning at you mischievously from behind Ouma’s skirts. Just returned from Paris, Vana is quietly introspective; disappointed in the South African music scene and wishes he could be more like Dolly Parton.

A: You’ve just returned from Paris, what was that like?
Vana: I actually went with my girlfriend Jenny, we went to see Jack White at the Olympia and then we organised to do a show there. It was with a guy called Benjamin who we’d met through another connection at the Bruce Springsteen concert and so we said, we’re coming to France, let’s organise a gig. Anyway, it happened, we played in Pigalle which is the oldest, the sex district of Paris, and we played at this old swingers club if you can believe that. Now they call it an orphée privé, a private club you know. So we did the set and the French people sang in English, which was strange. There were very good musicians.

A: So how long have you been playing with The Oh So Serious and do you see yourself as two separate entities?
Vana: I’ve had groups before and The Oh So Serious is just the last five years actually, since 2009.

A: Do you often play to groups of people who aren’t really listening?
Vana: It’s really strange, you can imagine how strange it is for us. There’s no scene here. We’re stuck at the bottom of Africa. You need a lot of things to go your way in any industry and I don’t think people have a lot going for them. What we do have going for us is the music, making albums. We haven’t been sitting around, we’ve been producing and we do work hard. With the fall of the music industry it’s a very weird time to be a musician.

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A: Why do you say ‘the fall of the music industry’?
Vana:Just because you’ve got to play a lot more gigs now. Your music becomes like a business card. You can’t sell your records anymore, that used to make you a lot of money, well some money.
A: Yeah,  The Rolling Stones are touring again, another pension tour, because CDs just don’t make you money anymore.
Vana: Exactly. Everyone is just playing more live, which was kind of predicted 10-15 years ago. And that’s good because people like live music. But you need everyone on board, you need people who sponsor live music. We played Park Acoustics, the Pretoria edition, and more and more of that needs to happen.

A: Do you think the music industry in France is better, or the scene in Paris, is that more suited?
Vana: Well France is a first world country, lots of money to put on productions as well as a culture of music, a history of art.

A: So would you move for your music?
Vana: I don’t know. I love South Africa, I love Pretoria. But it’s very backwards when it comes to, let’s say, fashion, the music trends reach us late.

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A: So have you done anything since the Tweefontein Melkery album?
Vana: We do have a new album. But we want to do a lot with it and we are at the stage where we know just how much we have to do with it and we just can’t get there. It sounds so pathetic hey? We want to release it online. We’re  three or four albums down the line you know what you have to do, and you just don’t have the luck. It’s a long process.

A: I’m really looking forward to it, what’s it called?
Vana: Low Fi Hoax.

A: So do you think the South African music industry needs a cash injection?
Vana: I think the cash is there. Things happen for people in the right time. I’m old enough to know that you can’t spend your life thinking ‘this needs to happen now’. So what is there to do but keep on playing shows.

A: What’s the best show you’ve ever played?
Vana: Oppikoppi. We’ve played there a few times now, every time you play there it’s fun. That’s when you get a sense of how big this thing is.

A: Do you have primarily South African influences or is it wider ranging than that, you mentioned Hank Williams earlier in the show?
Vana:  I look back into the early 20th century writers from America.

A: If you could be any musician ever, who would you want to be?
Vana: Dolly Parton probably. She’s fabulous. She’s just amazing. She’s been doing it, writing her own hits, something like 40 albums, you have to look up to that.

You can hear a taste of the upcoming album Low Fi Hoax here and follow the collective around the country as they take their sound to the far flung corners of South Africa.