Words & Photographs: Chelsea Haith
The Nomadic Orchestra collectively have three releases planned for 2015 and on-going tours in the pipeline according to the band’s new manager Luca Vincenzo. As part of a Joburg fly-by, The Nomadic Orchestra played Park Acoustics on 30 November and Rumours Lounge on 3 December. The Balkan dance fusion band were reviewed by Archetype in July and they are still pressing all of the right buttons.
The Nomadic Orchestra were already at home in Rumours’ beer garden when I arrived. The last time I saw the band was at Rocking the Daisies 2014 in Darling, Western Cape. Before that I had bumped into them playing on the street outside Morgan’s, the best Thai food place in Grahamstown, during the 2014 National Arts Festival. Rumours is a far cry from their usual venues but they settled in well and the crowd, though small, was exuberant when they took to the stage at around 11pm.
After about an hour of sweaty joyful jumping, the only honest dance move employable under the circumstances, we drifted back into the beer garden and had a chat about vinyl, selling out and making a living. The Nomadic Orchestra is Greg Abrahams on guitar, Marlon Witbooi on drums, Joe Bolton on tuba, Gabriel du Toit on sax and James McClure on the trumpet.
Archetype: So what prompted you to form a Balkan dance music band?
Greg: This band was started many many years ago to play at a Balkanology festival, but Joe, who is not here at the moment, is the only original member of that band. The band as it is now is three years old. And Balkan music because… the tuba is good for it and everyone studied jazz at UCT so we joined the band to have fun and now we take it a little more seriously. So here we are!
Gabriel: Here we are, at Rumours. In the middle of the suburbs of Joburg. In the middle of the week (everyone laughs).
A: Do you all have other projects that you’re working on?
James: For most of us this is our main thing but everyone has something going on on the side.
Gabriel: Greg composes for adverts and movies.
Greg: And Joe is a session pianist. (To Marlon) And who are you playing with next weekend?
Marlon: Somi, this chick from Nigeria.
James: We are all session musicians but this is something we’re committed to.
Everyone: Joe’s here! (applause and laughter)
A: It seems that you guys have a bigger following in Cape Town than in Joburg?
Greg: Yeah, we do, but we can’t stay in Cape Town our whole lives and we’re making good connections, we played Park Acoustics up here.
James: That’s the main reason we’re here, we played Park Acoustics and thought we’d extend our stay.
Gabriel: We do hope to conquer Joburg in a similar way, play tours, stay here for longer periods of time.
Greg: And move in with Mr Benjamin Jephta (laughter)
A: Given the Joburg/Cape Town dichotomy, what’s been the best gig you’ve played this year?
Greg: We’ve played a lot of great gigs this year but the highlight was Oppikoppi, tinged with a hint of sadness unfortunately because James couldn’t be with us. We missed him dearly but it was an awesome gig.
Joe: And Daisies is always good.
A: I Saw you last at Daisies in 2013 and then bumped into you playing on the street outside my favourite restaurant in Grahamstown during the National Arts Festival in the coldest bloody weather. How did that come about, why were you gigging on the street? (laughter)
James: Most of us were there for the jazz festival so we decided to book a few gigs, got gigs at the Vic and while we were there we decided to make the most of our time. We figured we may as well play as much as we could because it was a festival, there are so many different people around so, you know, why not? We also played on the street outside Long Table at the Village Green.
A: Do you have a home base, a particular venue that you prefer to play?
James: If you play festivals you know the sound is going to be pretty good but about two months ago we played an acoustic gig in Kalk Bay and that was intimate, and having everyone on the same floor level as you makes it possible to feed off this incredible energy because the people are standing right next to you. It went so well. So intimate gigs are great for the energy but festivals are awesome because you’ve got a huge stage, lots of space, lots of people to play to.
A: Do you think it’s possible as a South African band to make a living and how do you feel about the South African music industry with regards to that?
Marlon: It’s possible to make a living but you have to be careful about the channels you pick. It’s hard if you’ve got one focussed band that isn’t mainstream or commercialised or playing on 5FM. You have to have your band, book other gigs, do session work, teach, but it is possible. And it’s a lot of work.
Greg: You have to diversify. We all teach, or we’ve all taught at some point. We all play in other bands, the jazz guys play a lot of session work to make ends meet, Joe is studying stats and I compose music for ads. But I have an opinion about that. If you’re young, and up and coming, if you’re not, you know, Benjamin Jephta, over there (points out Jephta sitting opposite), the best bass player in South Africa who doesn’t have to worry about session work, people just book him, (laughter). If you’re not like Benji, then you have to have a day job. My view is that you don’t have to sell your music to make a living. You can maintain your integrity. You can make the music you want to make because you want to make it. If you have a day job you can support yourself and your family and buy decent equipment so that you sound professional. But having a day job is NOT failure. Having a day job can give you an edge if you’re fucking serious and dedicate the time to it. If you can have a day job in music then that’s a bonus.
A: Do you reckon you make more off gigging or more of CD sales?
Joe: We make more off weddings. And corporates.
Gabriel: Which we LOVE doing. (laughter). But yes, gigs mostly, I mean we sell our CD from our cases. No one wants to sign a deal with a band that has no vocalist. Not even with a face like this (points to Joe).
Joe: Not even with a face like this (laughter).
Greg: But we don’t necessarily want to sign. We’re happy to be doing what we’re doing.
A: So if Sony turned around and said, “We’re interested.” What then?
(Everyone bursts out laughing)
Greg: That’s an interesting question.
James: If they offered us the dream deal…
Luca (the band’s manager): A record label isn’t long term. A record label isn’t longevity. It’s something for right now. It works on an old system that doesn’t really work for the artists. I’m not saying it’s a situation where the artist has to come out trumping on top the whole time, there has to be a balance. I mean, you can see that in so many systems there is an imbalance. You have to maintain a balance; you need to be your own boss, the master and commander so to speak, of what you’re doing.
A: So how do you feel about illegal downloads then?
Luca: Go for it. Give them away, downloads should be legal.
James: Music should be free.
A: And if you had to choose between having your work out on vinyl, CD or MP3 what would you prefer?
Greg: Vinyl naturally.
Gabriel: All three.
Greg: Not on MP3.
James: We like to make something visually stimulating. People like something they can see and touch. An album that has cool artwork is better, an MP3 you can just plug into the computer but if you’ve got something you can look at that’s cool, that’s awesome.
Greg: The thing is, MP3s are functional, but if given the choice, no. They aren’t a good bit rate.
Luca: The thing is we live such a non-tangible world but we’re moving very quickly towards a world where a tangible experience is what people want, it’s what people will buy, it’s what we have to sell.
Greg: An interesting argument on the MP3 debate is that due to technological advances we’ll soon have devices with enough storage space that you won’t need MP3s you can just download wavs. What would be cool in the future is if MP3s could be outlawed. No problem with that.
A: If you could be any musician other than yourselves who would you be?
Greg: Benjamin Jephta.
Gabriel: Slim Shady.
Joe: (laughing and shaking his head) Benjamin Jephta and Slim Shady.
Marlon: Will Smith
Greg: I think Id like to be Diana Ross. (To Joe) Who would you be?
Joe: I think I’d be James McClure!
Luca: Joe would like to be Skrillex. Or Dr Dre.
Greg: Oh shit! David Guetta. Or Avicii! (everyone dissolves into laughter).
A: Tell us a band anecdote that you’ve all participated in?
Greg: I can show you a photo I have of James being chased around the pool and flicked with a towel while wearing no clothes. That happened.
Marlon: Wasn’t that me?
Greg: Or it was Marlon. Anyway, kinky (laughter).
Gabriel: We played at an Engen at three in the morning once.
A: Was that your weirdest gig?
Greg: That or the Jammie Shuttle. We once played at 7am for the traffic by Paradise Motors. We got a generator, set up and played there for the commuters.
A: Where do you guys see this going then?
Greg: Well I think we want to sell out .
Joe: Sell out shows!
Gabriel: We’d like to collaborate with Nicki Minaj.
The band is currently recording and there are plans for major outdoor festival recordings and productions. They may also be collaborating with another South African band in 2015 but at the time of writing nothing further was confirmed.