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They’re three white Afrikaner males and one black South African woman. Together, they’ve launched an aural assault on what they describe as the “plasticity” of local rock music. To do this, they’re using two bands – one mysteriously named BPJ, and the other called Pink Noise. South Africa’s music establishment has largely rejected their work. But these musicians are happy to be part of the underground.
An electric hum, like a sonic snake, courses through the beer-soaked bar in a Johannesburg suburb. Guitar feedback screeches from the amplifiers. In the middle of a roughly constructed stage, long-haired lead singer and rhythm guitarist Evert Snyman, dressed completely in black, glares at his audience and issues a hoarse challenge.
“I want to see you people here in front of me getting down!” the lanky front man shouts. “Let’s make some music!”
Then, all at once, the crowd is battered by a wave of reverberation. The air begins pulsing, as if it’s coming alive.
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To some critics, the sounds produced by main songwriter Snyman, bassist and pianist Paul Vermaak, drummer Bianca Nobanda and lead guitarist Koos Van Der Wat are “dire and directionless bilge” that’s bordering on being “criminal.”
But their fans disagree, arguing that these musicians – with their mix of hard rock, American country and blues – are throwing down the gauntlet to an often staid and predictable South African rock music scene.
After his latest performance, Snyman, hair matted, breath smelling of stale cigarettes, skin gleaming with sweat, says, “We just lose our minds on stage. We escape from the drudge of everyday life, and hopefully we allow the audience to escape too.”
Lovely, dirty sound
Snyman and his colleagues regularly cross back and forth between two bands, the “softer” BPJ, and – though its name suggests the opposite – the “harder-edged” Pink Noise.
Snyman says, “The letters BPJ obviously stand for something. But we prefer people to decide for themselves what BPJ means. It could be Black Perfect Jam. It could be Big Power Jelly.”
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The musicians list their main influences as classic rock bands such as The Beatles and Black Sabbath.
Snyman explains, “I grew up listening to very organic-based music, music that used real instruments and not synthesizers and computers. Most bands these days, if they need a tambourine in a song, they generate it with a computer. We’ll actually play the tambourine. Everything you hear, we actually play with our bare hands.”
He shuns conformity, as seen when he’s asked to define BPJ’s sound. “It’s like Black Sabbath (mixed with) the Carpenters or Black Sabbath (mixed with) Abba,” Snyman says.
“Our sound is lovely because it’s dirty,” Van Der Wat adds.
The lead guitarist says BPJ/Pink Noise embrace most music genres…. But “hate” jazz.
Bassist Paul Vermaak does, however, add a measure of refinement to the rock cacophony, being a formally trained classical pianist.
“That really helps a lot,” Snyman acknowledges.
The singer doesn’t expect his bands to “make it big” in South Africa anytime soon. “We’re too different, too strange, too real,” he comments.
Van Der Wat insists, “The best thing is to be indifferent” to the local rock music industry. “Whatever will be, will be.”
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Snyman adds, “The quality of (rock) music in this country is going down and it’s going down faster and faster. If one person does one thing, then everyone does that one thing. No one’s like trying to do something different, you know.”
As for the criticism directed at BPJ/Pink Noise, he’s philosophical. “A bad reaction’s better than no reaction, I guess,” he says.
Both Snyman and Van Der Wat are adamant that no matter how many times their music’s slated in the South African press, they’ll persevere because they can’t imagine not making music.
“When we get to a show, it doesn’t matter if there are four people or 4,000 people or no people. We go for the jugular,” Snyman says.
‘Don’t come to our shows….’
Some critics have dismissed BPJ/Pink Noise as the epitome of disaffected, drug and booze addled, rebellious South African youth, with little more to offer than “foul” mouths and their middle fingers. And their slashing riffs and aggressive on-stage swaggers certainly lend credence to those opinions.
But Snyman maintains that he and his fellow musicians “abhor” violence and drug abuse. In fact, Swarm of Bees, Pink Noise’s latest album, contains a track warning against the dangers of excessive drug use.
Van Der Wat says both Pink Noise and BPJ are “all about tolerance.” Snyman reinforces this by adding, “If you’re a homophobe, a racist, a chauvinist or a child molester – don’t listen to our music; don’t come to our shows….”
The bands often jam at a venue called Back-to-Basix. Yet they offer everything but a blueprint for modern rock music. And the future for them is as mysterious as the letters making up the name of their first band, BPJ.
“I don’t know just where I’ll go,” Snyman croons, his final words of yet another manic performance, on another dark Johannesburg night, for which he will be paid little and receive less media praise…and will return home drained…. but knowing that he is in fact achieving what very few people do.
“To get up every day, to do what I love, is a privilege,” he says.