Perspiration pours from the drummer. Lithe arm muscles ripple in the flashing strobe light as they pound out a staccato rhythm. The glistening face is contorted as the music builds to a crescendo that sends the crowd into rapture.
It’s a scene like many others in Johannesburg on any Friday night…. But this one has a different element to it, for the vicious beat holding the party together is provided by a rarity in the world of modern rock ‘n roll – a black African woman.
“I was born in Swaziland, in Manzini. My mom is Swazi and my (South African) dad was basically in exile (from the apartheid regime) when he met her,” Bianca Nobanda says after a particularly hectic gig that’s left her shirt sodden with sweat. Bursting with nervous energy, the young woman only stops twirling her drumsticks when gulping from a bottle of beer.
“I know (American rock star) Lenny Kravitz had a black female drummer – Cindy Blackman,” Nobanda says. “But I don’t know of any other black female rock drummers – certainly not in Africa.”
Defying the stereotype
The slim, attractive Swazi is thriving in a world of male drummer stereotypes: the long-haired – and longer bearded – scowling, broad-shouldered man with inky tattoos on huge biceps. Because of this cliché, Nobanda says, wherever she goes in South Africa, her race and gender are an issue – something she says “mildly irritates” her. But sometimes, she acknowledges, the attention feels “nice!”
Swazi drummer Bianca Nobanda in action at a live gig in Johannesburg
“If it’s such a novelty and people get a shock out of it, then it works for me – as long as they pay me!”
Nobanda agrees that her gender and dark skin set her “far apart” from the traditional breed of rock ‘n roll drummer. Yet she’s eager to emphasize that she does have “something very important” in common with the stereotypical beater of skins in international rock music – “My beer guzzling!” she says, spluttering with laughter.
Before, after and even during gigs, Nobanda indulges in liberal swigs from a bottle of her favorite brew, Black Label. “It’s very unladylike, I know!” she says, her eyes glinting with mischief.
Nobanda has “always felt closer to the male world than the female world. I was a tomboy all my life anyway, and I always had guy friends and I’d always play boxing with them or karate or whatever.” She says she decided from an early age to “beat the boys up at their own games.”
But despite this attitude, she still seems at a loss to explain how she ended up playing drums in a heavy rock band with three white Afrikaans men. “I have no clue!” she says. “It’s just like it was written in the stars!”
She met one of her band mates in film school in Johannesburg and started “hanging out” with the band. “Like a groupie!” she says. Soon after that, Nobanda says, the group’s drummer became “totally unreliable.”
“He just basically never came for practices or anything so they kicked him out and asked me if I wanted to play drums. And I was like, ‘What? Yeah!’ It started from there. Two weeks later we recorded our first single, ‘So Perfect’ – and it’s two years later now.”
Although Nobanda wasn’t a professional drummer when she “hooked up” with her current band, she was an “informal” artist with several other groups practicing diverse musical genres.
“I’m from a hip hop background, and drum and bass and break beats and stuff like that,” she says. Nobanda’s convinced that this experience allowed her to make a transition into rock music. She does, however, acknowledge that she doesn’t know much about the realm in which she currently finds herself.
“First time I heard rock and roll was when I met these guys. So it’s completely new for me. I’m learning as I go,” she says.
Audience reaction is very important
Fans of rock music around the world are primarily white. In South Africa, Nobanda says, her audiences are also “mainly young, crazy white kids,” who nevertheless “mostly react very well” to the “mal (mad) Swazi girl” smacking the drums on the stage.
Bianca Nobanda, as she appears in the music video for her band's first single
“The females love the fact that I’m beating the drums – because that is what I do. I have no mercy; I annihilate the skins!” she says, her voice raised in excitement. “I get very animated; I like to cause audience reaction. So I make a lot of eye contact with the audience, unlike a lot of drummers out there. Most just sit there with a bland expression. You could put them behind a curtain and no one would care.”
But Nobanda makes sure the crowd knows she’s enjoying herself, along with them. “I’m having fun. I’m looking at people, they’re looking back. I rock out with the crowd,” she says.
Nobanda “still can’t believe” she’s actually a rock ‘n roll drummer. In the middle of gigs, she sometimes says to herself, “‘Whoo hoo! It’s me! They’re looking at me!’”
Nobanda says even though there are still “pockets of racism” in South Africa, audiences “hardly ever react negatively” to her race. “We play mostly venues where people are open to rock music delivered by any band, no matter what race the band is….”
Bianca Nobanda, Swazi drummer, performing in a music video.....she says she's still learning the art of rock 'n roll
But she also tells of a recent incident in Potchefstroom, a town in South Africa with a reputation for conservatism.
“After the gig we went to a restaurant. We were just sitting there eating chips. Then all of a sudden a whole group of (white) boys (who had attended the gig) walked past and they started chucking chips at me.”
Although she laughs the incident off and is at pains to explain that none of her assailants used racist terms, Nobanda says it’s “significant” that they only threw food at her, and not at her two white friends.
“It’s disappointing, really disappointing. But fortunately people like this are few and far between in South Africa now,” she says.
Regarding her hopes for the future, Nobanda says that to “seal the coffin” on her career as a rock musician, she’d like to play a gig before a “load of people. Where they all look like termites, all looking at us playing. That would be it for me…. Then I’d probably just walk away and become a bank teller or something….”
But for this young, free-spirited Swazi, that’s unlikely. Nobanda continues to display an unbridled passion for drumming. She likens her performance during a single song at a typical live show to “running a 400 meter sprint” and feels her band mates sometimes don’t allow her enough space to demonstrate her talents.
“The flashy lead guitarist is given more opportunity to showcase his play and go on wicked jams, but I am more restricted….”
Then, Nobanda gathers her thoughts, and reflects, “Yeah, that’s a bit irritating…. But it’s cool – he solos for about three minutes, whereas if they gave me the chance I’d probably keep going for three hours! I do everything to the max – everything!” she exclaims, taking yet another long sip of a beer, the mischievous smile reappearing across her face.