It is noisy in the café where we've come to meet Hot Water, or Donovan Copley and Leon Visser rather, singer and percussionist of the band. It is noisy but not busy. There is music playing – from overseas, of course – although the reason we are here is a very different kind of music. "It's surprising to me that's there's not more people creating South African music," says Donovan. South African music? 'Now what's that supposed to mean?,' you might ask, but really, everyone knows exactly what it means. "On either side, you've got your kwaito and Afrikaans rock, and those are powerful forces," he continues. But kwaito and Afrikaans rock don't travel well. Johnny Clegg does. Mango Groove did, and so has Freshlyground. It's all about that regional flavour, reckons Leon. A former grunge-head, he says that the magic of performing music only really came to him once he found pride in being South African. "That's where I started to sing like myself and play like myself. I started to tap into the feel of South Africa, rather than tapping into something else that's less me," he explains. And there you find the Hot Water sound: eclectic but indigenous, a cross-cultural clash of folk, Afro-pop and rock that sidesteps all-encompassing labels. Up The Creek is around the corner and Hot Water will open the proceedings. You'd forgive them for being a bit pre-occupied: in May, they perform in Holland for the second time, as guests of The Hague Jazz Festival. Europe is a big deal to musicians: a huge pocket of dispensable income, hungry for new sounds and ideas. We have to ask: is Hot Water just a cog in a giant, whirring export pop machine? Are Donovan and Freshlyground's Zolani in it together, exploiting the international Afro fetish until the last Pound on Earth has been exchanged into twenty-odd worthless Rands? Why deny the obvious? "You have a massive music market overseas. There's support from people who can actually buy your product or see your shows, which is great." As Donovan points out, very few musicians make a living from playing original music in South Africa, including himself. But Hot Water isn't a business plan, and music can't succeed by second-guessing the commercial trade winds, figures the singer. "To me, music is a calling." It called Donovan not long after a short-lived stint as a student at UCT. The revered comic Pieter Dirk Uys had told his class that "You don't choose theatre, theatre chooses you," and yet Donovan was still up among the bleachers. But when personal troubles reached a climax not long after, music reached out when the stage could not. If music is a calling, then where is it calling from? "Something must be calling," Donovan says. "It must be life, and that represents people. People calling, wanting the music." That's all the direction Hot Water need: "We just follow where it wants to go: ‘this would be fun’, ‘this would be exciting to do’, ‘this would is what we'd feel passionate about doing’." In other words: their hit song "Bushfire" wasn't written with a Grammy in mind. What does seem to have been on Donovan’s mind was a sense of economy. "Bushfire" is a simple song, a one-two-three of simple images that together, make you feel something. For all the Paul Simon and Johnny Clegg you might hear in his lyrics, however, it is Tracy Chapman who can take the most credit. Hearing her for the first time was a revelation. "I was trying to write my own songs and I was trying to be complicated" until coming across one of Chapman's songs, he says. The song repeated the same four chords, over and over. "It was a hardcore song. And I was like: 'you only need 4 chords' and you can create that'."
It’s hip to be indigenous, but it’s even hipper to make great songs. There is an energy, a ‘fizz’ that distinguishes (over-) schooled musos from their self-taught peers. In Hot Water’s book: “If it works, it works. Do you like the music? Do people want to hear it? What's happened in the world, is we become so technical that the technical is the master, and not the real spirit at the centre of things. For me, the 'fizz' is the centre. "It's the most important thing in the music that we play.”
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