Benguela: Cape Town Improv Trio

Mick Raubenheimer BY

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While the direction of each unfolding composition is open to the whims of play, and each album has its own feel, Bozas' searching, looped chords augmented by Bolton's metamorphic bass and Ross' percussive backbone are immediately recognizable.
The ambient, chugging drone becomes slow frothing waves on which a misty guitar loop bobs. The ocean scape is cloudy—blurred browns and deep, shifting blues. The droning bass strings become clear as they pluck into focus, percussion slipping in like sudden, calculated sprays of foam. Alex Bozas' guitar introduces matt flashes, like sampled photographs of urban scenes—everyday transactions between people and streets; automobiles carrying mystery packages; sun dried smiles. Ross Campbell's drums conduct the flow of energy between bass and guitar—now nudging Brydon Bolton's chugging double bass into aleatoric shimmers, unpredictable and slight, now triggering unexpected kinetic snarls from the guitar.

The seed for Benguela, South Africa's most respected and established improv group, was planted by happenstance, guitarist Alex Bozas called up drummer Ross Campbell to fill in for a gig in the late Nineties. Campbell, temporarily out of love with playing music, was not particularly keen, but went along to the mystery gig, and the three musicians, Alex Bozas on guitar, Brydon Bolton on bass and Campbell on drums, entered into auspicious alignment.

The trio's first residency, at a random bar in Namibia in 1997, cemented the beginnings of their approach. Recalls Ross: "I knew Alex from Durban music days, he was always on the scene, playing bass with Mike Smith and even with Urban Creep before I joined. We would crash on his floor when we first toured to Cape Town as Urban Creep. It was Alex who got hold of me once I had left Urban Creep and also moved to Cape Town and had sworn off music. He had booked himself a gig at the Barleycorn and was now needing a bit of backup—I wasn't keen—he said he knew this dude who played double bass—that kinda swayed me—I've always loved double bass. So Alex came round and played me some sketchy ideas—I remember telling him to put the one with the other and that became one of those first tunes [on our debut album—Sputnik, 1998]. So we do this gig with a bunch of half arsed ideas, improvising around them, kinda like jazz—fumbling our way through four of them a bunch of times. That was supposed to be it, then Alex phones up and says he has a residency at Cafe Camissa!! We only have four ideas! So we just winged it and it was good fun. I still hate jamming—hey Ross, let's jam—NO! But Benguela is different—not sure why, but we seek out sounds well together. Then we got the gig in Windhoek—I have no idea how—Svi Gorlick who owned the pub/restaurant was this great, really oddball guy, who you wouldn't think ran a pub or wanted anything to do with music, but did anyway—we were there for two weeks with the weekend in the middle off. We had the ladies from Air Namibia round almost every night dancing, asking us to play 'that one.' Alex plugged a cheap mic into a tape deck and recorded us and that became Sputnik. Trying to recreate those tunes each night soon became boring and the things we just made up on the spot had so much more life—that's when we ditched the idea of safety in set ideas."

The three have been playing together ever since, one imagines they are what might be described as uncannily intimate—they sense one another's interior clockwork, can see through personality facades better than their best friends can. It is for this reason that their improvisations can, and often do, go anywhere—swelling from glacial tremor to sudden rapturous skies, hunkering down with microscopic precision before slow zooming out backwards through time into a panoramic, mammalian orgy of activity, all blood and musk and danger, without the listener losing the suspicion that somehow the outline and skeleton of these momentary compositions must have been crafted beforehand, it all fits so effortlessly.

The inability to pinpoint the group's musical influences is key to their sound, they are as informed by the alienating sputter of technology as by human frustration in the face of abject modernity, as by a child's unreflecting, radiant grin or the eternal fuel of insect choirs, the elegant stutter of birdsong, or the deep, dark African current that bequeathed their name.

Debut album Sputnik is stark and adolescent compared to the later output—Here are riffs that repeat and Brydon Bolton on an electric fretless, which alone is worthy of the price of admission. This debut sees perhaps for the last time Bolton strutting his estimable stuff—a fantastic and underrated bassist, he would in later albums, and in much of his work for other groups, fade from view, folding into the supple, organic machinery of group composition. In fact this might be said of all three players—none of whom are flashy to begin with—this album is the last of their work which bears any signs of soloing, and even here the term is a stretch, from here on in they toil away namelessly, even formlessly—at its best Benguela becomes a single, amorphously adaptable organism of sound, bass snapping into the drums pattering into the guitar thrumming into bass registers. It is difficult to define precisely where the current becomes distinguishable from more aloof waters, what is known is when you're drawn into its irresistible pull.

2001's Digital Inability and 2003's Sui saw the trio settling into its signature textures. While the direction of each unfolding composition is open to the whims of play, and each album has its own feel (many of their albums are based around a given evening, a given gig) Bozas' searching, looped chords augmented by Bolton's metamorphic bass and Ross' percussive backbone are immediately recognizable. But from this foundation anything can and does happen—from sublime bowing Bolton's bass metastasizing into the calamitous surety of a Viking ship's massed prow heaving through blacklit squalls; a pretty, acoustic guitar riff transforms into Bozas conducting sudden feedback into elegant swirls of overlapping orbits and spiralling ovals.

On 2014's Adrift the band ventures into more muscular, defined territories skirting hints of Post-Rock and dabs of Grunge's murky drawls. In "Eshowe cicadas" the band at once weaves a desert biome of sound and seems to become some kind of massive insect clambering across obelisks and crashing down into arid plains while some cosmic war of lasers and sonic weapons explodes around it. It is this talent for confounding perceived divides between worlds or categories which makes the band fascinating—they collapse genres in the same manner that they collapse the perceived distinctions drawn between the urban and biological, the geometric and oceanic, micro and macro realms, texture and the palatic. Everything feeds into and of everything else, they seem to occultly whisper, as a song sways from gentle cascades of felt light into terrestrial, impossible breakers, before resolving in a childish sing-song coda as simple as butterflies in flight.

A creature of fluctuations, Benguela, despite being entirely at odds with any conception of mainstream music, is nevertheless entirely at a piece with its times—it mirrors more closely than any outfit I know the fractured, fluid, steeped melee of information, destruction, birth and calamity which is 21st century human existence.

In the same way that any given live Benguela performance will have its own particular texture and hue, or spectrum of moods, each album, especially those delivered following a protracted silence, is distinct in as much as new life experiences—disasters, about-turns, ontological gifts, mysteries—have imprinted into the musicians' repertoire of causal material. 2016-2017 has seen a gaudy turbulence of energies across perceived civilized humanity—oceans rising up, plains erupting, economic explosions and collapses, political disasters and hilarity, seismic social shifts, and a new dawn of AI. Brace yourselves for the new album, due early 2018. Much will be contained and let loose.

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