Meet The Sun Xa Experiment
The world music collective will make you rethink your approach to music.
The Sun Xa Experiment are in town this week so we got Ryan van Rooyen to chat the experimental world music collective. This family of musicians takes such a fresh and unique approach to being a band that other musicians and artists could learn a lot from. It’s about more than just playing music together as you’ll find out below. Get to know this unique musical project below, then catch them at one of the many gigs they’re playing this weekend (Details at the bottom)
DIY: Hi. Can you just tell us who you are and what you do in Sun Xa Experiment?
Lebohang: My name is Lebohang More. I am the manager for the Sun Xa Experiment which is a world music band.
So what is the Sun Xa Experiment? You’ve often spoken about Sun Xa being more than just a musical project. So what is the philosophy behind how and why you do what you do?
Sun Xa is an experimental group of 12 people. 8 as the band on stage, myself as the manager, two photographers/DJs and the sound guy. We’re all about researching and trying to preserve music through what we do. We are not only focused on music; we do tribute events, research music, the history of our sound. It’s a school of sound and thought.
The one thing about Durban is the passion they have for art and music. They listen.
Your name, Sun Xa, where does that come from?
It started back in 2014, and it’s been going for 2 years now. It started out with myself (Page) and Black Faith. We’re both beat-makers and producers. In 2012 I got hold of Ndikho Xaba’s music when I visited him for the first time. Then we studied the music and started sampling. When we were sampling, we added a bit of Sun Ra to the samples, and that’s how Sun Xa came about. When the other guys came in we were about to present the music at a TrackSide live event in Soweto. We made two additions, which were Wee, the vocalist, and Sibusiso, the pianist. So while we were presenting she sang and he played the keys. That was the experiment. So we started researching the word Xa, because it was beyond just being influenced by these two greats, Sun Ra and Ndhiko Xaba. We found out that ‘Xa’ meant ‘out’ in the Khoi San language. It was within the range of what we were doing, so we became the Sun Xa Experiment.
So it was quite an organic process?
It happened automatically. We also host jam sessions, so sometimes during the jam session musicians were influenced by the sound and ended up becoming part of us. Black Faith also played a role in getting people in, like Gift, the saxophonist, and inviting Bopha the drummer. But the energy just drew them in, because in everything we do we keep an open mind with music, and you can come across any sound, any musician and they can wish to play with Sun Xa and become part of the experiment. Some of them can be part of it for a month, others a year, you know, as long as it grows. Most people are drawn in by the energy that we have so one has to chill with us to understand. Then we started travelling together so that we can all grow into each other, bond. And then it ended up being what it is today.
How long have you guys now been together in your current format with the 12 of you?
We’ve been like this since February.
You guys all know each other from the hip-hop scene. How did the transition from hip-hop to afro-jazz/world music happen? Are the guys still active in hip-hop?
We’re still doing what we were doing before. But now the focus has just shifted towards the band and the technical stuff. We’re trying to grow that field because in these other fields we have the experience, we can just jump back to making beats and jump back to DJing. You just need to rehearse. But at this point we automatically have this one focus. Wee has an EP out called Thoughts, that’s her solo project. Black Faith has Off The Records. J Love, our sound man, is busy with his rock EP. Toxic, our bassist, has another band that’s actually touring in Cape Town now. So we’re still doing what we do but right now the focus is on the band, because none of us have that full-on experience. We’re all learning and growing in the process.
You guys have come down to Durban twice recently. How many shows did you play the first time you came?
12 shows in three weeks. We did a lot of busking too.
So is touring something that you are looking at doing a lot of? Any upcoming tours?
We’re planning a lot of things. Touring to us is not only based on music. It’s an educational process. With every tour we grow as a team and individually. We will be coming to Durban, when we leave we’re going down to Utrecht in deep KZN. After that we head to Mooi River to DJ Bob’s. We’ve been speaking to him about getting us a couple of gigs. Then in December we might be going to Botswana. Travelling is what makes us connect more — we get to depend on each other and rely on each other’s strengths and weaknesses to survive. So we’re touring, planning a lot of movement. Because we’re doing it independently we can’t do it all the time. We have to have a month’s rest to plan and save up.
Your trip to Durban a couple of months ago was your first tour as a band. Why did you chose Durban?
For most of the guys, it was their first time here when we came in June. And they had never traveled. I know Durban, I’ve been coming here for 6 years now. The one thing about Durban is the passion they have for art and music. They listen. Whether it’s a paid gig or free, people come and support. For the guys, it’s an experience, even though some of us have been here before. They get to grow and test themselves, and find out how they behave away from home.
We played at Khaya Records, Green Camp, Habesha, Yossi’s, Jack Rabbits and in Lamontville. We did a whole lot. It’s been just Durban for now though. What we are doing is not to just come and chill and perform and get paid. Our basis is family. We need to bond with our family. We need to be more than just a band. We need to know that Khaya Records is our home. We need to know that Jazzy Rainbow is our home. Ndikho Xaba is like a grandfather to us. So, again, it’s more than just the music. It’s about building relationships, which is why we’ll be back down this side again. When we go to Utrecht we will do the same. It’s a couple of shows but as we see it, this is home. It’s a matter of building, moving, building, moving, and coming back and checking. Durban has been there, hence it is now home. Yeah man, the energy is beautiful.
You recently performed an Ndikho Xaba tribute at the Music Imbizo. How did you first come into contact with Ndikho Xaba? And how did the tribute come about?
It was in 2012 when I first met Baba at the Jazzy Rainbow but we didn’t exchange any conversation. Then Viwe and I visited him for the first time. He took me to someone’s house and told me there was a jazz guy staying there. We walked in and clicked that we had met this old man. So he gave me the music and I studied the music. Then in 2014 we all came back and met Ndikho Xaba together, and that’s when we bonded with the family. We met Mama Xaba. Then we started coming frequently because we wanted to release a tape, Sun Xa, the one with the beats. We came to ask for permission. Mama kept on rejecting us. So we were like “Ok, we’re not going to give up but we might as well just chill and be part of them” because it seems like it’s way more than the music itself. That’s how we ended up being part of the family.
What was the experience like coming down and staying with him? To practice at his house and have him there when you played the tribute?
It was amazing. Because even for the new guys, when they learnt that working with him had been a two-year plan, it was a timeless and priceless experience. And getting to rehearse with Baba and have him add his input to some of the music and musical direction, it kind of built the band and the guys want to come back.
So now that you’ve achieved that and done the tribute, what’s next?
We’re currently planning on getting into the studio. We also want to get more exposure and to try get Sun Xa’s music out to the people. The guys compose music any time of the day. If they had to come here and say they were performing their repertoire they’d probably also end up composing one or two new songs. After we head into the studio to record we’ll sit for a bit so people can focus on other things. We also want to do more Jam Sessions.
Yeah, tell us about The Jam Sessions?
The Jam Sessions are events we started doing in 2015 after a stream of shows that didn’t go so well. After being mistreated by organisers, we were like “No, we don’t need to fight them. Let’s just go back home”. Then we thought “Let’s just do a show and perform our songs!” So we went back home and in December we tried out two shows. The first one didn’t work out, but the other one became The Jam Sessions.
And they’re monthly shows? Any specific genres?
Yeah, they’re monthly shows. It’s world music. Why I say world music, because I know people will panic and say “Why not African?”, is because anyone around the world can perform, whether they are from Nigeria or Fiji or anywhere else. As long as people are original with their sound. We can get someone playing rock music at the jam session if it’s original to them. Folk. Jazz. Yeah, it’s an open space.
It’s also a free event for the community. It’s a learning experience for the community to grab something rare. With time we’ve been blessed with DJs from outside of our country and outside of our province which gave us the energy to carry on. People love it, it’s free, and the aim is for it to sustain itself.
We fund the event by selling food and selling music merchandise. The jam sessions are for the community, so the food sales at the event pay for the costs of running it. Now we don’t hire sound. It’s sponsored by TrackSide Creative. We don’t hire stretch tents, you know, we exchange business with people. The tent and other setup we do ourselves. We have a sound man. The whole aim is for the event to run itself so that even when we are not around one day the community can take charge of it.
Last thing: you guys are in Durban. Where and when?
We’re so excited about this:
3 November – Vans First Thursday – SideBar
4 November – With Zethe and Victoria – Khaya Records
5 November – Jazzy Rainbow
6 November – DJ Party with Subterranean Wavelength – Khaya Records
7 November – Lemontville Old Age Home (charity gig)
There are hopefully going to be some more shows too. If anyone has any available, we are here for 2 weeks so check us out and, if you like what you hear, book us. We can always extend our dates.
Interview edited for length and clarity. We couldn’t find out who took the photos before publishing so if they’re yours, please let us know and we’ll give you credit.