Bombshelter Beast, a 14-piece acoustic-only orchestra, meld a range of genres, including gypsy rhythm and kwaito, to produce wild music. Picture: Supplied
Bombshelter Beast, a 14-piece acoustic-only orchestra, meld a range of genres, including gypsy rhythm and kwaito, to produce wild music. Picture: Supplied

From comical to quirky and weird to wonderful, Bombshelter Beast’s Afro-Balkan sound combines the fast pace of Joburg ubuntu with the craziness of Eastern Europe.

The idea to make a comic film about a buffoonish Joburg soccer team with a Serbian coach, starring Kagiso Lediga and Trevor Noah, propelled jazz trumpeter Marcus Wyatt into a carnivalesque musical space.

Wyatt felt his soundtrack from the resulting Taka Takata movie was a great foundation from which to form an inclusive 14-piece orchestra called Bombshelter Beast.

"I thought the music was so accessible, danceable and such fun that we were automatically going to be famous. It has taken me three years and a bit to realise that that was the wrong assumption," he says.

Wyatt studied jazz at the University of Cape Town and has always played with cross-over bands, including Truly Fully Hey Shoo Wow Band, Bird Tribe, Interzone, Kusasa and Language 12. His father was the chairman of the folk club in Port Elizabeth.

"Most music is folk music. Folk music gets developed by communities over time. There is a connection between everything. It is a matter of finding those guide tones," he says.

Johannesburg is the perfect space for such a collection of dispirited elements to come together to form a holistic organism. For the musicians, it is a family.

"The gypsy element is where we all meet. Everyone in the project has bounced around throughout their careers playing whatever they need to play to make a living, which is parallel to the European troubadours."

Polish accordionist and trombone player Speedy Kobac adds an authentic Eastern European accent both with his playing and his attitude. He grew up in Poland and came to SA 35 years ago as part of the navy band, playing jazz in hotels.

At any time during a performance, six horns are engaged, playing racy riffs, poignant counter-melodies or carnival-like marches.

Alex Hitzeroth stomps around, punching out the rhythm on an enormous sousaphone (tuba). Romy Brauteseth (bass) and Justin Badenhorst (drums) change the rhythmical gears between the fast-paced Balkan rhythm, a driving rock ’n roll and old-school kwaito, hip hop and house. The sound is Africanised Balkan music.

"The freedom is being nonsensical and to just breathe, jump around and play. The visual, theatrical aspect adds something unforgettable. And then when the moment dictates, the band can go into overdrive," says Wyatt.

Singer, songwriter, actress, dancer and choreographer Dionne Song spends half the show in the audience, jumping about and raising the vibrations. Her Duracell battery-like energy has become a drawcard. Everything is wild, energetic and physical. "There is this beautiful abandon. It is a redundant show to watch with heels on or uncomfortable clothes. There is no sense of decorum — you create your own decorum and enjoy the music, letting it take you where it needs to in an all-inclusive feeling. " she says.

Frontman Pule Welch is a multilingual actor, comedian, clown, rapper, poet and story-teller. He studied clowning and improvisation with Keith Johnston at Wits and is preparing his doctorate in linguistics.

Welch tested his skills at cipher battles every Friday after school on Gandhi Square. With his hip hop crew, Third Wave, they performed at rap sessions in Soweto and on shows such as Dungeon Shack and Splash Jam.

With isiZulu as his first language, he decided to Africanise hip hop in the flow of Big Daddy Kane and style-rap. He wants his synthesis of rhyme and rhythm to follow in the line of the great poets, Benedict Vilakazi and SEK Mqhayi. He samples the Tsonga magical realist writer BKM Mthombeni’s story of Johannesburg transforming into a forest on the Bombshelter track, Maputo.

When in Maputo, Welch raps in Portuguese and Shangaan, when in Swaziland, Swati, and in Poland, some Polish. "If you are an African, African languages are your mother tongue. The idea of different languages is probably a colonial idea — language is one thing. Feel free to use all the vocabulary you have and test it out," he enthuses.

A community of fans is evolving alongside the band, showing the synergy between audience and performer. Welch uses the French word "complicite" to describe the improvisational connection between audience and performers.

"You are wrapped in this organism of everyone doing something. It is an amazing freedom where you are not free at all. Improvisation allows people to be free by being unified. It is accepting and affirming."

The paradoxical combination of crazy and classy, outlandish and expressive is a catalyst for fun. When the band is thumping, the audience can’t help but move their feet. The orchestra is acoustic, creating multiple layers of rhythm, melody and harmony without help from any computer, trigger or sound card.

Bombshelter Beast is a combination of theatre, strong lyrics and hip music that fits in theatres, venues and festivals alike. Wyatt calls it "the world’s best wedding band", and Welch "a weird futuristic African band". However, such a big ensemble is financially difficult to sustain.

They take the rooster as their mascot. It represents the "cookalakoo" — a call to rise and shine in the feisty style of their home city, Johannesburg. The title track of their debut album is called Dance of the Chicken.

Bombshelter Beast are at Johannesburg’s Dunkeld Bowls Club on August 3

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