Brace for it, heavy metal comes to Africa

A Metalhead in full cry and gear. PHOTO | FRANK MARSHALL 

There is a vibrant rock music scene emerging in parts of Southern Africa and bringing with it a radical departure from traditional identities and redrawing the borders of a genre that has hitherto barely registered on the continent’s cultural landscape.

According to the film Death Metal Angola, there are some 15 or so hardcore heavy metal bands in the country while in Botswana, the sight of young so-called, metalheads in tight leather clothes, spikes, and chains has become part of a youth subculture.

Heavy metal, a loud and aggressive subgenre of rock music, has found an unexpected niche in the most unlikely parts of the continent. The annual Windhoek Metal Festival in Namibia has since 2007 provided a platform for regional and international metal bands to perform.

The music channel, MTV, says there is something fascinating about sparsely populated Namibia acting as the gateway to metal in Africa.

Arcana XXII was the first Namibian metal band to make an impact in a market dominated by 'kwaito' and hip-hop when their album Barren Land made a big splash in 2000. Several members of the now defunct band have stayed active in the Namibian metal scene, especially through the band Submission.

Death Metal Angola is set in Huambo, Angola’s second largest city, which is still recovering from the civil war that ravaged the country from 1975 to 2002. The Huambo Rock Festival is organized by an Angolan couple, Sonia Ferreira and Wilker Flores, whose vision was to put up an event modelled on the historic American Woodstock Festival of 1969.

Perfect setting

After a six-week trip to South Africa and Botswana in late 2012, during which he interviewed 45 heavy metal musicians, American author Eddie Banchs says that Africa lends itself as the perfect setting for metal music to thrive. “Heavy metal is synonymous with a lifestyle which is seldom seen with other genres of music. Africa metal fans are not atypical in this regard.”

He explains that metal is not a trend but something that grabs the listener and remains a constant through most of their lives. “Those who listen to this music are not guided by the norm or conformity of mainstream culture. The fans are a reflection of the sincerity and honesty that drives the music,” says Banchs.

Viewing heavy metal as a novelty is a gross misrepresentation of the genre in the continent, says the author of a book called 'Heavy Metal; Life, Passion and Heavy Metal in the Forgotten Continent.' “I was tired of telling people that metal in Africa was real. It is about time the metal world includes Africa in their conversation.”

Swedish researcher Magnus Nilsson, who has written on the impact of rock music in Bostwana, says he found an unholy alliance between metalheads and country music fans. Nilsson, who taught at the University of Botswana in 2007, remembers attending an event where metalheads integrated cowboy attributes as sheriff badges, cowboy hats and even toy revolvers, into their outfits.

He also found it fascinating that despite the frequent association of heavy metal subculture with the white population, in Botswana all the metal heads were in fact black. He concluded that that metal in Africa does not have to evolve along the same lines as the European or American norm.

A 'no brainer'

South African photographer Frank Marshall aims to showcase that evolution in Botswana’s rock music with a series of photographs appropriately titled, Renegades. Marshall first got to hear about the heavy metal movement in Botswana when he travelled with South African band, Rhutz, for a gig in Gaborone in 2009.

“It was a no brainer for me to pursue this project because of my existing interest in heavy metal music and the photography of music,” he says.

Marshall dissects the question of representation in Africa by focusing on the Heavy Metal subculture in Botswana. He spent almost a year and a half working on the project and he says the whole experience was personally enriching. “I attended all the shows with the bands, drank with them, travelled with them across the country. Many of these guys have a larger than life personalities so they are always very entertaining to be around.”

There are plenty of bands and musicians in Botswana but all the individuals who appear in the pictures are heavy metal fans. “They don’t embrace the music, they live for it,” Marshall explains. “The exhibition displays people who are aspiring musicians but are not necessarily at the stage where they are playing in bands even though many new bands are being formed as we speak,” he says.

There is a huge interest in the international heavy metal scene but at the same time homegrown bands like Skinflint, Wrust, Remuda and Overthrust enjoy a cult following.

Slaezah Selaelo is drummer and vocalist with Metal Orizon, Botswana’s first heavy metal act formed in 1991. He says the live metal circuit scene is getting more competitive with the emergence of new bands in the last few years though record sales remain quite sparse.

Quick to dismiss

The perception of rock music generally as a Eurocentric music form is one that many African bands are quick to dismiss saying the music knows no boundaries. “We have never regarded ourselves as a black rock group; all we know is that we are a band doing our favourite music, says Selaelo.

Metal Orizon brand themselves as the Kings of Afro-metal, taking Western-style hardcore rock and fusing it with familiar influences like African chants percussions to create a unique sound. “Our style may be rock but the songs are predominantly signatures associated with traditional Tswana music,” explains Selaelo.

Dress code is a crucial part of the heavy metal act. The Renegades in Frank Marshall’s photographs parade themselves in leather boots, pants and jackets, jeans, studs, and homemade belts made from bullet shells.

Marshall documents the unfolding process of change with a group of Batswana rebels who are assimilated into Heavy Metal culture through a series of portraits.

The stigma surrounding the "renegades" reveals a greater cultural tension: the skulls, scars, and chains put them on the fringe of their own society.

“Marshall’s photographs are vocal about depicting a community marginalised by society, blurring the boundaries between liberty and fraternity,” writes Shane de Lange, a designer and lecturer based in Johannesburg. The subjects bear colourful heavy metal monikers like 'Phantom Lord Ishmael,' 'Dead Demon Rider', and 'Morgue Boss'. Marshall says: “These are names that they invariably go by, unless they are at work and so they take them quite seriously.”

The exhibition, Renegades, is currently open at the Rooke Gallery in Newtown, Johannesburg. The photographs are also available in a limited edition 'Renegades' signed artists book with 60 portraits including a foreword and artistes statement.

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