The Sun Xa Experiment is not your typical band, in fact they don’t really consider themselves a band at all, at least not at their heart. Formed in 2014 by Blaq Faith, Buyisiwe Njoko, Ras Irie, OATH, and Page, and working predominantly as producers, sampling artists like Ndikho Xaba and Sun Ra, the five slowly became eight, and eventually became twelve. There are eight members who perform on stage, while four others make up the rest of the project as content managers, videographers and photographers. All of this may seem confusing, but as electric guitarist Tebogo Mkhize assures me, “it’s ultimately not about where it was in the beginning, but how it manifested itself in the past to become what it is today”. This detachment from the specifics and contingencies of the band are what mark them as unique, and is what gets to the core of their experimental nature. Unlike most acts who function solely in the here and now of the members and songs, Sun Xa have a unique, fluid, and historically sensitive approach to making music.
So, what exactly are Sun Xa experimenting with? “We’re mainly experimenting with sound” says lead vocalist Buyisiwe Njoko, although there is clearly a lot more than just sonic alchemy going on here, as Njoko explains, “[We’re also experimenting with] writing the sound as well. As I always say, Sun Xa Experiment isn’t only the faces that you see, maybe in the next two years it can be 100 people, it can be a production.” The group seems intent on separating the historically contingent personalities of the group from the structure of the group itself. Perhaps a good analogy is the way individual governments are distinct from the state. Political parties come and go, but the state remains. Unlike state-style institutions, though, Sun Xa has the ability to change its character completely. It may be a band for now, but in the future it could be a theatre play.
Although there are exciting futures, to engage with their current incarnation, Tebogo describes their sound as the largely odious term ‘World Music’, because, he feels, they can fit on more or less any stage. Many of them come from production backgrounds, some are MCs, some are jazz cats, so the way they sound on the night really depends on which members are present. At most of their recent shows in Durban the feel was so-called ‘Afro-Jazz’, but, as Njoko tells me, if they’re playing on a hip-hop heavy line-up “some of them are MCs, so they can get on the mic and rock the show”. My experience of them was somewhere in the realm of that playful, free-form jazz, not dissimilar to Sun Ra; with incantatory rhythms and layer upon layer of busy instrumentation. This fluidity of sound seems to be at least one part of the experiment that is yielding positive results.
In a write-up for the 2016 KZN Imbizo, they described their goal as “[teaching] about the significance of preserving our history and also creating our own with the work we are doing through collaboration with elders who have played a role in our lives and our country’s existence from political views to music views”. Indeed, through their referencing of Ndikho Xaba and Sun Ra (evident even in their name, Sun Xa, seemingly a combination of the two) the group are paying homage to a rich musical – and perhaps musico-political – heritage.
This unique multiplicity of musical stylings and reference-points is mimicked in the group’s structure, and gives Sun Xa, as an institution, a kind of perpetual motion engine, which is farther-looking than simply the lifespans of the current members. They point out to me that they are planning for the future – not necessarily the future of them as individuals, but the future of Sun Xa as an institution. “What we’re doing is not only planting a seed for ourselves, but we’re planting a seed also for our offspring and our families, basically, to help other people who are also in need”, explains Njoko. The unique structure of the group allows for this historical awareness and dynamic future focus. They are building up a kind of cultural nest egg for their children and everyone else.
Their stylistic experimentation is nothing particularly new. The jazz roots of hip-hop are well documented and common knowledge amongst musicologists. Added to that, there is a movement within contemporary global hip hop to explore these roots more explicitly, demonstrated in the recent work of Kendrick Lamar, Anderson.Paak and the gospel revivalism of Chance The Rapper. It is also true that many bands survive the departure of a majority of their members, but what makes The Sun Xa experiment unique is the way they have merged this stylistic and structural experimentation in a coherent, intentional and focussed way. Their name, their sound, even their fundamental makeup all form part of a cohesive philosophy; a philosophy of fluidity, of moving forward but always with the past in mind, and also a philosophy of change and, like in the foundations of a lot of the jazz they reference, improvisation.
In these turbulent socio-political times Sun Xa represent a good example for how we can approach the future whilst the past seems to be repeating around us.
The group have been exceptionally busy recently, touring the country and spreading a message of peace. There are even talks of an international tour in the future, but the group can’t divulge too much about that. If they come to your city be sure to check them out, you’d be doing yourself a massive favour.