Out of the beating heart of Cape Town, the great 'Mother City', in South Africa, three outstanding free spirits have sprung out into the limelight and changed the face of South African pop: Matthew Field, a guitar-wielding songwriter, and impressive vocalist; Ross Dorkin, a thrill conjuring bass player with a special touch; and Robin Brink, an absolutely savage percussionist, laying the smack down on the drums. Together they are Beatenberg, an Indie-Pop/World beat/Afro-Pop band that features a moving, fresh, mellow and intriguing world sound. Having studied music together at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Ross and Matthew are comrades in the craft. According to them, the group represents a conceptual mesh of both popular and "serious" (classical) music. Matthew poetically explains: “It’s about emotions, images and fleeting senses of things: the mad stuff that everyone feels and almost understands.”
Though founded in 2014, the group has been active since 2008 and was signed with Universal Music South Africa by 2012. Very little is widely known about their prior activities, especially their self-released Album Farm Photos: a pure, acoustic predecessor to their current album and a new horizon for the then gigging band. With surprisingly good production, influences from Folk, Indie, and Jazz stood out quite boldly. There was an innocence to this early masterpiece that was complemented by Matthew's vocals and refreshing 'lyrical irony' - that signature pinch - that he's had on point ever since. It gained a good reputation in Cape Town’s creative underground with tracks like “Sultan of the Economic café” and “In B flat” responsible for scooping up the first wave of listeners.
Many of those who caught wind of this 2010 Album quickly realized the potential of the bands unique and original direction. The record itself was a digital spook and barely acknowledged anywhere online, that is until I stumbled onto 3 of its songs embedded among the fossils of MySpace. The tracks are a gem and a must listen for die-hard fans. It is in many ways a banner of their early roots, a kind of adolescent phase of experimentation with old and new genres that flung them towards who they have become. In the end, distribution was quite foggy, and if any hard copies still exist I’d say gear up for an epic treasure hunt. Alternatively, you could just email the manager - But where is the fun in that?
Beatenberg's musical prowess has matured and since refined the identity of the modern South African sound. Their first commercial album, "The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg", is without a doubt a rewarding listen for seekers of the new and impressive. Touching on life, love and everything in-between, the ‘timeless’ project attracted some very enthusiastic and engaged fans, who constantly shower them with encouragement and support. The contents of the album are an illustration of how a combination of ideas creates a far-reaching image custom designed to be carried beyond its sphere of origin. Elle Magazine South Africa summed it up perfectly saying they “Sound locally rooted with a global appeal.”
The Beatenberg sound is best described as interplay between Indie pop, retro synth elements, and the intense 'Sungura' rhythms of the Afro-guitar and bass styles native to the Limpopo area and across the border in Zimbabwe. These sounds add an extra jazziness from which the beat is derived, and the lads are unafraid to shamelessly let loose to it in awkward rhythm-less dancing. This is fittingly complemented by the indie pop lyricism carried majestically by Matthew’s stark and lingering vocals. He gives his accent an ever so slight ingenious local 'twang', like that of the legendary Johnny Clegg, to solidify the ‘culturally rooted’ aesthetic they are going for. The blend is often accompanied by proudly South African House compositions in songs like “Pluto” and the much-loved single “Rafael”. At times there is a nod to reggae. The soft indie essentials are unleashed in “Scorpionfish” and "The Prince of
the Hanging Garden". I find myself taken back to my childhood by the African acoustics in "Ithaca" and the old-school vibes of "Chelsea Blackmore", not to forget my personal favorite "Southern Suburbs"; but ultimately, the one song I think truly rounds up what Beatenberg is would be “Beauty Like A Tightened Bow”.
All their videos are often minimalist but not disinteresting, using cinematic styles reminiscent of the classic 80’s and 90's band video era. There has been a recent insurgence of pairing retro 'feels' with the contemporary, but they certainly accomplish it in their own distinct way. One fan described them as “A breath of fresh air”, approving their spin away from the comforts of recognized popular sound. They insist on classifying themselves under Pop, probably because of how accessible their music is, and more so how their messages resonate undoubtedly across cultural demographics. One cannot help but sing along to the catchy, energetic and upbeat songs; perfect for a laid back Sunday or a lengthy rush hour drive, when you just want to lift your spirits. Befittingly, in their website description, they begin by quoting 17th-century poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poetic punch line, “No sound is dissonant which tells of life.”
During the Farm Photos era, Beatenberg was young and virgin to the stage but their live performances are said to have improved stupendously since then. Fast forward five years and the trio are being praised as one of South Africans 'must see' bands. They have had extensive performances at major Southern African festivals like HIFA in Zimbabwe, Bushfire in Swaziland; and opening for popular acts such as Bastille, John Newman and 30 seconds to Mars on their South Africa tours. When asked to describe their performances on a live interview during a Breakfast Show, drummer Rob remarked, “Intense, Passionate, and Worthwhile.” An attendee at the Bushfire festival in May tweeted that of all of SA’s successes in music they stood out as “the best surprise so far”. We cannot expect any less from a band that has, more than once, been recommended to lovers of Paul Simon and St. Lucia.
In 2014, the three Capetonians owned the musical spotlight; and as a result, last year in April, they swept up the king's share of awards at the 21st Annual South African Music Awards (SAMA). These included Album of the year, Duo or Group of the year and Best Pop Album, in addition to the 5 Metro Music Award Nominations they had received in January that same year. The Gents also have a reputation of chart-topping collaborations: The hot single with DJ clock, "Pluto (Remember You)"; the track that gained them wider recognition, won them four industry awards and broke radio, chart, and airplay records. It still remains one of the best summer hits from South Africa in recent years. They also partnered with the soulful Tresor Riziki to create the amazing "Zambezi" which dominated a number of top ten lists this year, and not to forget the classic show with Smooth Jazz artist Kyle Shep.
Having conquered music at home, their hottest activity this year extended beyond the African landscape. In May they left a buzz ripple in London during their debut there. It incorporated airplay on BBC Radio 1, a performance at The Great Escape festival in Brighton, and one at Electowerkz where they were dubbed “future legends”. In Japan, copies of their Album were spotted in markets even prior to its debut there in April, with a lot of positive feedback. Though they had been to New York a number of times in the past couple of years the rest of America was still only catching on; but after the crazy events that would follow, more of the States would know their name.
The game changer was the Mumford and Sons’ Afrocentric "Johannesburg" tour in SA that spanned from the 29th of January to the 6th of February. Beatenberg opened for the world's greatest folk band alongside fellow African talents Baaba Maal and The Very Best and shared the stage with all the above in a mega collaboration BBC2 described as a “Super group”. This plunged the young band into a life changing two weeks that proved to become an intense bonding experience and an incredible journey for everyone involved. There was loads of dancing, inspiration, and musical experimentation behind the scenes; which led to "Wona": a feel-good song they wrote, composed and recorded in just two days between shows. They got to treat the crowd with this amazing gift when the tour culminated in Pretoria, where 25,000 strong pitched up on the last night, Beatenberg’s largest crowd yet. The trio set phasers to ‘wow!’ and teased the fans with new songs from the Album they are currently working on so that by the end the rest of Africa was expressing their anticipation for a continental tour on social media.
The Gentlemen of the Road sponsored show evolved into a build up towards Mumford and Sons' Mini Album also entitled "Johannesburg" which dropped on the 17th of June. It features Beatenberg with Baaba Maal and The Very Best in "Wona" and "Fool You’ve Landed". The entire event went international to promote the EP, first landing at the British Summer Time. It showcased "A taste of South Africa" pop-up shows in Brooklyn NY and London where Beatenberg raised the roof. After "Wona" received first airplay on BBCRadio1, the cherry topping for the boys was their US Television Debut on the 21st of June together with the whole Johannesburg squad in a grand performance of "Wona" on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Beatenberg is now by all standards an international act and is quickly becoming a bucket list band so good you'll want to keep them on lock. They seem, now more than ever, destined to be one of the globe's biggest bands; and if they ever fall short, it is more than certified that the exposure has effectively planted them on the list of South Africa’s best in the international community.
Beatenberg is a deep celebration of South African diversity. From their inspirations and musical direction to their performance tactics and demeanor, they embody the cultural interlinks common within the Rainbow Nation. Their collaborative spirit and eagerness towards sharing ideas, gives avid music listeners hope that there is still rich and exciting content out there. As a case study of how modern music has been redefined in the new global setting, they inspire aspiring artists to refuse to settle; to be unafraid to put all their heart and individuality into their work and show it to the world.
You can catch Beatenberg on the 4th of December at the unforgettable Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts that have attracted favorites such as Passenger. Set on the breathtaking slopes of Table Mountain, the popular, warm and relaxed picnic setting is perfect for outdoors and nature lovers. Tickets are available on Webtickets but moving fast.
Check out Beatenberg's trippy website to find all their social media links and Soundcloud.
The Deluxe edition of The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg and the Johannesburg EP are available on iTunes.
...And then there are those three songs on MySpace.