Their faces dimly illuminated by candlelight, onlookers gather as if around a fire, where they can warm more than just their hands on this cold winter’s night. A strike from one of the myriad of percussive instruments in the centre sends sound reverberating through the cavernous recesses of the auditorium at Novalis Ubuntu Institute. Shadows bounce up and down the walls, in answer to the quivering candlelight, and I am taken out to a 60 000 year-old cave on the West Coast of South Africa, where the ocean roars above the chirping of birds in my eardrums. I’m staring into the cave at three shaman-like figures who tell the tale of our ancestral roots.
These figures are Intone – percussive duo James van Minnen and Ronan Skillen – and Xhosa singer iNDWE, who together present The Cave Project: Meditations & Lullabies, an album recorded over three days in the Steenbokfontein caves. It is a live representation of a moment in time: as it happened, with no overdubs or post-production edits.
iNDWE tells us the African legend of Marimba who, while trapped in a cave, transformed the bow of a weapon of war into a musical instrument. As she plays her uHadi bow I see the parallel between the Novalis Ubuntu Institute’s mandate to bring healing through the arts and the Cave Project’s intention to create music and sounds to soothe babies (both born and unborn) and pregnant women – a praise song to honour both our biological and anthropological heritage. This idea of sound facilitating human familial connections becomes particularly poignant as van Minnen tells us about his newly pregnant wife, and when iNDWE mirrors that in her piece iBele – A Mother’s Breast. Her soft, almost dreamlike voice offers familiar warmth like that of a mother cooing her child to sleep in quiet murmurs and lullabies.
Van Minnen and Skillen complement iNDWE’s beautifully delicate folk tales and proverbs with complex polyrhythms on a variety of ethnic instruments from around the world. As they segue between counts of five and nine and then back to seven, I find myself dismally trying to find the math, but the rhythms blend seamlessly over one other in a never-ending dialogue that isn’t showy (as percussion music often can be), or loud or unrestrained. This dialogue is strikingly reminiscent of nature’s own way of making its environmental sounds rhythmically complex while existing in perfect balance. Intone’s highly skilled interplay is hypnotic and, via eye contact, their personal connection is solidly maintained throughout the show. With neither overshadowing the other, they create space for iNDWE amid what could otherwise easily become a barrage of sound. The result is a near telepathic exchange between the three.
The audience members, seated in a full circle around the dialogue, are invited as more than onlookers. We are a tribe of witnesses in a story common to us all.
Josh Prinsloo (Fruit Vendor)
The Cave Project: Meditations and Lullabies was launched on 8 July 2017 at the Novalis Ubuntu Institute, Cape Town. Find out more about The Cave Project here.