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When Harry becomes Sally – Are Local Artists Merely Copycats?

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Anybody who has ever spent a significant amount of time stewing in the pastiche potjie pot that is South African music will have come across the “timeless” debate of which kind of music is better – local, or international. Generally, you will have the die-hard SA music lovers passionately banging on about our great talent, and snooty industry types with little faith in anything local jousting with them, rambling on about production levels, professionalism, and creativity.

While this may be a question worth exploring, to my mind at least, the battle between local and international musicians is becoming redundant. The world is shrinking - creativity is under increasing pressure as the world’s rarest, but most valuable commodity, and the result is that we are hearing music that borrows, steals, and begs from ideas all around it. Any honest artist will admit that they are heavily influenced by other musicians, and the fact is that they are forced to take on fresh ideas in order to stay relevant. Even purists, who are insistent on fighting the musical machinations that control our auditory orgasms will admit that their crust punk driven post heroin style “kinda sounds like The Ramones”.

My point here is not that incorporating influences is bad – in many ways,  that is how musicians learn, and shape our own sound. The problem is that when you ingest the essence of another artist, it is very easy to become a clone of them and lose your identity all together. The “pop” scene offers us countless examples of this. Gluttonous record companies produce unending streams of trendy stars, who have the longevity of a brandy and coke in Hatfield. And while they enjoy temporary success, they are by no means original, or different from one another. Formulaic music based on bigger global trends has taken over the airwaves.

Thankfully, informed individuals like ourselves would never give in to carbon copies. The South African sound is unique, driven by our turbulent past, unparalleled political struggles, and divergent demographics groups compressed into stunning African diamonds of happiness and joy (my attempt at a second year Sociology student from Stellies describing the local scene…) blah blah blah.

But hang on…what about these?

Mr Cat and the Jackal & Gogol Bordello

For the unenlightened, Gogol Bordello is arguably the most eccentric and entertaining band in the universe. They pioneered commercially viable Gypsy Punk, a genre that mixes political statements from Eastern Europe with traditional instruments, douses it in booze, and goes wild. Mr Cat and The Jackal burst onto the scene a few years back, selling a narrative of demonic duels, booze, and good times, accompanied by out of this word puppetry. And they are cool, no doubt. But the structure, beats, and vocal style are thieved from Gogol. Listen if you don’t believe me.

AKing & Biffy Clyro

I have to admit, I hadn’t considered this possibility until a few years ago when I played a Biffy Clyro track in a friend’s car and she asked if this was the new AKing. Both bands produce radio friendly, love and lyric-based rock. I’d hazard a guess that if they sang in the same register, telling them apart would be quite a challenge. Again, the proof is in an objective audio comparison.

Pascal and Pearce vs David Guetta

The commercially flexible electro/hip hop vibe has been around for a while now, and it doesn’t seem to be fading. While there is a plethora of amazing talent in the underground electronic scene coming out of South Africa (really, stop being a snob and look), the fact is that performers like Pascal & Pearce have done good market research and seen that Guetta is huge, and essentially copied his sound. Problem is, he performs alone while the Cape Town duo…doesn’t.

So what now?

Naturally, supporters of these artists will feel like this is unfair.  How can I not attack Prime Circle, with their Creed-style vocals? Or Sibot, for stealing Deadmau5’s look, if not his sound? The fact is, people borrow, adapt, and use the concepts pioneered by others, and try and gain something. It isn’t wrong. But if it goes too far, as in the examples above, we lose the line between local and international completely. Does this steal something from our patriotic make up? Maybe not. Are we becoming music-munching sheep? No. But what are we meant to talk about at pseudo-philosophical discussions now that this has been taken from us?

As supporters of local music, it is imperative that we inspire our artists and keep them stimulated so that they can maintain their identity in a world of sound that is fast becoming a vacuum for originality. All too often we forget our power as an audience. By expecting more original work, we will preserve a South African sound that is still powerful enough to garner international acclaim, and sell records, without our artists becoming parodies of acts from abroad. The solution is clearly two fold. Artists must continue to push for something truly original, and fans need to make sure that they bring up their end of the bargain.

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