Reasoning with Ras Shante Bekwa founder of The Meditators Band
While the Bob Marley One Love Fest was still in session in North Beach, Durban KwaZulu Natal, MzansiReggae managed to steal a few minutes of The Meditators band front man Ras Shante Bekwa before they went on stage to chat about the Festival which they are the founders of and to find out more about what we can look forward to post “Explosion” – their SAMA award nominated album. The KwaZulu Natal based Sextet was formed way back in the 1990s, their first album ‘Tackling the Beast by the horns’ was released in 1991 under DM productions and they went on to record four more albums; Breakdown the Chains – 2000, Jah Kingdom – 2008, Special Request – 2011 and the latest Project Explosion. They are currently in studio polishing off the soon to be released sixth album and MzansiReggae was privileged to be the first to hear the title of the new album.
Please tell us more about the band
Ras Shante: We started the band with some Brethrens who are no longer with us in the band, one is late Ras Gad and Ras David is still around but he started another band. We have new members in the band replacing Ras Benjamin Khumalo who was on Keys and Simphiwe on the Trombone. The band now consists of Bunny Nathi Mkhize on the drums, Ras Thabani Barret Hlela on Bass Guitar, Ras Dan Khethukuthula Msomi who’s a vocalist and Rhythm Guitarist and my son Zengakhona Bekwa who is going to be 15 years on July 25th and he plays Keys. The band is looking forward to doing more works, we still have to do more music videos, we just released a video for Steady One Drop and we are still going to do more we had to put a few projects on hold for this event.
Let’s talk about your first album, “Tackling the beast by the horns’, you say the S.A market was not ready for it and it didn’t do so well
Ras Shante: Yes I wasn’t happy with its production and the quality of the sound and we brought something new to the people who were working with a different genre before; traditional and mbaqanga and they couldn’t understand how the sound should be mashed with reggae music, also that time I was still inexperienced with studio works but it helped a lot cause I was training myself in terms of getting to know the mix, levels and the type of EQs that one needs,right now I think I’m better because I produced ‘Special Request’ ‘Jah Kingdom’ and the previous one ‘Explosion’ and I can see our sound is improving because of the experience gained over the years and doing things by ourselves because that’s what has always been the challenge for us, we have to do everything by ourselves from booking the studio, pay for the sessions and fees until the production side, it’s moving slowly but we are gaining a lot of experience.
You have been doing this for a long time but you are more well known around here, why is that?
Ras Shante: The marketing has always been a challenge, like I’m saying we have to do everything ourselves even funding comes out of our pockets so everything moves slowly, and the fact that our music doesn’t get enough airplay cause of radio stations not play listing reggae music, that is the biggest factor that is slowing us down in terms of spreading ourselves all over. And this financial situation is holding us back because we do have a lot of ideas that can make us move forward.
What gives you the strength to carry on when you are faced with so many challenges?
Ras Shante: One of the things that is my passion is reggae music and when I see such things, because I had a dream to build reggae music here, specifically in Durban, starting here and spreading all over the provinces. I’m passionate about artist development. The artists that I’m working with now we started way back and we try to build one another with the little experience that I have and I had to learn to play each and every instrument in order to do that.
You play all the instruments!
Ras Shante: I play everything because in the studio we don’t use a live band and I go by myself and I trust what I can do 100% in terms of quality and that takes so much of my time, instead of rushing to put something out there, I put a lot of effort in developing the artists that I work with.Right now, I work with the youth who frequent my yard often and are friends with my son who plays the keys and he is also learning to play other instruments as well. I always bring him with to the studio so he can also get experience on that front cause I know maybe soon I’ll be passing away so I have to leave some legacy with someone that I know will take it further. That’s what I’m busy with because I know there isn’t much time for me out there. With the little I have I want to leave it with the youth so they can take it much further where I couldn’t reach.
But you still have time, you are still alive and when I say you, I mean in terms of the band.
Ras Shante: Yes, yes, we are still strong we can still go far with the brothers that I’m working with, I’m grateful to have them because we’ve been working together for a number of years now, which is unusual because a lot of bands are breaking up, but we are still together with one goal and one vision. When we started this thing we sat down and discussed “what do we want to do, what’s is our intention” so with all the challenges and things that we come across, we all understand because we are all looking at the same goal and we can endure everything.
And what would be that goal, in your own words, when you are all talking together and having a discussion?
Ras Shante: Yes, the goal is to see the industry changing and having more reggae music in the industry, getting lot of opportunities where by there’s more events like the one we are having today, more opportunities and platforms for reggae artist in all other events where you find that the are other different genres and more airplay.
Do you think this festival, because you’ve been playing here since its conception, do you think it’s in terms of your vision, it’s heading there?
Ras Shante: Yes, we started this festival in 2009, no 2008 where we started with Rita Marley where we planned an event that night, it wasn’t in the pipeline but we had to make a plan and make it happen and we performed.We shared the stage with Rita Marley who was here in Durban to launch an exhibition to celebrate the life of Bob Marley, then we sold the idea to UShaka Marine to host the event in the next year, we invited all our local bands, so the following year UShaka Marine is the one that called us to ask if we are doing the event again so it just grew like that to a point where some of the Elders like Ras Negus decided to move the event to another venue that can open up even some opportunities for other departments to assist in terms of funding, so here it is and it’s growing.I think it’s heading towards that direction, although there are many forces and money politics involved but we are not concentrating on the negative side of things, we are just concentrating on the momentum of the event, its content, where it’s going and who else is getting involved. So, it’s going there and I’d actually say the Spirit of Bob Marley is the force behind this event, that’s why it’s prospering like it is. There are a lot of things that I can share with you that I believe are signs that his spirit is driving this concert.
Please share with us, we really want to know
(Laughs) There are several times where I had some dreams where I’d have conversations with Bob Marley himself, I don’t know where that was coming from but I’d have some visions and most of the times I’d say his music is our inspiration, the more we use some of his music when we perform, the more people say things like “your music is healing’ and some people are encouraging us to do a Bob Marley cover Album, We’ve never done it but there’s a lot of demand for that, maybe it’s how we present our music or how it makes them feel when we perform so that makes me believe that his spirit is a driving force of this event.
Years down the line we are sitting here, that’s power right there.Your last Album “Explosion” how well did it do, were you happy with it and it being nominated for the Best Reggae Album in the SAMAs?
Ras Shante: That one was my assignment actually, I wasn’t happy with most of the previous Albums’ quality, I took it upon myself to make sure everything is according to how I think and how I feel it should sound like. Unfortunately, the Brother I worked with on final production, Andile, he passed away and it broke my heart because I only learnt of his death when he was already laid to rest. He made my dream come through, he was a good person to do this with, he would listen and he understood my vision. The quality we have on Explosion is on that level that I wanted it to be, in fact it was making me sick to identify the South Africa Reggae sound instead of international reggae sound and that for me wasn’t working and it wasn’t good at all. We wanted to change that, I wished to have the same quality that matches the international level, so that when you listen to our music, until someone tells you that they are a local reggae artist or band you wouldn’t be able to identify it. I think Explosion has done that, and again with the next Album I’m trying to take it to the next level.
I was once asked what is South African Reggae, is there really such a thing, S.A Reggae and International Reggae?
Ras Shante: What make the difference is the sound, there’s nothing wrong with the way we express ourselves with reggae as South Africans but the quality, the quality, the selections of the sounds in terms of which sound are you using on what, the kind of the tone you use on the bass, the kind of tone you use on the snare and everything that makes it reggae should remain at the same level, so that what makes the difference.
So, you are saying we are using different tones from international reggae and is that wrong?
Ras Shante: Yes, and it’s not wrong but when you check as far as reggae sound is concerned, it has that traditional sound, for instance when we talk about Jazz music, Hip hop, there’s always that traditional element and no matter what style you do or art form, there is that traditional sound which we also have to follow in terms of reggae, so I had to seek that until I find it, what makes the difference between this and that, now I can even say The Meditators have been an influence to most of our local bands because we have a good relationship with our fellow reggae musicians so in a way it gives us an opportunity to share some ideas and experiences and I can see our influence to all of them from where we started to where we are now. It makes me feel good to see that we are all growing and right now you can see the level of performances, its good, the standard and the level of professionalism is there.
How come you have never performed outside of the country; I mean a band of your calibre should be touring often?
(Laughs) I don’t know Sister, some of the things are mysterious and unexplainable, I don’t know what’s the meaning behind it but we just enjoy being here, being where we are right now, doing what we are doing and just flowing with nature and I believe when the time is right we will be on that level of touring outside of the country. I’m glad that we’ve had an opportunity to share the stage with some of the International artists that have been here like UB40 who were here two years back, Tony Rebel and Queen Ifrica we brought them here to Durban and LKJ, so I think that marks the potential that we have, it’s just a matter of time. We are also exploring the outside market and we know that if we can break it once then there will be no stopping us from then on.
Which one is your ultimate dream festival?
The big events that takes place in Jamaica like the Rebel Salute, Reggae Sumfest, Reggae Sunsplash and so forth and many more in Europe
Europe is even bigger than Jamaica
Yes, it is, I wish our first tour can be in Europe then we can reach everywhere
Let’s talk about the Politics, the government, you are saying the government doesn’t support artists, why is important that they do?
Ras Shante: Uhm, you see Sister on that note I’ll talk about the Arts as a whole, not Reggae music. I believe that music plays a lot of important roles in many things, everything is riding on music, every business is riding on music, everything, TV is music, and Radio is music. Within music there are a lot of career paths that one can pursue, you have technicians, engineers, photographers, graphic designers besides being on stage and behind the mic. There’s a lot of work but how much effort does our education system put into building this industry that has so many jobs to offer. The government lacks in giving support to the Arts Industry, because each and every one of us is born with gifts and I believe education supports of our gifts, it shouldn’t go parallel with what we are gifted with, it should support that. Looking at myself, one of the disadvantages was that I didn’t learn music at school and all the things that associates with music like music business, maybe if I had learnt that in school, I could be far by now. I’m limited to certain things because I’ve been self-teaching myself music and everything that I know. I believe with the support and not only with just music but with drama, actors, painters, everything that is art, I think that it should be taken seriously at schools. Other countries overseas give that support, if you want to be a dancer then you can study dancing at school, the school just supports you to turn your passion into a career/business, here our youths are not getting that kind of support at school, they are doing something else and they are gifted with something else, this goes on until they don’t know what to do with their gifts. When they fail matric some of them get frustrated and turn into criminals but with that support where everyone can be channeled into their respective gifts, that can boost the economy. One of the things that the government must invest into the people more than trusting certain people from outside of the country to come and invest money, sometimes those very same people come here to oppress the very same poor people but if the government can invest into its people.
I know some of the reasons is that certain things at school like equipment need a lot of money, there should be music instruments in order for kids to learn music at schools, maybe the government thinks “we don’t have that” but with the intention of investing to the people, building the people, building the youths while eliminating poverty and crime because even if I’m not good enough on certain subjects at school I cannot fear that I won’t be able to be a Teacher or a Doctor BUT I’m a musician and if the government can build me on that AT school, starting from the lower grades,by the time I reach Grade 12 I’ll already be a star if I am meant to be a star and I’ll know where to go and what to do after that.
When it comes to airplay like you said earlier our music is not being played on radios, what’s your take?
Ras Shante: We still have a lot of challenges, especially now that the youngsters are getting to positions or are getting opportunities of running programs at radio stations and a lot of them nowadays don’t even know reggae music because when they grew up there was no reggae music being played, so we can’t even blame them, but we who are still doing reggae music and still believing in it, we have to work hard to get the youth in our communities to be familiar with the music, introduce them to the music and pass the message literally, that is being preached in the music, liberate them and show them why they should listen to it, there’s a lot of messages in reggae, there’s a lot of things that still awaken the mind and that builds someone’s character when they get it right. I know a lot of stuff like some of the people that do reggae are not doing it for the right reasons nowadays, some of them are using it to promote very negative stuff but reggae is still strong in terms of where it started and where it is, originally reggae music was meant to be music for the King, it was meant to be conscious music, music that liberates, music that promotes peace and Unity amongst all kinds of people so it has to stick to those principles, like my son, he listens to old school reggae that he never heard from me, now he seeks them, sometimes he surprises me when I hear what he is playing and that is because of the influence that he is growing up with and the environment and now he is also an influence to the other youths and I can see that it can work if we can keep on holding on and doing it until the whole world is transformed and adopting this kind of livity.
What are your future plans besides working on the new Album?
Ras Shante: Our plan now is to start working on some business ventures that are going to sustain us and economically empower ourselves. We are changing our way of thinking and instead of looking out there and thinking somebody is going to come and fund our ideas. Everyone has their own Ideas; this is our idea and we have to work hard to fund it and sponsor it. We are working hard to sponsor ourselves to big up the music but our intention is we want to have a school for music and teach music, we want to initiate that with our means if the government cannot do it, as long as we will be making the relationship with the schools and the teachers who will understand our mission and give us a platform where we can introduce it little by little. Our aim is to work with the youths, so we need to work hard to empower ourselves economically so we can support our projects.
Any message to your fans, the world, reggae community?
(Silence) I have so many messages in my head, but what I would say is that some of the things that I mentioned in this conversation, I think we need to love our kids, we need to put them first in everything that we do, I think in whatever that we do let’s build the youth because they are the ones that are our hope, our future. We need to find the balance because the youth cannot be well groomed by a single parent,that’s one of our main problems, most of the youth are raised by single parents and most of the time the women struggle alone in raising their the kids, I’m talking about myself now so this is the situation, in my hood I see a lot of youths who are fatherless and by just being relatable to their struggles you find that acceptance for me. I get a chance to talk to them and teach them manhood because a woman can do her best but she cannot teach a boy how to be a man, a boy has to learn that from the father and if the father is not there, there are a lot of chances that that boy can grow up and be abusive towards women, starting from the sisters at home, disrespecting the mother so these are the social problems that we have and it concerns me very much when I talk about the youth because my priority is more about the youths and I look at all the things that brings imbalances in our societies, mother and child abuse because a lot of men grew up under that imbalanced situation, where there’s no father to be an example of how a mother should be respected and protected.My message would be we really need to focus on that, even if when a man is no longer in good terms with the mother; this is for all the Brothers out there; please we need to make sure we are active in the lives of our youths to give them support, not to just abandon everything and punish the youth because of misunderstanding between their mothers and us, most of the times it’s us who run away, it’s the same message I preach in our events and music.
Talking about that lets quickly talk about the new album, what’s the name and the whole overriding message?
Ras Shante: I’m thinking that I’m going to title it with one track there called ‘Asifike’ meaning we are not newbies in this industry
So, this is exclusive to MzansiReggae (laughs)
(Laughs) YES, sometimes I like to compose songs in Isizulu, I try by all means to have Zulu songs cause I don’t think there’s anything that’s forbids people to sing in their languages even if its reggae music, and in future I’m planning to do albums with more of songs sang in Isizulu.
And the message; It’s mostly some of the things we spoke about in this conversation, even some of the things I said I was quoting the lyrics of some of the songs that I’ve written, especially this one about the youth and the imbalances of the living situations at our homes.