This series of posts will draw on the research I did for, and feedback I received on, a paper I gave about the metal scene in Botswana for the ‘Metal and Marginalisation’ conference in the University of York on the 11th of April this year. Many thanks to all those who helped with the writing of the paper, and to those at the conference whose responses were so encouraging and have given me extra material to consider for the future of this topic.
A note on usage: as far as I understand, the term Motswana is used to refer to an individual from Botswana, Batswana is used as the plural, the term Botswanan refers to groups or items, and the term Setswana to the culture or language. I’ve tried to use these terms consistently – please do tell me if I’ve made a mistake!
The southern African nation of Botswana is becoming recognised by the international metal community as one of the continent’s most active and exciting national scenes. Though composed of a relatively small number of fans – approximately 1,500 according to VICE– the scene boasts a healthy quota of active bands, and a dedicated corps of fans. The scene seems to be primarily concentrated around the capital city Gaborone, and the northern city of Maun.
To date, much of the interest in Botswanan metal has focused on the works of South African photographer Frank Marshall, whose collection of portraits of Batswana metalheads, Visions of Renegades was one of the first mainstream exposures of the scene. In this series of posts, however, I’m going to look more closely at its relationship to scenes abroad by examining the scene itself (Part One) and its domestic and global reception (Part Two), and finally a list of bands, sources, and some thoughts about where this interest could take me next (Part Three).
Overview and Context
The history of Botswanan metal seems to start with 1970s heavy rock band Nosey Road, who are considered the forefathers of the country’s metal scene. Their classic rock/heavy metal sound remains one of the dominant styles in Botswana today, with bands such as Metal Orizon and Remuda (described by Frank Marshall as “Thin Lizzy meets Motorhead”) more or less following this vein. Skinflint, one of the most successful bands in Botswana, are in this vein, though also showing a strong NWOBHM influence.
The second dominant genre is death metal. Crackdust, Overthrust, Amok and Wrust are in this category, clearly styled after death metal groups, though again acknowledging some broader influences. Wrust in particular have been compared to veteran Brazilian group Sepultura, incorporating death, thrash, and groove elements into their music, while Overthrust and Crackdust are more old-school death metal acts.
Unlike many other regional scenes, where heavy metal and its more extreme derivatives occupy slightly different, though overlapping scenes, there appears to be no major divide in Botswana between the genres. Bands appear alongside each other at gigs and fans identify as fans of metal, rather than of a specific type of metal. As all metal in Botswana is transacted in the same scenic spaces, I will for this reason talk about the Botswanan metal scene as a single entity, rather than distinct genre-specifc scenes.
Notably, hardcore-influenced genres and black metal do not appear to feature in the Botswanan scene. In the case of hardcore, this may be explained by the historical absence of a punk movement. Black metal in particular has a lot of cultural baggage that may not be present in the Botswanan popular imagination: the tropes of gothic horror, the fascination with the “grim and frostbitten” landscapes of Scandinavia and the mountains of Central Europe, and the orchestral aspirations and European art music trappings particularly associated with symphonic black metal. This is a shame, as pointed out by the blog Red & Anarchist Black Metal:
That’s a pity, since not only the mythology, but also the history of Africa has a lot of material for black/pagan metal lyrics
There are no bands that could be simply labelled as thrash, most of the death metal acts have significant thrash influences. This is probably due to the fact that while the thrash movement was happening in the Bay Area and Europe in the 1980s, local bands were playing classic rock and traditional heavy metal, and by the time later bands began looking for heavier sounds, death metal was already happening in Florida and Scandinavia.
Other rock and metal genres have smaller representation: Kamp13 appear the only notable band that could be called alt-metal, reflecting the broadness of that label with a sound that can be compared to bands as diverse as System of a Down and A Perfect Circle. Outside of metal per se there are also alt-rock bands originating in Botswana, such as the now Johannesburg-based South of Nine – whose sound may be compared to Creed– and emo band Usheno, who sound a little like Jimmy Eat World fronted by a Motswana Fergal Sharkey.
Whether or not metal produced in Botswana has a specific musical identity is thus hard to determine, as there is no unifying genre under which most of the bands can be classified and analysed. There are no notable musical features which can be said to be peculiar to Botswanan bands, the way that the Gothenburg sound typifies a certain era in Swedish death metal.
The lyrics are of course another possible way to express a particular musical identity. Skinflint frontman Giuseppe Sbrana discusses this with regards to his band’s music, in a feature for Dutch television:
[T]here’s a lot of bands from Africa who are Westernising their music. But what we wanted to do…. to put African mythology in the lyrical content of our music, and spiritual beliefs, and also traditional beliefs…
He expanded on this in another interview, describing how Skinflint are:
…embracing African spirituality by honoring the traditions of warriors and ancestors. As a lot of these traditions have been forgotten in modern times, buried beneath the popularity of other religions such as Christianity!
This echoes the blog I quoted earlier about how much material there is in African history for black/pagan metal lyrics. In fact, even though Skinflint’s sound is nothing like black metal, their lyrics show a tendency towards similar topics, as we see in the song Iron Pierced King:
With the black book/ Book of the cross/ Used as a tool/ To rob and take our lands.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that as a line from any of a hundred different Scandinavian bands. I’ll write more about this in Part Two.
Obviously though, no regional scene has bands that limit themselves to the same lyrical topics, and Botswana is no different. The traditional heavy metal bands sing about love, independence, partying – all of which are common themes – while more death metal-oriented acts sing primarily about the subjects typical to that genre – the occult, horror, and negative emotions. Business as usual, really.
Putting strictly musical concerns aside, Batswana fans are perhaps most notable for their distinctive style of dress. Indeed, most of the attention the country’s scene has gotten in the international media is as a direct result of the work of South African photographer Frank Marshall, whose exhibition Visions of Renegades (PDF of exhibition catalogue behind link) featured striking group and solo portraits of the Batswana metalheads.
The role that fashion plays in metal is a contentious issue and one that varies from scene to scene –though most will agree that in a general sense, black band t-shirts are a ubiquitous item that serve as an identifier for metalheads, and no fan can deny that black metal and corpsepaint are inextricably linked.
In Botswana, however a unique situation exists. The style evokes images of cowboys and outlaw bikers – leather jackets with cowboy frill on the sleeves, broad-brimmed hats and pointed heeled boots. Part of the style’s origin may be in the fact that many of these fans are literal cowboys. As quoted by fan Trooper:
We try to turn things around a bit from the western image. The cowboy image is cultural, it’s natural, y’know, it’s something we got from our forefathers, our parents, when we were boys herding cattle.
As well as cultivating a particular appearance through their fashion, Batswana metalheads take on pseudonyms such as Morgue Boss, Coffinfeeder, or Phantom Lord Ishmael – presumably to add a fierce, metal edge to the personae projected by their striking visual image.
Frank Marshall explains the idiosyncracies of the fashion in greater detail:
A couple of the rockers work as rangers for local games reserves, so they pick up things in the bush and assimilate them. It isn’t uncommon to see them wearing baboon skulls on chains around their necks or carrying animal horns, which they drink beer from. Some of the fans are steel workers, who craft unique looking staffs or walking sticks. I’ve seen a couple guys carrying shovels and steel pipes with them to gigs. They use these as symbolic items, not for hurting anyone.
Here are some photos that demonstrate the style:
The use of leather can be compared to the dress of American outlaw bikers, and also has strong precedent in the history of metal fashion, where it was first introduced by Judas Priest singer Rob Halford. Spiked and studded leather in particular can be found in the apparel of metalheads across many decades and genres.
Race in the Botswanan scene is of course another issue that has gained a lot of attention. Unlike neighbouring South Africa, which despite being a majority-black country has a predominantly white scene, Batswana metalheads are mostly black. The only notable white musician currently active is Giuseppe Sbrana from Skinflint – though Nosey Road, the forefathers of Botswanan metal, were a white band (also members of the Sbrana family, as far as I can tell). Of course, this isn’t especially surprising, given that Botswana too has a predominantly black population, but metal scenes in other parts of the world are often thought of as being almost exclusively white. Frank Marshall says that Batswana metalheads have:
…never really mixed with white metal-heads from the so-called “outside world.” Metal’s inherent whiteness is largely a moot point for them. They certainly admire and respect the performers of metal from the U.S. and U.K. whom they idolize like anyone else would … in short, they have no racial prejudices whatsoever … I never felt an awkward moment where it was like “Oh…I’m the only white dude here.”
Giuseppe Sbrana agrees, saying:
The metal nation knows no racial boundaries. We’re all one. We all speak one common language and it’s called heavy metal.
“Metal’s inherent whiteness” doesn’t seem to have affected the success of the bands with foreign fans either; Skinflint and Wrust have had similar levels of success for example, though with only a single white musician in the scene it’s hard to say for sure. The reception and reaction to Botswanan metal will be the topic of the next entry in this series!
Part Two will be posted on Wednesday.