Strate sonder bome [translated from Afrikaans: Streets without trees] is the Afrikaans-language rock band Brixton Moord & Roof Orkes’ [Tr: Brixton Murder and Robbery Band’s] fifth album. It will be released on 16 December 2023 on all the major streaming platforms (Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, YouTube, Tidal, etc.) and can be downloaded at Amazon. The band describes it as an album that moves forward by looking back. As they sing on the album’s last track:
Alice of Asfodel, Pringlebaai of Montreal
Wat bepaal of jy vlieg of val
Of van watter kant van Brixton se rand
Jy nou dophou hoe die vure brand?
[Alice or Asphodel, Pringle Bay or Montreal
What decides if you fly or fall
Or from which side of Brixton’s ridge
You observe how the fires burn]
The eleven new tracks – nearly an hour’s music – were penned and composed by Kapelaan Pat Plank (also known as Gerhard Barnard), Moord Greeff (Ockert), and Roof Bezuidenhout (Andries). These three remaining members of the band once lived within two street blocks from each other in Brixton, the Johannesburg suburb. They met each other here, started performing as a band in the local bar, and their band room was located at Gerhard’s house on the corner of Ripley and Barnes Streets.
Currently all three of them live elsewhere. Andries lives in Alice in the Eastern Cape, Gerhard in Pringle Bay in the Western Cape, and Ockert in Montreal, Canada. Asphodel in the lyric quoted above refers to the afterlife in ancient Greek mythology, with reference to Brixton Barnard (Drikus, Gerhard’s younger brother), who died from brain cancer in 2015, and Louis Graham, the band’s drummer who died from Covid-19 in 2021.
The band’s reference to looking back is all about the past – about the olden days in Brixton, the days when people still drove up a mine dump to watch movies at the Top Star drive-in theatre, when you still paid R20 for a traffic fine on the South African edition of the Monopoly board game. Ockert’s lyric “Tape deck begrafnisbrief” [tr: Tape deck funeral homily) is inspired by a custom he observed during a visit to Nicaragua, where people play mixtapes at a high volume on old style boomboxes as part of a funeral procession. Ockert re-imagines this scene replicated on Brixton’s streets. The album’s opening track returns to Brixton in the 1990s and quotes from the band’s older lyrics from this time. The title track, “Strate sonder bome”, also written by Ockert, remembers Brixton as a place with naked pavements. Despite this, Ockert remembers Brixton as a spiritual home of sorts, both the somewhat dilapidated neighbourhood and the band itself. Ockert continues: “Although I was, back then – now almost two decades ago – completely unaware of the home offered by both the band and the neighbourhood, I realise now that it was most probably a unique, once-off space. It was a strange mix of outsiders, intellectuals, office workers and labourers, who all welcomed everything uncanny and different. In ‘Strate sonder bome’ a traveller arrives at a house like a stray dog. A female figure says: ‘Lets feed him’. For me this is the best possible conclusion to a journey.”
In terms of musical style, the band’s trio also revisit the past with boisterous moments of old school rock ‘n roll.
What then does the reference to moving ahead entail? Roof Explains: “In order to move on, I guess, you first have to arrive somewhere. In some way recoding this album has helped us to move on after losing Drikus and Louis. This is the band’s first album where Drikus doesn’t play a role as musician and songwriter. With our previous album, ‘Bazaar punk’, we worked with tracks that Drikus had left behind. We were able to hear his voice for a last time, but at the time we also thought of it as the band’s final album. However, those eight tracks spurred Gerhard, Ockert, and me to keep on communicating – mostly by e-mail from over great distances. The fact that we continued to exchange tracks after the release of ‘Bazaar punk’ surprised us, maybe even caught us off-guard. Maybe this is the reason why we are preoccupied with moving on. We refer to Brixton (the place) as our Ithaka – this island in ancient Greek mythology where the journey ends. When you arrive at Ithaka one day, very much like in Constantin Cavafy’s poem, the journey there made you look at the places you visited along the way with new eyes. This is why we constantly return to Brixton – even though we don’t know whether it is a final destination, or a half-way stop. I hope this makes sense.”
Gerhard adds: “I don’t doubt that Brixton is my Ithaka. When the songs on this album started to take shape I wondered whether we weren’t being overly nostalgic. However, for this first time I appreciated the extent to which the place and the music making that had come with it would have on my topsy-turvy road ahead. Even though Brixton is in the rear view mirror, for me it remains larger than life. It was a great pleasure to work on the album and I look back with appreciation, but also forward in anticipation.” To cite Edmund Keely’s English translation of Cavafy’s poem (here Ithaka can be replaced with with Brixton):
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
The idea of moving on is also captured in “Fransman se jas” [tr: Frenchman’s coat], which is about a jail bird who is released from custody and who tries to escape his gang member past by driving away from it all at high speed. He knows this is futile, but for one night he races like a flying kite. Similarly, in the song “Vrou op die trein in die skildery” [tr: “Woman on the train in the painting”] a woman, who has just lived through a traumatic divorce, finds herself on a train – she feels lonely, but in some way also free. Very much like one could imagine the woman on the train in the American artist Edward Hopper’s painting “Compartment C, Car 293” (from 1938). “Ek ken jou tipe” [tr: “I know your type”] deals with the present and looks ahead, with social commentary on new pyres and inquisitions in a world where fact and fiction are entangled, and new scapegoats are fingered to stand in for a prevailing sense of insecurity.
Gerhard, Ockert, and Andries started recoding the album in mid-2022. Each of them has a home sound studio, in part because of the Covid lockdown. Ockert has a studio in his home cellar, but also has access to a band rehearsal space that is set up to record a drumkit – in Canada he plays in a band called Deathdrive. Andries mixed the tracks, with the final mix done during a monthlong stay in Copenhagen in September 2023. Willem Möller mastered the album at Sharpe Street Studios in Glencairn, Cape Town, and made suggestions to improve the final mixes.
Apart from the absence of Brixton Barnard’s voice, the sound is reminiscent of previous Brixton Moord & Roof Orkes albus – an eclectic combination of musical styles. The listener will notice rock, folk, reggae, country, and kwêla. The predominant sound is a combination of rock and dark ballads, interspersed with ample humoristic moments. Vocals are by Andries and Gerhard, acoustic guitar and keyboards by Andries, electric and bass guitar by Gerhard, and drums and percussion by Ockert.
About the album’s production Andries says: “We tried to get an old school analogue sound, even though everything was recorded and mixed digitally. I used programmes that simulate classical analogue equalisers and compressors – Fairchild and Pultec. I hope folks who listen to the album notice the grit.” Ockert adds: “I’m really happy with the album’s sound. There is something familiar about the music, but at the same time it is challenging. If you’re tired of the middle of the road popular music dished up everywhere and you appreciate musicians who are willing to take risks, this is the album for you.”