Culture: Inside the Red Bull Music Academy

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In a darkened room in downtown Cape Town, five people are jamming in a studio. There’s an Indian on the guitar, a Turk on the drums, a New Zealander on the piano and a South African on the microphone. “Can you feel it?” he sings over and over again.

They only met two days ago but already they are bonding like best friends. The Turk swaps places with the Indian, who takes over from the New Zealander. “Stop,” he calls out, “here’s the bassline.” The jamming session slowly melts into a soft hip hop track. The Turk, whose hands are busy with the keyboard, leads the group with his facial expressions. A scrunched up face means change the key. One slow exaggerated wink from his left eye means he likes what he is hearing. The giant grin that spreads from sideburn to sideburn means keep doing exactly what you’re doing. Once again, the mood begins to change, first the drums, then the bass, bongos next and finally the keyboard. Heads begin bopping in time with a syncopated jazz beat, completely improvised by strangers from opposite ends of the world, all handpicked to create moments like this. The Turk’s face is wrinkled with ecstasy. “Fucking animals!” he yells out excitedly as the tune hits its peak, “you guys are fucking animals!”

30 students, 20 countries, 2 weeks. That’s the premise behind the Red Bull Music Academy. Every year, the most talented young electronic music producers and DJs from around the world are selected from a pool of over 2,000 entries and flown to a location for two weeks of the Academy. Last year it was Sao Paulo in Brazil, the year before New York (before the bad timing of September 2001 forced a move to London). This year the Academy is held in the political hotbed of Cape Town, South Africa, a country still struggling to throw off the shackles of apartheid and perched dangerously on the fence between third world aspirations and first world remains.

The Academy is divided into two sessions, each running for a fortnight. Two Australians were chosen for the first term and a third for the second fortnight, each commendably completing the 26-hour flight to South Africa. Daniel Feary is 27 years-old and from Melbourne. He is better known as DJ Motive, a member of the Terrain crew who built up a solid reputation for his Thursday night residency at drum and bass night Soulaar at The Lounge in Melbourne. Sofie Loizou is a Sydneysider who runs her own studio, The Tweak Laboratory, in Bondi Junction. The third Australian participant is Declan Kelly, a DJ, producer and solid fixture on the Melbourne club scene.

Over the course of the two weeks, the participants are treated to anything that a music lover could possible dream for. A three level warehouse has been converted to suit their needs, from comfy couches in the auditorium, to recording studios to write music, and even a temporary nightclub in the basement to shake off any remaining energy. The variety of the participants is matched only by their common love for music; Jneiro from New York lives for hip hop, Guillaume from Paris can’t get enough of Fisherspooner, Olli-Pekka from Finland can play almost every instrument in the studio and Jeremy from New Zealand doesn’t go anywhere without his guitar.

It’s no wonder then that the New Zealander’s passion for music pays its dividends before long. One of the guest lecturers chosen to pass on his knowledge to the students is Michael Reinboth, the German founder of Compost Recordings, home to Jazzanova among others. Reinboth was so taken back with one of Jeremy’s home recordings of his slow-drip hip hop band from Auckland that he almost licensed the track on the spot. “Yeah, it’s pretty good, eh?” is all Jeremy can mutter.

The guest lecturers could fill a book on respected musicians. Reinboth hangs around for a couple of days, keen to fill in any gaps in the detailed 70-page manifesto he handed out on how to start your own label. Over the next month the lecturers include Metro Area’s Darshan Jesrani, Alex Rosner (the creater of the world’s first stereo sound system in a club), Seiji from Bugz in the Attic, Bog Moog (yes, he of the synthesisers), Marcus Intalex, Brendan Gillen aka Ectomorph, South African musician Hugh Masekela, Tony Colman from London Elektricity and Hospital Records and Canadian battle DJ A-Trak among others. Officially, each of the lecturers spend a couple of hours with the students passing on their wisdom. Unofficially most of them hang around for days, enjoying the passage of knowledge as much as the time off.

Most of the lessons learnt at the Academy don’t happen during the day. Every night the nightclubs of Cape Town fill up with Academy members as the students show the locals why they were selected. On a quiet dusty street at 2am, the two worlds of Cape Town could not be more distinct. At one end of the street is Sutra, an upmarket nightclub with soft red lighting, strictly white patrons, stark minimalist furniture and a beer list that would impress the most jaded alcoholic. Ten metres down the road is Uhuru, the antithesis of Sutra. Filled with the rank smell of sweat and pot smoke, there’s not a white fella in sight bar the bearded hippie in the corner smoking a pipe the size of a Coke can. The DJ, elevated on milk crates, drops a reggae track and the crowd jumps another metre into the air. The back of the club is littered with sleeping rastafarians, their arms flailed in stoned salute. The two worlds of South Africa combine on one lonely street, the third world meeting the first world to create a truly unique forth dimension.

Two weeks is a short time to squeeze in 24 hours a day of learning, partying, music and new friendships. But seeing the spark that is lit in each of the musicians by the Academy, the end of the fortnight doesn’t mean much to the students. It’s really just the beginning.

For more information on the Red Bull Music Academy, including daily updates from Cape Town, go to www.redbullmusicacademy.com.

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