Pumpin' the Volume: District Six Records

Written by  June 19, 2009

Former development studies student and District Six Records founder, Dave Guenette, has introduced North America to some of Africa's hottest musicians. It's not about charity: it's about music.

In a small, rundown and ill-equipped community centre on the outskirts of Guguletu, a township near Cape Town, South Africa, a local band takes to the stage. They bang out a passionate mix of traditional African rhythms, Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder to a virtually empty music hall. But this isn't just an ordinary jam session for Marimba Vibrations, a band with limited resources trying to gain exposure outside of their hometown—on this day, they have a Canadian visitor to impress.

For Dave Guenette, a former student of development studies at Queen's University, music had always been a focal point in his life. His six-month trip to South Africa after graduation in 2003 wasn't a humanitarian mission, like many of his classmates embarked upon; instead, he was looking for a place to bum around. But Guenette never suspected that his daytrip to Guguletu would lead him to anything serious, never mind a career in the music industry as a producer.

"I was amazed by the musicianship [of Marimba Vibrations]. It was all self-taught. They had a knowledge of music that many take a lifetime to acquire. I just remember feeling like I was really lucky to see it," says Guenette.

But even for a talented band like Marimba Vibrations, it's difficult to gain popularity in South Africa. Despite the country's abolishment of apartheid in the 1990s, the cultural division between blacks and whites is still deep-rooted—and, according to Guenette, the division applies to music as well. "It's this vicious circle where no gigs ever get booked because the downtown Cape Town owners don't go in [to the townships] and check it out because it's 'unsafe'," he explains. Guenette and some friends brought the group into Cape Town to busk at a cost of 200 rand (about $32)—a price that Marimba could never have afforded on their own.

"That's not right. That there's a talented group here [in Guguletu], and there's 200 rand and a bus that stands in their way of making money everyday. The infrastructure has to be set up."

And that's exactly what Guenette is trying to do with his music company, District Six. Named after an area of Cape Town famous for its art and jazz music at the turn of the twentieth century, District Six has historical meaning for many South Africans. It was a place where people of different races lived and worked together until apartheid was put into effect, at which point blacks were forcibly removed. Guenette was sold on the name after a local friend suggested it to him. "He told me, if you ever start a music company, you should call it District Six. It's kind of like what South Africa is, and what it could be. We played on the idea of potential," he says.

District Six, or D6, is both a production company and a label. A production company mostly produces live events like shows and concerts, whereas a label is responsible for the pressing, marketing and distribution of music. While Guenette dabbles on both sides of this division, producing events is largely what sustains District Six financially.

Since starting his company, Guenette has already managed to represent some high-profile bands—like one of South Africa's newer, but already popular jazz/hip-hop bands, Tumi and the Volume. On the same visit to South Africa in 2003, he stumbled upon them largely by accident at a concert in Johannesburg. Guenette had gone to hear the American duo, Blackalicious, but was blown away when Tumi and the Volume came on as the opening band. "It was their stage presence. Tumi was really compelling," says Guenette. "I remember being really inspired afterwards. Their taste in music, the influence of jazz and the diverse makeup of the band. To this day, I stand by how important I think they are."

Tumi and the Volume are, indeed, one of the most diverse and eclectic bands out there. Lead singer Tumi Molekane is South African, black and Muslim; Dave Bergman, the bass player, is white and Jewish; Tiago Paulo and Paulo Chibanga are both from Mozambique. And this diversity, according to Guenette, is present in their lyrics, style and even their fan base—all of which stuck with him for months afterwards.

Guenette spent the rest of his stay in South Africa trying to get in touch with Tumi and the Volume, with the idea of getting them to Canada. It wasn't long before the band heard about his plight. "South Africa is geographically big," explains Guenette, "but the music community is small enough that it started to trickle around that this goofy kid from Canada was trying to catch wind of Tumi and the Volume. So I got my hands on the music and the rest was history."

Since his return to Canada, Guenette has already arranged for Tumi and the Volume to tour in Canada three times, once playing at the 2006 Montreal International Jazz Festival—a major coup for a South African band. But as much as it was an accomplishment for Tumi's band to play at the jazz festival, it was equally important for Guenette's company. "Tumi and the Volume helped create D6. They gave the company a purpose and helped define what we stand for," says Guenette.

But getting them here wasn't easy. For a band that was relatively unknown in Canada, he had to work hard to convince promoters to spend money on a band they'd never seen. He needed to finance the $15,000 cost of bringing the band over from South Africa, finding them accommodation, renting equipment and pressing CDs for sale at their shows. He also had to acquire visas for the band members, hire a publicist, book and coordinate venues, and market the event.

Guenette was adamant that the band was paid fairly for their time here. All in all, it took one full year to plan nine shows in Quebec and Ontario. "A year for nine shows would make little sense to many," says Guenette. "But I feel like it taught all of us a great deal about commitment and seeing something through." Guenette doesn't want us to think of African musicians as just another cause. He wants us to recognize them for the talent they possess, and not for the fact that they may have come from poor communities. "They're not a charity case," explains Guenette. "If they happened to live in Montreal, I would have been taken by the experience just the same. I happened to be in Johannesburg."

"Empowering people with business—forgive me for sounding cliche—is the best way to move forward. They have to be in charge of it and there has to be something in it for them."

But not everyone sees the situation as he does. When Tumi and the Volume first toured with K'naan in Canada, Guenette was disappointed that the buzz that surrounded them was about them being poor African musicians—as opposed to simply being good musicians. "You don't realize until you're in a van with these guys travelling about, and you're friends and you're listening to the same songs and wearing the same clothes, how offensive that is," says Guenette.

Guenette says his views on development have done a 360-degree turn since starting his production company. He is critical of certain types of development work—some of which he learned about in school—which involve handouts or promote a certain educational agenda. For him, development isn't about handing over money to people in developing countries or conducting endless numbers of workshops, but rather, it's about putting people on the same playing field. "Empowering people with business—forgive me for sounding cliche—is the best way to move forward," he insists. "They have to be in charge of it and there has to be something in it for them."

"I realized, it's simple. The musicians want to make money. They don't want another fund, they don't need another AIDS workshop, they want to come to the Montreal Jazz Festival and play."

In the music industry, that means that you don't listen to South African music out of a sense of benevolence, but rather, because it's good music. "Development is Tumi having a studio that he runs and he sustains himself, where he's making money and the people around him are making money and they're producing high quality music. And they're doing it on their own terms."

But it's not as simple as it sounds, according to Guenette. In order to get to the point where South African musicians sustain themselves in a meaningful way, the infrastructure needs to be put in place. In addition to access to studios and the ability to create demos, tours need to be set up and the music needs to be promoted and marketed at an international level.

While he won't admit to it, Guenette is facilitating this, even if it's by simply acting as a conduit, or giving these bands a means of getting their music out. In other words, African musicians don't need our sympathy, but they do want our business. "I realized, it's simple," says Guenette. "The musicians want to make money. They don't want another fund, they don't need another AIDS workshop, they want to come to the Montreal Jazz festival and play."

Guenette's ultimate goal is to be able to do the same work he's doing right now, but on a larger scale. He'd like to continue to seek out innovative music from around the world and find a platform to promote it here in Canada. Right now, in addition to the work he's doing with Tumi and the Volume, Guenette has also been tour managing and marketing for Somalia-born singer, K'naan, managing for Toronto-based singer, Zaki and tour managing for Canadian band, Bedouin Soundclash. And he has just added another band to his roster: Holland-based, Mozambican band, Necos Novellas. He plans to put out their debut CD in 2007 and coordinate a Canadian tour.

But even though a large portion of his company is dedicated to working with international artists, Guenette is resistant to labelling his work as development, or calling his business fair trade. For him, it's all about the music, and he's weary of having people see it any other way. "I want it to stop having to stand for so much. It's a dope [cool] company, it's dope music, it's good people. It's innovative in that way. I don't need to sell it on a sympathy card," he explains.

And while he staunchly refuses to use the d-word (development) in any context related to the music he produces, one can't deny that he's making a difference in the lives of the musicians he works with and the communities that they're from. Tumi, for example, has gained a certain amount of influence back home as a result of his Canadian success. "Life back home is good for Tumi," remarks Guenette. "He is a well-respected artist and business man. I think the opportunities he's had overseas are inspiring for young people, perhaps more than anything else."

While he may have helped Tumi advance his international standing, Guenette insists that, ultimately, Tumi is the one who helped him out. "We [music producers] run the risk of thinking our work is more important. Seeing Tumi and the Volume was a gift that has provided a great deal of direction for me and many others. We are the ones who benefited." And according to Guenette, North American audiences stand to benefit from Tumi's message and his unique attitude—characteristics that Guenette said he looks for in artists he'd like to represent. "Tumi has given North Americans something to think about," explains Guenette. "His approach, his humility and his focus on who he is and where he comes from are important."

Meanwhile, back in Guguletu, South Africa, Marimba Vibrations are still trying to get their music off the ground, according to Guenette. Ultimately, when he has the resources to do it, he says he'd like to work with Marimba Vibrations and get them the publicity they deserve—a project that would take a commitment of at least $10,000 from District Six. This initial investment would be necessary to create a CD and fund tour support. Marketing Marimba Vibrations may be Guenette's biggest challenge yet, because unlike Tumi and the Volume who already had a following within South Africa, Marimba Vibrations would be starting from scratch. Guenette said he's not too far off from this goal, but he's patient. He'd rather have things develop slowly than compromise the way he does business. "I believe strongly in business, no handouts, no sympathy cards. We want to create longevity and something that can sustain itself in the years to come."

Three years after his initial trip to Guguletu, he still thinks about Marimba Vibrations and the music they played for him. That experience, he says, was really the impetus for District Six as a company. "It was Marimba Vibrations who created this," Guenette asserts, "and the time is going to come where they get what they deserve out of it. You just have to believe in that. I'm the lucky person who gets to do this everyday, but the scope of people involved in this is really much larger."

 

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency.

 

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Published in Why we travel
Andrea Gourgy

Originally from Montreal, Andrea has a hard time staying in one place. After gaining a BA from Western and a Masters in Journalism from the University of Southern California, Andrea hit the road and never looked back. She has worked professionally as a journalist in six different countries, and earned several travel writing awards in the process. Andrea joined the Verge team in 2006.

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