Outsiders may find it hard to believe that some of the most sublimely crafted pop music of the twenty first century has emerged from South Africa. After all, the country is mostly known for exporting culturally-rooted world sounds, not songs that can easily capture charts and hearts in London, NYC or Sydney.
But when Beatenberg released its debut album, the band made plain its ambition to upend entrenched notions of what constitutes South African music. In the process, the Cape Town-based three piece of Matthew Field (vocals and guitar), Robin Brink (drums) and Ross Dorkin (bass) delivered a resoundly international sound that subverts and effortlessly owns mainstream pop.
On its release in South Africa in 2014 The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg became a showcase for the possibilities of pop music unconstrained by outdated genre boundaries and geography. Songs like “Ithaca”, “The Prince of the Hanging Gardens” and “Scorpionfish” deployed crystalline melodies to guide listeners through deceptively complex song construction. At other times, the band’s uncontainable musical appetite showed itself in the traces of other genres that emerged in the music – reggae on “Cape To Rio”, and mbaqanga (the Zulu roots music that attracted Paul Simon back in the eighties) on “Beauty Like A Tightened Bow”.
The album also embraced the two most prominent urban genres that have emerged in the post-apartheid era – kwaito and house. Usually the preserve of artists working in these genres, Beatenberg’s uncanny ability to exist creatively within and outside of traditions resulted in the two biggest South African crossover hits of the past fifteen years, “Pluto” and “Rafael”.
“Rafael”, in particular, beautifully showcased one of Beatenberg’s real strengths: Field’s literate, intricate lyric writing. In its description of extraordinary excellence displayed by the Italian Renaissance painter and the tennis champion, Field managed to contain the iconography of art and physical ability in one chart-topping song. Other songs are as thrillingly lyrically accomplished: “Cavendish Square”, a song about a Cape Town shopping centre that’s also a captivating short story, sees Field come close to the work of Steely Dan and “All About Me” is a superb glimpse into what it takes to follow creativity at its most pure (“I’m a narcissist/I’m an impressionist/I’m an imagist/I’m an egotist/I’m an idiot/I’m a perfectionist”).
With a debut album as potent as theirs, it’s no surprise that Beatenberg has broken radio chart records and won numerous awards, including a sweep of the 2015 South African Music Awards (Album of the Year, Duo or Group of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, Best Pop Album and four awards for “Pluto”).
It’s also no mystery why Beatenberg has caught the attention of a growing number of international players, most prominently Mumford & Sons.
Arising out of a support slot on Mumford’s 2016 South African tour, Beatenberg is featured (along with Babaa Maal and The Very Best) on two tracks on the British band’s forthcoming Johannesburg EP. The band also appearred on Later… with Jools Holland, The Jimmy Fallon show and several other high-profile international platforms over 2016.
Against this backdrop, it would not be overstating things to suggest that Beatenberg is poised for an international breakthrough. Indeed, there’s every reason to believe that Field, Dorkin and Brink will be South Africa’s first global pop success of the twenty first century – and that they will do this on the back of a sound that’s rooted in their home country’s indigenous styles but is unfailingly moving forward to the future.