Xander Ferreira is a South African born musician and artist, who has recently moved to New York city. Rising to attention in 2010 due to his doubly conceptual and scholarly project “The Status of Greatness” – a work of research on the marketing tactics of African Dictators, which Ferreira then theatrically employed himself – Xander has recently formed a new band called The True Tones. The True Tones features musicians such as Steve Williams on drums and Paul Frazier on bass, instrumentalists known for their work with artists from the likes of David Byrne, to Dela Soul, Michael Jackson, and more.
Growing up on a tobacco farm off near the border of Mozambique, the life of Xander Ferreira can be described as nothing else but fascinating. It was a pleasure to talk to Xander about the cultures and traditions of his homeland, his richly philosophical views on the nature of marketing, personality, and performance, as well as Xander’s goals and aspirations with respect to his new musical outfit.
Adam: I read that you come from a town near the Mozambique border. Can you tell me a bit about what growing up there in that specific town was like? I know a lot of your music engages with African themes and influences…
Xander: I was born and I grew up in a small little town called Ohrigstad, a small little village close to Kruger national park and close to the border of Mozambique. I grew up on a tobacco farm and the closest city was maybe almost four hours away. So, you know, you only really got to interact with the world, or something worldly, once or twice a year, like go to the cinema or eat pizza or something like that. The rest was either through television or movies or National Geographic magazine. That’s how I really explored the world, through National Geographic magazine. My dad is a book collector so I had a lot of books, pictures, and things that I always looked through. We are not really that connected to our ancestry because I’m the tenth generation born in Africa. We are much more connected to Africa and South Africa, and our heritage there. So I think it was a very interesting upbringing because it was very secluded and rural. The people and the local tribes from the area are called the Pedi, or the North Sotho, and that was one of the other languages that I learned to speak when I was kid, and also the culture that I became accustomed to. There were a majority of three cultures I would experience: Afrikaans, then the English culture because my mom’s side spoke English, and then the Pedi, the people who worked on the farm, the local population. For instance, my nanny who was like another mother to me, she brought me up, and she was Pedi, and I would learn a lot about the culture of the Pedi people and grow up with that also. So that is my cultural heritage. I think that when people speak about who they are, it’s not just about their ancestry, its also about their environment and situation, what do they grow up as, what do they spend time as, in terms of languages, traditions, culture. You know if you are a kid that grew up in New York, you might be of Italian heritage but you’re neighbors are all Puerto Rican, so you grow up half Puerto Rican, because you’d visit your friend and spend time in Puerto Rican traditions.
A: Was there a music community in this town as well?
X: Definitely. I grew up on the farm for instance, and all the people who worked on the farm were semi-migrant workers, so they would have a house on the farm, for example, but also their own home. At that time, since South Africa was segregated in terms of homelands, there would be homelands which would be basically like a feudal system. Until today still the land works like that in Africa. There would be a chief who would be the landowner and the tribe would live on his land. Its very tribal still. The people who lived on the farm at that time use to play drums. So I always had a drum made for me by my nanny, who was like a mother to me, and her family. They’d always give a gift to me as a drum that they would make. I was farming with goats and she gave me a female goat to me when I was eight years old. So maybe once a year we’d sell a goat but I would keep the skin of the goat and we would make a new drum.
A: Could you talk a bit about your Gazelle project, its conceptual element, and the book you wrote about African dictators?
X: I didn’t really ever plan to go into the music business. I started working in photography, commercially advertising and stuff like that. And I came to a point where I realized I just didn’t really dig it that much anymore, because people pretend that its so important what you are doing, but it does not make the world turn. Yes it influences culture and the world, but it brings pretty much no value. And at that point I was saying to myself like fuck what do I want to do with my life? I want to do something that means something. What is this feeling inside of me that I want to share, to explore, and to work on? For me it was about, after working in advertising for a number of years, how do people buy into bullshit? How do people follow something that is not necessarily good to them or good for them? So I figured what is the best scenario to look at it might be something atrocious like people following a dictator because that is the ultimate brand of convincing people. Because a dictator creates a brand and a PR scheme and a marketing scheme to convince people to believe in something so much, that is, to make them believe in anything to do anything. So I started studying various dictators and their strategies. I took three examples. I figured let me do a complete case study of this, because that’s how people in advertising look at various strategies. So I took Mobuto Sese Seko, Idi Amin, and Muammar Gaddafi. I studied their lives from when they were born up to their death. So I really analyzed, for a year I studied their lives, looked at their strategies. And so finally, like a mad person looking for a murderer, I started looking at patterns between their strategies, and I synthesized one strategy from theirs and put it down in a satirical format which was called “The Status of Greatness” – which was my sort of joking strategy of ‘follow these steps to become a big powerful dictator or brand.’ And my idea was to publish the work and then execute it. So I created a character and I exactly followed this strategy. And you know it worked. I used the media and the music industry as a specific vehicle as opposed to politics, because it takes less money. Some years later I was like, fuck, I actually did it. I manifested this thing I said I would, that’s why I also ended it at some point. Because I wanted to do something musically, something pure, you know music in terms of message and so on.
A: Let’s talk about your new band, The True Tones. You’re playing with musicians who’ve played with De La Soul, David Byrne, etc. How did you end up meeting these people?
X: I met Steve, the drummer, who was the drummer for De La Soul, because I practice Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism. When I first moved to New York, I connected with different people that practice Buddhism here, and through that I met Steve because he also practices. And then I started playing my old music, Gazelle, for him and I was looking for a band to accompany Gazelle, and he liked the vibe. And I heard, fuck, he played with De La Soul, Digable Planets, all these different people. So he said – we should get a bass player too – and he introduced me to Paul because he played bass in Digable Planets. And Paul played with David Byrne, played with a lot of people, from like…jeez everybody, from Michael Jackson to whoever. They’ve got experience in American soul, funk, hip hop, all these styles of music from America that I love. This time, the aesthetic is developing because it’s under my own name. They said to me, let’s not make a band, you have a story to tell, because of your life and all the things you’ve been through. We support you to build a name as an artist. So for me that meant a lot because that gave me a lot of drive that these guys that have played with a lot of great people believe in me.
A: So when do you think you’ll have an album out or an EP?
X: Probably going to try for an EP in the next three or four months, because we have got a lot of recorded material. Though I decided not to release any masters, any recorded material, because for this project I would like to be less independent. With Gazelle it was weird because when I ended up in the music business, we had a song on the charts in South Africa before I had a label deal, a lawyer, a manager, or nothing. We were already being booked for big festivals, doing everything completely independently. And I learnt a lot and I made a lot of mistakes through that, because I wasn’t able to capitalize on it because I was doing everything by myself. You know, you can’t do business by yourself, you have to have certain things in place to get where you want to go. So I would think I would love to try and attract the right label, and the right manager, to build something strong, because America is such a beast, such a massive place. Of course I will build my own vibe, that I have to be the master of, so at some point someone would want to jump in, if people love this shit and they are following it. That’s the point I’m at now. I think if the right person sees the potential in it they’ll be like, oh fuck, there’s something here, we can make something happen with this.