Love it or hate it, when most people think of metal, they think of white dudes. Even if metal was born from the blues and there are growing scenes in places like Indonesia and Peru.
"The Time To Kill Is Now (Trooper)"
Love it or hate it, when most people think of metal, they think of white dudes. Even if metal was born from the blues and there are growing scenes in places like Indonesia and Peru, metal's founding fathers--Priest, Sabbath, Maiden--and most of those who've come after have been unmistakably Caucasian. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to find out about a small but passionate collection of guys who dressed like doomsday cowboys and listened to Motorhead in the predominantly black, central African country of Botswana.
Spared the civil wars and venal dictatorships that scar much of Africa, in its own quiet way the Republic is something of an African success story. In 2008, South African photographer Frank Marshall accompanied a South African metal band on a one-gig tour of Gaborone, Botswana's capital.
"Dead Demon Rider"
"Arriving at the small nightclub venue where they were to play, I was greeted by leather-clad Botswanan metalheads," recalls Frank. Said metalheads had given themselves names like "Dead Demon Rider," "Coffinfeeder," and "Ishmael Phantom Lord." "As the metal scene in South Africa is mainly white, I was immediately fascinated and thrilled by the small, tight-knit subculture that had grown up in the country."
"Shoot You In The Back"
Marshall returned a year later to make the Botswana metalheads the focus of his photography degree thesis. Marshall would come to call his project Visions of Renegades. An exhibition of his photographs will be held at Johannesburg’s discerning, avant-garde Brooke Gallery in July.
The photos show a world that's at once familiar and strange to anyone acquainted with metal. Yes, there's an obvious novelty in seeing a black African guy in an Angel Witch tee surrounded by savanna, but there are other things here that don't fit, like the cowboy hats and leather gear adopted from biker fashion. So much attention to detail goes into the costumes. The Botswanan metalheads stand tall, proud, and aloof. It's all wonderfully homoerotic.
"The costumes are like an arms race amongst the scene members," says Marshall. "There's a competition between them to see who can look the most brutal. When I was in Botswana, I was carrying around a few of the previous metaller portraits I'd done. The locals admired the guys in them. But they also felt compelled to raise their sartorial games."
Giuseppe Sbrana is the lead guitarist and vocalist with the band Skinflint. He's also one of the few white metallers in Botswana, and reckons that the scene's dress code is 'old school.' "A good example of where we get the style from is Motorhead's Ace Of Spades cover," he says. "Also, many metalheads in Botswana are cowboys from the villages and farms, so they mix the cowboy image with a biker metal look. Many wear hunting knives and parts of dead animals. We drink from the hollowed-out cow horns."
"Venerated Villian (Kenosi)"
Tshomarelo "Vulture" Mosaka
Tshomarelo Mosaka – AKA 'Vulture' – is in the band Overthrust. Their Facebook page says he is responsible for "bass and growlings".
"Bound By The Moon"
"Metal is given very extreme respect and great dignity in Botswana," explains Mosaka. "A metal gig here is like a religious ritual among the metallers, they become very, very delighted or even crazy sometimes whenever there is an upcoming gig. They will spend weeks preparing their leather pants, boots and other metal attire – it's like they are preparing for war!"
"When the time to gig has arrived, they will make a straight line, move at the same pace, same step, quietly and gently marching to the gig. It's like they are robots or their spirits are possessed by machines."
The scene's roots lies in the work of the pioneering Botswanan classic rock band Nosey Road, formed in the 1970s. Nowadays, it's split mainly between Gabarone and Botswana's tourism centre, Maun (known as 'Maun Rock City' among scene members) and though it's still pretty small (about 1,500 fans) what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in solidarity, as Thuto Motladiile of the band Skeletal Saints emphasises. "The reason we have a majority black scene here isn't because of racism: everyone comes, whites and blacks, provided the gig is in a safe and secure place. I think it's mostly black guys who turn up because we want to give each other support."
Botswana's metal bands have recently started to play outside of their own country, in South Africa and Namibia. The scene's best known band, death metallers Wrust, are signed to Durban's Witchdoctor Records, and others, like Skinflint, are putting out self-released recordings.
Perhaps one day some metallers from Botswana will 'do a Sepultura' and challenge the white American-European stranglehold on the world's metal scene. Until then, Frank Marshall's photos provide a window on a small corner of the world where metal has put down roots, despite the fact it obligates its devotees to sit around all day in the blazing sun sweating their balls off in leather strides.
Frank Marshall's Visions of Renegades exhibition will be showing at the Rooke Gallery in Johannesburg in July. Keith Kahn-Harris is the author of Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge. He blogs at metaljew.org.
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