South Africa often plays host to unconventional artists. Violinist Hezron Chetty is one of them. His unique style of music fuses punk, folk, and classical violin pieces into an evocative mass of soaring melodies and breathless instrumental pieces. Following the release of his debut album, we decide to chat to him about where he gets his inspiration from and how influential his father was in setting him on this path.
I think the burning question here is why did you decide to start making violin music? It is a rather unconventional choice considering the nature of the South African music scene and how it leans towards much more commercial sounds.
I am an artist in every sense of the word. It never occurred to me to choose an instrument that would sell or a career that would give me stability. I simply love the violin and could not possibly see myself doing anything else except what I do. Since I was a kid, people tried telling me to choose something that would be easier and more accessible to the mainstream. Thankfully I had the strength to believe in myself, and I knew it would pay off because people respect courage. I think most music scenes around the world tend to lean towards commercial music – it makes the most amount of profit for the record labels. It is an uphill battle but I intend on proving that I can make it with my violin!
I’m going to assume that, based on your skill with the violin and your youth, that you started playing the violin at a young age? What made you choose that particular instrument as opposed to the traditional choices of guitar or piano? Or was it more of a forced decision?
Before I discovered the violin, I was playing an Indian instrument called the harmonium. My dad was a strict disciplinarian but always gave me the choice, which when made he forced me to stick with. I started playing the violin after hearing it being played by a boy at school one afternoon. That weekend my father asked me whether I wanted to learn a different instrument and I chose the violin. I was only 8 years old, and stuck to a rigorous schedule. My father would come to my lessons, and if I made mistakes or didn’t practice for long enough I would get a beating.
The interesting thing about your music is how you fuse together a multitude of genres and sounds that don’t traditionally get combined. What kind of artist did you grow up listening to that made you want to fuse classical music with the rhythm of traditional folk music and the almost in-your-face “fuck normal conventions” ethos of punk?
I grew up listening to Led Zepplin, Cream, Rod Stewart, The Beatles, Jim Reeves, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Stephane Grappeli, Django Reinhardt, The Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, Charlie Parker, Bill Withers, The Who, Bread, Bad Company, Robert Johnson, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G, King Crimson, The Doors, Metallica, Pharoah Monche, Joy Division and so many more. My life has been filled with great bands and the fact that most of them didn’t have a violinist didn’t stop me from wanting to incorporate their influence in my style. The `fuck normal convention’ twist is just my personality and what drives me to a large degree. Life is way too boring to simply copy other bands and to sound like someone else. I create my own sound.
I guess the next question to ask would be from where you draw inspiration for such unique music? Especially since your music is based around three distinct genre groups that hardly ever operate in the same circles.
I draw inspiration from the awesome people in my life. I am friends with a colourful variety of people, including gangsters, priests, cops, doctors, artists, lawyers, judges, club owners, school teachers and musicians. My music speaks to people from all walks of life because everyone I get to know somehow has an impact on me. And I play what I experience and feel based strongly on human interactions. I enjoy learning from people, how they live, how we all ultimately have the same destination but take such different routes to get there.
I can imagine that the process of creating your music must be quite difficult. Could you walk us through how exactly you would create a song like “Violince In Africa”?
The melody of a new song will come to me, borne from a certain feeling or a question I find myself asking. “Violince in Africa” jumped at me after a journey I took into town in Durban, watching the harsh environments people thrive in, and the contrasting satisfaction they seemed to have with life. I take these feelings and open with the intro of plucking on the strings (my own unique style of pizzicato I have developed) to lay down the basic beat, a slightly African feel in this case, which is recorded on my loop station. Then I lay down the strum on my violin, and press record – this lays the foundation for the song. I then start plucking the melody line and get the feel of the song. It takes me on its own course, and the drums and bass fit in as I play. The cycle continues, building intensity and is very similar to a verse, chorus, verse, chorus songwriting method. I then lay the violin down in the bridge and loop that as well. Finally, I have the finished product that I can improvise on top of. It all seems very tricky but I suggest that people come check the show out for themselves to see how it is done, live!
Furthermore, how do you translate these songs from being studio creations to working on the live stage?
When I recorded the songs with the producer, Rudi Greyvenstein from Vervet Underground Studios, I told him that I need to be able to recreate all of the songs live, without any backing tracks. We accomplished this beautifully, as the final product on stage sounds pretty identical to the songs on my album.
I moved to Cape Town and started rehearsal with my band members who had learned the songs before-hand. Basically, I lay the first loop down and I then send a click track out of my Boss RC 300 Loop Station to my drummer’s in-ear monitors. He then signals to me if the click is in tempo and the signal is also bounced to my bass player. It was complicated at first, but once we got the hang of it the flow came naturally. I can’t lie – rehearsals are intense and it takes hours of practice to get it right.
Your music is catching the attention of many who don’t typically like instrumental music. How does it feel to be noticed by so many people who would typically ignore someone that solely played the violin and failed to include any kind of vocals?
I believe that people in South Africa are unfortunately not exposed to much instrumental music. Promoters are scared to book instrumental bands at festivals or live venues, and if they do it is usually just one instrumental act competing against plenty of vocal acts. I am not here to be noticed solely as an instrumentalist. I am here to be noticed as a musician that is changing the face of the South African music scene by showing people that they can like something that isn’t necessarily mainstream. I think the attitude in my music translates to the feeling people get from vocal-driven songs – I am saying a whole lot with merely a melody.
Do you think there is an untapped market in South Africa for unique instrumental music such as yours?
Most definitely! The proof is in my album release and how successful it has been.
Has it been difficult for you to gain traction in South Africa’s music scene considering the fact that people tend to give attention to indie-pop acts rather than solo violinists?
It was challenging in the beginning when I was battling to define my place as a violinist-led band in the SA music scene. People would ask what genre I am, and had no idea what I was describing when I tried to explain my sound. Fortunately for me, I have made many good contacts and friends in the industry, many of whom believed in my work and respect my courage. A few of these individuals took a leap of well-founded faith and put me on stage with other well-known acts, and in doing so saw the thrilled reaction of the audience. The success of my album followed from there, as people demanded to see more of me on local stages. It took only 6 months since the release of The Fallacy of Composition to reach the major festival stages in SA.
With this thought in mind, what is your opinion on the South African music industry?
The SA music scene is growing exponentially and we are becoming a force to be reckoned with in the world. There are many talented, feisty people in SA who don’t see us as disadvantaged at all which we aren’t. We are producing music that is breaking boundaries worldwide. I was having a chat with my brother, M`rirho Luja (from BCUC) at Littlegig Festival this year, and he said something that I have always believed in: “We will be old and grey when we see the fruits of our efforts, but we would have built the pathway for all the young musicians in this country”. There is a lot of rubble still clogging the arteries of progress in SA music, but I am part of the movement of change. And it all starts with changing people’s minds.
Finally, was there any defining moment in your life where you knew that your calling was to be a musician over anything else?
It is an ongoing moment really. I am only happy when I play my violin. Every time I pick up this amazing instrument and play, my troubles dissolve and I feel like I can conquer the world. Every time I experience this, I know that this is all I am meant to be doing, and it generally lasts me long enough until the next time I decide to play. I have also come to realise that my calling is not only to be a musician, but also to help the music scene in South Africa expand its horizons. I realised this after I returned from London in 2011 after living there for many years. London taught me how a music industry should work. My ethos is as follows: learn, practice and initiate.