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I have been thinking about doing house concerts for a long time now.

More specifically, how can we do City Soirée house concerts and create more ways of artist-audience interaction along with creating performance opportunities for artists that we find interesting? Something rather poignant happened this week which made me decide to write about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of #secretsoiree and the significance of the genre agnostic. But let me start at the beginning.

It was March 2010 and a few days before the annual Earth Hour celebration. The seasons were changing and the long Cape summer days were a thing of nostalgia and not much more. But the mood for laid back lazy evenings was still very much alive, even if summer wasn’t. The idea struck me that a fun way of spending Earth Hour would be to get some friends together at my flat in Hout Bay (where I was still living at the time), light up a few candles instead of using the old Edisons, having a tapas-style dinner with a selection of foodstuffs that wouldn’t need an oven (this had nothing to do with my 2 plate Salton mini-grill not being up the challenge) and if you can strum a guitar you bring a guitar. We would drink wine, talk nonsense about everything and nothing and entertain ourselves by making music instead of using the tireless iTunes playlist. The plan was set and our intentions were noble, but unfortunately an early bout of an early autumn cold front brought about a similarly early bout of influenza amongst the ranks. I was spared this affliction, mainly due to the fact that I lived like a recluse and thus missed being smitten by the deities of sickness and communal living. I spent Earth Hour friendless and feeling sorry for myself, watching Duncan Jones’ Moon on my laptop with the lights out. And no, the irony was not lost on me.

This failed attempt at what could well now be categorised as a hippy get-together — remember, hindsight is not an automatic right to judge — did bring about another idea that would eventually lead to something much greater. My direct group of friends, as well as an extended network beyond that one, included many creative people; people who write poems or songs, who play guitar or the lute, as I would later find out. Artistic individuals who create but rarely perform, who conceive works of expression and passion but who hardly ever share these with anyone. It turned out there were quite a lot of us around. Why don’t we get together once a month, each time at someone else’s house or flat, and eat and drink and perform whatever we want? So we did. New people started to join and there was always something new to see or hear. Along with plenty of wine. I decided to label these little gatherings of ours as soirées, not because we were a bunch of poncey up-tights but precisely because we weren’t. And I enjoy a bit of history here and there so I wanted to reclaim the word for what it used to mean a century ago. The Oxford English dictionary describes soirée as “an evening party or gathering, typically in a private house, for conversation or music” but it was so much more than that. Composers of the time would test new work in front of a familiar and private audience before it was premiered on the grand and critical stages of Europe, performers could run through a few pieces in preparation of an upcoming concert, and the lucky few who had the good fortune of knowing these talented individuals could rub shoulders with genius. Now, I’m sure that a fair amount of poncey up-tightedness must have been present at some of these gatherings but that should not detract from the concept driving it. And rather importantly, it turned out these soirées are quite good fun. But that could possibly just be the wine talking.

When the inaugural Creative Week Cape Town came around, I made the suggestion at one of our get-togethers that we should get involved. One of my friends suggested we do a sort of public soirée. What a splendid idea! I quickly made a few calls and we had our public shindig. No, not really. It turned out to be quite a bit of work and also took a fair amount of convincing because the plan was to have three consecutive evenings of performances in the Wessel Snyman Creative art gallery (which was still in Bree Street then) and it will be free. As in everything is free. Free attendance, artists perform for free, venue was free, everything. It was art purely for the sake of art. There were arias, modern guitar music, traditional Shona music, poetry, interpretative dancing, experimental film, performance art and it all worked. The concept, one could say, worked. City Soirée was born. We started to slowly build a reputation for presenting interesting and often unconventional artists in non-traditional venues — artists that we felt needed to be given a space to share their talents. I say we, because gradually friends started to join the organisation and we did things on a sort of ad-hoc basis. But the fact always remained that by having periodic events we were not really able to make a lasting impact on the performing arts landscape in South Africa. Unless we have a concert every week in every city and in every town where people pay for these performances, we won’t be able to achieve the goal of creating work for more and more artists. This will take decades to achieve (if at all) and is just plain and simple a silly idea. We also specialise, as is probably rather apparent by now, in performances of a certain left field nature and we cannot possibly cater for everybody’s tastes. But how do you make it possible for artists of any genre (if that is actually still a relevant term) to perform and gain an income? First of all, we needed to become genre agnostics. In other words, we knew the concept of musical genre might still exist but we couldn’t allow ourselves to be guided by it. This wasn’t very difficult to do considering that the very idea of genre or a musical style is crumbling when you look at international trends.

So maybe we can in fact cater for everybody, or more specifically give them the tools to do it themselves. We put our heads together and asked the question: Why not crowdfund live music? So that is exactly what we did. Our previous blog post was about this very concept and while we were putting the finishing touches on this new innovative tool, a friend asked if I could help out some musicians from Pretoria doing a tour of the Western Cape. They were looking for a place to do a small, intimate gig so my housemate and I offered up our flat. Why not? Up to this point I have only heard the name Dans Dans Lisa but didn’t actually have any clue as to what they sounded like. Deon Meiring and Bouwer Bosch turned out to be sort of famous but also really great guys and even though I didn’t know a single lyric to any one song, the evening was a roaring success and a fair to excellent amount of fun was had by all. This prompted the thought that maybe we should do more of these. To save us the trouble of cleaning up every time we figured it could be a good idea to get other people to host these house concerts. Imagine if you can have a really good artist come and play in your living room for you and your friends, you get a chance to share a glass of something-something with them and experience a unique, quiet and intimate performance. And the best part is that every single person there is a fan. No loud mouths having their own separate bash at the bar or the group next to you paying to see the band but choosing to rather have an unnaturally loud conversation intent on destroying your own evening. Why do people do that, by the way? Isn’t there easier ways to waste money and annoy strangers? This is why we do Secret Soirées. To put the people who love the music in the same room. To give artists the opportunity to connect directly with their fans.

This last week something special happened. The first ever event on the first ever live music crowdfunding platform in South Africa was confirmed. In fact, two events were actually confirmed and they are both house concerts, both with more than a week to spare before pledging was supposed to close. The majestic Derek Gripper will be the first artist to play such a concert made possible entirely by fans pledging money and saying: “Yes, we want to see you perform!” Literally a day after Derek’s Secret Soirée was confirmed, we received the final pledge for the indelible and legendary spoken word band, The Buckfever Underground. The honour of having artists of this calibre embracing this new economy could only be matched by the jubilation we felt when these first two events were confirmed.

I find myself in an unexpected but yet absolutely beautiful position where things have come full circle for City Soirée. As with those original get-togethers that kick started something new and exciting, we find the humble house concert once again occupying the centre of something even bigger and more exciting.


Gerhard Maree