If you remember Harris Tweed, you are already half acquainted with Dear Reader as the former is merely their old name, the re-branding occurring due to an inadvertent title clash with a Scottish textile company. Cherilyn MacNeil is at the front and centre of Dear Reader. Hailing from Pretoria and Johannesburg, she now resides in Berlin, Germany whose more efficient transport system means she no longer drives a car and thus has less time to listen to music, although she says “what I have liked in the last while is Tune-Yards, Tame Impala, Alt J and Micachu.”
When she was younger she listened to a lot of folk music. “Joni Mitchell was a big influence,” she says; as were the likes of Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and The Beach Boys, as well as “cheesy church music… I started classical piano when I was eight and did that for ten years. I did it as a subject in high school. I learnt guitar from my dad. Church was a big part of my music education, singing and learning to harmonise… they threw me in the deep end. When it came to decision-making time I stopped doing the classical thing. I don’t have the discipline for it.” Finally able to pursue music the way she wanted, she found that she “was free from the focus on perfection. I found it very suffocating. I have gone back to playing the piano, but I now find it to be more meditative, just playing the black dots on the page.”
Dear Reader’s new album, Rivonia, boldly broaches a diverse range of South African history. Amongst these is the raid on Liliesleaf farm, which led to the infamous Rivonia Trial from which the album derives its title. The decision for this focus was prompted by Cherilyn tackling Mandela’s mammoth doorstopper of an autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Reading Long Walk, she discovered an inspiring story and thought “why not make a whole record about it?” The timing of the album was fortuitous, as the film adaptation of the book will be released this year, which also happens to mark the 50th anniversary of the raid and the beginning of the trial.
Infusing the album with a recollection and celebration of history is one thing, but the challenge is getting it out there – whether it’s the music or the stories. In South Africa “there are various challenges [for musicians]”. For one thing, “there’s nowhere to play.” Living and working in Berlin has made this reality even clearer to her. “I’ve been to concerts [in Germany] and got an idea of how it works. There is a ladder to climb and you move up from venues big enough for 30 then 100 then 200…You can work your way somewhere, but here there are not enough cities to play in, there’s nowhere to get good. You sort of get stuck and start going around in circles.” This is evidenced by the fact that the same music is played in the same venues time and again and to prevent stagnating many bands end up abroad, often indefinitely. Dear Reader was in South Africa recently for a winter tour. Trying her best to break the vicious cycle of playing in the usual places, Cherilyn chose eclectic venues such as the Fugard Theatre and Moyo in Kirstenbosch Gardens for the Cape Town leg.
Cherilyn exudes a paradoxical personality of introvert and extrovert, as she is simultaneously shy and confident. This curious presence infuses her show. Her voice is powerful, resonating through the crowd, and she is not scared to speak her mind, pointing out the disturbing occurrence of an all-white audience at The Fugard, saying “we have to do something about that.” Yet when something goes wrong she giggles and looks embarrassed, admitting “if there’s one thing a Dear Reader show is not, it’s slick.”
The tour is about more than just launching a new album, as she informs the audience about the stories which inspired the music. Other historical narratives include “a love story between a Khoi man and a San woman,” as well as “stories of the Dutch East India Company which was shipwrecked at the Cape of Good Hope”. It doesn’t stop there and delves into our rich history whether it is about Johannesburg and “its origins as a mining town” or “the war between the Zulus and the Boers and the British;” as well as a song about “my great-great-grandfather who worked with Gandhi as a lawyer”. As one of the countries in the world with a large number of public holidays it is alarming to realise that many South Africans do not know what is being remembered or celebrated on those days, never mind other important South African events. This album thus becomes an important lesson in patriotism.
Being South African “has informed my idea about singing and harmony. I’m not a black African, but I’ve heard a lot of it and it has crept in with the choral stuff I do… Being South African fuels my angst, because of identity issues and guilty feelings about being white…I don’t belong here, yet I don’t belong anywhere else. It’s a longing for belonging. All of us have those moments – Mandela Day, watching Invictus or thinking about the ’95 World Cup,” she pauses, “Hey, that’s the same thing,” she says with a laugh. “South African events make us all have a surge of emotions. It’s something we want to be which it isn’t yet and I’m not letting go of that anytime soon, so I guess I am South African.”
The melting pot of South African music is brimming, but it is reaching the point of spilling over and when it does it may have nowhere to go. Artists are often severely limited and unsupported, whereas in Germany Cherilyn can pursue her music and grow in her vocation. “It’s difficult to envision a city in South Africa where I can live, because I can’t do my work and pay my rent in South Africa. The cost of living in Berlin is the same or lower. Health insurance is lower and graded according to your income. It’s easier to live. In South Africa I was working in two stores, teaching and I had my band and I couldn’t pay rent.” Dear Reader is not the only South African band to deal with history or issues of identity. The key now is to get more people to really listen to what is being said, encourage musicians to think outside the box and gain more support for local music.