The Shabeen

The Shabeen opens its doors to Mpumalanga and Mieliepop

No, you won’t be able to buy a beer from them. However, says Ryan McArthur of Capetonian folk-punk duo The Shabeen, if they did sell alcohol, the beers would be “as cheap as they could be, you know… so we could all just have a good party together.” Ryan accompanies previously established solo folk-punker Jon Shaban on upright bass and additional vocals, and I spoke to him about folk-punk as a genre, the launch of their new album, and folk music’s appropriation into pop.

While the band was formed in 2012 as an extension of Jon’s solo act, it has since evolved into a legitimate duo, where even the songwriting involves both members. “We both work on songs for The Shabeen,” Ryan explains. “Whoever brings an initial idea, we’ll work on that together. Jon is obviously more of the songwriter, so more of the initial ideas come from Jon, but we definitely work on the ideas together.”

For the most past, the band is a duo. Previously, The Shabeen also included Thomas Glendinning on drums, but due to other commitments he’s stepped down as a permanent member. However, he still often plays with them, making for bigger or more upbeat gigs. “We’re doing a big national tour in March – and in Johannesburg, we’ve got Leighton Powell [from Rambling Bones & Naming James] drumming for us, and we’ll also get Jay [Bones] to  come sing a song or two with us. And when we’re in Durban we’ll get Steve Jones [City Bowl Mizers] to come do some gigs with us there. So it’s often like that; we’ll find people where we’re going and join up with them.”

High-quality folk-punk

In its sincerity and DIY ethos, punk music is very similar to folk. “Folk music initially was often protest music, and music anyone could make. You know, if you had a guitar and you could play three chords you could write a folk song. And it is the same when we were growing up. Jon and I were in high school and wanted to start a punk band. We loved bands like Hog Hoggidy Hog and Fuzigish. And we could just learn enough chords to write a punk song. It was kind of ‘music for the people’ and it was something that could be done easily and had a raw, sincere energy to it that we think couples very well with folk because of that DIY ethos and also that sincerity – it’s not a pretentious music.”

But since Jon studied classical guitar and Ryan studied jazz and double bass, they wanted to make music with more focus on proficiency than the rough folk-punk that inspires them.

“A lot of the stuff you’ll find online or overseas [there isn’t such a big movement in South Africa yet] is very lo-fi and quite crusty, and usually quite badly recorded and often quite out-of-tune. And like I said, it’s supposed to be DIY and we love that energy, but we also want our music to still have quite a high level of proficiency when performed and recorded. So we call ourselves ‘high-quality folk-punk.'”

Folk is alive and well

“For us it’s a very important thing in terms of what we want to deliver in this project, and our focus is on that sincerity, and being there and having that real connection with the crowd.”

The current trend of folk music being appropriated into pop, reminds Ryan of their teenage years. Jon and Ryan were “die-hard Rancid fans”, and really into punk music when Avril Lavigne and Pink came around. Punk had become the “flavour of the week” for pop music.

“And it’s quite funny, ’cause now Folk is the flavour of the week for pop music. And there’s nothing wrong with that, and that stuff always happens and we’re not going to be precious about it, or be snobs about it.”

“We definitely want to retain that heritage of Folk being a sincere form of music. It certainly doesn’t mean that we’re always very serious or strict about things. It’s just about having that sincere connection with the crowd and it not being built on smoke and mirrors – letting it speak for itself. And that’s something that’s definitely very important to us.

“The focus is for us to get our music across in that sincere way.”

The Shabeen thinks it’s pretty cool to probably be the only folk-punk band on most line-ups (including Mieliepop ’16).

“We always feel like if we just say we’re a folk duo, people would definitely get the impression before watching us that it’s something quite laid-back and sit-down-and-pay-attention, whereas some of our favourite gigs are the ones where it’s kinda rowdy and people sing along and dance and stuff like that. It’s nice that we can introduce it to people and we can get that genre out there, and there’s a lot of other cool folk-punk bands out there.”

“There are a lot of bands that have acoustic guitar but we like to also feature the double bass.”

Folk is dead

They’re launching their new album, Folk is Dead. (“A kind of reference to punk, and also to folk just being a flavour of the week at the moment. Obviously folk isn’t dead [but it’s] sort of our comment on the state of Folk”). Their first album launch show is in Cape Town on 27 Feb (tickets available here), and then they’ll be touring for the whole of March, heading to Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Middelburg, Outland Festival, and Mieliepop Festival.

The Shabeen - Folk is Dead album cover

“It’s kind of like a very punk-rock album cover” – Ryan McArthur

Not only will this be The Shabeen‘s first time at Mieliepop, they don’t think they’ve even played in Mpumalanga before. “It’s a really great line-up – it’s got a realy nice mix of stuff. A lot of other festivals in the country, you can see they’re catering to one type of market. Whereas Mieliepop does seem to have a more diverse than normal line-up, which we’re very excited about – all the other bands that are playing, it’s always cool to watch them. We’re stoked about that.”

Luckily, The Shabeen loves festival shows, and will be bringing something special to Mieliepop. “Just a lot of high-energy,” says Ryan. “We’re very excited to be there, so it’s gonna be a party.”

Since they’re friends with a lot of other bands on the line-up, they’ll probably have some guest appearances, in addition to a drummer on stage, but nothing is set in stone. “I think Grassy Spark are up, we’ll probably get those guys to play some sax or some trombone or something.”

How punk of them.

Tour dates


The Shabeen‘s debut album, Folk is Dead, is available on Bandcamp.

Mieliepop Festival takes place from 18-21 March at Lothair, Mpumalanga. Check out our previous post for the full line-up and all info. Also remember we’re giving away 1x set of double tickets to the festival – enter at the previous link – competition closes 25 February!

Floris Groenewald

Floris sometimes writes things when he’s not watching movies or playing video games or editing videos or folk-rock singing/songwriting.

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