It’s a cigarette, mom.
Humidity problems in Asia almost cause a loss of face.
Rewind: it’s this morning at 3am. Before the afternoon breakfast, before the 12 minute yoga lesson you’ve done a hundred times, just before the deep sleep of a post-show comedown. I punched the code to my door and let myself in, dropped all my gear, kicked off my shoes and hit the dim lights. No point in waking up further, there’s been enough excitement for one night.
Even at this, like, basic, unglamorous level, performing can be exhausting, but the satisfaction I get from dropping my bags in this fashion at the end of every mission makes me feel warm. There’s a certain charm to dumping your stuff recklessly on the floor, a certain liberty that you’ve earned the right to do so at the end of a frenetic evening of what can only be called “face”.
Having face is more that just pretending to be a Socialist violinist called Jovan Bvartmann. It’s possessing the learned skill of embodying the show, of playing music with your whole heart for people you may or may not know, may or may never see again, and still wishing you had more than 100% to give. Not just on the performance area (it’s not always a stage), but from the moment you walk in the door. It’s presence, a vibe, something attractive yet commonplace. From the moment you catch your first pair of eyes, it’s on. You present yourself, the character you’ve created. This often means hiding in plain sight.
When you present face in this way, you’re expected to have charisma. You’re expected to be amicable enough to entertain the passing whims of everyone in the room, but to have the dignity to mercifully subdue subtle demands on your energy. Folks breathe in your face. You’re a card. You hear a lot of apologetic stories from strangers who quit playing an instrument years ago for one or another reason. You compare yourself to the other musicians. People are drunk (although I seldom am – it’s a terrifying waste of my limited resources), and face enables you to be on their level of ridiculousness regardless of how sincerely you feel that way.
I buttoned up my waistcoat and played last night at Bar Carmen, their closing party. That place was something special. (Incidentally, it’s the second place I’ve held a residency which subsequently closed down, which makes me dryly consider the emerging pattern.) I was complimented on my energy. The Energy. It’s my most reliable friend. It completely vanquishes nervousness and uncertainty within the first few beats. It’s overrides technical inadequacy. It’s abundant, and always there when I need it, just like dipping my hand into beach sand and letting full handfuls run out. And the time I find myself most pensively wondering about where it comes from is often directly after a show.
Like now, for example. I just finished a proper showcase event alongside 20 other performers. It was the first time I’ve played to a seated audience, and the first time I’ve played to a Korean audience. It was probably also the first-ever completely sober audience. It was also blessed by proper sound, lighting and stage equipment, which felt good, although I left the stage while playing during the set just to be among the people. It never feels right being on a stage.
Here’s a list of live performance venues that I’ve played as Pravda23: (Cape Town) Zula Bar, Mzoli’s, Mercury Lounge, Kimberly Hotel, MOJO, Cybar, Pickwicks, Don Pedro, (Seoul) Roofers, Club After, C Cloud, Freebird, SeoTong Hall. Add to this all the house parties, subway stations, street corners and anonymous other spots and the figure grows. Add all the non-Pravda events and it mushrooms. I’ve got some chops under my belt now, and it makes me feel strangely calm. After all, I’ve never stopped exploring this avenue of creativity. I just never dropped the gear for too long. I’ve figured out something about who I am.
But these days, the drive to continue widening my net for new experiences is growing with every performance, and I feel adamant that at no stage will I ever long to stop. I absorb every new fling with my future like a sponge, heavily drinking in the sights and sounds along the way. Learning, but too slow! I want more than anything for this life to be my profession, my daily adventure. Currently, I’m studying Bach’s Concerto in D Minor on the violin, preparing a live-looping acoustic guitar songwriting set for an upcoming festival and producing a new electro-swing backing track. I didn’t know how to do any of this five years ago, when I was 25. I yearn for the challenge of a new venue, a new audience, a new client, a new publicity agenda. I’m dying to belong to the age-old community of show-folk, the magicians of our imagination, the whole bang shoot.
Why? Why the demand for such a demanding life? I have no illusions about the level of face, and of exhausting social interaction that this career will require. There’s no end to the number of fickle 18-year-olds, non-paying charity events and competition bands that will come my way. There’s no certainty that I will be able to make a living out of it. There’s no telling how I will react when forced to compromise on these wonderful creations. But I have this strange faith, and I only call it that because, objectively speaking, there’s no reason for me to believe in myself like I do. The same people who tell me how amazing my shows are thinking the same about anyone who ignites their emotions and heightens their sense of being in this moment. And at the day’s end it’s about making music that musicians enjoy.
At this point I’d love to answer the question of where the energy comes from, but I don’t know. One person will wake up in the morning and have nothing to do but sit around and think about how they wish their life was different. Someone else will throw themselves headfirst into an (essentially vain) pursuit. I don’t always make the decisions about which one I am. I’d love to say it’s from God, it’s from my friends and loved ones, from my self-respect, whatever, but the truth is that I just don’t know. I only feel certain about two things: that it’s from somewhere else, and that it never runs out. I am sometimes overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the possibility that I can play more diverse styles of music for greater numbers, for wider audiences, in more places in the world. The only thing this is all riding on is the idea in my mind that somehow I have a duty to perform regardless of the cost on my finances and energy, which is still quite large. It’s a strange sense that I am obliged to continue putting on face and showing people the meaning of clean fun, and to remind folks about the power every person has to slip into the driving seat of their own life. If the word “enthusiasm” means “full of God”, then I ask that I will be able to continue this fairly ordinary journey dutifully.