Oppression is often the leavening of art, philosophy and spirituality, and Robbi Robb knows this well. As guitarist, singer and main creative force behind South African rock group Tribe After Tribe, Robb has a head full of painful, first-hand memories of censorship and brutality.
Although Tribe After Tribe, which performs tonight at the Coach House, moved from Johannesburg to Hollywood six years ago, seminal experiences in his conflicted homeland still feed Robb’s outlook and artistic muse.
“I was exposed to a lot of very powerful people at a very young age,” recalled Robb in a recent phone interview in Los Angeles. “One of my friends, Neil Agget, was one of the first white men to die in detention. He filled me in on a lot of stuff that it wasn’t possible to get through (school), the media or anywhere else. So I would get up in front of 35,000 people with this information in my body, and I’d start imparting information from the stage.
“I’d be yelling at people in my own age group, my tribe, ‘Has anybody out there made their own bed today?’ I’d pick up a radio and play it into the microphone until they were furious with me.”
Mixing native rhythms with American-style hard rock, Tribe After Tribe’s unique blend of sounds and influences made the Johannesburg power trio, formed in 1986 , one of South Africa’s most popular and influential groups. But Robb’s political stance spawned a particularly violent reaction that eventually drove the band out of the country.
“Ku Klux Klan, vigilante-type police were always after us,” said Robb, 33. “They’d bust into our house with shotguns drawn and beat us up and stuff. It wasn’t worth staying there, getting beat up every other week, so we left. I have absolutely no desire to ever go back to South Africa.”
Robb, along with bassist Robby Whitelaw, relocated to storied Southern California, where they found drummer Chris Frazier to round out the lineup. But upon arriving in Hollywood, Robb discovered that all was not as he’d imagined.
“There’s incredible apathy here, both political and musical,” he said. “I used to say, ‘Man, I can’t wait to get to America--there’s going to be all these different bands and varieties of music.’ And then we get here and I see BAM magazine. . . . After I got to the end of it, I said to the guys, ‘You know what, there’s only four musicians in Los Angeles, and they play in all the bands.’ I was so disappointed.”
Tribe After Tribe’s cerebral, densely layered music helps it stand out from the pack. It’s modal, ethereal material kicks with enough of a grungy edge to keep it accessible to contemporary audiences, but the heartbeat of the music comes from back home.
“My bass player and I used to go out into the mountains of Swaziland to camp out and sit around fires,” Robb said. “At night, you’d hear these drums, you know? And one time we went down to see what was happening, and we came upon a witch doctor ceremony. We got a very intense feeling from that. We were listening to Led Zeppelin and the first Van Halen album at the time, and we got the same kind of feeling as we did from them.
“So somehow, Robby and I naturally gravitated toward certain sounds coming off the drum kit. The backbeat is OK for some things, but for the presence and spirit of our songs, we need the drums to be sounding in that organic, pagan way--as wild as possible.”
Another element of Tribe After Tribe’s style is the influence of ‘60s psychedelic improvisation--the band refers to its music as “South African Acid Rock.” The group has been favorably compared to such bands as Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead, and Robb readily acknowledges their influence.
“I love the Dead,” he said. “We’ve got that one song called ‘Dance of the Wu Li Masters,’ (which is) about organic matter and physics. I wanted to interpret electrons and atoms floating around, galaxies and circular motion. So we ended up playing it in 6/4, and it was like, ‘Oh, so that’s what the Grateful Dead do!’ Their music sounds like atoms floating around.”
The band’s essential eclecticism proved to be a commercial bane shortly after its move to Hollywood.
“I came across all these A & R people and record company people and publishing house people. . . . They tried to turn our music around, get us to play a straight 4/4 beat; they said they wanted us to sound like U2. I said ‘We’re us three, not U2.’ ”
Robb and company hooked up in 1990 with a sympathetic label in Megaforce Records, which just released its second Tribe After Tribe album, “Love Under Will.” The group spent most of the summer touring with Pearl Jam, and picked up some rave reviews for its live show.
But Robb is his own music’s greatest fan; metaphors for his group’s output flow as freely from his mouth as blond dreadlocks sprout from his head.
“Our music is the heartbeat of mother and child; it’s organic interplay,” he said. “It’s stones, it’s bones, it’s a free creative force. It’s all about the freedom of living.”
* Tribe After Tribe, Uniform Choice and Psychic Reign perform tonight at 8 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $8. (714) 496-8930.