For Riaan Smit, front man of gypsy-rock-blues band Crimson House, acclaimed internationally, music is magic.
It would be fair to call the Muizenberg-based musician, a magician. On stage is where he first found his mojo; and his mission is to use music to bond his community.
“For me, community is everything,” Riaan says.
He loves the space created in The Hive for the fact that it allows a physical place for significant sharing: of music, of poetry of stories.
Simply he says “All places need a heart” and he points to the village centre as that, for Muizenberg.
“The Hive is a place where people can move more deeply into sharing the thing that makes them, them. A platform for their art, their skill, their poetry… their souls… and in that space as we all share, we see the things that bind us. We realise that we have all loved and all lost. We’re all in the same game. We realise the shared humanity and fragility of our experiences. And the beauty. And sharing enhances that beauty, it connects us,” he says.
Riaan says he is so grateful for having great neighbours. “Sometimes when the guys come over and we rehearse, all you hear from next door, is applause,” he laughs. “There is no life like life in Muizenberg. It’s a very special place,” he says.
Here, the home-schooled neighbourhood kids knock on his door, wide-eyed, and ask if they can watch the rehearsals.
That warms Riaan, who recognises his younger self in their fascination.
He says he first became enchanted by music as seven-year-old, and that by the age of 14 he’d found his crew. At school the other boys were rugby or cricket players, but Riaan’s sense of belonging burgeoned in a band.
“I went to a friend’s 12th birthday party and the kids had their own band. They asked me if I was keen to replace their bassist: we all went together to buy my first guitar and then there we were – our own crew – us against the world,” he laughs.
Even before joining this first band he would learn songs from the radio and learn to play them. “I couldn’t afford CDs and I wanted to be part of that happy collective energy, so I taught myself to play the songs so I could recreate that,” he says. Today is no different: his face softens and he says openly: “I love my boys we’ve been through so much together I can’t tell you the amount of times we’ve driven 30 hours just to play a gig, and driven home together.
There’s a lot of love between us – we’re musically in sync as well as with friendships – love, and mad respect,” he says.
The current band members have been together for five years. “And we’ve not lost anyone, just added,” he grins.
Riaan experienced the first buzz of collective crowd energy during a battle of the bands event in Windhoek where he grew up.
That fix is still very much alive in him. Anyone who has been part of the Muizenberg Festival Concert in the Park, and has thrown themselves into the band’s high energy performance, knows first-hand the contagious dance which sweeps the crowd. At Riaan’s mischievous single word instruction, the entire crowd complies. “Bounce,” he says. And they do.
He says the crucial element of success for the band is their mutual respect. “Everyone’s got their thing you know; if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree you’ll forever think the fish is stupid, so we create opportunities for each band member to shine,” he says.
This attitude has seen the band hit number four on the Australian charts and hold that place for six weeks: the band is praised internationally and has toured many countries, to high acclaim.
As a full-time working musician Riaan is in studio and on tour a lot, and a crucial part of the band’s success is that they are very particular about where they play, and why. “I will play a music venue with a bar, but not a bar with a place for musicians,” he says. It is about recognising the band’s worth and not selling them short.
Riaan is the band’s sole lyricist. He describes the creative process as profound.
“Sometimes the ideas come to me almost whole. When they do, they are drawn to me… but like a woman who knows her worth.. they pause and first wait; to see if this is a good match or the right time. If not, they move on. But when there is a match, then the whole writing process is just beautiful,” he says.
He speaks about a new song, inspired by a band member’s new love, and sings a piece of it, his voice like gravelled gold. His particular style of singing was inspired by the indigenous people of Namibia and is based on what is called throat singing.
In Western terms, he has been compared to Joe Cocker or Tom Waits.
The 28-year-old good naturedly eschews the labels so that he can continue to explore many more genres.
It is this yen for exploration which glints in his creative process, and it is deep-rooted.
While he is known the world over as the charismatic and enigmatic front man for Crimson House, this was a personal progression.
After the break-up of both a relationship and previous band, Riaan fled to Mozambique for time-out and perspective.
There, on a beach in the dark, he sat beside a fire with a stranger who was playing a guitar.
“This dude told me to sing. I never had, before. I had only ever been a backing guitarist. I had my mould and I’d never stepped out of it,” he said.
But the stranger was relaxed, yet persistent, and he urged Riaan. “Sing. Make it up. Sing anything. Just, siiiing.”
So he sang. And on that dark stretch of beach Riaan found his voice, and the power of song. He received permission to step out of the box he’d lived in which had only ever given expression to one aspect of him.
And because it happened to him, he knows what its like. He sees capacity for more, in others.
His music today, the songs he writes, the genre’s he dances between; are all invitations.
“I knew deep down I could sing, I knew I could play the most beautiful little melody, but I was in a metal band and that wasn’t the place for it. But I mis-interpreted that, I thought there wasn’t place for it anywhere. Until that night, when I realised I could do anything I wanted, I could sing and write any kind of music that lit up for me. So that’s what I am doing, now.”
So when he’s up on stage, it really is a little piece of his soul, he is sharing.
It is also what he wants everyone else to do. “Find that piece of you which defines you, and do that, with all you have and are,” he urges. This is Riaan, guitar in hand, urging you to find your own voice.
So he takes part in events at The Hive. And he created a Tuesday night event called the Gut Bucket at The Striped Horse in Muizenberg which runs each week; to call local musicians together, to jam, to play, to experiment; to create a community of music.
It’s also why, even with the phenomenal success of Crimson House, he is also one half of a duo called The Brother’s Remedy. Because there’s so much to experience, musically.
And he swears collaboration is the secret key. To music – and a thriving, healthy, creative community.