We all know the story of the prodigal son. Cherilyn MacNeil is definitely not that. First, she’s someone’s daughter, not son. And second, she’s been making her mark internationally ever since she left South Africa.
Singer-songwriter, MacNeil was originally the female half of the Gauteng-based alternative pop band Harris Tweed and producer and bass player, Darryl Torr, was obviously the man of the crew.
Then they changed their name to Dear Reader. After parting ways with Torr, MacNeil kept the name and relocated to Berlin. It was in this city, during the On Tour In Germany week that was organised by Initiative Musik, that I has the chance to watch her live.
Initially meant to perform on a deck in front of a pool that is attached to a small river, this gig was taken inside because of the moody weather. Inside, MacNeil, accompanied on stage by other instrumentalists, managed to fill a warehouse-turned-club almost to capacity. And that’s without any other acts on the line-up.
Changing from speaking to her audience in fluent German to sometimes addressing them in English, the artist known as Dear Reader, who played songs from her newest album, Rivonia, put on a great show. However, it was some of her exchanges with the audience that were rather suspect.
For instance, she told the audience she grew up in Rivonia, “a dusty place in the middle of the bushes”. Besides the Sandton one, maybe there’s also a rural Rivonia I know nothing about.
Or maybe the poor, rural African girl spiel works no matter how you look.
She also spoke to the crowd about how Shaka Zulu was this bad man who killed people just because his mother had died. Which made me wonder what MacNeil had really been saying when she spoke in German.
After the Dear Reader show, I had tocut into the long line of fans wanting autographs and to buy merchandise to briefly chat to MacNeil.
Before I could even ask, she started: “That wasn’t me trying to pretend like I know everything about our past. It’s actually the opposite. That was me trying to remedy my ignorance about where we come from as a country. Rivonia is a really personal project for me.”
“Dear Reader fans are not historians, but I think people really like it and they like when I explain the songs. I just played in South Africa and I realised there was more emotion there and the songs were more loaded there whereas here, they come off as history in a more intellectual and interesting way. There’s a lot more distance from it here in Berlin.”
Does she plan to return to live in South Africa?
“No,” she almost shrinks into the floor. “I’ve just moved in with my boyfriend. In South Africa, you play Joburg, Cape Town, Stellenbosch and maybe Durban. It’s so isolated there’s not much else you can do. I miss my family, but I wouldn’t want to have to scratch out a living.”