MATT AYRES meets a well-known musician who is breaking new ground, exploring the rich musical roots of his African birthplace

Of the few local acts playing at Wilderness Festival in Cornbury Park this weekend, Count Drachma are the most unique – you’re unlikely to find another band around these parts that plays authentic Zulu maskandi folk music. Despite this fact, South Africa native and founding band member Oli Steadman has found Oxford to be wonderfully accepting of the sounds that define his heritage.

“In Oxford we’ve played our favourite shows,” says the band’s lead singer and guitarist, who moved to the city nine years ago with his brother and bandmate Rob.

“People seem to be really open-minded here. I wasn't surprised that singing in an African language found an audience in Oxford, because you can find all kinds of music here. “For us to introduce a new genre, it just felt like we were adding something to the very diverse collection of musical styles that were already here.”

Most people know Oli and Rob from a more mainstream local act, Stornoway. The folk-pop four-piece from Cowley are among Oxford’s best-loved bands, and played one of the standout sets on the main stage at Wilderness 2012.

“It was one of the few festivals we were playing that summer. We were in the middle of making our second album, and we wanted to stay focused in a studio mindset,” explains Oli, who plays bass in his other band. “Playing live was a bit of an interruption for us, but Wilderness was one of the shows that we had given ourselves permission to play because it’s such a good festival, and in a great location.

“We played on the Friday last year, stuck around afterwards and enjoyed all the different tents, like the gypsy music stage down by the river.

“We were also official observers in the record breaking naked swim – something like a hundred people swam naked, including one of our roadies!

“I had a really good time, so to be invited back with a different project of mine is a real pleasure.”

This will be Count Drachma’s first festival appearance. The band are used to playing low-key, unplugged shows in small venues and living rooms. When they were offered a spot on the main stage by BBC Introducing, Oli confesses that it was a “huge surprise”. He said: “This is very much a side project and a hobby, so to be given a set on the main stage at Wilderness was quite unexpected.

“For me it’s quite a strange experience playing these shows because I’m singing in another language and I’m playing guitar rather than bass, as well as bits of harmonica. It’s quite an intense performance, and I have to concentrate very hard to do something I don’t do in my main band.

“I think on the day I’ll be nervous. The rest of the band are good at jamming along and having fun, though, so after the first song of every show I look over at them. Seeing them having a good time helps me to relax a bit.”



unt Drachma is especially rewarding for Oli because it gives him a chance to explore the indigenous culture of the country he was born in. Spending his first 15 years in South Africa, learning to speak Zulu and surrounded by traditional maskandi music, were all influential in shaping his passion for folk.

“It’s important that people should do their roots proud, and know where they come from,” he says.

“I just feel happy when I’m doing this. To play at Wilderness and share my culture with the people there will be a great thing.”

  • IT’S A SELLOUT Count Drachma open the main stage at Wilderness tomorrow. Tickets are now sold out.