The Zen of Screaming

Pre-destined perfection

The stage lights are off, and Robyn Ferguson can only just make out the silhouettes of her Sistas of Metal bandmates. She paces up and down the unlit stage.

“Are you guys alright? Are you ok?” she asks, breathlessly, repeatedly.
She can hear the mania in her voice being amplified by the darkness.

“Shut up, Robyn! We’re fine!”

Suddenly, the band is announced to the Rock no Rio crowd.

“Sistas of Metal!”

The words are drowned out by the cheers of 24 000 Angolans – the biggest crowd any of them have ever played in front of. Robyn just needs to breathe; something rises up in her body and it’s a completely unfamiliar, overwhelming sensation. She walks off the still-darkened stage, inhales in… out, in… out, in… out. She walks back on.

“Where you go?” asks the festival promoter Carlos in the dark, with a half-concerned smile. “No going off stage; it is your destiny! Now go, go, go!”

As he says the last “go” the stage lights flash on. Robyn spins around. Twenty-four thousand people are looking at her; a switch flips in her brain. In that instant, everything slows down. There’s an out-of-body calm, and the earth pulsates and vibrates at each beat of her heart. For Robyn, it was undeniable: it was a moment of pre-destined perfection – she was meant to play on the stages of the world.

The Portal

For the Viljoenskroon community, something wasn’t quite right about the Ferguson farm.  For starters, they couldn’t speak a word of Afrikaans, and it was the Free State, after all.

But that was a minor anomaly, compared to the stories the neighbours hushed to each other: stories about strange people who, as if by ominous magic, were somehow beamed down onto the Ferguson’s mealie fields. These stranger-apparitions would stay with the family in their farmhouse from time to time, for reasons no one knew.

The farm came to be known as ‘The Portal’, and, in a place like Viljoenskroon, gossip travels in circles: once, an entire circus stayed there, another time, a South American alpaca mysteriously appeared on the farmlands. But what was most perturbing, they said, was that people from neighbouring countries would sometimes stay in the farmhouse and eat at their table – people who didn’t have the same white skin.  

Misfit. Weirdo. Freak

“I got called interesting names at school,” says Robyn.  

She looks at me with an unusual intensity, while not-really stirring her pink cocktail with a straw. Her hands are small and feminine; her nails short and fingertips calloused – the result of waking up at 4am every day, before work and in her pyjamas, to practise guitar riffs. The peak cap she’s wearing – which says her name in a gothic font – gives her a hint of boyish rebellion. Long, perfectly straight hair flows out from under it, like amber silk spilling out from a loom. She has a number of tattoos, the ones that are visible include the words ‘Undying’ in cursive on her left clavicle, Leonardo da Vinci’s Golden Ratio on her right clavicle, and a cork-stopped bottle filled with planets and multi-coloured vapours on her inner right bicep. A skeleton in a Victorian dress, with a red-breasted robin nesting in the ribcage, covers parts of her outer right arm. She really is beautiful to look at.

“What kind of names did they call you?” I ask, realising that I may have been ‘observing’ her for a little longer than necessary.

She looks over each shoulder and leans in close.

“Lots of stuff, but also things like… k-sister.”

Being a small and conservative town, the Viljoenskroon community didn’t understand life on her dad’s farm. Her father would regularly find people roaming the farmlands – people who had nowhere else to go – and he’d bring them back to the farmhouse.

“I don’t have a single memory growing up, when there wasn’t a stranger in the house; it had elastic walls and there was always place for one more.”

Robyn couldn’t speak Afrikaans, and her otherness was compounded by her buck-teeth, a tiny frame, and her pallid complexion (“I was a weird-looking kid!”). She struggled to fit in, even in pre-school. Her art teacher, juffrou Sonja – who Robyn says was also “the town weirdo” – became her only friend. Juffrou Sonja would sit with the five-year-old in her classroom during break time, and she’d show Robyn her new paintbrushes and encourage her to be creative. Because spending time with juffrou Sonja was much nicer than being beaten up on the playground, Robyn would regularly offer half of her tomato sandwich to her art teacher (“Just so I’d have some company”).

At the end of grade four, Robyn’s family moved to Pretoria, and high school was spent at Pretoria Girls’ High School. Here, she’d also get beaten up because she was deemed weird, and if anyone approached her, she’d reflexively snap, “What do you want?”

“Sometimes people don’t like it when you’re very direct,” says Robyn.
“Girls can be incredibly bitchy; they regularly smashed me to pieces.”

“What would provoke them?” I ask, genuinely horrified.

“My face, apparently.”

Robin (in a ribcage)

By the time she was 13, Robyn had become so used to seeing her mother in a hospital bed. Her mother was born with a congenital heart defect – a leaky valve – and most of Robyn’s memories of her mom involve her being in a hospital bed. Robyn would sometimes do her homework while sitting next to a ventilator; the mechanical sound of air being pushed in and hissed out of her mother’s lungs became white noise.

“It was normal for me, seeing my mom, basically dead.”

Robyn’s mother had come close to death several times, but somehow, she always pulled through. When Robyn was 13, her mom started getting better and the doctor felt that a stent would help her leaky heart. She needed an angiogram, a standard procedure, and it promised a better life.

“You’re always in hospital and you’re always fine,” teenage Robyn said to herself.
“I have a maths test, and I’m supposed to do well at school, so I’m going to write my maths test and I’ll see you later.”

She remembers exactly what her mother was wearing, the last time she saw her, and exactly what her mother said, the last time she spoke to her.

“You’re going to feel better, right?” said Robyn.

“Yes, everything will be better.”

Robyn’s mother had an allergic reaction to the dye used in the angiogram, and she passed away on the operating table. When her dad told Robyn the news, she thought it was a cruel, cruel joke and that he was lying. It was supposed to be a routine thing!

“Why did I choose to write the maths test? What did I say to her before I left?” she asked herself, over and over, and over.   

A genie in a hospice

Robyn discovered her musical calling soon after her family moved to Pretoria. Around this time, the Fergusons visited her half-sisters in Cape Town, and they landed up at the V&A Waterfront. Robyn spotted a man with dreadlocks, playing a guitar made out of an oil drum.

“What am I hearing?” she asked herself, with perplexed and enamoured delight.

Her blind obsession to play the guitar was borne that day, watching some hippy-kid make music at the V&A Waterfront. Ten-year-old Robyn felt an urgent compulsion to learn how to play the guitar, as if an outside force was pushing her towards something she simply had to do. She didn’t know why and it made no sense.

For months afterwards Robyn couldn’t sleep, all she could think about was how she could get her hands on a guitar. A year after the Waterfront experience, the burning itch was still there and it was driving her insane. But little did she know that a terminal genie would grant her wish.

Ina was dying of cancer when Robyn’s mother, Shannon, went to visit her at the hospice. Ina wanted to get rid of a handful of possessions, “Take what you want,” she said to Shannon, gesturing to a pile of old things and the air gasping out of her lungs. One of the things was a classical guitar. 

“I still have that guitar,” says Robyn. “When I picked it up it felt like it was meant to be. My mom thought it was the worst possible thing that she could’ve given me because all I wanted to do was play on it. It caused a lot of drama!”

Soon after Robyn got the guitar, her mom passed away.

For just-teenage Robyn, the only release she had was playing that guitar; she learnt to channel every feeling of rage, guilt and loss into it. She blamed herself for her mom’s passing, and depression would often envelope her. But her guitar was an outlet when the darkness became too stifling, and she became drawn to heavier styles of music, like metal.

“I think I liked it because metal is not the norm, and I was not the norm.” In a parochial all-girls’ school that focused on choir and string quartets, Robyn and a small group of teenage misfits did the most logical thing for teenage misfits to do – they formed a symphonic death metal band.

“Everyone thought I was a Satanist, but it’s not like I was drawing pentagrams on
the floor, you know?” 

The Zen of Screaming

I’m watching a YouTube video of Robyn performing with her main metal band, Adorned in Ash. The stage, a smoky red hue; the camera, a little shaky; the sound, not so great. All three guitarists, Robyn included, are head-banging in unison, her long hair whipping up and down with each power riff. While the drums pound and the guitars wail, she breaks away from the head-banging duo and stands in front of an upright microphone. She pauses. And then she lets out a primordial noise that I’m completely unprepared for. A deep growl rises out of her: it’s a savage sound that belongs in the bowels of a beast, not in the body of a petite 27-year-old woman from Centurion.  

Ten years ago, when Robyn initially joined Adorned in Ash, she injured her vocal cords a few times with all the screaming (“I was just balls to the walling it, really”). She wanted to learn how to take her voice to its extreme limits, but without hurting herself. So she got in touch with an American vocal coach named Melissa Cross, just before she became really famous (in 2005, Cross created an instructional DVD, called The Zen of Screaming, and her clients include Slipknot, Megadeth, Courtney Love, and even Kevin Bacon).

“Ca-clink!” Robyn snaps her fingers. “It was a lightbulb moment. Melissa taught me that growling is basically opera singing on steroids, and it’s so easy to do once you know how – I’ve never hurt my vocal cords since.”

According to Robyn, at its core, metal is about freedom, because you can sing about anything you like. Or growl and scream. Some metal bands sing about dragons and faeries and Vikings, she tells me, while others sing about war and sexual abuse. Many sing about the Dark Lord.

I find it hard to believe that any lyrics can be heard through all the growling and gnashing of teeth. But, Robyn assures me, you can hear the lyrics – one’s ear just needs to become accustomed to it. Metal is highly technical, too, and Robyn believes that if Beethoven had electricity he would’ve created heavy metal. “It’s classically influenced,” she says. “I’d estimate that 99.9% of the metal-heads I know come from a classical music background. It’s the natural next step – add electricity to classical music and you get metal.”

“Well, metal is supposed to be about freedom,” Robyn continues. She emphasises the word ‘supposed’ because metal has its elitists, she explains. “The elitists insist that you must only sing about Satan.”

Adorned in Ash is a four-piece anomaly on the South African metal scene. A Christian black metal band with a female lead growler (her other band, Sistas of Metal, is an all-women session group) makes them a unicorn of sorts, as metal is notoriously male dominated, and black metal is very, very far removed from Christianity. There are countless sub-genres in metal – like death metal, nu-metal, mathcore metal, thrash metal, and black metal, to name just a few. Robyn explains that black metal is categorised by fast tremolo guitar playing, there’s often synths and strings added to the composition, it has screechy vocals, and most of the lyrical content focuses on Satan. Which makes it a weird sub-genre choice for a Christian metal band.

“Genre wise, we sound like black metal, but we sing about the opposite side. We sing about God and freedom and life, not death and evil. Many of our lyrics are inspired by the Book of Revelations. So technically we are ‘unblack metal’, which makes us quite controversial.”

“Why is that?” I ask.

“Oh, we’ve had death threats and all kinds of things,” she replies.

She uses her straw to stir the ice cubes in her pink drink, which have mostly melted.

“We’ve had bricks thrown through our windows by neighbours who think we’re Satanists. We’re not trying to kill your cat, lady; we love cats!” she laughs. “We’ve also had a church group come to my house during a rehearsal to pray for our deliverance, because they thought we were possessed – we had to explain that we were on the same side!”

“If you took five seconds to get to know me as a person and not judge me, you’d actually realise that I’m not trying to summon demons. We’ve had The Brotherhood of Ram (a Satanic sect) harass us on tour, people outright mock us at our shows, we’ve had stuff thrown at us, we’ve been booed off stage. I’ve even had people show up at my work and threaten me.”

“We do this for Him,” she adds, and points upwards.

I look up at where she’s pointing, and then feel daft.

“We just want to spread light wherever we go, in a really weird way.”

The prophecy

Robyn is 14 and she’s at a school camp. It sucks, big time. Everyone has cliques, it’s dirty, and she really wants to go home. She sits down on a bench, alone, and takes out her guitar, the one the lady with cancer gave to her mom. She starts strumming the three chords she knows – A, D and G – and it helps block out her loneliness. After a while, a man sits down next to her; she briefly looks up at him and he’s wearing overalls. She thinks he must be a cleaner, and she carries on playing. For a while, he listens to her strum the three chords, A, D and G. Then he turns to her, as if he wants to say something. She instinctively stops strumming.

“I don’t know why, but I have to tell you something,” he says.

“You’re meant to play on the stages of the world.”

With that, he puts an unlit cigarette between his lips, stands up, and leaves.

Image Nathan Ferreira
Adorned in Ash. Image David Devo Oosthuizen

Robyn will be releasing her first solo EP, Alizarin, in April. Her band, Adorned in Ash, has a new single out (she says it will ‘melt your face off’). Find out more here , here and here

Header image courtesy Henry Engelbrecht

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