“You should never just keep on delivering a product that’s working,” steelpan player Dave Reynolds asserts. But the problem with audiences is we often want to keep musicians in little boxes shaped by familiarity.
Probably South Africa’s worst example was Sakhile. The group had created a substantial fan-base, which was wonderful for gigs and record sales, but eventually came to be a straitjacket on the imaginations of principals Khaya Mahlangu and the late Sipho Gumede. Every time one of them tried to break free to pursue a new musical direction, commentators (and many fans) would present this as an issue of “fault” or “ego” – instead of acknowledging that it’s the player him or herself who is best-placed to decide when a new path or new partners are needed, and that isn’t a matter of ego, but of creativity.
But it should be refreshing – good news not bad – when musicians grasp the freedom to bring something new to what we know them best for. The results often surpass expectations.
Take multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed, for example. For a long time, the CD-buying public has known him best for explorations of Khoisan sounds, often with infusions of digital mixing. But Mohamed had at least two musical identities before that: first, as an inspired crafter of pop hits (something we were reminded of recently when Matsuli Music reissued Night Express on vinyl: https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/track/night-express-2 ); second, as a spiritual kora improviser in the company of jazzmen such as Bruce Cassidy in many live performances and on the astoundingly beautiful 1997 duo album, Timeless. That was a decade ago, and we have not heard anything quite like it from him since.
Or take Reynolds. Before he moved to Cape Town, Reynolds’ gigs in Johannesburg were often convivial affairs, memorable for infectiously danceable African rhythms, in the company of players such as guitarist Louis Mhlanga. Then, in 2014, he released The Light of Day, which still had some of that character but was also richly infused with what he called “ambient, meditational moments.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that musical fate has brought Reynolds and Mohamed together over the past five years; a partnership they have benchmarked with this year’s SAMA-nominated album Live in Grahamstown (https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/davereynolds1 ). “We’re both committed to a South African musical identity,” Reynolds says, “but we also both have ears and souls that search other African sounds – and we both play instruments that we weren’t born to – Trinidadian pans and Senegambian kora – but were rather called to.”
They are joined by other musical travelers and explorers, Tony Cedras on accordion, drummer Frank Paco, and bassist Sylvain Baloubeta. It’s in no sense a solo project, “ Reynolds explains. “It’s a process of sharing to which we invite other distinctive contributors. We’ve got a particular interest in creative bass players – Sylvain is certainly one of those. And Tony is just super-talented: having him up on stage was a big moment for me.”
The result is an album that both reminds us of the improvising kora master Mohamed of Timeless and the Reynolds of those good-time Joburg jols – and offers several things we haven’t heard before: new tunes, and new sonic textures and synergies, particularly in the way pans and kora play off against that husky-voiced accordion. The playing is skilful and empathetic, and the recording draws listeners into the absorbing atmosphere of a live gig: “We’re taking people on an emotional, stylistic and instrumental journey,” says Reynolds.
The set also reminded me, irresistibly, of the quality that Tananas used to bring to their music: deceptively straightforward, hummable, almost folk-style, melodies that nevertheless serve as vehicles for some very sophisticated, adventurous improvisation. Mohamed is not a ‘classical’ kora player: he’s equally adept at giving the instrument the voice of mbaqanga. Reynolds is explicit about shunning the standard steelpan repertoire of what he calls “ditties” played straight, in favour of jazz improvisation. Cedras makes his accordion literally sing: rhythmic, celebratory and sad by turns.
- Now Reynolds is offering readers of this column the chance to be ahead of the SAMA curve and win a free copy of Live at Grahamstown. If you think you can sum up what South African music means to you in THREE WORDS ONLY. Don’t write to me: click this link http://eepurl.com/cPvdtf
complete your answer and details on the form there – and keep your fingers crossed.