Shane Cooper’s Mabuta and the obscenity of walls

New year, new ears. We’re a month in, and already the jazz releases are landing. With Mabuta’s Welcome to this World (, Saxit’s Système Diabolique, and Thandi Ntuli’s Exiled already landing, Bokani Dyer’s new outing well on the way (the material premiered at the Orbit last week), and more promised, it looks as though it will be yet another immensely productive year – hopefully not so ignored as in 2017 by the mainstream press. We can dream…


For Mabuta’s chief architect, bassist Shane Cooper, liminality has long been the name of the game (My memory suggests there was a track called Liminal Man a while back, but Google can’t fetch it for me). He’s interested in the borderlands: the places where emotions, genres, players and sounds meet and cross and has his own two identities as jazz bassist and electro artist Card on Spokes. The core of Mabuta is Cooper, pianist Bokani Dyer, reedman Sisonke Xonti, trumpeter Robin Fassie-Kock and drummer Marlon Witbooi, but the album paints with many more colours. The sax line for the recording includes Buddy Wells, Chris Engel, Janus van der Merwe and UK guest Shabaka Hutchings, guitarist Reza Khota provides more string sounds, and percussion master Tlale Makhene makes an appearance too.


Successfully crowdfunded, the eight-track album takes its name from the Japanese word for ‘eyelid’, representing a doorway between the worlds of reality and dreams, but sonically the project also explores the meeting of electronic and acoustic sounds, That particular margin will be stretched further later this year, when a remix EP including producers Daedalus, Slugabed, Kid Fonque and more will; be released.


A bassist exploring the intersections between club music and jazz is obviously at the border gate to Thundercat territory, but Cooper plus Hutchings or Xonti, while clearly part of the same musical generation, don’t really sound like Stephen Bruner and Kamasi Washington. As well as the musicians’ distinctive individual creativity, there’s more of Africa, India – and European contemporary jazz – in the palette of colours Mabuta draws from.



The track Tafattala, for example twines sinuously between the musical East and West (if there’s an American point of reference, it might be Trane or indeed Alice Coltrane), guided by Khota. Beneath the Waves conjures with liquid and solid: fluid keyboards and bubbling strings against the hard, shiny metal of horns and reeds. As We Drift Away grounds Fassie-Kock’s dreamy, effects-shaded trumpet in the natural wood and ivory of Dyer’s piano. Log Out, Shut Down is a solid, Fela-style Afro-rocker demonstrating how ‘electric Africa’ was never a paradox. (That’s definitely a track for dancers – but only clever ones.) Each tune in a different way plays with sonic or conceptual poles, and explores how they can meet, diverge and meet again. It’s this context that fuels Hutchings’ fierce soloing on Fences – it’s impossible not to think, inside this kind of music, about the absurdity and obscenity of all the structures that divide, including Trump’s “big beautiful wall” and the ones we erect against migrants in this country too.


All in all, Welcome to this World, is an auspicious start to the music year, even if we perhaps don’t hear as much of Cooper as we might like; it’s a bassist’s album in conception, but not a bass album. Only on the final track, Tunnel, (under the Fences, perhaps?) does he take a substantial solo, before the intricate, drum n’bass-ish feel of Witbooi’s riddim dissolves into sheets of sound.


You can hear Mabuta present the material live (with Khota, but without the album’s larger lineup) at the Orbit this Friday 9 and Saturday 10 February. In that more intimate format and setting, it’ll sound different again, which is why live music rules – but you should certainly buy the album too.

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