A voice is a voice because of other voices: Gabisile Motuba and the collectivity of sound

“What happens,” asks vocalist and composer Gabisile Motuba, “when the voice in a piece of music isn’t ‘the singer’?”

Tshwane University of Technology graduate Motuba is describing the genesis of her new album Tefiti, Goddess of Creation. In one sense, Tefiti is a second album, following the collaborative Sanctum Sanctorium ((https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/sanctum-sanctorium/1372986074) with Swiss pianist Malcolm Braff and percussionist (and partner) Tumi Mogorosi.


In another, however, it’s a completely new departure. “There were many sources of ideas for Sanctum,” she says. “Malcolm’s sense of musicality had a big impact, and we respected that [but] I’ve since spent nearly three years thinking about sound and the idea of voice and trying to ask what exactly they are.”

Motuba has composed all 10 tracks for this outing, working with a string quartet comprising violinists Kabelo Motlhomi and Lebogang Ledwaba, viola-player Simiso Radebe and cellist Daliwonga Tsangela, as well as bassist Thembikosi Mavimbela. Mogorosi plays drums and timpani on two tracks.

In contrast to a conventional ‘singer’s album’, Motuba’s voice isn’t continually foregrounded – “rather it’s just another frequency.” It’s a mistake, she says, to assume that the inspiration for the use of strings is classical music. “No, it doesn’t pull from that.

“The strings help to create a collective sound. I’ve never worked with them before, but they’re a way of articulating community through four-part harmony. It’s a lot like church choral singing” (Motuba grew up with the choral sounds of the Methodist Church) – “It comes together as one beautiful sound but everybody’s brought something different and personal into that. ”

Ideas of community as a social force – “being a person, but being rooted in the collective” – are strong in Motuba’s music, not merely as thematic inspiration, but as tools for her creative process. “Music isn’t just inspired by other music. It’s a response, shaped by who you are and who you speak to. I think we’re in a time that’s seeing the death of individualism and the rise of the collective, and that’s connected to how you group sounds together when you compose.”

I’m reminded of the late Mankunku Ngozi also telling me that music wasn’t just music, but “how you walk; how you greet.” Those politics are present in the themes of the tracks too: Wretched is inspired by Fanon; there’s poetry from MoAfrika Mokgathi, and an intense exploration of The Disruption of the Black Child. On the deeply personal Remember Me, inspired by the death of a close friend, “I was paying homage to her and to the history that’s happening now: friendship, community and the communal struggle for survival. The music is an echo of what’s happening now.” For Motuba, becoming a mother underlined the irrelevance of individualism: “After that, it’s never just about you.”

So Motuba isn’t much impressed by the current emphasis on musical performance as what she calls “the embarrassment of being a spectacle…Branding and becoming a product… There’s nothing for us there.” She tells of a popular Sunday newspaper that was prepared to cover the album “But ‘we don’t want to talk about the music – let’s talk about you instead’! Listen, I have important things to say without being turned into a commodity.”

Commodification isn’t the only barrier a female composer faces. Motuba previously led a group called The Trip, features in Mogorosi’s Project ELO, and currently has more work in progress with Wretched, exploring dissonance. “I landed into composing because of what I was interested in, and how I have always put songs together. The process makes me comfortable with sound and lets me move away from ‘jazz vocalist’ to be somebody who’s interrogating jazz, sound, community and identity.” She cites Asian-American improviser Jenn Shyu, trombonist Siya Makuzeni and jazz scholar Dr Lindelwa Dalamba as influences on that journey: “In different ways, they’re all speaking to those ideas.”

But from the Joburg male classical establishment she has sometimes encountered polite disinterest bordering on disbelief that a young, black, female, jazz-backgrounded composer actually exists. “That’s four strikes against me, I guess,” she says wryly. “It seems as if people look on feminism in our field as just making space for music played by women, and it stops there. Nobody’s thinking about a feminist process or content, or in how the music is presented. Those are the places we can push back against the psychic violence of ‘You really don’t count’.”gabi

“That’s why I think Gretchen Parlato’s important as a feminist musician. She’s a strong jazz musician and you can hear her taking the decisions in the music: on articulation, phrasing, sound – those all affect the things we’re trying to say. Or when you hear an accompanist like [male pianist] Gerald Clayton. The consideration you can hear him giving to the singer and the other instrumentalists, that’s also a feminist way of working.”

Tefiti isn’t a predictably sweet album of voice and strings. There’s slow, quiet beauty and delicacy, but it lives alongside righteous anger, sadness and relentless pulses in the narratives that unfold. Rather than classical ornamentation, the strings often create that most African of musical patterns: groove. And the voice – make no mistake, it’s a beautiful voice – surges and recedes like the tide, moving through the spaces created by strings and rhythm: sometimes in the lead, often one strand in an intriguing sonic weave. Like they say, Motho ke motho…

RESPECT: Hamba Kahle Aretha Franklin


I was away last week, and so didn’t post immediately on the much-mourned death of musician and social activist Aretha Franklin. Here, you can find a full and detailed biography.https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/aretha-franklin-is-as-immortal-as-can-be

Here is something rather more pointed and personal: novelist Candace Allen’s memory of the impact of Aretha on her life. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/17/aretha-franklin-voice-black-girls-queen-of-soul

Allen, incidentally , is the author of one of the best fictional portraits of a female jazz artist: Valaida. (https://www.amazon.com/Valaida-Candace-Allen/dp/1844081729 )

And here the Washington Post interrogates Trump’s claim in his “tribute” that the artist “worked for me”.https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/08/17/aretha-franklin-worked-for-me-claims-trump-did-she/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.1e84c343740c

Even without the fact-checks, it’s clear that without any reflection at all, Trump reverted to a classic racist trope without a moment’s pause. Unsurprising. But Aretha did not need his words anyway. She had – and has – our hearts.

Virtuosi, revolutionaries and pirates: a playlist for Women’s Day

Two Women’s Day greetings popped on What’sApp this morning. One was an extremely pink bowl of roses. The other, fringed by itty-bitty SA flags, showed a woman in traditional attire carrying an extremely heavy pot on her head. We’re flowers – or we do all the household work. Here’s a playlist for Women’s Day and the week that follows: music by and in one case for women that gives the finger to the stereotypes.


1) As homage to the roots, here are Lungiswa Plaatjies and Madosini with Solal’emaweni: referencing some of the most complex and inventive of South African traditional music – music from the women’s domain: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ReSlehqTJA

2) Building from those roots, nobody should need an introduction to Thandiswa Mazwai’s Nizalwa Ngobeni. The song will remain a classic for as long as we continue to forget our heroes (male and female) and their ethics and vision. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZ1D-ndTxpE

3) Throughout the centuries, women have fought for their own rights and those of their communities. In the early years of the Twentieth Century, this American song for the rights of women workers, Bread and Roses, drew on the ideas of German Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg. It’s sung here by Joan Baez. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWkVcaAGCi0

Striking women textile workers: USA, 1912

4) Dolores Ibarruri -– ‘La Pasionaria’  – was a hero of the Spanish Civil War. This Spanish workers’ song was written for her. It’s played here by bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Antonio Forcione. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2MR7nUBRGA

5) South Africa, too, had – and still has – its struggles against racism and fascism. Nants’Indoda was written by trade unionist Vuyisile Mini and sung as he was led to the gallows. For Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba, singing it was one of the ways she alerted the world to the struggles and suffering of the South African majority. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYwgmOxhUvk

6) A very young Dorothy Masuku was chased out of South Africa for questioning the laws of Dr Malan and asking in song who killed Patrice Lumumba. Then the Rhodesian Secret Service pursued her too, for writing songs like this, Bazukahttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bU7l2_KSxOc

7) Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit was one of the earliest Black Lives Matter song. Scholar Dr Angela Davis says it “put the elements of protest and resistance back at the center of contemporary black musical culture.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnlTHvJBeP0

Clare Loveday

8) Then there are the struggles within music. Virtuoso playing and composition are so often stereotyped as the realm of men that we are not permitted to see the large numbers of women already achieving in these fields. Clare Loveday is a South African composer who has won multiple international commissions and collaborated with artists including Nandipha Mntambo. Here’s her work Shadow Lines, performed at the 2016 SAMRO Awards finals by winner Dylan Thabisher https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYOwmtPsSFg 

9) Here’s a concert of original, virtuoso solo flute from Nicole Mitchell in New York: astounding playing in terms of both vision and instrumental mastery https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5CXlPeeVn4

10) Finally, for anybody who’s ever worked in the service industries (I have occasionally been a waitress), Nina Simone sings Pirate Jenny. The song is from the Threepenny Opera by Berthold Brecht and Elizabeth Hauptmann, with music by Kurt Weill. Based on John Gay’s 18th century play, it became a satire on the fundamental immorality of capitalism in a 1930s Germany careering towards Hitlerism. Jenny appears to be a servant, but she has a far more satisfying career as a pirate. And Simone takes the song deep into the racist American South, giving it extra, chilling, resonance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7awW5nrDHk







RIP Sir Stanley Glasser and Thomasz Stanko

Two sad deaths in the past week have particular resonance for South Africans. On Sunday composer Professor Stanley Glasser (above) passed away at the age of 92. This tribute from the London Bach Society http://www.bachlive.co.uk/tributes/stanley-glasser-composer-1926-2018/ details his distinguished career overseas. But for South Africans, it’s as ‘Spike’ Glasser, partner in crime with Todd Matshikiza, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and others as the musical King Kong was first put together that he is probably most affectionately remembered. Black cast members I talked to certainly had no rose-coloured spectacles about the tensions inherent in that production – but Glasser was universally recalled as a decent, humane musical collaborator with an impish sense of fun. May his spirit rest in peace.
When trumpeter Tomasz Stanko visited South Africa for the 2014 Joy of Jazz festival, he spent much of our interview gazing wistfully out of the window of his fortress hotel in Sandton, expressing the wish that his timetable allowed time for him to see the real city and meet its people. “I must come back and do that,” he said. Sadly, Stanko was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year and died aged 76. This Guardian obituary https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/aug/02/tomasz-stanko-obituary
sums up his career. Those of us fortunate enough to hear his incandescent notes four years ago remain in his debt for the gift of that music. Hamba Kahle.