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.

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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…

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