Vuma Levin and Theo Duboule mine the past to interrogate the present

Recordar:  To remember; from the Latin re-cordis, to pass back through the heart”. So runs the opening epigraph to Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces ( ).

That’s the kind of memory guitarist Vuma Levin deals in too. Both his previous albums, the 2015 Spectacle of An-Other ( ) and the 2017 Life and Death on The Other Side of a Dream ( ) drew from South African sonic history – there were spoken texts as well as music – to unpick the complexities and over-determinations of both his own, and the nation’s, identity.

Levin’s third album, In Motion, continues that exploration, but with some intriguing differences from those two. For a start, it’s predominantly a duo album with Swiss guitarist Théo Duboule, though with contributions from trumpeter Marcus Wyatt and Swiss reedman Benedikt Reising (who along with Enoch Marutha will accompany the duo on their SA launch tour, starting on November 8).

Vuma Levin (l) and Theo Duboule (r)

Second – and unsurprisingly, given that – it stars the guitar as, in Levin’s words ( ), “a textural instrument” whose strings may be mediated through digital effects. The duo format, says Levin, permits him “a more intense focus” on sound and texture in both composition and realisation. He’s spoken previously of the influence of Radiohead, and of how Thom Yorke’s approach let him consider “foregrounding the studio as an instrument” ( ).

Neither musician has worked in a duo format before. Levin regularly leads a quintet in the Netherlands, and sometimes here; Lausanne-based Duboule has worked with various groups including the award-winning OGGY and the Phonics. He was also a semi-finalist at the 2016 Montreux Jazz Guitar Competition.

The album comprises seven tracks, two by Duboule and the rest by Levin. The connecting thread is Levin’s three Antique Spoons tracks. Two rest on sampled speech reflections: the first on the politics of memory; the second, in French, on love. The third old spoon is a dense, immersive instrumental construct: guitar lines drawn across thickly textured sound samples like runes incised in clay.

For those who enjoyed Levin’s first two outings (which is most of us who heard them, although the first especially remains difficult to find), the track His Imagined History is a clear bridge between this new work and that, especially the tracks ZAR History Volumes 1&2. We revisit the syncopated handclaps and leg-rattles of historic Khoisan music and the guitar riffs evoking more recent SA styles, but in fragmentary, compressed and allusive forms: this is history rigorously edited and the concision leaves more space for thought. For me, the sonic signifiers posed their questions far more sharply here than on previous outings.

Other tracks range across moods, though if there’s a dominant texture it’s echo – something that itself enacts what the album is about. Duboule’s Lennie’s Cottage starts out meandering and bluesy, then slams us with a harsh overlay somewhere between bottleneck and scratch; Levin’s second Spoon offers gentle melancholy; his Airport Terminal a soaring modernist space. But it’s not just titles like that which reflect the album title of In Motion.

We’re all, as Levin often discusses, moving through time – and since that word has more than one meaning, musicians more than most. Historic music such as that of the Khoisan has travelled through time too: it’s not an antique artefact, but contemporary for those who play it today. The sounds themselves move, as they are modulated and looped by effects. Finally, the two guitarists are in conversation, and that entails a great deal of dynamic movement, as the foreground of the soundscape passes between them.

Those guitar conversations convey warm empathy between In Motion’s principals. Not only are the two both exercising a dazzling level of skill, but it feels like Levin and Duboule relish working together. And it’s impossible for a listener not to be captured by that mood. In Motion is a genuinely enjoyable outing, but not one that softens the intellectual punch of Levin’s sonic bricolage. It’s still sound as incisive post-modern analysis – but then, as film-maker Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.”

Orbit poster.jpg

  • The Levin/Duboule duo launch In Motion (with guests Benedikt Reising and Enoch Marutha) at the Orbit on Nov 8 ( ); Sophiatown Mix on November 9 (011-673-1271); the Roving Bantu Kitchen on Nov 10 ( ), with a Nov 11 concert venue t.b.c.



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