As part of the Music Exchange, Red Bull Studios, and SA Concerts collaboration, two extraordinary music specialists in African traditional instruments came together in Cape Town on 7 March 2015 for a workshop with an audience involved in the music industry. Pops Mohamed specializes in a variety of African instruments, but on this day, he showcased the wonders of the Mbira Kalimba, or ‘thumb piano’, and the African mouth bow and kora instruments. His partner in crime, Dave Reynolds reigned in his steel pans which offered historical juxtapositions with African xylophone sounds and rhythms. Their exchange was part of a wider concert performance schedule that reached the public in Cape Town with not only eclectic traditional African sounds, but messages from histories of how such instruments emerged.
Such was the focus of this Saturday workshop – to have the music industry give more serious thought to supporting a future which continues to preserve these cultural artefacts and their history as well as their application to our contemporary musical world. Reynolds, an award-winning South African composer and multi-instrumentalist, gave an impressive background to his and Mohamed’s enthusiasm for their cause: He cited the ‘father of African ethnomusicology’, Hugh Tracey, who, for some 40 years until his death in 1977, travelled widely in southern Africa recording music of the various societies, and learning some 20 African languages in the meantime. His son, Professor Andrew Tracey, born in 1936 in Durban, continued his father’s legacy. Together, they had founded Kwanongoma College of African Music in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in 1960. Andrew continued to research southern African music focusing on the various sounds in the mbira and xylophone families of traditional instruments. This explains Andrew’s passion for steel pan instruments, which also explains why Pops Mohamed and Dave Reynolds are a natural duo to perform such traditions.
“The business of music involves learning the future”, said Reynolds. This implies preservation. One way to do this is to NOT see culture in an instrument: “I deliver my own identify, what is me, when I play the pans,” he says. He explained that the steel pans are a hybrid percussion developed in the Caribbean islands amongst slaves who were not permitted to make drums of skins. So you see an instrument for what it can deliver, and in this way, that instrument can travel and combine with other sounds. It’s not only rooted to a ‘culture’.
Pops Mohamed, who grew up in Benoni and is known for his wide range of musical styles, has led the struggle to bring cultural music history of African peoples to the present and beyond. He cited an interesting history of how the hand piano Kalimba was popularized by the American pop group, ‘Earth Wind and Fire’, back in the 1960s-70s, and had bought rights to the Kalimba’s symbol which originally was produced by Dr. Hugh Tracey! But it was Mohamed’s own time period of growing up that molded his appreciation and eventual collaboration with the great South Africans of the 1960s struggle against apartheid. Hanging out with his Dad at shebeens back then, or making a home-made guitar and playing it in the high school bands, and jamming with the penny whistlers – all remained as memories, such fun never recorded. It was in 1996 that Mohamed committed to a mission to protect and preserve this ‘cattle music’, as the apartheidists called it, the music of the indigenous. In London, the drum ‘n bass platform of DJs became an opportunity for Mohamed to expose young people to African indigenous sounds. “Go with your signature – tell people about your instrument as a viable South African technique. Then mix it will all the other styles and modes of music, the pop, funk, classical, and jazz, in helping to appreciate how such sounds can produce authentic compositions. And be proudly South African about it.”
Besides delving into the instruments’ roots, the duo added flavour by performing their pieces. It’s when Afrikaans vernacular hip-hop artist and rapper, Jitsvinger (alias Quintin Goliath), joined in a jam to add the traditional Khoi spoken word to the duo’s presentations that the indigenous mixtures bubbled harmoniously. The versatility of Mohamed’s exchange between the mouth bow with attached gourd, alternating with his mbira and kora and bird whistle, also highlighted the occasion. The audience not only listened, but also participated by passing around rattles made from metal keys and bamboo and bean shakes which added soft percussive rhythms.
Time ran out, after this two hour session, with listeners eager to talk more, considering what stimulation they would take home with them that day. Similar workshops are being conducted by Pops and Dave this week at other Capetown venues, and more concerts have been added. More is yet to come from this inventive and inspirational duo in the future…..which is what preservation is all about.