MABUTA: Shane Cooper’s audio book about ‘Our World”

‘Welcome to Our World’ is a swirl through Africa’s sonic scapes, from Ethiopia to Mali to Nigeria and beyond borders. Designed and curated by SAMA award-winning Capetownian bassist and composer, Shane Cooper, this album showcases well-seasoned fellow South African musicians pushing out of their familiar zones of contemporary post-bop jazz with South African flavours, into other cultural worlds with pentatonic scales, traditional West African  influences, and Afro-pop rhythms.

Mabuta band 2017

In this musical road trip around Africa, the album contains songs which depict Cooper’s varied experiences with different kinds of people, impressions, ecosystems, and spaces. His compositions are meant to absorb one’s aural consciousness, like in a dream, placing experiences of ‘our world’ in sometimes rosy, soft and hopeful zones. At other times, one’s spirit disappears into ramps and rages about the hard realities of life, like immigrant-focused border fences, the inevitable media and technology overload, and exaggerated human noise, all which cause eyes (and ears) to squish, squint and speculate.


Hence, the album’s appropriate title, MABUTA, meaning ‘eyelid’ in Japanese. Cooper explains: “I chose ‘mabuta’ as a theme of opening doors between the Western world and the dream world…perceiving the juxtaposition of the ancient worlds with the modern worlds of technology.” What results is an audio book which takes shape, also, around the individual touches given by each musician.

Bokani Dyer

The touring live band featured some of South Africa’s freshest musicians: Bokani Dyer (keys), Sisonke Xonti (tenor sax), Robin Fassie-Kock (trumpet), Marlon Witbooi (drums), and Reza Khota (guitar). The album features saxophonists Shabaka Hutchings, Buddy Wells and more.

Cooper and his cohorts love the techy touches of modern day instruments. A case in point is how Cooper surprises with his double bass by using extended techniques to elicit human or nature sounds. By running crumpled paper through his strings, stroked with specially crafted ribbed drum sticks which create certain vibrations and distortions, one hears sounds of rustling water, bird flapping wings, wind, etc.    “I have about five variations for these hand-made sticks to create acoustic distortions I particularly like,” says Cooper. This acoustic trip mimics instruments from West Africa like the balafon made of gourds, as in ‘Bamako Love Song’. On the album, these effects are also heard from pianist Bokani Dyer’s papers placed on the piano strings.

Why does this musical journey encompass three African countries’ musical idioms? “For me, these countries have been leaders in musical consciousness: Bob Marley’s Ethiopia, Senegalese singer Ismael Lo with influences from Mali, and Femi Kuti’s Nigerian high life.” Here’s an example of how a creative South African, himself coming from a pluralistic society, absorbs the continental sounds so readily, enabling him to produce the sense of Africanness in the jazz milieu.

Let’s take the journey:

Listening to the album, one is struck immediately how experimental the musicians are, using their instruments in emotional, percussive, and defining ways. For instance, the Malian ‘sound’ is mimicked in the synthesizer and percussion slaps on the bass and guitar strings.

Marlon Witbooi; courtesy Dan Shout

The album starts out hopeful.  Track one,‘Welcome to our World’, is a placid, melancholic piece sustained by chugging drums and Sisonki Xonti’s singing tenor sax. The next track, ‘Bamako Love Song’, strikes another joyful message heard in mixed percussive effects from bass and guitar slapping to bongo effects on the drums with a Malian 12/4 rhythm, and the jesty sax of guest artist, Shabaka Hutchings. Pianist Bokani Dyer’s synth rings and runs, mimicking Malian instruments. Nigeria’s Fela Afro-beat supports the bouncy ‘Log Out Shut Down’, implying the obvious to survive Our World’s constant incursions on our hearts, mind, and body in an overloaded techno world. Buddy Wells solos convincingly, backed by two rhythmic tenors saxes. ‘Tafattala’, meaning ‘twisting together’ in Amharic, showcases all the horns as Ethiopian chords and pentatonic scales mark the song’s purpose.  Reworked from an earlier Cooper-led album, Skyjack, Dyer’s piano swings into a more contemporary improvisation, bop-pish in texture, then flows back into the familiar Ethiopian style. An interesting interpretation.

Sisonki Xonti

Anger hits in ‘Fences’, as Our World moves to heady political spheres that threaten humanity’s wellbeing. Xonti’s sax holds the melody as Witbooi pounds out an energetic, protesting drum; Hutchings’ sax solo wails admonitions…. Originally titled ‘Alternative Facts’, the song sketches the hard realities pertaining to border walls and wars (referring to contemporary America….and elsewhere). The not-too-subtle rumbling by the horns in ‘Beneath the Waves’ suggests a search for that elusive peacefulness as one sinks deeper into the waters of hope. The higher register of the piano conveys this feeling nicely. Cooper’s scuba diving adventures in South Africa’s oceans inspired him to find this silence, every dive bringing a new sensory experience.

Robin Fassie-Kock; Courtesy Øystein Grutle Haara

After the anger conveyed in ‘Fences’, the meditative soft trumpet of Fassie-Kock in ‘As We Drift Away’ sets the mood, perhaps, of separation from our contentious, at times hideously inhumane, world. It’s an inspirational piece, with excellent triple tonguing from trumpeter Fassie-Kock and Dyer’s gospelled piano. Cooper explains: “ Remembering my deceased young friend of many years, the song speaks to how spirit hovers over body, family and friends before departing at death. This gives ‘our world’ a connection with the process of dying and a resultant release. This release gives a picture, perhaps, of what a nicer world might look like ahead.”

There’s another intriguing side of this reality-meets-dream phenomenon in Cooper’s sonic vision.
The album concludes with ‘The Tunnel’ which, of itself, ends abruptly. “The intention was that life speeds toward the end. It speeds through a tunnel without knowing where it’s going to end up, and then the lights go out.” Cooper’s influence comes from Vangelis’ enigmatic score for the original film, ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), and how the present film sequel (2017) reworks sound with contemporary synthwave and cyberpunk interpretations, thanks to present day sound effects technologies. “Vangelis informed a lot of musical decisions I have made in my writing, and has allowed me to reshape “The Tunnel” to reflect my own journey with electronic sci-fi styles and effects. It’s like when I took a speed train in Japan, I passed a rural scene with beautiful mountains and within 20 minutes, I’d be in a huge congested futuristic city. I look at the ancient and traditional, and the newer technologies at the same time. Both of these worlds emerge in my album, and weave not so much a clash but how our world actually appears in our real life.”

             MABUTA band

Cooper and his band’s ‘our world’ is indeed African, conveyed so effectively by MABUTA’s mixed bag of musicians. Perhaps, after his 4 months in Europe co-curating the Bern jazz festival and undergoing a residency in Zurich through ProHelvetia, Cooper’s next album might reflect on those contemplative under water scenes which seem to have considerably energised his otherwise terrestrial journeys.

Catch MABUTA  live at the upcoming Capetown International Jazz Festival on the Rosie Stage on Friday, 23 March 2018.

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