Vocal chants and silent noise: jazz vocalist Gabisile Motuba evokes profoundly deep sonic themes and bends rules

Artists who invoke the philosophies of Franz Fanon or saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, and search for spiritual content in artistry in our otherwise violent contemporary world, resonate with an admirable depth for exploration. Young vocalist, Gabisile Motuba, supported by her drummer husband, Tumi Mogorosi, is a sound enthusiast who has delighted our Capetown stages with hauntingly alternative music which defies definition.

I think about the silence that occurs in violence, and how to survive staying silent while the scream that occurs on the other side is heard under this veil of silence.

Launching her new album, Tefiti – Goddess of Creation, this being her and her husband’s second album after Sanctum Santorium which was a product of her Swiss residency with ProHelvetia, Motuba presents a rare ‘classical’ feel to her musical idiom which is more choral ancestral chant than rhythm and blues. She has creatively wedded the string instruments of violin, viola, and cello in slow melodies with a voice that breathes out its message in unconventional ways. One listens and absorbs spirit-like sonic tones and pitches influenced by chanting, with softer and more mellow lower register strings harnessing this vocal repetition. Several songs on Tefiti have Tswana and English lyrics.

Completing her jazz music degree in 2013 at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria, Mamolodi-born Motuba embarked on an experimental journey to find her own voice. She doesn’t consider herself a singer, per se, but sees a range of soundscapes possible with breath, voicing, and strings. For instance, she explores ‘silent noise’, referring to how slaves sang their songs in quiet tones so as not to appear rambunctious or defiant to their owners. But their messages were stark.

Motuba draws inspiration from such vocalists as Gretchen Parlato, Esperanza Spalding and Concha Buika, and South Africans such as pianist Nduduzo Makhatini, trombonist Malcolm Jiyane, and saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu. Her and her husband’s European residency with Swiss musicians spiralled this young couple into unknown and continuing sonic journeys in experimentation within the ‘jazz’ idiom, begun during their studies at TUT. She admits:

Knowledge I gained wasn’t always through a conscious pursuit of what jazz is; rather, it was music I ran into or was introduced to by friends. A lot of us gravitated collectively towards the spiritual, into African spirituality. Not in a literal sense, but evoking a need to go deeper, an excavation of what this music is about, and not just performing for the sake of performing. This is why I gravitated towards the chanting style.

Thirsty for more insights, I caught up with Gabi between her various Capetown gigs.

+++++++++++

CM: Why strings? And why the cello in your compositions?

Gabi: I love the timber of the cello and viola with their alto sound I had been listening a lot to the strings compositions by John Shaw at the time, and also the British cellist, Jacqueline Mary du Pré, in her classical performances, and I was thinking of how to use these stringed instruments…. You know, how to navigate this ‘other world’ of the classics. I was focusing on sound, and realized why the viola is paired so well with the cello and violins. The cello has this warm and rich sound along with the voila’s lower register warmth, compared to the higher nervous pitch of the violin. The cello is a bit more sound-friendly for my vocal range.

CM: You trained in ‘jazz’, but your style and approach to music is not improvisational. It’s more like traditional chants, like a connection with the spiritual pursuits you hear in church, and also amongst First Peoples’ music, like the American Indian’s music with their ancestral male chants. You did mention that you’re not into voice techniques so I’d like to understand your thinking here.

Gabi: I don’t think initially it was intentional. The jazz department at the Tshwane University of Technology really allowed artist to experiment so I never felt I was trapped in the traditional aspects of jazz and their formations. My peers and I were able to explore music together beyond the jazz idiom, even when intensively studying jazz music. You can really plant little seeds and let the collective discussions happen. This is what I’m interested in.

CM: There’s a term we can use when trying to describe or go deeper into that spiritual realm, and that is exploring consciousness. That seems to be what you are doing, exploring deeper levels of consciousness and awareness of being, of existence. And sound allows us humans to go deeper, doesn’t it?

Gabi: Yes, tapping into awareness – the jazz idiom allows us to understand that this jazz music doesn’t only exist within the jazz idiom, but can bring friends with different expressions together to produce music. This has enabled many to look outside of jazz to connect and search deeper into narratives. For instance, going into academia, or fine art, or literary art, it allows us to find jazz outside of the standard stage.

CM: I’m intrigued because it’s all about sound, and what sound evokes in our being. You’re not coming with a message that I need to listen to. Rather, I’m led to find out what that message is, through your sound.

Gabi: Yes, exactly. It’s not pointing to a particular thing, but giving us an idea in a very subtle way, and in a way that the listener can really engage within their own parameters and understanding, with a sense of freedom.

CM: So who has offered you inspiration?

Gabi: Well, my husband……. Haha….. he’s, of course, my inspiration! I grew up with and watched Siya Makuzeni, and her approach to vocals and scat music, sound technique, and her sound. She helped me a lot with my own artistic mapping. I listen to a lot of people — particularly the generation ahead of me – those jazz practitioners like Nduduzo Makhatini, Zim Ngqawana, and that age group. They had better access to their older peers, like Zim Ngqawana, Andile Yenana, Herbie, and Mholo. I found landmarks to use for navigating and thinking through my kind of sound, along with my peers.

CM: Tell me more about ‘The Wretched’ project – what tonality and instruments are you using because you’re focusing on violence in the world?

Gabi: I’m excited to be with this collective which includes my husband improvising on drums, and Andre van Vyk on electronics soundscaping, and then me on voice. We are concerned with the chapter on violence that Franz Fanon talks about in his book, The Wretched of the Earth. We are reinterpreting his text through the sonic, looking at violence and how it manifests itself in our dark spaces. I think about the silence that occurs in violence, and how to survive staying silent while the scream that occurs on the other side is heard under this veil of silence. My voice in this collective is bizarre. The music will not be ‘enjoyed’; it’s loud and poses uncomfortable sounds because the topic of violence is not pleasant. This narrative is brought home ….. referring to violence in S. African society.

We’ve already recorded the project. Now, we’re deciding how to present it.

CM: It sounds like you and Tumi are musical activists in that you want to pursue the deeper themes, having compassion about our world, but want to bring forth the message that violence must be confronted.

Gabi: Yes, it’s this idea of violence against the ‘other’, the violence of ‘othering’ bodies, that we’ve allowed this ‘otherness’ to take up space occupied by people of Black decent. So it’s a very intensive and crazy subject and demanding….

CM: Well, it’s not crazy when you see how this ‘otherness’ is growing globally and coming under fire – with all this white supremacy raising its ugly head.

Gabi: By ‘crazy’ I mean that this condition [of violence] is unfathomable, and allowed to become possible. So we are addressing this, thinking through in The Wretched this idea of the ‘possible impossibilities’ of Blackness, and these impossibilities being violence in its different forms.
So the music becomes an artistic piece and engages with one’s imagination and opinions about what’s going on. It allows you to also expand your own thoughts, and be open to receiving this other uncomfortable message.

Motuba’s quest to deploy meaning in her music appears noble, gutsy, and perhaps unnerving, but ultimately transformative for our own soul-scapes.

Catch her upcoming gigs in Capetown organized by Jazz in the Native Yards at The Drawing Room in Observatory on Friday, 22 March (7pm), and at the Alliance Francaise on Friday, 29 March (7pm).

She and husband plan to tour their Tefiti album in Africa soon, then in Frankfort and Berlin in May.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Carol's Musings

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.