Drumming genius Tumi Mogorosi will this Friday present Group Theory: Black Music for the people, with the people, at the People’s Theatre in the Jo’burg Theatre precinct. “I started out in a choir,” says Mogorosi, as he reflects on the significance of Black voices in concert.
“There’s this idea of mass, of a group of people gathering, which has a political implication and the operatic voice has both a presence and a capacity to scream, a capacity for affect. The instrumental group can sustain the intensity of that affect, and the chorus can go beyond improvisation, toward communal melodies that everyone can be a part of.”
If there is what is called genre, the political signature that Mogorosi’s Group Theory: Black Music installs, is an aesthetic that blurs this fixture, this category, this fuss. Mogorosi speaks to the signs of the times by way of critical takes, responses, diagnosis, and perpetual questioning. In this upcoming performance, Mogorosi and his ensemble are coming together to make an offering.
Mogorosi offers reflective encounters of black study in communion and assembly with the audience. This gathering is about taking a journey together and pausing to reflect, taking in what is offered, digesting, and then moving forward to a destination unknown. By inhabiting the theatre as a space, Mogorosi invites us to be part of the ensemble, to bear witness to the album not only in a live setting but with new ears, in silence. This is the currency of generativity, an experiment that provides “extra” — the lyrical application, the exit of the whole that is genre; that is, the political re-reading of the work of art. We are invited, therefore, to come and absorb together, in silence and joy — black study.
The album is in lineage with the black radical leanings of the South African songbook and tradition. Worth noting, also, is its explicit resonance which bears the stamp of what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney refer to as “black study” The work of an ensemble is what Mogorosi offers, and that is why the titling is apt — Group Theory: Black Music.
The album carries traces of Amiri Baraka’s robust but tender communal thought. Mogorosi’s titling critiques the very idea of individuation, and calls for the invitation of the common project. It is only in the context of the ensemble that the common project can be discerned. By way of gathering, the album, as a site of study in a theatre setting, will be a performance that is not in the name of the event but the continued project.
Here, in anticipation, and thus through the protocols of black study, the marked barrier of what is the stage and the auditorium will be blurred. In the invitation of communally sharing, Group Theory: Black Music gestures at making possible the aural experience as a whole bodily sensorium. By pointing towards deep listening, this is an invitation to be in the realm of silence. Mogorosi and the ensemble speak in the name of this silence — by fulfilling the liberatory impulse of this long black radical tradition. The music that erupts, that chants and speaks and weeps from this silence, is what will be shared.
The first five years of a child’s life are said to be important for their physical, intellectual, and social-emotional development. Picturing that child as a black girl, how you raise her in this world is crucial. Well, that’s the analogy founder of Black Labone Izah Kutsh uses to describe the Pretoria-based art movement.
“Raising a girl child in these times is very sensitive, you know. It will always depend on the parents, but it will always be sensitive. It does need a very high level of sensitivity to get it right, to assist a girl child to navigate. We had a mantra where we said black women is god…where now we were bringing to Black Labone our own sacrifices, to say these are our offerings. The fruits we bore from the work of the day, we brought to Black Labone. So it is as much mystic as it is political,” Izah tells me.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in April that I finally get to have a chat with Izah. Under the sun we chill, adjacent the entrance of African Beer Emporium, of course the squeaky bench we’re stationed on sits a bucket with cold Black Labels. I’m ironically writing this on a Thursday night in September, five months after the day and a month post Black Labone’s anniversary.
Black Label is particularly special to the Black Labone movement. The name came about following days of Izah and friends being hungover from guzzling Blacks. “It was on a week when we had been drinking from gigs from the weekend. I remember chilling with the guys on Monday. One of the guys said it was Blue Monday and I was like ‘How come, when we’re drinking a Black’… yaba yiBlack Mantaha,” he says. They carried on drinking throughout that week nursing hangovers with more beer, placing the ‘Black’ in front of the day they were drinking on. “But when it got to the Labone, the name stuck…and remember we wanted to do a gig on a Thursday…”
Black Labone is an abode for creatives of all kinds, mainly from around Pretoria, but also for those who hail from distant lands. That this movement is five years old is quite significant. It is not the first art movement of its kind in the Capital City, but has proven to be the most consistent.
For their fourth anniversary last year, Black Labone hosted what Izah describes as an origin’s story. “…we had an open discussion, sort of round table discussion where we spoke of movements that have been established in Pretoria before Black Labone…what their impact was and how things are looking for artists that were involved in those movements,” he shares.
The Ones Who Came Before
During the dialog, one of the things that kept coming up pertaining all these movements, is that they were mostly spearheaded by people from outside the city. “Be it Soweto, Mafikeng, Polokwane…these are people who were students in Pretoria. Then they establish and spearhead movements, in the city. Some of them get work here, some of them go back home or relocate because of work. Ku Phele imovement sbali, like akwenzekanga fokol. Now it’s just a memory, into abakhulumangayo estradini,” Izah says. His tone is a cocktail of sombre and frustration when speaking about these movements because of how good they were.
Black Labone’s fourth anniversary cellebrations paid homage to movements such as No Camp Chairs Poetry Picnic founded by Vangi Gantsho, Uhuru Wamayisha Poetry Movement, Capital Arts Revolution and other movements that happened around the city of Tshwane more than a decade ago. Some continued for a while after the founders left, but things weren’t the same. What’s weirdly consistent is the fall of the aforementioned movements and the organic birth of another.
With his aura of an old pedantic man that carries a hip soul, Izah speaks of how Black Labone was established. As much as its just him and I having the conversation, he reiterates that Black Labone is kept going by a dedicated team of people. At the time of the interview, the total Black Labone team stood at 16 people which include the in-house band, the guys at the door, DJs and floor manager.
Establishing Black Labone
“It took time to establish Black Labone because the mission was to create a movement that is freely available as these movements were, but also it needed to be self-sustaining. A self-sustaining programme but also a long standing programme,” explains Izah.
The Black Labone pilot took place in the last week of July in 2017 at the Old Fire Station, no invites were shared on social media as they routinely do today. The invites were through word of mouth. “If we invite people esibhaziyo thina, how many of them would come…conclusively so that we know that we are doing the launch. This is the pilot in July, first week of August is the launch.”
A handful of people pitched but what’s worse is that the sound guy didn’t bother coming. “isound azange ifiike King. So much so, on the day of what was supposed to be the gig became the meeting for the gig next week.”
From the unintended meeting, a solid plan of action was agreed upon. There was a sense of community in how people volunteered to provide sound, photography or assist wherever needed at the actual launch the following week. This must be the root of their slogan “Showing up is showing love.”
Finding an Abode
The movement has been at the African Beer Emporium for at least three years now after leaving their launching pad, the Old Fire Station. As Black Labone grew in numbers in mid-2018, the movement became a problem to some living at the Old Fire Station. “We had to leave the Fire Station. It wasn’t savoury…we left at a very sour point. In a space of a year, it wasn’t the space we launched the programme in. It changed rapidly.”
The Fire Station is partly an artist hub but also houses people who aren’t in the art space, creating a tussle between the artists and the residents. While that was ongoing, Izah and the team were already looking for alternative venues in the city to host Black Labone.
In early 2019 the guy who manages the African Beer Emporium had attended Black Labone at the Fire Station and liked it so much, he offered to host the movement at ABE, first starting it out as a First-Thursday concept featuring Black Labone as one of the items on their programme. “We said we’d rather have a three-month trial run and should it be successful, on the fourth month we’ll start doing it weekly gigs. But by the second month, we started doing weekly shows”
Black Labone has also been hosted at Four Four Two.
The spirit of volunteerism and sense of camaraderie works for the movement, at least until they are able to sustain themselves in that particular department. For example, the in-house band volunteered their instruments until now, where some instruments are provided by Marshall Music. “Marshall Music donated the drum kit to us, it’s our job to maintain it. They volunteered a drum kit, just like the artist volunteer their performances,” Izah says.
One of their goals was to be self-sustaining when they started because using personal funds wasn’t something they’d be able to withstand. “When we started, there were times where I paid for the sound myself…even team members would contribute directly. By self-sustaining, now the event doesn’t require any of us to pay from our pockets anymore. The program sustains itself in that regard.”
They now have an agreement with a sound company, Greenlight Sound, which provides sound every week. “Jonathan [Greenlight Sound owner] is not the first sound man we’ve worked with. We’ve had to go through a lot of them. Jonathan likes Black Labone more than it is worth, we don’t pay the worth of the sound. But because of the frequency of the gig also, it adds a bit of value. It’s the one gig he can trust to happen come hell or high water.”
The Black Labone Stage
The movement has hosted some renowned artists such MXO, MoAfrika, The Brother Moves On, iPhupho L’ka Biko, Sibusile Xaba, Ntsiki Mazwai and plenty more. There is also the thrill of always without fail, being introduced to new talent at Black Labone. Whether a folk singer on the main stage or a smooth spinner on the Annex Stage.
Some of the prominent artists are booked and paid for by someone who purely loves the movement. “There are bands that come to Black Labone funded to play. Sometimes anonymously. A person would tell us ‘arrange a date for the artist or band and I will a deposit on the Tuesday ahead of the gig'” Izah tells me.
Some of the artists that have played on the Black Labone stage will get a reminder from the organisers to return or even they’ll request to perform as part of their tour itinerary or simply to try out new material.
Izah says artist have also found ways of making gains within the Black Labone programme. Musician Thapelo Khumisi asked to perform and also campaign for votes after being nominated in the Classical Jazz category in the Central Music Awards. “At the end of his performance, he asked the crowd for votes…and he won.”
Art director Noluthando ‘Texture’ Lobese might have long left the DiepCity set, but she was recognised for her work on the telenovela winning the Art Direction award at this year’s SAFTAs. “Our vision, determination and team’s effort is what’s paying off today. Hard work is meaningless without a vision,” Lobese tells Tha Bravado.
Losebe left DiepCity in January after spending only one season. “I resigned end of January
from DiepCity. I felt that I had served my purpose and it was time for other people to breathe
new life and energy for season two,” she says.
DiepCity is produced by the award-winning creator and director, Mandla N of Black Brain Productions. The story explores the struggle of four young women trying to make their way in the world. In February last year before building the set, the art department went to Diepsloot for research to understand the living conditions and environment. “The props and the furniture we got it from Diepsloot. We got it from the community of Diepsloot, which was amazing,” Lobese shared with me. DiepCity will end after two seasons, with the final episode set to air on Friday 3 March 2023.
Lobese’s work on the tv show, which was a first for her, brought a lot attention of Lobese’s incomparable skills. “Most people have had an interest in collaborating with me while I was shooting DiepCity. However, it was not possible at the time because I was dedicated to Diepcity and it was a delicate art piece I had just created, so I needed to see it through,” Lobese says. “However, after my resignation I collaborated with various Directors and DP’s which is refreshing.”
Lobese is somewhat of a nomad, whisked off to various places by her work. “I like going to places where no one knows my name, learn a new language. Learn to crawl and walk as a reminder of where we come from.”
She’s currently on holiday in Brazil, but she was in Kenya for the past few months. “I was invited as a production designer by Mpho Thwala and the entire team was from there. Art Director, Costume designer and Make Up Artist all Kenyan. What a wonderful team to work with.”
Lobese can’t disclose more about the production since it’s still in post. “We finished [shooting] in July. It’s always wonderful and challenging to work away from home. You need to have an open mind and open heart,” says Lobese.
She is currently a Costume Supervisor for a production in London, UK. “Still in pre prod and unable to disclose.”
I’m unsure of the context around Malcolm X’s words when he said “I believe in the brotherhood of all men, but I don’t believe in wasting brotherhood on anyone who doesn’t want to practice it with me. Brotherhood is a two-way street.”
But I am certain of how these words capture the genuine camaraderie between Bloke Modisane and Langston Hughes. The friendship between the two writers and activists from Sophiatown, South Africa, and Harlem in New York, respectively is explored in the Bloke and His American Bantu-a play currently showing at the South African State Theatre.
Written by author Dr Siphiwo Mahala and directed by renowned television and theatre actor and director Sello Maake kaNcube, the story is based in the 1960s when Modisane was in exile, in London England. Experienced thespian Josias Dos Moleele plays the character of Hughes with such swagger while young actor Anele Nene puts in a career-defining performance as Modisane. The play traces the intellectual discourse that transpired between the two scribes from 1960 to 1967, a period during which they exchanged well over 50 letters.
Langston’s Reverence of Africa and Its People
Langston was a revered American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist whose life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, who saw Africa beyond the drums and wildlife but appreciated the number of intellectuals the continent produced.
Throughout the play he fondly speaks of the Drum Boys-these were a group of writers for Drum Magazine during the publication’s halcyon days in the 1950s, which included Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba, Es’kia Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi and Bloke himself. He insinuates that the rest of the world is sleeping on the brilliant minds that the South Africa has.
Langston travelled to other parts of the continent, exchanging ideas with other African intellectuals such as Wole Soyinka. This play showed his genuine affection for the continent.
Langston affectionately refers to Bloke as his favourite Bantu, this is quite significant considering the number of Bantus Langston came across. But his curiosity for and about Africa was fed by Bloke, whether it was language, people, or culture.
Bloke’s Trials in Exile
Being an artist or a creative looking for work is stressful enough, but that pain is doubled when living in exile in the land of your coloniser. In one scene Bloke writes to Langston about his woes and in it, Bloke’s pain is palpable-it seemed as though he was nigh taking his life. “…All I know is that I’m tired, nothing I do is good enough. Things don’t change, yesterday is just like today and tomorrow will be just like yesterday. I don’t know man, sometimes I just want to go back to South Africa, at least there I was alive Langston! something was happening all the time. But here, here I’m just dead,” writes Bloke in the letter which Nene powerfully portrayed on stage. Bloke’s words speak to that double-edge-sword that is unemployment and being exiled.
In his response, Langston as any brother would, chastises Bloke for not asking for help.
“Blokey, don’t be simple-minded just be simple. Why didn’t you write to me if you’re having things so tough, you know I would’ve sent you a little something…and no, no obligation, you don’t have to say thank you or anything,” Langston wrote back.
This honesty from both men, enabled the strengthening of their bond.
Chemistry of The Two Actors
The chemistry between the two actors is palpable as they bring to life a slice of history that is little known about the bonds that connected the South African liberation struggle with black America. It shines the spotlight on the role of artists and intellectuals in forging international solidarity during one of the darkest hours in the history of South Africa.
I imagine one of the most important things when doing a two-hander in any production, is the chemistry of the pair. Nene and Moleele’s combination epitomised Langston and Bloke’s friendship.
Sometimes when an experienced actor works with a young thespian, you cringe at the thought of the latter not being able to keep pace with the senior. But Bloke was channelled through bold acting by the talented Nene, who hails from Durban. The 25-year-old won the Ovation Award at the 2020 National Arts Festival for his one man show The Hymns of a Sparrow.
Moleele is multi-award-winning theatre and television writer, actor and director who has also appeared in international work such as Invictus directed by Clint Eastwood and a BBC television series Strike Back.
Moleele doesn’t just look like a grandson of Langston, but he also nailed the American accent without coming-off as a caricature. But beyond that, the actor made the audience feel Langston’s affection for Bloke.
It is by far the best play I have watched in years.
At the age of 22, Nyota Parker’s musicality and worldview is mind-blowing to say the least. Born in Ireland, with a Congolese and Irish heritage, a non-conformist with a sharp South African upbringing and global appeal.
The first instance I heard the music, I got struck by her eccentric and soothing vocals which instantly took me to a frenzy. She’s currently based in the United States where she’s pursuing her music career as she puts it “I’m really enjoying the opportunities here, it’s a lot easier to create something for yourself here”.
When listening to her music, one can’t go without mentioning her great command of language and an understanding of the complexities of prosody. Nyota Parker’s sound is experimental and impressively finely tuned; a fusion of different elements. What stands out the most and that which is reminiscent is her undeniable forte for Rap and Soul music which she dives into when creating her own records. To date she has released four music projects beginning with her first mixtape, Age Of Enlightenment in 2016, followed by Purification, then Energy and now her most recent album Spectrum in 2021.
She approaches music with sophistication and simplicity. You’d have to read the lyrics to understand what I mean. On Spectrum, which she says is her most solid album, she explores ideas about self-growth, identity and freedom of thought as demonstrated in the song Run: “But you proved that you will bend to all their rules. While I bend the rules”. And on track 2-Spectrum, she continues to reaffirm the notion of independency: “I just want to make my own songs and end up being stable. I don’t want no label sitting in a play round table. I don’t want no CEO telling me who to relate to. I’ve already learned that through trials and tribulations”.
The album is a precognition of the type of artist she is and what she stands for. She attributes her confidence and sense of independence to her upbringing “I was raised by my mom and her side of the family in South Africa, I’m really thankful for that. I’ve been shaped into the person and artist I am today because of the values that were literally drilled into my head, like never allowing someone else to dictate my life to me,” she says to Tha Bravado.
On her pre-eminent eight track album Spectrum, liberty to choose who she wants to be is a bastion to the theme and encapsulates the core assertion of the project. I’d describe the album as an enthralling enabling emergent collective consciousness of sonics tied together elegantly in harmony. She uses her voice and talent as a vehicle to ignite the spirit of freedom and emancipation. The tonality and lyricism exude an enigmatic and imaginative groove coupled with rhythms and poetry. I applaud her for the track variety and assortment she went for on the 2021 released album, for it sounds serendipitous. On certain songs she curated a “wavey” flow even if the songs are of an alternative genre which brought a youthfulness vibe.
My personal favorite song is Terms/Seasons, I enjoy how poetry and soulful it is – the opening lines resonate with me: “Music gets me through things but rap gets me. I think I’d rather suffer for my dreams. And die happy”.
Moreover, she won my heart when I watched her NPR Tiny Desk Concert submission performance. It convinced me she’s an all-rounded musician. I am looking forward to the new project which is said to drop sometime this year, mark my words she’s a star on the rise and it’s all thanks to that first amateur recording session back in 2016 in a “shoe closet…the homies shoe closet”.