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Thobejane in a trance

Greg Bowes

Ex-Sakhile drummer Mabi Thobejane has joined an array of local musicians who are finding increasing favour among the world’s techno elite. His legendary percussive expertise can be heard on Bible of Dreams, the new album by Britain’s premier trance act Juno Reactor (on Blue Room Recordings, released locally by Sony Music).

The outfit, headed by Ben Watkins, are at the forefront of a bleepy beat movement known as “psychedelic trance” that’s keeping the “far-out” factor in music alive and that’s swept from the beaches of Goa to the beaches of Cape Town.

Thobejane and Watkins met at a Johannesburg hotel a couple of years back through Robert Trunz, who heads the London-based labels Melt 2000 and Blue Room Recordings.

The former used to be known as B&W and deals with jazz musicians outside the United Kingdom, inclu-ding Pops Mohamed and Moses Molelekwa, and the latter specialises in hallucinogenic computer-gene-rated dance grooves, of which Juno Reactor are well- schooled and respected exponents.

Watkins was on his way to Namibia to record and film a Bushman tribe and recalls on the line from London that “Mabi just talked about his drums in such an enthusiastic and cinematic way that I thought, wow, this guy’s perfect for the kind of music we do.”

They hooked up earlier this year to record two tracks for their much anticipated third album. Conga Fury features Thobejane’s fiery drums over a dark and fast flow of epic electronica, and on Swamp Thing, bass and slide guitar team up with Thobejane’s congas for a rockish techno jam.

“Mabi’s such an interesting percussionist,” says Watkins, “and his African drums have a much nicer sound than your regular acoustic drum kit – they’re deader, earthier.”

The process of incorporating Thobejane’s playing into the cuts involved the drummer improvising over the whole track.

The results were fed into Wat- kins’s computer and “really messed around with”, and then the piece was pasted back together. Included are some longer freeform sections and then parts where the super- tight rhythms are cut to fit only one or two bars. “When I was chopping his drums up I was so surprised by the amount of harmonics he gets,” enthuses Watkins. “Over the course of the track he manages to achieve so many nuances.”

It’s certainly an odd collaboration. Chances are that many of the trance fans who pick the album up will have little idea who Thobejane is, and if you’re a Thobejane fan this is probably the first time you’ve heard of Juno Reactor. But the mee-ting is surprisingly alchemical.

Thobejane’s drums, though digitally added to the mix, are perfectly pitched and perfectly placed, and they’ll whip up a storm on the dancefloor.

Watkins is currently working with Thobejane and Amampondo (who are Madiba’s favourite band, if you believe press releases) and jokes around the fact that Thobejane makes his own drums: “He kills the animals, skins them – everything. So there are a few dead animal carcasses lying around the studio, which is alright. I’ve just got to keep my dog away from him.”

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