Starting your own record label is a demanding venture: “It’s tough, it’s not easy,” says Pops Mohamed, “because now you have to fund the whole project yourself. From marketing to production, designing sleeves, manufacturing CDs … ” But this is just what he’s done, with his new Kalamazoo label (named not after the United States town, but an East Rand township), and his latest album: The Fucha Rist.
“You know, after all these years, working for the industry,” he reflects, “I just felt … There are a lot of people doing experimental music in South Africa, which isn’t what the record companies want. Or even if they do take on these products, they just end up on the shelf with no marketing at all, and maybe some radio DJ picks up a track, and maybe they love it, that’s how people get to know about it.
“But I’m prepared to take on projects like that, and also do South
African jazz and traditional music. Because it was the same with me when I started out. I had all these ideas of doing this and that, and companies would say, ‘That doesn’t sell’. And yet I found people loved it. So I’d like to take that chance, and give other people a chance as well.”
Mohamed has a history of experimenting and collaborating – with artists such as Bruce Cassidy, once of Blood, Sweat and Tears, storyteller Gcina Mhlophe, and Andreas Vollenweider, among others. His new album is possibly his most surprising yet.
“It’s house music,” he laughs. This may seem at odds with one of his “main objects in life … to preserve our traditional instruments”, but he’s pragmatically innovative.
“If you go back 15 years or so, it was easier to promote these instruments [kora, mbira, mouth bow] to the younger people, before computers became so big. But now kids are exposed to TV games and rap music, so traditional music for them is repetitive. If they listen to it for two minutes they’re bored, But dance music is the same. So the way for me to get young minds to realise that our heritage is so rich, is for me to produce indigenous instruments on the dance platform.
“I get feedback from young people saying, ‘Oh, my father used to listen to your music. I can’t believe it’s the same Pops Mohamed!’ And that’s a good thing, because now the questions are coming: what’s that instrument there? Which tribe? Is it from the Zulus, or the Xhosas, or the Vendas?”
He also acknowledges the role of contemporary DJs. “DJs are now getting more involved in remixing people like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. They’re actually getting into traditional music, and remixing it that’s a valuable contribution. I don’t see DJs being a threat to musicians.” But he is clear, that he sees the remixes as complimenting, rather than replacing, the originals.
He recognises the ironies, the losses and gains that technology has brought, but Mohamed is no technophobe. He owes a lot to technology. “I’ve been working on computers for more than 15 years now. People used to approach me and say, ‘We’d love you to do an ad’, and usually if you don’t have your own studio, you have to book one, and then you have to watch the clock because it’s money, money, money per hour. So you end up coming up with a product that you’re not completely satisfied with. That’s when I decided to start up my own recording studio where I can work in my own time. I also get
commissions to write music for documentaries.”
His studio is one in which you can swing the proverbial cat, but can hold “about four, with horns, guitar, and bass. On vocals I can fit about six.” The room is soundproofed with foam rubber on the walls, but still, don’t the neighbours in his suburban flat complain? “No, actually,” he laughs. “Some of them have said, ‘Pops, we wish we heard your music, but we don’t!'”
Two years ago, Andreas Vollenweider sent the song file for Wake Up and Dance, from his latest album, VOX, and said, “I’d love you to add some of your instruments on this track.”
“And that’s the first time I started using vocals properly,” Mohamed elaborates. “I especially went to buy a good microphone. When I sent him all the parts back I was worried that he wouldn’t like the sound, but he called me back and said, ‘Man, your recordings are so clean.’ And he’s been to my house. He said, ‘Did you do the recordings in that room? I can’t tell the difference!'”
I marvel at the musical collaboration that’s possible in a global age. “With Bruce [Cassidy] and myself, when we worked on Timeless, Bruce would be sending files over the internet, and saying: use 80 beats per minute. So I would receive an MP3 file of his trumpet part, and set my music programme at 80 beats per minute, and then I would just work on the song, and then send it back to him.
“But that’s old school,” he continues. “It’s become so advanced that with some of these music programmes you can just log on to the internet, and there are always people waiting to record. You can actually record live in these chat rooms.”
Though his nickname Pops (originally Ismail Mohamed-Jan) is a reference to Popeye, and originated from his love of spinach, these days it could just as well refer to his status as a musical elder. Mohamed has become a mentor to many younger artists. He recognises the importance of this role, as he recalls his own early influences.
“As a young boy growing up in Benoni we used to see a lot of these bands come from Johannesburg, with Zakes Nkosi, Kippie Moeketsi, Abdullah Ibrahim … they came to the Davey Social Centre [which is now a big church]. And we’d carry their instruments to gain entrance to the place. Then, at around 12 or 13, I went to study guitar at Dorkay House, in Eloff Street. After school every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon I would take the train from Benoni.
‘That’s where I first came up close with Abdullah Ibrahim. We saw him as the uncle who always looked very cross! He was at the piano all the time. I knew the name Dollar Brand, but I didn’t know it was him until later when I saw pictures. And I met [the late] Sipho Gumede and Duke Makase there.”
In recent weeks Mohamed has been saddened by the sudden death of his friend, 27-year-old saxophonist Moses (Moss) Khumalo, the “young lion” with whom he was working on his label’s second album at the time. The album, Kalamazoo 5: Staying in Touch, is a tribute to the late Gumede, with whom Mohamed recorded the first four albums in the Kalamazoo series, and will be out next week.
“It’s weird,” he says. “The album is a tribute to Sipho, but it’s almost as if Moss was recording his own tribute … South African artists need more support,” he concludes. “We need to create more structures to support our artists.”