Spoken on plastic

Poet Maakomele ‘Mac” Manaka’s album Word Sound Power!! is, as the popular Rasta phrase suggests, a collection of lyrical shards cloaked in reggae rhythms.

But what the title also suggests, albeit accidentally, is that Manaka’s words are best paired with only minimal musical accompaniment, to heighten the power of his word sounds rather than neuter it.

This is the first musical project for the Soweto wordsmith, born of parents steeped in the arts. It is living proof of his desire for ‘change and expansion” as an artist and a man, as he professes on the soulful standout track No One but Us.

Production on the 10-track album, which features poems to be published in his upcoming book In Time, is handled by Melody Muzik Sound Produktions, a little-known but prolific company run by Jamaicanborn, KwaDukuza-based reggae artist Dawit Menelik Tafari.

The music is solid and consists of reggae rhythms of varying pace, snatches of dub and a few sparse, gangsta funkish hip-hop beats. While it does not necessarily drown Manaka and matches the sentiment of his grave subject matter (which is awash with images of disapproving heavenly bodies and tears for a liberation deferred), it often just runs parallel to the artist, with not enough strategic dynamics to enhance his verbal barrage.

Moreover, his vocal intonation suggests he takes his cues from the raging Saul Williams as opposed to the solemn cool of LKJ or Mutabaruka, as he often brings the same runaway cadence to the reggae beats (Lifetime). Ultimately, what Word Sound Power!! proposes is that Mac should make a storming prog-rap album (African Dream) and leave dub poetics to an erstwhile generation. With more resources behind him, Mac could take his message much further.

Also delivering an album is Kgafela oa Magogodi, a leading figure on the national spoken-word scene.

Magogodi’s second musical excursion Bua Fela (‘just speak”) is produced by Black Eagle Sound/Kgafela Productions and is an artistic leap of faith. It starts off with a dramatic, a cappella poem, Beef, which is punctuated by what sounds like gasps of air from someone being throttled. As it progresses, the poet slips into utter vulgarity — what the Black Panthers termed ‘combat lingo” — as he describes scenes of rapacious Catholic priests and ex-struggle heroes turned ‘fong-kong gods” upon their release from ‘robber’s island”. The poem ebbs and intensifies again before ending with a dramatic one-liner, as if the famous last words of a dying poet.

The album, though, is more about a poet’s resolve.

In recent years, Magogodi’s bastard verse, mixing imagery from the diaspora, has become more lucid and grotesque, while the music accompanying him is more fearless in its experimentation.

Dinigganyana (‘little niggaz”) sounds like a chugging train, or workers laying tracks in unison, a piano-driven dreamscape of sorts layered with sounds that may as well take place in a lush jungle. The poem celebrates his poetic elders, such as Don Mattera, Amiri Baraka and Fela Kuti — the elders who laid the foundation. In the liner notes, Magogodi says he was drawn to Kuti from an early age because he didn’t sing pretty.

A lot on this album is not pretty. Sometimes beat and lyric make strange bedfellows, as on the confrontational title track Bua Fela. Even in romance the imagery is outlandish. Faya Sista, with an infectious horn sample and Satchmoesque scatting, is reminiscent of Nikki Giovanni’s Ego Trip in imagery. Instead of blowing his own horn as Giovanni does, Magogodi turns his sights on a phenomenal woman warrior who ‘wrestles with the arms of time” and ‘swaps sun with moon”.

Sometimes his rhymes lose intensity in favour of wordplay, as on the well-meaning Spoja. Some experiments fall flat like the Bua Fela’s ‘muted remix”, which is in a no-man’s-land because of its strange mix, but others, such as the proto-kwaito thump of Guerilla Gijima, triumph. All in all, a brave album from a vanguard poet.

Word Sound Power!! will be launched on March 4; Bua Fela was launched in January

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