/ 15 January 2010

Tumi, even louder

Underground music icon Tumi Molekane has featured a host of super commercial stars on his second solo effort, Whole Worlds. The musician Brickz may have been an obvious choice of collaborator (he appears on the first single release, titled Bambezela), but Molekane had to undertake a small journey before he realised he had to use the kwaito hero.

“I was fooling around in studio, recording tracks with my cousins, who are aged between 16 and 20,” Molekane says. “Later when we got into the car to go to buy some food, I played some of the tracks I’d been working on. I noticed that I was the only one bobbing my head.”

To Tumi’s amusement, when he turned on the radio the kids “loved the house and kwaito tracks, particularly Brickz”.

Molekane is one of South Africa’s most respected musicians, as a solo artist and as a member of the globe-trotting band Tumi and the Volume. Everything he has done has won him a South African Music Award nomination. “I have been happy to prove a point,” says the outspoken 30-year-old, “that I could achieve all I did with my own independent label, Motif. I was fine selling 3000 copies and making a good living from live shows, but now I want more reach.”

To get the marketing and distribution muscle to go beyond the fringes, Motif signed a joint venture deal with major label Sony for the promotion of Whole Worlds. “I didn’t feel my music was a barrier [to reaching a wider audience],” he says, “it was just about capacity and logistics. I feel I have an album that is important and good and I’d like a larger audience to hear it.”

But doesn’t Molekane think that entering the mainstream means selling out? “Artists such as Bob Marley and Fela [Kuti] had developed a faithful following before everyone else caught up,” he says. “It just feels like the right time for me to come up from the fringe.”

Molekane’s influences and experiences in more than 10 years in music have contributed to this tightly produced electronic and soulful hip-hop offering. Singer Pebbles, who appeared on Tumi and the Volume’s Live at the Bassline album in 2005, returns on the track Mr Gogetit, and MXO appears on another, titled Family Man. The association between the two heavyweight rappers dates back to when Tumi was part of the pivotal late-Nineties ­spoken-word collective Perm, which included MXO, Sliq Angel, Simphiwe Dana and Lebo Mashile.

Malawian member of Blk Sonshine Masauko Chipembere (now based in New York) features on the track Stage Lights with opera diva Sibongile Khumalo. Molekane says of Khumalo: “She introduced me to live music. I went to see her at the Market Theatre when I was about 22 and it was the first time I engaged with music properly. I’d never heard anything that powerful.”

The album presents evidence that Molekane spends a large amount of time touring the globe with his various musical outfits (he is also part of yet another band, Australia’s Public Opinion Afro Orchestra). In keeping with the title, Whole Worlds seems to be a global collaboration. International contributors include Rene “Snaz” Hill from Canada, Robin Hannibal Braun from Denmark, Kabir “Kwality” Ahluwalia from India/Norway, Mason Black and Thabang “PapercuTT” Moloto from South Africa. There are creole vocals from Reunion’s Maloya militant Danyel Waro, Canadian singers Zaki Ibrahim and Ian Kamau colour the album as does French reggae crooner Tairo.

The album deals with family and love. It is a soundtrack to the daily news in South Africa. Molekane describes it as “a semi-conceptual album that captures stories about different lives: a pregnant domestic worker living in a Hillbrow flat, a devoutly Christian girl who is also gay, a guy doing crime, frustrated train commuters who burn down the station and the soccer player who can’t just enjoy the game because he has to be conscious of the fact that he is his family’s only hope, and the hope of his entire township.”

Even though the message is important, Molekane wanted to keep the beats as strong as the rhymes. “The music comes first,” he says. “Even if you don’t hear what I’m saying, I want it to sound nice. I want everyone to delve in and find something.”