Bandleader and composer Tumi Mogorosi has probably played the guitar for longer than he has played the drums – but the drums are his instrument of choice. And one of the stated aims of his debut album, Project Elo, is "to emancipate the drums".
"In music there are roles that have been standardised: the drum keeps the time, the bass gives you the fundaments, the piano gives you the harmony, the guitar or the piano gives you the melody. But all these things [can be done] at the same time. I was trying to free the roles," Mogorosi explains as we sit in a Melville, Johannesburg, restaurant.
The 26-year-old started playing the guitar in 2001. He loved the instrument so much that, in 2004, he enrolled at Allenby Campus in Bramley, Johannesburg, to learn it properly. But he soon dropped out, then enrolled again but finally decided to ditch the course altogether. His second attempt at formal education was at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), where he finished his studies in jazz last year.
In his neighbourhood of Spruitview on the East Rand there was an older man, a former musician, who kept musical instruments in his garage. Recognising Mogorosi’s interest in music the neighbour invited him to make use of the equipment.
"You can come in and use the space," he told him. After long stretches on the guitar, Mogorosi would go and sit at the drums and "mess around with them". Not that he had to go far to find artistic inspiration. His supportive mother, a teacher, was a professional dancer in her youth. "She always says I am the reason why she stopped. I have that burden on my shoulders," he says, laughing.
Long after he had chosen the drums as his mode of expression Mogorosi’s love affair with the guitar continued until one day he "decided to make a sacrifice. Something had to give. I decided to give away all my guitars. Mind you, I didn’t have a drum kit at the time. [I did that] for me to be able to play the drums and fully immerse myself in them."
Why the drums? "The drum is such a central feature of African spirituality. I like to ask and explore what’s unseen." Mogorosi reminds me of Garabha, a restless master of African drumming in Waiting for the Rain, an African classic by Zimbabwean writer Charles Mungoshi. Garabha snorted at the idea that it’s "the hands that play the drum". When he is playing the drum the phrase "talking drum" suddenly takes on a novel and dangerous meaning.
Here’s an excerpt: "He [Garabha] prefers the drum to crying. Crying leaves him weak and unprotected. Now with the drum, there is a sense of quiet strength, the strength of mountains and a hard and clear morning vision. And when he cries with the drum, it’s because he suddenly sees. Sees what? It is not quite seeing as feeling-seeing-living-being-the whole thing at the same time."
Back to Mogorosi. Even though the title of his album evokes Elohim, one of the many Hebrew names for God, Mogorosi stresses that the project was an attempt to secularise the idea of God. His expansive idea of religion, to be sure, is still the one Jesus – the revolutionary not the messiah – propounded when asked: "Who is my neighbour?" and answered this eternal question by telling the timeless story of the Good Samaritan, who takes care of a stranger lying on the side of the road who had been beaten up by a gang of tsotsis.
To bring the story closer to home, Mogorosi points at the absurdities of the contrast between affluent Sandton and squalid Alexandra in Johannesburg, which are separated by a highway. He conjures up a figure that has become normal, a constant of every motorist’s driving experience: the down-and-out man by the robot asking for change. For some, this figure is hazy, without form, and doesn’t register at all on the iris.
"We are trying to make art that [encourages] conversations between people. We are trying to make people reflect," Mogorosi explains.
For the production of the CD, Mogorosi enlisted the talents of some of the most exciting young musicians working in Johannesburg and Pretoria. None of them is older than 30. On double bass is Thembinkosi Mavimbela, a masters graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand, and on guitar is Sibusile Xaba, a TUT music graduate. Nhlanhla Mahlangu on tenor saxophone and Mtunzi Mvubu on alto saxophone are still studying at the TUT. Trombonist Malcolm Jiyane, like Mvubu, studied at the Music Academy of Gauteng under the tutorship of music pedagogue Johnny Mekoa.
One of the remarkable elements of this seven-track CD is the use of operatic voices. They soar and slide, bounce and soak into the primary architecture of the sound, adding context and content to the music andbringing altogether new sensibilities to the sound. The voices are those of three TUT opera students – Themba Maseko, Ntombi Sibeko and Mary Moyo – and Gabisile Motuba, who is studying jazz. Regarding the inclusion of the sopranos, Mogorosi explains that "the voices were supposed to mimic [the instrumentalists] and yet be free …"
The meditative titles of the songs – In the Beginning, Inner Emergence, Megatron Angel of Presence, Gift of Three – exhibit a deep spirituality and make reference to some timeless concepts. Yet while the titles are rarified and contemplative, the music itself is accessible. The songs are marked by the plaintive and furious blasts of the horns (think of a cow about to be slaughtered) from Mahlangu, Mvubu and Jiyane and the searching strumming from Xaba’s nimble fingers. This is all on top of the solid foundation laid by Mavimbela’s bass and Mogorosi’s drums.
The major inspiration for the project was Max Roach’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, a 1971 recording marked with the hymnal textures of the evangelical church, and Donald Byrd’s 1963 record, A New Perspective. With such accomplished and illustrious ancestors it’s no surprise that Project Elo is a visionary album, a special achievement for musicians who are still so young.
Tumi Mogorosi plays at King Kong, 6 Verwey Street, Troyeville, Johannesburg, on November 16. The gig starts at 7pm. Admission is R100 and Project Elo CDs will be on sale.