Tumi Mogorosi talks drums

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.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

Stella set to retain her perks

Communication minister will keep Cabinet perks during her two months of special leave

Not a sweet deal, Mister

Mister Sweet workers say they will not risk their health, and the lives of others, to continue producing and packaging confectionaries

Covid-19 grounds Nigeria’s medical tourists

The country’s elites, including the president, travelled abroad for treatment but now they must use the country’s neglected health system

Nehawu launches urgent court bid over protective gear for health...

The health workers’ union says the government has rebuffed its attempts to meet about mitigating risks to workers

Press Releases

Rahima Moosa Hospital nursing college introduces no-touch facial recognition access system

The new system allows the hospital to enrol people’s faces immediately, using artificial intelligence, and integrates easily with existing access control infrastructure, including card readers and biometrics

Everyone’s talking about it. Even Kentucky

Earlier this year South African fried chicken fast-food chain, Chicken Licken®, launched a campaign for their wallet-friendly EasyBucks® meals, based on the idea of ‘Everyone’s talking about it.’

New energy mix on the cards

REI4P already has and will continue to yield thousands of employment opportunities

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world