The first time I heard of Project Elo, the ensemble project anchored by Tumi Mogorosi’s drumming, a friend was enthusing about a launch performance and how the drummer’s mother had been so instrumental in making sure the event was a success.
The album track Thokozile Queen Mother honours Mogorosi’s mother. It’s a Gabisile Motuba vocal in which the queen mother morphs from a celestial figure into a planet and into a human being – sometimes inhabiting these guises all at once.
“Community is important,” says Mogorosi when I relate the anecdote to him. “This is where the music comes from, this is where the narratives of how we engage with the world come from. Family is not removed from the process of art making. Family is imperative for any artistic expression to have something real.”
Sanctum/Sanctorium, a duo album with Mogorosi’s partner Motuba, carries forth this idea of family as a sacred space. The seven-track album was recorded over a few days with Swiss players Malcolm Braff on piano, Andreas Plattner on cello and German bassist Sebastian Schuster. It was part of a residency made possible by Swiss funding agency Pro Helvetia.
“In October 2015 we had a residency in Switzerland,” says Motuba. “We had had a conversation with Malcolm and Sebastian about getting there and recording something. We were not really sure, but we knew in the second week we got there that this album was really happening.”
If you’ve come upon this recording expecting to hear a lead vocalist dominate the space, you will be moved in the opposite direction – Motuba voices her messages as an additional instrument rather than a point of focus. It’s an egalitarianism that springs forth from the music, but it’s really a commentary on life, and an activism that is in conversation with all around it, sans lyrics.
“We are fixated on this idea of the superman, the super individual, but never considering how this person has got to be,” says Mogorosi. “This is what I’m wrestling with now, with how to be who I am but still find it within myself to be a part of the community. Social media is really reinforcing this narcissistic outlook in the world. My direct response to that is within this art.”
Braff plays in a brawny manner which meets its match in Mogorosi’s intensity. But instead of a tug of war, the pair lock in a transcendental embrace through much of the offering.
There’s a rootlessness to Sanctum/Sanctorium that is perhaps attributable to the circumstances of its creation. Mogorosi calls Switzerland “a homogenous environment with a lot of facilities for expression and interaction”.
Malcolm Braff, Gabi Motuba and Tumi Mogorosi bump heads. (Janosch Abel)
There is a contentment in the work that seems a world apart but not completely removed from the pair’s other experiments such as Wretched, a project in which Mogorosi and Motuba interpret Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth‘s messages sonically.
Motuba says, with Sanctum, she wrote a lot of her compositions in honour of her newborn daughter. “That was where I was treading, with my holy space,” she says. “It was to convey a message of love and comfort and strength. That was my interpretation.”
Sanctum/Sanctorium brims with the delicate expectation that new life brings, but also with a sense that “family” can lose its constricting nuclear connotations. “For me, it is the idea of creating these spaces where creation can happen, and messages that are not so bound to your actual time in the here and now,” says Mogorosi. “It’s about not trying to reproduce what has already been there, but staying true to the fundaments of your message.”
Sanctum/Sanctorium, which will be released on Thursday, features the artwork of trombonist and pianist Malcolm Jiyane on the album’s inner sleeve.
The release is followed by a small tour: Miriam Makeba Concert Hall at Unisa, Pretoria (November 17), Wits Music Room, Johannesburg (November 18), The Chairman, Durban (November 19), and Kaya FM Studios, Johannesburg (November 20). Guitarist Keenan Arhends will stand in for Plattner