Cooper traverses dreams with new band, Mabuta

Despite the mass exodus of jazz musicians from Cape Town to the City of Gold in pursuit of Jozi’s infamous opportunities and fame, Shane Cooper, the composer, producer and bassist, still has his roots firmly in Cape Town.

Born in Port Elizabeth, the 2014 South African Music Awards Best Jazz Album winner says that, after 12 years, despite the gross gentrification and closure of important jazz clubs such as Tagore’s, he still enjoys living in one of Africa’s most prominent jazz meccas. This is in part because of his involvement and bond with two of the city’s most active acts on the scene, the Kyle Shepherd Trio and Reza Khota Quartet.

“The exodus started about two years ago. Cape Town pretty much lost all its good jazz venues and because The Orbit had been around and was really thriving, all the musicians came up here [to Jo’burg] knowing there’d be more work opportunities. A bulk of the musicians who were active in Cape Town have moved up to Johannesburg, and it’s cool, because all the new major outfits are happening as a result. There’s a super creative energy in Jo’burg,” says Cooper.

In harbouring the best of South Africa’s contemporary jazz musicians, Cooper admits that Jozi has the best audiences for jazz too, saying the best audiences are “firstly people who come out and support … you can’t have apathy. As activist artists, in order for the culture to grow and thrive, you need audiences who are as active.”

The Johannesburg jazz renaissance comes with the rise of young lions, not just on the stage but in the audience too — something Cooper, as a cross-genre musician, credits to the influence of contemporary music styles such as hip-hop and electronic music. Younger audiences can recognise and relate to the musical influences that inform modern jazz compositions. Expanding on this, Cooper adds: “It’s no longer a purist form of jazz that’s coming out of today’s jazz artists. It’s very relevant.”

Following a string of performances at the National Arts Festival, the double bassist, who also doubles as an electronic artist and producer under the alias of Cards on Spokes, is in Johannesburg promoting a crowd-funding campaign for the recording of his new band, Mabuta.

On hearing the prefix “ma” in the band’s name, I immediately think about South African origins but Cooper clarifies that Mabuta is the Japanese word for eyelid.

“I’m a big believer of the power of music to transport the listener into a dream world. I started to think about the eyelid being the doorway between the waking and the dream world, reality and imagination and the band being that doorway,’’ he says.

Staying true to the collaborative nature of jazz, the five-person jazz collective features Sisonke Xonti on saxophone (a former Capetonian and now a Jo’burger), Marlon Witbooi on drums, Robin Fassie-Kock on trumpet and long-time collaborator and friend Bokani Dyer on piano and synth. Providing foundation and guidance, Cooper entrusts the expansion and interpretation of the music to his band members, whom he describes respectively as “weaving, groovy, melodic and liquid”.

Expressing his exhaustion with reinterpretations and enactments of American jazz culture, Mabuta merges the old with the new and draws on the influence of electronic music and its use of synths as well ancient African rhythms from Mali, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Morocco, exploring their translation on a classical instrument such as the double bass.

The popularity of online streaming and the rapid growth of the internet has seen a decline in the investment in jazz albums by record labels. Their increasing lack of interest or backing, coupled with the success of international crowd-funding campaigns, has catapulted Cooper and many other musicians to consider an independent and entrepreneurial approach to creating music.

“I decided to basically ask the community of listeners to essentially be the record label, to invest in the creation of the product before it’s made. In exchange for their donations, contributors can receive various products from limited edition vinyls and tote bags to private concerts in their living room, depending on the contribution,’’ he says.

Mabuta will play at The Orbit on Friday and Saturday (July 14 and 15)

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