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​Motuba hits the motherlode

Gabi Motuba’s album Tefiti —Goddess of Creation is not necessarily about motherhood or nativity, and yet the sense of coming into being drives it thematically and sonically. The hints are everywhere: in the song titles, in the album artwork and in the lyrics.

Whatever one may project onto it, it is perhaps safe to state that Motuba, a Mamelodi-born vocalist, arranger and composer, was exploring femininity and its place in jazz and other contexts.

Perhaps more a sound experimenter than a singer, Motuba explores how the voice functions as a part of a whole as opposed to being a singular focus.

“I have never really thought of myself as a singer,” she says. “I have really been very much interested in how I can contribute to a sound, the idea of a collective sound. I have never been overly influenced by techniques of vocalising. The idea of the spectacle as a singer has never really been interesting to me.”

Motuba says it was a three-year process to finish the 1 pieces that make up her debut “solo” album. “I had to think about it for a little bit because initially I didn’t even want to be on it. I didn’t want to be a vocalist. I wanted to play more the role of the composer and the conductor.”

Predominantly led by strings and the bass, it is an album of Motuba’s concise but lush compositions, exploring approaches that are of interest to her, such as the idea of quiet noise.

“I was looking at some Spanish singers and when I checked out the history, it has to do with a lot of the houses [in some parts of Spain] being close together,” she says. “This is why the music had to be quieter. But what also interested me was the idea of slave songs that were really quiet, and I started to explore the environments that create these quiet vocals.”

Motuba’s predilection for the philosophical has seen her hone a way to use her voice as a conceptual tool, often finding a thread between supposedly oppositional ideas.

In Wretched, her collaboration with partner Tumi Mogorosi based on the text of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the singer evokes what one might describe as an extended scream as a way of exploring different forms of violence, such as those based on gender exploitation. Although themes of violence and refuge feature on this collection of music, Motuba, aided by a more classical approach, seems to be exploring these from a position of resolution and homage.

Perhaps not so randomly, we end up discussing the song Flower Goddess, a tune of delicate orchestration and lyricism likening a being to a flower in the wilderness.

“It’s about the idea of growth,” she says. “The sound had a lot to do with the influence I had from the Asian vocalist Jenn Shyu. I liked how she uses strings within her composition. With the lyrics, I was looking at growth, the process of growth. Like in a volcanic eruption. In the midst of chaos there is this unseen growth. The idea of the invisible and what cannot come to the forefront. The ordinary growth.”

In conversation with Motuba, one gets the uncanny sense of an artist growing into self-awareness, where all things and experiences feed into the creative process and the outcome. With so many songs dealing with the idea of creation and “ancestral becoming,” I ask Motuba whether childbirth has had an effect on her songwriting process

“Of course it has,” she says, a little more unequivocally. “All of these things are interconnected. Just like the idea of the death of the individual. When you have a child it becomes more apparent that it is not all about you, which is an incredible life lesson. It also gives one a lot more sense of self, in a very weird way. Even within the dying of the individual, the collective kind of really somehow enhances the ability of the self. It protects it and is able to give it a really level playing field, but it must also be aware that other selves are around. In terms of awareness, it has been incredible.”

Motuba, like most of us, had a seminal experience with the four-part harmony in the Methodist Church while growing up, shaping her ideas of how the voice is never really quite a lone-standing instrument, but her subsequent approach to singing has never owed too much of a debt to this tradition. Instead,she names vocalists such as Gretchen Parlato, Concha Buikaand Esperanza Spalding (“in the stuff where she pulls away from the voice as a prominent figure”) as more contemporary influences.

What Motuba achieves with removing the voice as a primary instrument and stripping down too many accoutrements in the arrangements is a form of evolved and experiential storytelling. It also allows her to use the limitations of her voice, more water than fire, as a force in her favour. The concise, almost bare nature of her compositions point to other interests she wants to pursue in the future —that of film scoring and conducting.

For fear of limiting Motuba, I try to not press the issue of motherhood as the album’s overriding theme. But with the images evoked, Motuba has spent the past three years in a space of nurturing, paying homage to what forms community and finding her role in it.

Gabi Motuba will play songs from her album at the Soweto Theatre on August 25 from 8pm. Entrance is R120. Limited albums will be on sale

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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