Mabuta prepare another kind of jazz for a global stage

The title of Mabuta’s debut album, Welcome to This World, has always seemed like a clear invitation to enter a dream state. The songs were so lush that one could pick any of the eight and stimulate one’s auditory system for hours. But usually, the cohesiveness of the collection — despite pulling from many sonic pockets — created such a vertiginous pull that one could never really pull back mid-album.
The real reward lay in going the entire journey into the world conjured by the music, a world both concrete and metaphysical.

Not that it took much effort. The music had a kinetic drive and a calming effect thanks to the confluence of shifting swells of rhythm, synaesthetic soloing and ambient textures.

“The music in that band is a very honest representation of my tendencies as a listener of music,” says bandleader and producer Shane Cooper when we meet at the Emmarentia Dam on a warm Sunday afternoon. “The three main elements I often think of are jazz roots, various African musics that we are influenced by and electronic musics — all coming into an organic synergy together.

“The way I write music is very much like an electronic music producer. Because I’m not a very heavy pianist or anything (I come from a bass-playing sensibility), I play one part and have to layer it into a looper or computer and then add parts as opposed to like a piano player, who can essentially flesh out an entire composition with his two hands and then extend it to a larger ensemble,” he says. “I write my music exactly like how I would write the Card on Spokes stuff.”

Card on Spokes is Port Elizabeth-born Cooper’s electronic music production moniker, a persona that runs both parallel and perpendicular to his life as a jazz musician. In an interview on the True Music Sessions channel, he told DJ and producer Kid Fonque about the genesis of his dual personalities: “While I was learning to play the bass, when I was still in school, I was already checking out electronic musical software and checking out beats and stuff. I was super into electronic music as much as I was into jazz, as a fan of music.”

Cooper describes his studio process as consisting of “layering, recording and looping for ages, subtracting things, essentially improvising melodies through long sessions so that I create a kind of flow state and I am able to generate ideas that are very organic to me.” He says these are not necessarily preconceived or sculpted,  at least not initially, but form pieces of ideas that he can “cut up and piece together the way I like”.

READ MORE: The rhyming drummer: Marlon Witbooi

By the time Cooper gets to the rest of the band, which consists of Marlon Witbooi (drums), Bokani Dyer (piano, Rhodes and synths), Robin Fassie-Kock (trumpet) and Sisonke Xonti (saxophone), he has a pretty clear idea of chord structures, melodies, grooves and other components. The crew then “bring[s] their own voice to that and extend[s] it into a much better version of itself,” he says.

READ MORE: Bokani Dyer takes on the world

Speaking to writer Vuyiswa Xekatwane in 2017, Cooper described Xonti, Witbooi, Fassie-Kock and Dyer’s respective styles as “weaving, groovy, melodic and liquid”. Coming some months before the release of the album in February 2018, those one-word descriptors were a kind of primer hinting at what lay in between the album sleeves.

Due to its urbane qualities, Welcome to this World increased Mabuta’s worldwide presence, with the mark of its global reach signified by a Japan-only release (on Inpartmaint Inc) in April 2018. The release included a download of a frantic, glitchy Daedelus remix of Fences, signalling a larger remix project that was still to come.

“I’d wanted to do a remix album of some of the jazz records I had done before but none of them seemed to fit,” Cooper says. “As an electronic music producer, I could tell that these [Welcome to This World] stems were great to remix. I knew I wanted to have a go at it myself and give it to some great people and see what they could come back with …”

The personnel eventually enlisted include rkls, a Kid Fonque and D-Malice duo; house producer Jazzuelle; Mac Motel, a downtempo producer from Cape Town; and Slugabed and Gourmet, who each took stabs at the pitch perfect Afrobeat track Log Out and Shut Down.

Released in February 2019, almost a year on from the Japanese release, Welcome to This World Remixes covers a vast musical universe, perhaps best encapsulated by Cooper’s retake of the original album’s title track.

Cooper’s makeover features only a sliver of saxophone filtered through effects, with the body of the track consisting of ambient sound and the recorded noises of Cooper playing with his baby nephew. “A remix could have the tiniest piece from the original and I don’t mind,” he says.

To commission the remixes, Cooper offered a creative-exchange proposition to the artists he solicited. However, he says the travails of running an independent label (both versions of Welcome to This World were released on Kujua Records) probably hampered the potential reach of the project.

For now, though, Cooper is on to the next challenge, which is turning Mabuta into a taut touring unit in time for the European summer circuit. The new Mabuta sound is a slight sonic departure, centring the grooves even more and, to an extent, filtering out the ambient overlays. It is a version of the music tailored for the stages Cooper wants the band to play. “My vision is for big standing venues,” he says. “Not necessarily big, but standing venues where people have the potential to dance.

“Hip-hop is coming in in a lot of ways with this one as well. And I’ve been listening to a lot of Motown. It doesn’t sound like a Motown record but there’s elements of Motown that I’m influenced by in terms of certain tones on the instruments and certain production techniques. A lot of what I am doing now in the development phase is figuring out how I want the drums to sound based on Motown records and building up from there.”

Cooper says one of the reasons he enjoys his drums big and punchy is simply because he loves the feeling it gives him as a bass player when he’s up on stage. But the pragmatism behind the move cannot be understated. “It’s very important to think about where your music will be heard and where audiences can hear it within your industry and your scene,” he says. “So there’s no point in me making music in South Africa for spaces that don’t exist, like fancy, expensive concert halls where you can hear a pin drop — that’s not a thing we have. For years, I’ve played in amazing trios and quintets and stuff where a lot of the music is designed in many ways for spaces where you could hear the music in its quietest moments. Currently, if I had stuff like that I just wouldn’t know where to play it.

“That stuff doesn’t depress me. You’ve just got to basically react and that’s why music from different parts of the world sounds the way it does — it’s because of the space it is given to be heard.”

Cooper says although he may think of smaller formats for the festival circuit in the future, for now he is resolute about how he wants Mabuta to be received — for everyone to revel in “the interplay of trumpet and saxophone over, like, a thick, three-piece rhythm section.”

After their Untitled Basement performance, the Mabuta minitour continues: 

  • Fri 01 Nov at Raptor Room, 79 Roeland St., Cape Town (Tickets on Quicket)
  • Sat 02 Nov at Endless Daze Festival, Cape Town
  • Sun 03 Nov at Norval Foundation, Cape Town

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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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