Remapping African musics

Despite his languid, spacey manner of conversation (which of late has developed a French inflection), the DJ and artist Mo Laudi has a restless mind and, as time has revealed, restless feet.

His practice, or more precisely his lifestyle, is a real-time sonic cartography that has involved starting club nights, punk bands, record labels, and more recently history-referencing sound installations and music edits.

The experiments are “real time” in the sense that he has been known — several times over — to uproot his entire existence in search of or in service to the next aural experience.

One of our several conversations happens on February 12, soon after he touches down in Cape Town to do a live sound installation and a DJ set as part of the art show Apartment Vol.1 and play several parties during the Art Fair weekend.

For a good idea of what his installation for Apartment will sound like, Mo Laudi refers me to a four-year-old, 45-minute set at Fondation Cartier in Paris. Here, as a Chimurenga invitee to Nomadic Nights, he laid out a map of how house and techno were influenced by African music.

“I was telling all the stories and connecting the dots between different genres, like how sound moves from one country to another. And how, for example, Manu Dibango inspired disco, and how those influences moved into techno and house and then spread all around the world.”

As auditory histories are wont to do, they turn in on themselves, producing interesting concentric arcs, snaking loops or lines that connect seemingly diametric points. Mo Laudi’s life story seems to mimic these patterns.

“These journeys often take me back to SA, inspire SA and then form repeating circles. There are all sorts of stories in between — people like Santana [Carlos] — and all the people in between who have inspired or have been inspired by different sonic movements.”

Although Mo Laudi’s DJ sets move from the premise of ensuring movement on the dancefloor, his sound installations present what he calls “the journey of African music” through percussive, mutating sets underpinned by examinations of histories of oppression, spirituality and attempts at imagining borderless worlds. Sound layering, through vocal clips from political speeches and other archival material, allow for shifts in context and sensory  dimension. For Mo Laudi, these trigger different points of view and offer probing questions of what reality is. “The work is multilayered in terms of what it can offer to attempts to question the self and society and what it takes to create change.”

Starting off as a promoter and rapper in Polokwane, Mo Laudi and a group of his friends hosted club nights in his hometown before leaving for Jo’burg to study advertising and art direction at the AAA School of Advertising.

By 2000, he was in London, trying to subvert the idea of “exile” by creating club nights that brought him and other expats closer to home.

“I wanted to create a bridge of representation,” he says, “to have our sound in London and to have that community feel African music becoming international. At that point, people didn’t know much about the South African sound, which at that time was kwaito, house and South African house before it became known as Afro-house. There were different sounds coming from the UK influencing it as well. So I was mixing all these together.”

The Joburg Project, as he called it, took off at a spot in central London, right next to King’s Cross station. Over the months, the crowd morphed from black South Africans to “lots of Zimbabweans, some Londoners, Ghanaians and Nigerians. Nigerians loved the sound so much it became a thing and I started playing a lot of Nigerian venues. It inspired something in the Nigerian community”.

What Mo Laudi calls the “SA sound” of that era, is something he says sounded like techno, house and electro with lots of restless “patterns that people were not used to. Those rhythms jumped out at a time when most European music was stuck to a 4/4 grid.

“The South African sound was more advanced than people realised. The rhythms became introduced to house music [at a global scale]. Now if you listen to house music, it is heavily inspired by what South Africans created.”

Paris, where he relocated in 2010, presented the option of more gigs and was the promise of a calmer life and an opportunity for creative growth.

Mo Laudi recently completed a collaboration with Julien Creuzet at the Palais de Tokyo for Nuit Blanche; a co-production with the Fondation d’entreprise Ricard. The work, titled Mon corps, carcasse, se casse casse casse… Mobile, “was an allegorical sculpture of a fantasised Caribbean landscape” speaking to pesticide pollution of rivers, soil and groundwater in Martinique and Guadeloupe.

“He recorded rain footsteps, people singing, and he said some words to my soundpieces. But the process involved in finding historically relevant sound was quite illuminating and exhausting. It’s a kind of virtual travelling.”

He also contributed to the Ernest Mancoba retrospective I Shall Dance in a Different Society, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Titled Motho ke Motho ka Batho (A Tribute to Mancoba), the piece mixed the chanting of mineworkers in Marikana with samples of Solomon Linda’s Mbube, Mancoba’s voice and ambient composition by Mo Laudi himself.

An extended version of the piece, which also includes clips of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s funeral, will be showcased as part of the upcoming Dakar Biennale where Mo Laudi will also exhibit a series of mixed media collages.

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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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