Juju in a time of failing systems

I think we’re definitely collectively experiencing a season of listening — a different way of listening,” says Kechou, of the duo Dumama + Kechou. “People are spending a lot of time now listening to their inner voices. A certain section of the population is listening to what is being said around them, like the news and everything that is being covered. Others are using this time of slowing down to listen to themselves, maybe. This album offers a great meditation.”

Buffering Juju, the duo’s debut album, released as many countries in the world were heading into or in the throes of a coronavirus-related lockdown, is a seamless mixture of what Kechou calls “spiritual music” and “popular music”. To be more precise, the duo, who met in South Africa in 2017, explore various music-making traditions common to their individual ancestries, combining these with contemporary production, performance and recording techniques such as sampling and layering. 

The result is an atmospheric sound rooted in pre-colonial history and an impending afterfuture. This is not to say that it is a sound so encompassing, so intuitive as to properly register the insignificance of human beings in the greater scheme of things. Not so. Here, the ethos and the method combine to spark a transformative experience, one augmented by a threaded narrative centring on the story of a shapeshifting woman protagonist. 

Although the links in this narrative (of a woman who escapes a prison before having several cataclysmic and epiphanic experiences) may or may not be retrofitted, it matters not. The sequencing and the elemental production make this allusive and allegorical tale plausible as a single, multi-pronged narrative. A lot of that plausibility had to do with finding the middle ground between how the group operates as a live-performance duo and the mindset of creating an intricately produced studio album that could more or less be reproduced on stage. 

“We were struggling imagining how to record as a duo that simulates a band,” says Kechou, on the line from Berlin, which is experiencing a less strict version of the current lockdown in South Africa. “We work with live loops when we play to an audience. In a recording process, you wanna give every instrument more attention than a two-bar loop. We wanted to keep the improvisational nature of what we do live while also giving each individual sonic addition more attention. 

“With each song we decided to record one version of the song with vocals and one instrument and then use that version as a pilot track to record over and add the instruments in layers — over and over, but in small patterns. This created a more open and organic sound. Hip-hop records rely on sampling looped sounds, but it doesn’t breathe as much as if you were to play those extra layers over and over.”

Dumama’s songwriting, too, is equally open to the magic suggested by its temporality and its antecedents. “Sometimes it comes from a dream; sometimes it comes from a conversation. Sometimes it comes as an English thing where I feel like, ‘I want to understand how to communicate this in Xhosa’,” she says. “Sometimes it comes in Xhosa and some words where I’m not too sure what they mean. Sometimes they make sense in the context of the other words next to them — and in that moment I know that it is something that is being handed over to me from another realm. Sometimes I start with an uhadi pattern and when I put a tune to it, it becomes very rhythmically clear and then I add lyrics later. Other times it comes with rhythm and melody and lyrics clearly. There are all these factors and contexts.”

Dumama says the them of their album is about ‘leaving an internalised prison or a system that is no longer functional. (Chris Kets)

In some songs the combination of soundscaping, layering, panning and insertion of found and archival sounds create pieces so rooted in their intention they could be sonic time capsules. In Wessi Walking Mama, the nostalgia our protagonist feels for the abandon of her childhood is expressed in pastoral sounds of chirping birds and childlike chants. But the portent of burdensome adulthood hovers not only in the soft belch of Siya Makuzeni’s trombone and the suggestive phrasing conjured by Dumama.

The clip of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela speaking about crossing the pain threshold during her torture in solitary confinement places the protagonist within the milieu of connected, cyclical, women-led struggles. 

“[The theme] is about leaving an internalised prison or a system that is no longer functional,” says Dumama, via Whatsapp voicenote, expanding on the album’s narrative arc. “It’s the process of going within and growing within and
really monitoring that movement and that growth — all of the factors that have affected the imprisonment and observing, ‘What am I holding on to; what am I letting go of? What is meaningful? What is just passing?’ ” 

Much of the album’s emotional register comes from the range of instruments in Kechou’s arsenal (like the guembri, the cascas, the chitende, drum pads, the guitar and others) and the duo’s shared idea of song as a continuum. 

“I’d go to jam sessions with groups or with just Kerim and I’d have these ideas,” says Dumama of the evolution of her relationship to song. “I’d be there with my notebook and I’d have written stuff, only to find that it seldom goes down like that.” 

“The music just takes me, and then it would be like, ‘Okay, all those things that I have written are there in this jam session that is seemingly improvised, but it obviously comes from where my consciousness has been.’” 

Around the time of the duo’s meeting, Dumama had spent some time with Madosini in a residency where where the legend taught Dumama the intricacies of uhadi and improvised chant-making. The song Uveni, based on an uhadi ostinato and carried by a pained melody, is a mesmerising passing of the torch. 

Kechou regards the album, and the music they make, as an important touchstone in “reconciling broken threads in history and finding a way to fix them”. It is an outlook somewhat mirrored by his own morphing relationship with his late father, a Moroccan immigrant to Germany who, in some ways, imparted his son’s gift for instrument-making and mastery of recording processes. “I wasn’t interested in music, initially, somehow because of him,” he says. “Growing up in Germany, there was always something about my father that represented an otherness that I wasn’t proud of when I was young.

“It was only in my teenage years that I started developing a certain pride around my father and his heritage. I learnt a lot from him, not directly musically, because he wasn’t pedagogically adept. I definitely learnt about improvising in the musical realm and about ubuntu outside of the musical realm.”

It is these histories and the preparation that happens when the world is not looking that makes Buf fering Juju (a phrase that relates to “excavating spiritually charged content from within”) an important, if inadvertent intervention for these times. 

“If you want to create something that touches people you have to do it from a very sincere part of yourself,” says Kechou. “To access that sincerity you have to put in work, because we are not thought of as being sincere in [the context of] capitalism.”

Dumama + Kechou’s Buffering Juju is out on Mushroom Hour Half Hour.

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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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