/ 12 May 2020

Dialectic Soul: Rhythms of reason for revolutionary music

May 06 2020 Musician & Drummer Asher Gamedze At His Home In Observatory, Cape Town. Photo By David Harrison
May 06 2020 - Musician and drummer Asher Gamedze at his home in Observatory, Cape Town. (David Harrison)

Talk about music and the word “soul” crops up a lot. The word ‘dialectic”? Not so much. Cape Town-based drummer Asher Gamedze puts the two together for the title of his debut album, Dialectic Soul (On the Corner Records); the first single dropped on April 12, a second follows in June, with the full album launch set for July 3. 

Accompanied by diagrammatic cover-art exploring ontology and improvisation, that’s the music’s first – but certainly not its last – conscious challenge to boundaried thinking. “Understanding that dissent and coming at something from outside it is a central part of the [free jazz] tradition was very important for me,” explains Gamedze in an e-mail.

The musician’s journey didn’t take the predictable music school path. Gamedze is largely self-taught, starting at high school on Joburg’s West Rand, hoovering up every live gig he could, and borrowing a friend’s neglected drum kit “thinking I’d beat around on it for a couple of months then give it back”. Two months became two years, until he could afford his own. His initial studies at the University of Cape Town were in history — his master’s researched the philosophies of South African free jazz. 

Still an omnivorous listener, he was also gigging regularly. “I took almost any gig I was offered.” Playing and listening across genres integrated seamlessly with the intense debates on culture and politics of his parallel commitment to community activism. The album concept was born in a space where dialectics and soul cohabit.

That’s important for both the sound and the way it was created. The six tracks engage thematically with movement and countermovement across human history: the brutality of capitalist-colonialist oppression, waves of popular resistance and the fresh futures that resistance has the power to build. As well as Gamedze’s own compositions, the music draws on the spiritual traditions of the African churches (the track Siyabulela re-visions Amen Hallelujah) and the Africanist tradition within the liberation movement. Hope in Azania invokes the struggle song Cape to Cairo/Azania; cultural historian Robin DG Kelley’s liner notes call it “the most joyful proclamation of world revolution — cooler than the Internationale”.  

What Kelley hears as “a metaphysics of the relatedness of things, of the indivisibility of life” was also enacted in how the players — Gamedze, reedman Buddy Wells, horn player Robin Fassie-Kock, bassist Thembinkosi Mavimbela and vocalist Nono Nkoane — created the tracks. 

With half of the band based in Gauteng and the other half in Cape Town, they had a scant day and a half together to rehearse and record. But before that, Gamedze had spent substantial time with each band member, discussing ideas and approaches. “Music is always some form of collective process,” he says. “There’s something especially about free music that relies on and creates a really beautiful form of collective, important in how we think about social life under neoliberal capitalism, which is so fiercely individualising … People can bring to music work — free music in particular — something uncapturable by the capitalist imagination.” 

As well as bringing knowledge, skill and distinctive sound to the music, each player brought “a really deep part of themselves”. Trumpet and sax offered contrasting ways of opening up the songs to create space for musical conversations; bassist Mavimbela contributed arrangement ideas; Wells shaped a moving melodic motif for the track Interregnum; Nkoane’s mastery allowed her to use her voice outside the stereotyped singer’s space. “My tunes are written as a basis for people to improvise; [they’re just] preludes to the magic,” Gamedze says.

Making that magic happen is also a dialectical process, governed by what he calls “speculative practice. I don’t know if the note fits, but I’m going to play it and see where it leads us. Someone in the ensemble responds based on that note, and we are all moving to a different place because that response has given you new ideas, and the way you thought it might resolve has changed also.” 

The sound, like the message, enacts motion, counter-motion and invention. The motion happens across that other pressing concern for a rhythm player: time. Gamedze cites a heterodox source-book of rhythm mentors, from Trane drummer Rashied Ali and Elvin Jones to hip-hop producerJ Dilla’s grooves, Moroccan Gnawa and South African Malombo patterns, and fellow countrymen Ayanda Sikade, Makhaya Ntshoko and, of course, Louis Moholo-Moholo. (As well as Cape Verdean freedom fighter and philosopher Amilcar Cabral, who may not have been a drummer, but designed rhythms of reason for revolutionary music.)  But “as a drummer, as composer, you’re in an interesting position, not to dictate but to suggest or gesture towards certain kinds of sounds that others will articulate”.

Gamedze has studied historic African drum traditions as well as contemporary styles, but he is no essentialist about the drum in African music. He rejects the “conservative, racist construction of … a long-gone romantic past in which people just played drums”. Rather he sees African music (and the place of drums within it) as “continually re-inventing itself, continually absorbing new influences and moving past stereotypes even as it engages with its various histories”, resisting domination and asserting autonomous creativity. Again, the push, counter-push and fresh creation of the dialectic.

Gamedze is constantly experimenting with alternative drum approaches (he has discussed both crafting a more percussive sonic texture and de-centering the groove). But there’s nothing alien about the complex, tricky grooves your ears, heart and body feel, and that centre Dialectic Soul. They underpin the heterophony (at first joyful, then punctured by Wells’s searing saxophone cry) of the opening States of Emergence: Thesis, punctuate the poetic narrative Interregnum, propel the historical motion of Eternality and get feet marching and dancing on Hope in Azania

Alongside, each of the other musicians is because the others are. Fassie-Kock’s edgy acid tones, Wells’s darker, more lyrical soaring, Nkoane’s voice-sounds breathed into freedom, Mavimbela’s intensely grounded, resonant bass notes, all come from a place of shared soul. “I had chosen the musicians for very particular reasons related to their playing,” says Gamedze, “and I wanted their voices to come out uninhibited … It was the collective that finished the tunes.”

The album carries challenging messages, and merits intense listening. Kelley declares he had listened to it more than 70 times before writing the liners. But Dialectic Soul is never weighed down by self-conscious import. Instead, the playing keeps the ideas accessible and, in musical, emotional and dialectical senses. Moving.

Siyabulela is a song uniting listeners to remember the positive legacy of those gone before. The poetics of Interregnum draw on the power of layered metaphor: simultaneously a poem about new attire that “fits perfectly” and a child embracing her historic mission: the struggle for African liberation. The framing States of Emergence Suite — thesis, antithesis, synthesis to open the album, the final “speculative fourth” to close it — structures another forward motion: towards the future a hegemonic present cannot permit us to imagine.

In the midst of pandemic and lockdown, however, collective imagining becomes harder. We cannot gather together right now. Gamedze concedes this and, although the internet offers some substitutes, that access is “classed and raced by the oppressive and exploitative processes of capitalist accumulation” (although previous access to club spaces was also often similarly mediated.) This calls for praxis — “longer-term organising for more equitable access to internet and data outside of the monopolised industry we have now” — alongside immediate struggles against repression, and the needless deaths both that and the illness cause. But he’s hopeful about the time after, when the ensemble will play for and with live listeners. As the sleeve notes say: “The soul is dialectic/ Motion is imperative/ We keep moving.”