“This music,” says Dhruv Sodha, “is owned by all of us equally. It’s four stories that come together, like a gathering around a fire.”
The sitar player is describing the sounds created as part of the Afr(ind)ian Fiction project: a collaboration between the musicians of South African Music Awards-nominated local improvising trio Kinsmen and Zimbabwean multi-instrumentalist, Othnell Mangoma Moyo. Kinsmen comprises Sodha, tabla player Shailesh Pillay and saxophonist Muhammad Dawjee.
The project describes itself as “a south-south sonic dialogue that seeks to open new territories … in an imaginary place where borders do not exist”. It’s both a literal and a metaphorical response to the slamming shut of borders during Covid.
Literal, because Kinsmen had secured an ANT Mobility Grant from Pro Helvetia for a transnational collaboration with a musician from Madagascar just before lockdown. Faced with the impossibility of travel, says Dawjee, “it was either give the money back or try to make it work. Our intended collaborator wasn’t on our wavelength about trying things differently, so we simply went on the hunt.
“We made a list of African countries whose musics interested us and searched. And then I saw a clip of Mangoma playing I don’t know how many drums and it was just: ‘This is the guy!’”
It was a serendipitous discovery. Mangoma is an actor, dancer, teacher, writer and instrument-maker as well as a musician, and has travelled extensively. (He’s in the US at the time of our Zoom conversation.)
“Learning all the forms of cultural expression when you’re younger is our tradition,” he says. “So even as a soloist I still think of what I’m doing as an ensemble. It shows the communal way of living: you play your part and you respond … I carry that energy in all my music-making.”
But it’s also a metaphorical response to a world already closed and divided: a state Covid only intensified.
As Dawjee explains, the work also seeks “new ways for us to interact meaningfully and (for the African community of Indo/Pak descent in particular) to find resonant spaces with and through the music of this continent.”
The process can be summed up as call and response: in various combinations and sequences, musical themes are offered by one player and responded to by the others.
The music is enriched and supported by intense conversations (available in full on the project website) about context, style, technique and, most importantly, the human experiences of the four musicians during the process.
When they talk online, and again when we meet, the conversations are sometimes more about listening than playing. There were no instructions to guide musical responses, and each player was in a different physical space, with a Bandlab screen showing what has already been played.
“The thing that stood out when we started,” says Sodha, “was how hard it was to listen — learning to listen not only to the ‘call’, but also to your own head and heart.”
“An initial idea of elaborated briefs,” says Dawjee, “proved way too complicated. A brief is just a crutch to keep you safe. I had to listen simply to what was coming out sonically and figure it out. All I had was my ears.”
And, Pillay admits, “Initially it was quite scary, until we found our groove with each other. To an extent, fear drove creativity.”
“No, not fear,” corrects Mangoma. “It was uncertainty about the unexpected. I’m someone who’s driven by curiosity and, for me, that made it fun. What will the end result be? You learn from what you’ve started and the way new ideas get added to it.”
That has advantages, he adds. “If we were all in the same room,
we’d maybe only have the patience to listen for a few minutes before somebody takes the lead. Here, we had to listen from beginning to end. The music tells the story, and shows the spaces we are going to give each other. That freedom was so good.”
In that ceding and using of sonic space, other borders are interrogated, including those between leader and follower, and between melody and rhythm.
That’s important for Dawjee, who’s interested in “how I can just be part of the band, when the saxophone role is designed to be in front playing a melody.” In Afr(ind)ian Fiction’s music, he’s exploring adding reed colour and texture, not intervening with conventional solos.
And how about the identity work of the project? The online conversations crash a dazzling range of geographical boundaries, as Mangoma joins the dots between tabla, Burkinabe drums, mbira, the West African roots of Latin American clave and the layered systems of handclaps integral to Zimbabwe’s intangible cultural heritage.
Discovering that he had acquired a set of tabla in Pune, India, Pillay asks: “Could we hear you playing African rhythms on those?”
As for personal identity, collective work holds answers. As the African proverb suggests, a person really does seem to become more fully a person through others.
“I used to think identity work was a conceptual knowledge thing. But it’s ongoing — it’s in the work itself,” says Dawjee.
“When you work inside your individuality,” elaborates Pillay, “you can forget it: shut it away in a little room. It’s working with others — especially, in my case, working with Othnell as another drummer — that lifts up your individuality … [because] you’re challenged to find your own way.”
In one of the conversations posted on the group’s website, Sodha says something similar: “It’s being around the right people that sparks self-reflection. Every time I hear the call I put out, it’s further and further from what I first imagined. It’s beautiful: true collaboration … when it’s almost not my piece any more.”
Mangoma is emphatic: the unifying power of music is “a truth not a cliché. When we make music together, we forget about that difference. I hear an individual human voice in Shailesh’s drums and another in mine and we are having a conversation.”
When I interviewed Kinsmen in 2017, on the release of their debut album, Window to the Ashram, Dawjee discussed “finding” identity. Time has nuanced that view: “It makes more sense to talk about ‘reckoning with’ belonging, rather than ‘finding’ it.”
Mangoma will visit South Africa in August to record a live performance. Playing with an audience front of mind, they all recognise, may change things.
It will be “possibly more curated, and sharper”, suggests Dawjee. “But will this magic we’ve found in this work — the joy and passion of just playing for each other — still be there?”
Sodha is pretty sure it will. “We’ll all be channelling this new perspective … Once you see a colour, you can’t un-see it.”