/ 7 January 2022

Dusting off musical gems through the art of the remix

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Although she aced the task, Mpho Sebina confesses to being nervous to remaking the work of an artist as huge as Brenda Fassie. (Photos: Courtesy of Gallo)

Close to two decades ago, the Blue Note label granted musician and producer Madlib access to its legendary vault of jazz and funk recordings, and gave the prolific producer free rein to do with the music as he pleased. What resulted was an inventive 16-track album titled Shades of Blue (2003), packed with Madlib’s masterful sampling and skillful compositions. 

Verve Records, another iconic American music label, had done the same a year before, albeit with a varying cast of producers interpreting works by artists ranging from Willie Bobo to Sarah Vaughn. What these new versions did was to breathe a new groove into old recordings, effectively making them accessible to a new generation of listeners whose connection to those songs, if any, was through their guardians playing the original tracks. Suddenly, one could no longer imagine, but hear, what a Masters At Work and Nina Simone session could’ve sounded like; or how Horace Silver’s SongformyFather would’ve turned out had Madlib been there for the original date.

Blue Note Re:Imagined (2020), adopted a similar approach to that of Verve, with a London-heavy cast featuring the likes of Jorja Smith, Ezra Collective and Nubya Garcia rethinking songs by St Germain, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson. It’s in the spirit of the three aforementioned releases that Gallo Records’ Gallo Remixed series aims to approach its legacy project, the first of which sees Mpho Sebina, Sun-El Musician, Muzi and Da Capo remixing and reversioning songs by Brenda Fassie, Winston Mankunku Ngozi and Phuzekhemisi. 

Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s Yakhal’inkomo continues to generate versions, with the latest being Muzi’s remix.

“Part of the approach with this project was looking at how the majors had done it. We looked at how Blue Note did the projects with Guru’s Jazzmatazz; how they did the projects with Robert Glasper, and Madlib. I think that’s the future with Gallo; there’s a whole 200 000 titles in the vault. Only 30 000 songs are active in the market, and that shows you the possibilities,” says DJ and business strategist Bradley Williams, who was brought in by Black Coffee (after acquiring the Gallo Records catalogue) to, as part of his mandate, figure out how to reintroduce the vast catalogue to today’s listener. 

Music is Forever is an experiment to try and develop a workflow, and design the process around how the team operates [and] how the label works with its legacy artists. Because the label still has a relationship with these artists and some of their estates, the process has to be done respectfully with their engagement.”

Artists decided which song they would like to work on based on a playlist of available material Gallo had shared with them. Mpho Sebina was drawn to her childhood hero, Brenda Fassie. The Botswana-based vocalist and songwriter had attempted a version of Too Late for Mama seven years before, the result of which can still be found on her Soundcloud page. 

“Gallo briefed me about the project in April. I was super excited to do it, and I worked with a producer here in Gaborone, Favi Motsemme. We created a beautiful piece, but then I got really nervous towards the release date because I’ve taken on this huge task to remake Brenda Fassie, who is an African icon,” she says. 

“When we played that song – it came up with an A&R session with the Gallo label team, and Black Coffee – the response was really good, because of how unexpectedly mellow she delivers it. And that was really what was appealing about it,” says Bradley.

Kenza, an electronic music producer based in South Africa, whose latest output includes work done on Msaki’s Platinumb Heart Beating, as well as his own three-song EP titled Fly Away, was pulled in to do additional production on Mpho’s re-work. 

Nobuhle features on Sun-El Musician’s remake of Brenda Fassie’s hit Vul’indlela

“I had to focus a bit, because I realised that we were  working with the name of Brenda Fassie. [The Gallo team] were like, ‘We’re trying to re-make it in a more modern way,’ so I understood better. We had a studio session where we were structuring stuff. Mpho Sebina was on the line, and she loved it from the start. I liked it more after we arranged it. It was a huge honour to work on that project,” he says.

Adds Mpho: “I think the song is a story, and I wanted to be able to match the emotion in that story. We wanted to capture the melancholy of the song in our delivery. In terms of music, the original is quite upbeat, and we decided to bring it into this emo, melancholic, soulful world, so [that] the listener hears and connects with the lyrics more.”

“Chicco Twala was happy with it, and he gave us the thumbs-up on our production. If he’s happy, I’m happy. I think we did a good song.”

Brenda Fassie, along with a host of names whose music is housed under Gallo, is a tremendous deal throughout the African continent. It can be intimidating to even think about reworking her songs. To get a full understanding of producer pitfalls, especially concerning remixes, I reached out to Namibian-born, Cape Town-based producer Gina Jeanz, whose recently released album Lucid Theory is a masterful modern electronic music offering that maps out the genre’s future over nine songs. 

“In the age when people put out [a lot of music], there are those songs that represent a pivotal time for us. Remixes can not only pay homage to that, but also bring back that feeling in the modern age. For myself, it’s about how do you take existing vocals and create something completely different? Remixing is also a form of practice; it keeps my ears sharp, [and] it helps me write better music,” she says. 

“I’ve heard some terrible remixes. And I just mean in a sense of pitch, [because] my ears are very sensitive to pitch. As a producer, I encourage producers to use it as a form of practice, even if you don’t put the music out.”

Music is Forever can be downloaded at  https://zamusic.org/ep-va-music-is-forever/