While most people tried new hobbies during lockdowns — from the inane to the absurd — some people like Shane Cooper, were cooking up more than fried goods during the pandemic quarantine.
Cooper, leader and founder of instrumental jazz psychedelic group Mabuta, re-kindled his relationship with the guitar during the lockdown. In many ways, picking up the guitar helped birth the group’s sophomore album, Finish The Sun.
This album comes three years after the band released its first offering in 2018, Welcome to This World, just a year after the group was founded. Cooper says he chose the name Mabuta, Japanese for “eyelid”, because for him, dreams and the subconscious play a significant role in his song writing process. “The eyelids can be like a doorway between the waking world and the dream world. I also love to listen to music with my eyes closed to let my imagination create images to the music,” he says.
A base player by profession, Cooper, played all the guitar parts on Finish The Sun, which resulted in the album having multiple electric guitar parts. In Mabuta, he’s not just a bass player, he is the guy who writes and produces the band’s music.
Mabuta consists of its core original band members — with each one of them being
heavyweights in the South African Jazz industry: Bokani Dyer on piano and organ;
Sisonke Xonti on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Robin Fassie on trumpet.
Sonically, the eight track album is a groovy tapestry. With each track, assuming different tempos, filled with luscious repetitions, each building on a chordophone sound, to create kinetic and voluminous harmonies. It won’t take much for you to tap your foot or bob your head to the groovy vibes. “I picked up a guitar and started playing it every day; and it has been a huge source of inspiration for me,” Cooper continues that, “because the guitar is a secondary instrument for me, a lot of things I did were unconventional”.
Playing the instrument was inspirational to him because he did not have the same habitual vocabulary on the guitar as he would’ve with the bass. The guitar allowed him to come up with new ideas that differed from the body of work he had initially prepared for the album, before the pandemic sent us into lockdown.
Cooper says the idiosyncrasies of the instrument are different from the bass, so he would negotiate and wrestle with creative ideas in a different way with the guitar.
“I just found in that process, I was creating a lot of joy for myself by playing the guitar. As a bass player – and because it’s my job and I’ve played it for many years – there’s always a lot of pressure to play on a certain level. You’re always aware of what you said or what you’ve written before on that instrument,” explains Cooper.
While listening to Finish The Sun, you can hear inspiration from African musicians like Fela Kuti. Cooper says it was not deliberate, but purely a result of the type of music he mostly listens to.
“A lot of the fundamental building blocks of the songs are these funky riffs that are often built on inspirations of various music from Africa. I listen to a lot of African music from all over the continent, so that is just built into my subconscious as a listener. The chords I play are built around that inspiration, even without me thinking too much about where it comes from necessarily, all the time,” explains Cooper.
The album is mellifluous. Joburg Poem, a song the band dedicated to the city of gold, is a surprisingly dark and mellow tune. Copper says because Joburg is so complex, layered and multifaceted, it was impossible to compose it into a single short story. And so in Joburg’s Poem, the city is represented in two melodic hues: melancholy and joy. “I wanted to portray the vastness of Joburg as a sense of melancholy that I feel and simultaneously the sense of joy, beauty and brightness that it invokes in me,” he says.
For percussion, Cooper chose different drum players he knew across the globe. Instead of finding a new drummer (after the original member, Marlon Witbooi, decided to pursue other interests), Cooper for now intends to keep the drum position open in the live band, and work with different drummers for different occasions.
Drummers in this project include Julian Sartorius, Arthur Hnatek and Mario Hanni from Switzerland. Sweden’s Christopher Cantillo, Lungile Maduna from South Africa, as well as Jamie Peet from Holland and Senegal’s Andre Toungamani. There’s also guest appearances from Buddy Wells, featured playing the flute and the saxophone on the project.
Cooper says Mabuta’s creative process is underpinned by each band member’s energy, so that every musician — with their own unique blueprint — can shine.
When comparing this album with the band’s debut, which was tethered to a jazz audience, Finish The Sun peels off some elements of jazz in order to sonically construct Afro grooves, but through the Mabuta’s inimitable lens.
Lockdown may have put a momentary moratorium on live music but Shaun Cooper and Mabuta prove that is wasn’t all doom and gloomy. Finish The Sun will transport you to tropical landscapes and African markets.
Footnote: Finish The Sun, released by Dox Records today, is be available on all digital platforms, with a promise of a vinyl release later this year. The group will launch the album at Leano Restaurant in Braamfontein this evening, 13 May.