STILL POPPING UP THE BEST JAZZ
Musician Pops Mohamed would like to see schools offer traditional music of various ethnic groups into the school curriculum, writes
THE NAME Pops Mohamed evokes awe and admiration among discerning lovers of music that speaks to our collective heritage and diverse identities. One of the world’s leading multi-instrumentalists, Mohamed’s exceptional contribution to jazz, indigenous music and contemporary crossover sounds puts him squarely in the league of national but unsung treasures such as Philip Tabane, Madala Kunene, Johnny Clegg and the late Busi Mhlongo – to mention only three. Their music is an embodiment of the South African essence.
Twenty three years ago, he started working with the San people of the Kalahari. The collaboration resulted in his groundbreaking album, How Far Have We Come? (1995), under Melt 2000, a label that contributed significantly in capturing the essence of South African music through the recording of exceptional musicians such as Moses Molelekwa, Mhlongo and Kunene. The album is a sonic journey into the African past but is also an exploration of various sounds that have made Pops the master of eclectic styles.
“Going to Namibia is like going on a pilgrimage. Meeting the San people is like meeting your ancestors. Listening to them play, sing and dance to their own music suddenly makes you realise that you had just stepped into a time machine that had taken you back thousands of years,” he says as he recalls his first journey into the Kalahari in 1994. “The language, music, culture, dress and tradition are all something from another time and another place, and yet it is for real.” He was also touched by their peaceful, humble demeanour and spiritual integrity.
“They are some of the very few people today who still understand that in order to survive, we must respect the Earth and be thankful for the treasures – no matter how sparse – nature provides.”
The pilgrimage also taught him and other musicians who are part of this project that in San society, music and dance are not merely recreational and creative expressions, but the essence of their existence. On the historic album he also worked with British artists – drummer Andrew Missingham, bassist Yolanda Charles, vocalist Jessica Lauren, percussionist Richard Ayielle and the British all-girl group Shades.
One of his wishes is to see South African schools teaching traditional music of various ethnic groups as part of the curriculum, with elders passing on their knowledge to younger generations.
He continues to play his part in this regard by working with young people with the aim of imparting appreciation of folk music among them.
The Fucharist (2005), a house album featuring DJs and hip-hop artists like Rudeboy Paul, Zubz and Revolution, is one of the projects in which he successfully crafted crossover sounds with young musicians.
The latest is a single with poet Ntsiki Mazwai titled Believe. The video was first screened last month on the SABC3 entertainment news show Trendz. The single is part of a compilation album titled iStart2Sing (The Soul of Africa). It is also available on iTunes. “Working with Ntsiki has been a pleasant and fulfilling experience. She is a talented artist who is destined for bigger things in the future,” he says.
For years, Pops has been searching for the music of the San in music stores. It was a futile effort. “All I could find was music that was recorded for the SABC. It wasn’t real enough for what I had in mind, and I knew that from then on there was only one thing left for me to do – and that was to go to the desert myself.”
He was on a serious mission of musical discovery. And since then he has made several pilgrimages to the pristine and windswept dunes of the Kalahari. In 2010 he took his interest in African traditional music to the small screen when he produced and presented Southern Rhythms, an SABC3 documentary series that explores the musical traditions of the country’s three main imported religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – as well as the sacred music of the indigenous cultures of the Venda, Xhosa and Zulu people. “The aim of the series was to examine the country’s different musical styles and establish common features among them,” he explains. “We realised that there were a lot of commonalities across the board.”
The San and Buddhist communities are also featured in the six-part series, whose theme is essentially the role of music in the expression of identity and spirituality in an evolving and multicultural society. In 2012 he didn’t return to the desert but took another pilgrimage to Platfontein, a San community in the arid region of the Northern Cape, 15km outside Kimberley. The community consists of two San tribes – the !Xun and Khwe. The groups illustrate the hardships and challenging lives of the First People in the face of ethnic prejudice and cultural dislocation.
Originally from Angola, they were relocated to Schmidsdrift, also outside Kimberley, and eventually resettled in Platfontein. Its young residents are caught up in the struggle to honour their culture while at the same time they face pressures to integrate into a modern but often hostile society. They are occasionally mocked for their language and traditional dress sense. On the other hand, the elders are concerned that their languages are facing extinction as young people are increasingly showing preference for Afrikaans and English to fit in.
Lack of job prospects as well as educational and recreational facilities in Platfontein have driven some of these young people to alcohol. In short, it is a sad state of affairs, but Pops believes in the redemptive qualities of music. He spent a week in the austere environment training a group of young hip-hop musicians who call themselves MK Obrigado. “I was amazed by the quickness with which they learnt everything,” Pops recalls. The encounter resulted in a documentary and a crossover 2012 album titled !Xun Electronica (Khoisan Urban Culture).
A prolific multi-instrumentalist who is proficient on the kora – his primary instrument in recent years – Pops has mastered over 20 traditional instruments – ranging from the Zimbabwean mbira (thump piano) and the zande (a Zairean 10-string harp) to local varieties such as umrhube
Meeting San people is like meeting your ancestors… like stepping into a time machine
AFRICAN MELODY: Pops Mohamed sees himself as a self-appointed preserver of indigenous sounds.