Mu­si­cian Pops Mo­hamed would like to see schools of­fer tra­di­tional mu­sic of var­i­ous eth­nic groups into the school cur­ricu­lum, writes

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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.

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