by dave heaton
An ongoing series, pondering 2022 music, five releases at a time.
Nduduzo Makathini – In the Spirit of Ntu
When his quartet came through Kansas City a few months ago, South African pianist Nduduzo Makathini was wearing a jacket covered with stars that might have been flowers. That mystical, beauty-focused, looking into the unknown feels right for his musical compositions and his approach to them. On his 10th album In the Spirit of Ntu, post-bop is informed by his Zulu culture and philosophical ideas, expressed through sound and themes, plus occasional chants that come from healing traditions. Ntu, in the title, represents a force of oneness and harmony. He’s described in interviews his quest for embodying these concepts through improvised music (“creating homes for them”). If that makes the music sound bohemian-dreamy, it might be, but not without built-in pain and struggle. There’s an anguished sense of space throughout the album, articulated vocally on the second track through somber singing by featured guest Omagugu, Nduduzo’s wife. Later in the album, another guest singer, Anna Wideauer, describes in English a journey towards healing, being put back together bone by bone, which feels not just personal but historical. For all Makathini’s thoughts of galaxies, the music is as driven by historical trauma and the striving for collective action born from it.
Omah Lay – Boy Alone
Boy Alone is a literal title for Nigerian singer/producer Omah Lay’s low-key pop songs, which are driven by a feeling of being out-of-step with everyone else, and down about it. There’s the song where he overthinks and overdrinks (Cognac shots), the one where he’s too depressed even to post photos on Insta, the one where he and Justin Bieber sing, “Lately I’ve been losin’ my mind”. A worried feeling is present in the air even when Omah Lay is singing straightforward love songs, like a dedication to his “Woman”, or late-night sex jams that leave nothing to the imagination (“Bend You”). He always sounds sad, and like he’s in an empty room where the rhythms ricochet off the floors and ghostly tones and voices (not to mention ‘sensitive’ guitars and warped melodies) float in and out. Sadness is in the music and overall vibe, but he also situates himself as an empath, a pop star who wants to reach out and heal. Perhaps he wants to be an optimistic, feel-good presence (like two Nigerian pop songs Omah Lay references midway through the album, Patoranking’s “Wilmer” and Kcee’s “Limpopo”). But there’s an inescapable, albeit infinitely pleasurable, darkness hanging overhead.
Phelimuncasi – Ama Gogela
Most of my knowledge or awareness – can’t call it knowledge, really – of the myriad of African dance music styles comes from the always exciting Ugandan label/youth movement Nyege Nyege. It’s a wild world of booming bass and unexpected rhythms. Ama Gogela is the second album from the Durban, South Africa trio Phelimuncasi, who are part of the gqom scene. Gqom, as I understand it, is a rougher, DIY expansion and explosion of a slicker style of South African house music called kwaito. The energy here is strength, rebellion, with excited call-and-response vocals over the steady, somewhat skeletal, intense beats of a handful of known and emerging gqom producers. The last four tracks, produced by DJ Scoturn, especially showcase the playfulness of the music, the way strange sounds are utilized and woven through. The final track has a repeated vocal tic that leads in the last couple minutes to some glorious cacophony of squeaks and squeals over free drums. Phelimuncasi’s anarchic impulses translate into not just soundplay but protest – there’s the urgency of action here. Plus, far as I can tell given my language deficiencies here: progressive/activist lyrics. Correctly or not, Google translated some of the Zulu song titles to English words in that general direction – one was “I Dream Things”, one was about falling and rising again, and the closing track title was about being powerful. (Another title translated to “Play With the Butt”, for what it’s worth.)
Slikback – Incarnate
The Nairobi, Kenya-based futuristic electronics artist Slikback (Freddy Njau) is prolific. His 2022 releases so far include Lossless (with the French artist Brodinski), Condense (with various collaborators from across the globe), Intersect, Tier¸ My Imaginary Friends and You, and 22122. Most are in the 10-20-minute range, but make you feel transported to somewhere different. Incarnate, a 4-song EP from April, is the perfect demonstration of the sleek but overwhelming ‘dance’ music he makes, with an intergalactic/industrial. He seems to be on his own aesthetic and existential journey, trying to build and develop (and develop and develop and develop) his own cyclone of sound that’s anti-trend, separate from particular scenes, and intense in its explorations.
Tumi Mogorosi – Group Theory: Black Music
Collective action is integral to jazz, and many other types of music. Group Theory: Black Music comes from that place of communal coming-together. It’s in the music’s themes and concepts – from the emphasis on black music as decentralization to the South African poet Lesego Rampolokeng’s words on the final track (“revolution in black music”, a representative phrase) and the two different versions of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. And it’s woven into the sound of the music itself, in how it was created. Drummer/composer Tumi Mogorosi (of The Wretched, Shabaka & the Ancestors, and his own solo works) is the quiet leader behind this work that unites a group of musicians (guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, alto sax and piano are all prominent) with a 10-person choir. The voices play a historic role as well, echoing the history of jazz group vocals. The whole affair seems tied into the history of music and thriving, alive