“It was made for that time,” says Siya Mthembu, singer of The Brother Moves On.

He discusses the track You think you know me, released in mid-July, as trucks and shopping malls burned down in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. The album from which the song is taken, Tolika Mtoliki (Interpreter, interpreter), arrives October 25 – but the early fall of this trail was a direct response to events.

Mthembu was on day 12 of his meeting with Covid-19, confined to his home, thinking, “This is happening – but no one is saying anything about it.” Almost simultaneously, Matsuli Music label boss Matt Temple sent him a message: Wasn’t it time for this track? “We were thinking of an outing in 14 days,” explains Mthembu, “but now it was, no! Get it done in 72 hours.

You think you know me riffs on the iconic anthem of trumpeter Blue Notes Mongezi Feza You think you know me (but you’ll never know me). It opens with verses listing corrosive ethical betrayals, including cultural betrayals (“you place Enoch Sontonga’s prayer next to Die rod / a Nazi war crime next to a prayer “), political (both the” niece rape shower after sex domkop [idiot]And “it’s a new dawn… can I put a new dawn on those ashy and bloody hands of Marikana? Finally, as elite commentators filled media pages labeling July 2021 everything from “riots” to “counter-revolution,” the track follows on to Feza’s wordless melody after a bitter ending, “You think that you fucking know me, that’s the problem.

For those who have heard the track this week in July, the impact has been dazzling. But the cumulative iteration of betrayals was not opportunistically assembled at the time. It came from a conversation between Mthembu and his mother, Thobeka, long before. “I was sitting on a bench in the yard, she was sweeping. We were talking about politics, about things that had happened – an impromptu poetry of all the frustrations of the time. Thobeka Mthembu’s role as a co-lyricist is credited, but her son says she is less happy with the credit now because of this latest blasphemy, which was not hers.

The melody, of course, is older, composed by Feza in the early 1970s. Particularly, but not exclusively, for those who grew up in Africanist political traditions, “this is our true national anthem,” says Mthembu. “You heard it when you were a kid. Before you even knew what politics was, you ended up singing it to yourself. “

Shared rebirths

It was You think you know me who brought saxophonist Muhammad Dawjee, the band’s newest alumnus, into this recording. Dawjee had worked with Mthembu and other members – bassist Ayanda Zalekile, guitarist Zelizwe Mthembu and drummer Simphiwe Thabala – on and off since sharing a stage during a performance of Wits in 2018, but: forced to enter this album. This song has been in my consciousness for so long that I really wanted to play it. “I’ll even do it for free,” I told them, ”Dawjee said.

A shared desire to resurface a musical heritage, rather than the content of a song, underpins the album, which they call “a vinyl time capsule” with tributes to the work of Moses Molelekwa, the Malopoets, Johnny Dyani, Batsumi and Philip Tabane. The Brother Moves We have performed at the Church of Sound in London and the Orbit in Johannesburg, exploring the music of Batsumi and Malombo. At a house party, Temple heard them play and brought up the idea for the project. “But actually,” says Mthembu, “I emailed Matt ten years ago to suggest something to him about legacy and heritage music. I didn’t know I had this idea before.

The idea of ​​cyclical musical rebirths and, in Mthembu’s words, “going backwards to move forward… how beauties are not yet born today, but can be born before” is made explicit in the tribute For Mo, which refers to Molelekwa. The piece opens with a recording by the jazz pianist describing his research into the origin of music: “You don’t become a musician in a lifetime. Mthembu’s voice reflects these ideas. Stylistically, the sonic palette hints at the influences the pianist cherished – from the rest of Africa and the natural world – before the guitar pulled the melody from Bo Molelekwa: we are the people of Moses.

Sindiso Nyoni created the cover of Tolika Mtoliki.

“The song of Moses,” says Mthembu, “was not something you would expect The Brother Moves On to play. But like all songs, it spoke of something very personal about us. Often times we found that we could only express what it was after working together on the music. “

Francis Gooding’s cover notes for the album highlight the band’s statement that “these aren’t covers.” This idea has two aspects. Mthembu emphasizes that in jazz, “playing a standard is never a cover”, and Dawjee expands on this. “Jazz relates to ancestry through a canon,” says the saxophonist. “These songs are a canon that expresses the spirit of a place and a people, and the momentum of an era – the literature of our music. As an improviser, that’s where I find my inspiration.

The other aspect is political. “Talking about covers conjures up the idea of ​​’ownership’ of a song,” explains Mthembu. “I heard so many covers at home that I often didn’t know who they were and the intention of those covers was often magnificent. But without infringing on the important rights of black creators, songs like these truly belong to the people. Now everyone is selling off their copyrights [to global corporations] for money.

We have been here before. These sales put musicians in the same position as black artists under apartheid, paid by a label for full ownership of their songs. The sums at stake may be greater, but the loss of control over what is then done to the music and who benefits from it is exactly the same.

Collaborative collective

Even if Tolika Mtoliki distils ideas that have floated around the group for a long time, Mthembu feels that their “collective achievement made it better … took us out of the heart.” [The Brother Moves On] four, and return to the old collaborative collective thing ”.

Dawjee felt it too. He quotes the Malopoets Madoda. “I was invited to participate vocally, which hadn’t really happened before. There were five or six of us around the microphone: teaching the lyrics and what that meant because not everyone knew the language, choosing the harmonies. Working together on the song allowed us to find our own space.

Working with the group in a more liminal musical arena also affected Dawjee’s instrumental expression. “Siya invited me to a jam session. It wasn’t jazz – nobody sings. And being placed in that position reminded me of all those ways of making music that I hadn’t known about since I became a saxophonist. I used to play bass, jam with a few Afrikaans guys in a garage. Now I am holding a saxophone, so how can I use it to bring that kind of feeling and energy? “

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The recording at the Dyertribe studio of saxophonist Steve Dyer brought in some jazz collaborators. Mthunzi Mvubu plays the sax and the flute. “He brought fresh air to Batsumi Anishilabi“, says Mthembu, and”[pianist] Bokani Dyer was there, saying, ‘Guys I’m on the farm anyway, just let me have some breakfast and then please tell me what to do.’ Bassist Ariel Zamonsky appears on Madoda, where Steve Dyer adds another guitar.

Considering all the involvement in jazz, does The Brother Moves On now consider itself a jazz band? “Well,” says Mthembu, “we were all raised on jazz. Obviously, that’s part of us… but we’re still working on other music. We have a project that looks very different coming out early next year. Before that, there is a national tour for Tolika Mtoliki kick off on October 21 in Pretoria. The tour includes community spaces such as Wolf & Co in Tsakane and township locations such as H&H Jam in Soweto. “Playing the townships is vital for us,” says the band’s tour proposal, to ensure “our message meets the streets”. And gender is largely irrelevant: purpose matters more. “Three or four years ago we moved beyond the idea of ​​being a band that would make commercial music,” says Mthembu. “I think [filmmaker and writer] Steve Dyer got the better of us when he called us “one of the last protest groups.”

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