Featured Scrappy start, but nothing missing in the soul

Scrappy start, but nothing missing in the soul

If you know the kora music of Malian maestro Toumani Diabaté, put it out of your mind. Pops doesn’t play like Diabaté; he plays the kora like the KhoiSan / Bushmen speak. Late in the set he actually references the KhoiSan. If you don’t know the kora, it’s an African gourd-harp. Near the end of the gig (on a tune called, appropriately, Ons Gaat Huis Toe), Mohamed stands on the edge of the stage and plays the long-necked instrument directly at us. Jimi Hendrix could have learnt a thing or two about priapic presentation from Pops!

In fact the last section of this concert is what I’ve been waiting for: the truly unique combination of Mohammed’s kora and Dave Reynolds’ steelpans, an instrument that Reynolds has made his own: in his hands the Caribbean instrument has become a South African citizen. (He also plays guitar, percussion and adds vocal colouring.) However, their chemistry is muddied slightly by the accordion of Tony Cedras, who elsewhere in the set does beautiful work (his song in tribute to Miriam Makeba, Milele, on which he accompanies himself on guitar, is a highlight), but here he is a distraction. Earlier he has distracted us by wandering around on the stage. Cedras likes to move around when playing jazz but this is not really a jazz gig. This extraordinary multiinstrumentalist, who has returned to South Africa after many years of playing in New York, is not in fact listed in the printed Festival programme (he has replaced guitarist Louis Mhlanga). On bass is Congolese musician Sylvain Baloubeta, who adds Central African flavours to the music, while Moçambiquan drummer Frank Paco is fairly subdued until at last he breaks loose for a solo; it’s worth the wait.

Pops Mohamed performs at the DSG Hall in Grahamstown on 8 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Mohamed performed alongisde Dave Reynolds, Frank Paco, Tony Cedras and Sylvain Baloubeta. (Photo: CUEPIX/Kate Janse van Rensburg)

Pops Mohamed performs at the DSG Hall in Grahamstown on 8 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Mohamed performed alongisde Dave Reynolds, Frank Paco, Tony Cedras and Sylvain Baloubeta. (Photo: CUEPIX/Kate Janse van Rensburg)

From the jokily mixed-up introductions by Mohamed (“I’m Dave Reynolds…” etc) the musicians do their best to convey a relaxed atmosphere, although initially things are a little scrappy. The concert begins with Never Again, a Pops Mohamed classic from his 1993 album, Ancestral Healing.

Mohamed plays amplified mbira as he lists a number of things “We Say No to…”. Reynolds is on percussion, which he forsakes for guitar on Hands in the Sand, which also features kora. This turns into an accordion / kora improvisation, which Reynolds drily remarks sounds rather like – dare he say it? – jazz. Mohamed performs a solo version of Long African Journey, which seems to transport us to the Kgalagadi. A medley of two compositions, Where the Sky Touches… and The Top of the Mountain, maintains the feel of nature; this music from Reynolds’ album The Light of Day provides a welcome opportunity for Baloubeta to solo. The band is really jelling now. Then Mohamed disappears to re-tune his kora while the band play another Light of Day composition, the exuberant Breakfast Goema, with Cedras providing gloriously authentic Cape sounds on his accordion and Reynolds on steelpans.

Cedras’s tribute to Makeba (and other African music heroes) is followed by a catchy Kango, with Mohamed on funky mbira. The mood changes as he spots African music specialist Dr Andrew Tracey in the audience, and pays tribute to his long-standing mentor. The infectious Malay Jam and Ons Gaat Huis Toe follow with everybody flying high, Mohamed ecstatic on kora. When this band kicks in, there’s no stopping them.
The gig ends with Mohamed’s Spirit in which he welcomes us “to the Future”, which, he says, we can only do by acknowledging our past. He lists his icons: Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Shaka Zulu…

Dave Reynolds believes that to survive as a musician you not only need to be a really good player, you also need to do something unique. His ability to initiate collaborations with caring, talented musicians, who are willing to tread new paths with him, was wonderfully demonstrated in the DSG Hall on Tuesday night. If occasionally the execution didn’t quite match up to his and Mohamed’s high standards, there was nothing missing in the soul of the music. We need to treasure committed musicians of this calibre.

Nigel Vermaas
Cue specialist writer

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