South Africa: 'Buffering Juju' Defies the Prison of Genre

The eight-track concept album by music duo Dumama and Kechou has baffled and delighted critics in equal measure because it refuses to be categorised.

A woman walks a seemingly endless road from prison, her baby strapped to her back. "Bahleli bonke etilongweni," she sings, remembering those equally long days of sitting together in the cells. She falls, is doused with icy water, rises to her feet and walks on...

This is the opening to Buffering Juju, the debut release from music duo Dumama (vocalist, uhadi musical bow player and composer Gugulethu Duma) and Kechou (multi-instrumentalist and producer Kerim Melik Chouraqui/Becker), released in March.

Buffering Juju is a song cycle, a term that should not be the prerogative of the concert hall. The eight tracks recount how the woman continues her journey, yearning to reconnect with the earth and community of her home. She negotiates and triumphs in a shifting power relationship with the spirit intermediary Mhlekazi, and finally celebrates both connection and transcendence: she's found her place.

The meanings of that narrative are as layered as the sounds - of strings, percussion, loops, reed and brass - that weave around the voices, and appear as the many faces of Duduetsang Lamola's striking graphic cover art.

Three main narrative strands knit the album together. There's a magical discourse of transformations: both the woman and Mhlekazi are shapeshifters, entering the realm of owls and honeyguides to fly to the clouds. Just as shapeshifters can untangle from the bodies that hold them earthbound, so the second narrative strand untangles the roles imposed by patriarchy, colonialism and apartheid.

The nameless woman is doused with water and rises again; later, the voice of the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela recounts being drenched after torture and how she then "started fighting all over again". The third strand cuts the bonds of genre categories such as "folk", "traditional" and "electronic": all music is equal in this sonic discourse.

The album has both delighted and baffled overseas critics. In Britain it was The Guardian's world music album of the month, but that accolade still trapped it in the category of "folkloric." For Dumama, breaking that open is key to understanding the duo's work. Although they use the term "future folk" in the liner notes, it encompasses far more than a narrow, musicological "folklore". While the duo is "referencing the folk music of the past - which was cutting-edge spiritual technology - to explore our futures", they are also interrogating the word itself, she says.

Their use of it meditates "on a future where 'folk' can be free. It's also a rejection of the Eurocentric 'world music' label that clumps anything non-European into the genre of 'world', and anything indigenous to Europe into the genre of 'folk'. We are genre-less because we're making free music," she says.

Coming to the music

The two artists arrived at that free musical space along different roads. "Singing was always my happiest place," recalls Dumama. Although she was supported by her Xhosa-speaking family as a school chorister, she was steered away from an adult music career in favour of being "safe and successful in the capitalistic sense - but Dumama had other plans".

Yet since she's established a life in music, "I'm hearing all these wonderful stories about my great-grandfather being an uhadi player, and how he would smoke and drink his herbs and sing my father to sleep". Despite their doubts about her career, music still connects her to her family. "There wasn't a ritual we shared without it: from road trips to devotional practices; from farewells, funerals and Christmases through to reunions. I have a singing family ... everyone's a choir person and at my paternal grandma's place we'd just sit and listen to choral music for hours. We always [had] music, and it's always made me feel supported."

Kechou's family in Germany, by contrast, had music careers at its core. His German mother was a feminist writer; his father, of Algerian Berber heritage, a jazz guitarist and studio owner. Kechou played guitar and led a band from his early teens. Musical collaborations in Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa intensified his interest in African music, and in 2016 he registered at the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town (UCT), while continuing with other African projects in Mozambique and again Uganda.

His searches were underpinned by respect for his father's earlier journeys and choices, and by "growing up ... scared of my own name/heritage", constantly facing German racism and Islamophobia. Only after moving to South Africa did he begin realising that "my heritage bears strength ... Children like me are the linking threads in this broken web of humanity. We have a unique perspective on the pain inflicted by colonial history and globalisation. We not only understand it rationally, we feel it deep inside ... I have a task, a role to play and a voice to use."

Dumama and Kechou met at UCT and began jamming together; they talk about their early collaborations and making the album online.

"A lot of our conversations," explains Dumama, "were raw explorations of positionality, ancestry, family generational trauma, power, vulnerability, responsibilities and healing, so naturally our music became a meditation on that." Moving towards the more structured collaborative format of Buffering Juju, she says, was necessary to deal with the "chaotic but impactful" Cape Town experience. "Finding harmonies in the tension and trying to represent that musically is still deep work for us."

Knitting together many parts

The structure helps the duo to fit many parts together. They're joined on the album by guitar legend Madala Kunene, bassist Shane Cooper, Angel bat Dawid on clarinet, Siya Makuzeni on multi-track trombone, vocalist Odwa Bongo, vibraphonist Dylan Greene and synth player Dion Monti. So each track, reflecting the progress of the narrative journey, has a different texture and mood, from sombre hymn to joyful celebration and from celestial meditation to grounded community song.

Much of that grounding comes from Dumama's uhadi; the sound (and its characteristic chords echoed by other instruments) speaks powerfully of the Eastern Cape. Kechou's calabash, guembri (bass), cascas (rattles), chitende (bow), dundun (talking drum) and darbuka (goblet drum) ground the sound equally in the greater African musical family.

But it was not just bow playing that Dumama developed during a 2017 period of study she spent with Langa uhadi master Madosini. She says the apprenticeship also transformed her narrative and performance approaches. "Songwriting for me was always full of words and rhyme schemes. Madosini's wisdom inspired me to open up a space for memories to move through me more freely, rather than relying on the intellectual process of writing poems for the listener ...

"She also always shares with so much joy; she has so much fun when she communicates and channels. Before Madosini, I was more in my head than in my experience ... I smile more now on stage and I have more fun." There was another gift too: "Playing uhadi with her created space for me to speak with my family about my great-grandfather - also giving me access to him in a way, through the music."

Dumama describes Madosini's storytelling as "time-travelling in real time, painting beautiful images with memories, creating multi-dimensional texts". That wouldn't be a bad description of Buffering Juju either.

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