Africa: On Our Own Clock Defies Space and Time

A collaboration between artists from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Senegal has produced an album that keeps a sense of community alive, even in times apart.

Over the past year, many artistic happenings scheduled to occur in a physical locale had to be reconfigured for digital platforms. While not ideal for artists, this process opened up a space for new kinds of collaborations. The story behind the album On Our Own Clock, released in early September, is one such ambitious undertaking.

Drawing guidance and motivation from Toni Morisson's concept of "unreasonable optimism" - as captured in her novel Jazz - the challenging process of creating a mammoth collaborative project has finally come to fruition after two years of hard work and disconnection.

The idea was conceived in early 2019 by the Johannesburg-based collective Mushroom Hour Half Hour and the music hub Total Refreshment Centre, which is based in London, England. The plan was to gather musicians from Johannesburg and Dakar, Senegal, and travel to the hub to collaborate with musicians there. But by the time funding and plans for the project were in place, the Covid-19 pandemic had begun. Because of the restrictions dictated by the circumstances, a new way had to be found.

"How do you carry on and do it anyway?" asks Nhlanhla Masondo, who runs Mushroom Hour Half Hour with partner Andrew Curnow and features as emcee Grandmaster Cap. "Obviously, being in London would have been much easier because we all would have met. But now everybody's literally on their own clock with all our time zones.

"You're living your own life, you have to squeeze things in, shift and bend. It was quite frustrating, especially because you feel like you have no control," he says, adding that just to have an initial meeting took more than a week to arrange.

Answering the call

The project was created through the spirit of improvisation and a kind of cross-continental call and response. The idea was that a single band would be formed with 14 of the most interesting voices from the three cities. Considering the number of musicians involved, the project was a logistical nightmare, with extensive back and forth over the two years.

However, the journey is proof of what endurance makes possible. While shifting schedules and organisation took up the better part of the year, the bulk of the recording was done in just two days in 2020 - one in July and another one in August.

On the first day, though physically apart, the musicians in all the cities went into the studio to record on the same day. "We tried to keep that synergy and that spirit and that energy across geography," says Masondo.

The music from that day was edited down into workable pieces that were played to the rest of the musicians only at the next meeting in the studio two weeks later. The London musicians heard and responded to their Joburg and Dakar counterparts and vice versa. Afterwards, all the material was chopped up, rearranged, edited and woven back together in a lengthy, collaborative post-production phase for the final record.

This tricky method, says Johannesburg-based vocalist Nosisi Ngakane, "brought an interesting dynamic to the music because there was a heightened state of emotion that was happening. You can hear it in some of the very extreme moments in the music - it feels like a release, like you're on top of a mountain and you're screaming. I don't think the music would have turned out the way it did if we were all in a room."

Together, yet separated

For London-based Danalogue, aka Dan Leavers, artistic freedom and trusting the musicians were essential in making the project work. "I really liked the idea that you could jointly compose something from different cultures and two different continents. And everyone gave each other the freedom to do whatever you wanted, no rules. And then you have trust. You say, well, I trust that these people that I've never met before treat it with care and with love."

Leavers, a synthesiser player who features on the album, also helped with editing afterwards. "It was a case of selecting the moments where it just really pops, finding something that really slaps - kind of like panning for gold."

Fellow Londoner Alabaster dePlume, a saxophonist and frequent music collaborator at the Total Refreshment Centre, says he enjoyed the challenge of creating work that is incomplete. "If you make a piece of work that is going to be sent to another country for someone else to put something on, you've got to make it incomplete. But it is hard to do that, because you want them to receive it and like it. And you find yourself finishing it, but then that is exactly the way to make it harder for them."

This feeling is also echoed by journalist and author Emma Warren, who was privy to the London sessions. "We were making music with people who weren't there and we had to leave space for them. That recognition of absence was very clear to me."

Joining Leavers and dePlume on the recording in London was Lex Blondin (drum machine), Yahael Camara Onono (percussion) and Theon Cross (tuba).

A process without ego

Cape Town-based drummer Asher Gamedze says he really enjoyed the first sessions when four of the musicians in South Africa got together in Johannesburg to record. "It's an interesting process trying to hear yourself or hear what you can contribute to something other people have recorded."

Completing the line-up in South Africa were Damola Owolade (emcee), Mpumelelo Mcata (guitar), Siya Makuzeni (trombone and vocals), Tebogo Austebza Sedumedi (bass) and Zoe Molelekwa (keyboard and Wurlitzer).

Ngakane says owing to the improvisatory nature of the recording sessions, it required an egoless approach, placing the collective at the centre of the process. "So it becomes less about you as a musician, and more about the song."

The contributions from Senegal are by kora player Tarang Cissokho and designer Djib Anton, who created the album's artwork. Because of time and space constraints, few Senegalese musicians could be sourced, and the language barrier also provided a challenge.

"One thing I took away from the project is that, continentally, we need to do more work so that we can connect more," says Masondo.

'Bizarre and beautiful'

The album is testament to the spirit of a community coming together under difficulty. Mushroom Hour Half Hour, which has been running since 2012, functions as a record label and experimental music platform. It has launched some remarkable collaborations in recent times and is also one of a handful of labels in South Africa releasing music on vinyl. The Total Refreshment Centre, independently founded by Blondin in 2012, is a thriving artist studio space that is situated in an old Victorian factory building in Stoke Newington in northeast London.

DePlume, who has a studio there, says the hub "is this space where we share a critical devotion to our craft and where, through this shared devotion, we find a way to support each other as a basic part of the work. This space here in this community has changed my life. I know I'm making work now that I never would have made anywhere else. And it is from a love of humanity that rests upon a love and devotion for creative endeavour."

Warren captures the spirit of the collaboration, saying "it was bizarre and gorgeously beautiful to be together. Everyone brought what they had, and what they definitely had was that sense of community and making something with what they had around them.

"That approach followed all of us through the making of it. Everyone was required to be highly adaptable, highly resilient, and to just keep going tiny inch by inch. Even if sometimes we were going backwards, we would always just pick up and carry on. There was a no-giving-up attitude."

On Our Own Clock can be read as a documentation of time. The album deftly captures the most heightened stage of the pandemic - one in which a state of anxiety grasped the world, movement stopped and, perhaps for the first time in history, musicians were globally united in their inability to perform live.

A fanzine - partly English, partly French and edited by Warren - was created with contributions from writers in all three countries and interviews with the musicians about the pandemic. A short documentary about the making of the album is also planned for release later this year.

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