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Culture, Music

Mohamed Falls

by Brandon Edmonds, images by Corne Edwards / 30.06.2010

It was worth going for the name alone: Mohamed Fall. Sounds like an agit-pop band with shouty lyrics about American hegemony. In fact, Mister Fall is an ex-dancer who, legend has it, toured locally way back when with Baaba Maal, which in Afro music circles is up there with carrying Ghandi’s spare sandals on the salt march that liberated India. It’s a big deal. He liked Cape Town enough to stay, opening a music studio in Long Street, and lithe, suave Mohamed’s been minting new artists ever since. “We like bringing everyone together, “ he tells me. “This music can do that like nothing else can.” He’s dressed in a startling two-tone robe of black and white check as if he was about to be teleported back to the 1920’s so flappers can Charleston on him. I tell Fall the line-up of the African music showcase he’s organized is kickass and he metabolizes the compliment with the effortless self-regard of a born alpha male. I do want to berate him for the poor turnout though. There’s an insulting smattering of an audience, a blip, a handful, a slap in the face of the artists, and an absolute shame upon a city apparently indifferent to its image as a deluded, pampered sub-Euro refuge for anyone who thinks Gauteng is “too black”.

Where the flaming fuck were you all? Fall shrugs and murmurs, “The fucking soccer thing.” Visions of a delirious melding of selves across continents and cultures united by the first music, African music, as universal a language as tears, die in the quick ire of his shrug. Everyone is elsewhere: eyes glooped on steroidal TV screens watching barely articulate date rapers, tax exiles and coke fiends trot back and forth between a pair of fishnets for ninety minutes. Consensus amongst the few fans there was that the turnout reflected a debilitating combo of far from the kasi, chi chi venue (there ought not to be carpeting underfoot when you’re listening to music marinated in struggle), shitty timing (the end of the month means 300 bucks – a ticket price justified by the stars on show – buys more pressing things than melody), and mostly absent marketing. Especially the marketing. Word just didn’t get out.

Fall’s annual African music showcase, Vibrations, is not yet an established must-see in the city like the Jazz Festival or a good long bergie spat – money just hasn’t been there for line-ups tempting enough to pop the bubble of suburban complacency, and go mega. But the soccer thing chimes nicely with an African music showcase so the Department of Arts & Culture sprinkled tax revenue all over it this year and picked up the eye-watering bill for the Cape Town Convention(al) Centre (as an architect pal never fails to call it). And nobody came.

No dignitaries, no living legends, no struggle stalwarts, no curious young vinyl addicts, no plump musicologists, no grinning Dutch girls with a taste for African warrior fantasies, no yanks in Banana Republic khaki, no boundary shredding hipsters drawn in by an old Fela Kuti CD. Just a lonely guy in a pink sweater who drove down from Pretoria. Just band members talking travel and doobie with other band members. And a few breathtakingly well-connected gay black men there chiefly for Simphiwe Dana’s diva-lite lineage. Her voice can be as riveting, syrupy and generous as Nina Simone’s or as cloyingly market-driven as that one from Freshlyground.

Gorgeous Dana kept punctuating her occasionally stirring set by wondering aloud if her hour was up. It was more provocation I like to think than outright rudeness – a star flexing her pride before a dispiriting turnout. She looked great though. A shimmery little tower of blackness. And she better watch her back because Khayelitsha’s Nomfusi & the Lucky Charms are already charting in Europe and touring the world. Nomfusi has Dana’s beauty, showstopping pipes, and slender pixie charm, plus a transcendently feel-good biography, going from aids orphan, unwanted and unloved, to soaring choir soloist, recording artist and happily married woman – now infectiously confident and winning onstage. She’s already big in Japan.

Other redeeming features of a dud gig were Nigerian guitarist Kunle Ayo’s mashup with Mozambique’s Tucan Tucan – they traded flow for intricacy and seemed to make and unmake breezily complex tonal shapes with an ease and skill that had you calling out to them in pleasure. African music is built on collaboration, on a spirit of welcome and surrender. Music on the move. Complex repetition, often tough for Western audiences to get past, becomes an authority figure you toy with, a motif you can honor or cut up, rely on and explore. It makes the music cumulatively powerful. It seeps into you. Bone deep.

No better master of the real stuff, the bone deep shit, than Senegal’s Cheikh Lo. He’s a follower of Mouridism, an Islamic anti-colonial brotherhood, who wear bright patchwork clothes and rock outsized dreads (and Ray Charles sunglasses). He was addicted to Conga Rumba growing up, ditching school to listen to records, and then Cuban music which was huge in West Africa in the 1950s thanks to la revolution, then later influenced heavily by the vocal genius of Papa Wemba. Youssou N’dour once said hearing Cheikh Lo sing is “like a voyage through Burkina Faso, through Niger and Mali”. I wouldn’t know but it does sound good. A kind of plaintive, sinuous, easygoing calm. His back up band is supreme. The all-star closing song on the night, including Dana and a fine young local singer called Zoe, Africa Unite or some shit, was wonderful. They repeated the slogan, re-working it, flooding the vowels, bending the meaning, as Lo kept things flowing like a river, until the room, carpeted and near empty, became hallowed, and we all felt the urgency of that utopian wish.

Images © Corne Edwards.

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