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Culture, Music

Pick a Dream

by Andy Davis / 07.02.2011

You know what’s sick? The finest South African hip hop album of 2010 was released in France in April last year, but only made it to our shelves in November. Then it got buried in the glutt of Xmas releases, and it took another 3 months for the the first single “Asinamali” to surface on any of the local charts. It’s still hard not to come to the conclusion that the labels, radio stations and the South African music industry at large, slept on the biggest hip hop album of 2010.

But that’s just how it goes. The TATV Pick a Dream fiasco says more about the weight of geo-politics on the South African music industry than it does about the band’s intentions and the local industry’s apathy. A few years back Tumi and the Volume were invited to perform at the Sakifo music festival on Reunion Island, which belongs to France despite being stuck out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and is therefore the closest first world country to South Africa. So impressed was the festival organiser, Jerome Galabert, that he signed Tumi and the Volume to his record label right there and started pushing them through the channels in France and Europe. All of a sudden the band was being booked for epic 3 month long European tours and collaborating with a slew of French artists. Nowadays the majority of their fan base lives outside of the RSA. It was a lucky break. Had TATV stayed in South Africa they could have ended up just another casualty of the South African music industry, banging their heads repeatedly against the glass ceiling. Playing Oppikoppi year after year before the financial attrition wore them down or caused them to implode. Luckily, the French stepped in. But this also meant that one our most wildly original, authentic and relevant hip hop acts, making music that relates directly to this place and this time, suddenly graduated to a global stage and in so doing, kind of left us behind.

But this article is not all about us South Africans feeling like someone’s poor cousin, as our cultural jewels are pilfered by the fat, rich fingers of the first world. There’s a silver lining to this tale. Apart from the band being able to pay their bills; being the clear channels that they are, the new Tumi and the Volume album really captures and blends a lot of that creative French influence into their production. The lyrical content and the subject matter is still rooted in a South African context but the Francophone influences lift this from being just another local hip hop joint to a much more experimental, innovative and ultimately entertaining album. One of my biggest criticisms of Tumi’s lyricism in the past is that he’s always had a knack for pulling together the right musicians to create really interesting musical environments for him to populate with his lyrics, but at times on Live at the Bassline and the self-titled debut studio album, Tumi and the Volume, it was almost as if he had too much to say and just kind of crammed it into a series of rapid fire Tumi rhymes, without enough undulation or variation to keep you listening to what he’s actually saying.

Tumi and the Volume

Then between this and his solo albums, something shifted. Tumi now revels in the spaces between, dropping accessible verses ladened with meaning. There’s a maturity to his work. You can’t miss it. More than that, it really seems that as a musician, Tumi has something to say. Which is pretty indicative on this album, because he almost spends more time singing than rapping. It’s obvious that working with Danyel Waro (he’s like the Hugh Masekela of Indian Ocean Island’s music) has opened his eyes to new musical possibilities. As Tumi said in an earlier interview:
“I’m a vocalist. A vocalist raps, sings, whatever. And sometimes you just feel, this needs singing. You’re the vocalist, sing. In that way, knowing Danyel Waro changed my life. Danyel told me, ‘you go to a funeral and everyone’s singing’. I used to think of singing as Whitney Houston and Freddie Mercury. This is some high level, don’t fuck with this shit. I’m like, yo guy, this is a craft. I need to understand this thing. But Danyel Waro was like, ‘this is functional art. It doesn’t matter where it is, at a funeral, at a wedding, when you’re happy, when you’re sad. It’s your voice. So just sing man. Express yourself.’ And I’ve always tried to be more melodic in my rapping anyway.”

The first song on the Pick a Dream “La Tete Savante” breaks us a chunk of the new vibe immediately. It has a Malian feel with those repetitive Touareg tin guitar strings, clapping and sparse tribal percussion, some cowbell. Then changing it up, kind of futuristic and groovy, shades of Kanye in Bamako via Dakar and Soweto. And then this kicker which ties straight into the album cover. “They celebrated their liberation with so much libation that when the morning came they had lost their heads.” This is how I like my culture. Engaging, on point, relevant and cutting straight to the core.
The first single “Asinamali” is a straight up old skool hip hop track, reminiscent of the big beat late 80s, carrying more hardcore contemporary ruminations from the big man:
“I can’t decide if it’s the money / put a low price on your soul / I can’t decide if it’s the money / that’s got the people going out of control”.
“Number 3” dips back into familiar TATV territory, it kind of sounds like a leftover track from their previous album. Melodic steady-fire flow from Tumi carried by a Tiago riff on the guitar. But compared to the innovation on the rest of the album this track just makes me feel like we’re time travelling. And just as I’m thinking that, they flip it and hit you with a chorus which is just so infectiously groovy that you can’t help but smile and nod your head. It’s the old sound but with a new twist, again referencing that 80s shout out hip hop made famous by Public Enemy, KRS1 et al.
“Limpopo” then breaks out into the true innovative direction of this album. Melodic chorus and melodic flow sing-song rapping, Tumi once again, digging the rich vein of his family history for lyrical content with the repetitive chorus reminding us, “one life to live, one life to give, one life you’re given, just one life.”
Next up Tumi channels the angst and insecurities of suburban housewives with “Moving Picture Frames”. Talk about flipping the script on all that overplayed sexist bitch and nigga hip hop shit. It’s got a laid back R&B kind of feel with Tiago tickling the strings while Tumi sings. Usually I hate on R&B but this is more reminiscent of the Motown roots than the travesties committed by Craig David and the slew of modern, wimpy bootie track R&B artists.
“Through My Sunroof” is possibly the most powerful track on the album. Downbeat. poignant. Sparsely populated percussive backbone for Tumi to string those lyrics on. It’s got car crashes, infidelity, melody, angst, despair, honesty. It’s a wild, different and compelling track. Hard to compare to anything being produced in or out of South Africa at this time. The whole song works like the moment after a traumatic event where time stands still. “A butterfly flew through my sun roof”.
Then straight back to that stripped down old skool hip hop pedigree on “Reality Check”.
“Of Parties and Stars” takes it to a smooth hip pop nod your head kind of place as the album picks up pace towards the back-end. “Made No More” implores us to “change the laws and turn pop into art like we did before”. And the album closes out with the melodic, sing-a-long “Light in your Head” before taking one more trip uptown to the jazzy “Play Nice” before finally letting us loose with the hidden track “Tine Blues” ending proceedings very nicely.

It’s still bullshit that the album was released in France 7 long months before we got to hear it at home, but at least Tumi and the Volume are scooping up their experiences and inspirations, crunching them through culture and serving them back to us on albums like this. At least it finally arrived. Truth is Tumi and the Volume are fast leaving the narrow confines of hip hop behind, they’re more like a world music outfit with a hip hop crush, that’s driven by an all emcompassing ambition, as Tumi says, when I ask him what he makes music for… “to change the world.”
And here’s a final thought from big T from the V.
“Before, if you listen to those old records there’s stuff in there. But it’s thick shit. It’s thick, gon’ take me some time to get this one. You know what I mean? With this album, I don’t think I rhyme better than Live At The Baseline but I do think I listen better. I know how to say something easier. I can get to the point quicker than before. Before it was like, I need to impress you. I need to prove that I’m fucking dope. I need you to know that when the song is done… this mother fucking band is the shit! Now if it’s a good song, it’s a good song. I know that you motherfuckers don’t have 3 minutes to waste and still try figure shit out.”

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