Puff Puff Passby Roger Young, images by Justin McGee / 24.02.2010
From the moment Tumi gets on stage to perform tracks from his new album Whole Worlds at Tings n Times in Pretoria on a Monday night the crowd is paying attention. The man could be freestyling to a click track and people would be throwing hip hop hands. This is precisely why I am skeptical. Of course I am wrong. I’ve been excited to see Tumi’s new show because of the musicians that he has backing him; Alex Parker and Richard Brokensha from Isochronous and Peach of Yesterday’s Pupil. As he launches into the first track, I get the ominous feeling these kids are going to be filling nothing than session musician slots n the Tumi show. After all they aren’t featured on the album, they’re just performing it live with him.
The first tracks he performs pretty much bear that suspicion out, fairly faithful renditions of the album tracks, well, as faithful as they can be with three enthusiastic musicians running around the stage and smiling like they’re in a candy store, swapping instruments and generally just grooving away in the background. It sure adds another dimension, but musically, it’s nothing new. After the initial buzz of the first tracks, the novelty value seems to be wearing off. It’s not like there is anything wrong with the tracks on the album, but it doesn’t feel like the live performance is adding anything to them. Maybe there is something in Tumi’s complaint about a recent Mahala review being a “puff piece”. The strange thing is that there is nothing technically wrong with the performance. It’s a tight, jazzy spin on hip hop, its tempo somewhere in the region of a Digable Planets on a slow rock tip. And this is the sliver of doubt. It is only a sliver, but it exists in the back of my brain while my heart is feeding off the energy on stage.
Whole Worlds is an album of collaborations so it’s no surprise that one of the collaborators, MXO steps on stage early in the set to deliver a tight and joyous performance of “Family Plan”, but when he leaves it begs the question, can Tumi pull off touring this album when so many of the tracks are collab’s or pivot on guest spots? Parker and Brokensha are adequate on the backing vocals for the most part but their voices don’t seem to have warmed to the lyrics yet. Maybe its because I haven’t really been able to get into the album itself that these thoughts are pulling me away from accessing the rampant musical eclecticism and instrument swapping on stage, Brokensha and Parker trading places with a casual flair, Peach jumping up and down from drums to laptop to bass, Tumi stalking the stage with a grin like a man who has discovered the secret.
And then it happens, Peach walks to the front of the stage with his little metal gizmo and starts pumping out Yesterday’s Pupil’s “What We Seek” and I am provided with my access point. Tumi’s punchy rhymes over its lazy sparseness build the track into a new beast entirely, the audience has shifted from standard hip hop flow appreciation into a sort of befuddled awe. Soon the pace is lifted again, they break into a new track entirely, something they “came up with at soundcheck”. Tumi’s band is released from being just a really tight back up act and the whole performance becomes a jazzy rock out extravaganza. The crowd goes wild, Brokensha takes on vocals, harmonizing with Parker, Tumi dancing and air-punching like a member of Kidofdoom, a wave of love spreading out from the stage. It’s a rare and beautiful thing to watch, this disregard for genre, the total ease of their skills and the manifest joy and enthusiasm radiating from this supergroup.
When they break into “Bambazela” it’s clear the crowd know the song, but they don’t know it like this, Tumi and the Pretoria avant garde deliver a full on driving Rage Against The Machine-esque version of the hit, rocking out with precision and sheer gusto, it’s one of those moments where no words will match their brazen genius and mad abilities. It crescendos and then breaks, ending suddenly, Tumi exiting through an awestruck audience. People looking at each other as if to say, “what the fuck just happened?”
Tumi has taken the collaborations on Whole Worlds to a whole new place, seeing it performed live with the unassuming Pretoria boys, without the famous collaborators strips the star power from the tracks and delivers them in a freestyling and tight new form, it’s almost as if this is what should have been recorded. Tumi better get used to more puff pieces. Now I just can’t wait to hear him guest on Isochronous’s “Beauty Queen”.