The Interview – Tumi Mogorosi: A jazzy breakthrough

2014-02-17 10:00

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Tumi Mogorosi stuck to his guns when he entered the music business – and now it’s paying off. Percy Mabandu chats to the young jazz drummer about his debut album and international breakthrough.

There’s a din of percussive thuds and hammerings emanating from the construction site towering over Niki’s Oasis Restaurant and Bar near The Market theatre.

It is part of the day’s irony as I sit with Tumi Mogorosi, the jazz drummer. The native of Spruitview on the East Rand is fast gaining a reputation for being the most sought after percussionist of his generation.

It’s Friday night and our hang-out coincides with his scheduled performance with bassist Herbie Tsoaeli’s band. It will be followed by a gig with The Trip, a quartet led by rising vocalist Gabisile Motuba, in Sunnyside, Tshwane.

As you read this, Mogorosi should be preparing to share the stage with Joburg’s most talked about art band, The Brother Moves On, at a restaurant called Lucky Bean in Melville.

He is eager to tell me about his international business breakthrough. Mogorosi has just clinched a distribution deal for his debut album, Project Elo. It will see his work reaching music lovers across the UK, Europe, Asia and the Americas.

It’s a big deal for the 26-year-old self-published band leader.

He has managed to resist signing with any record company so far and laughs heartily when he talks about the sort of offers he has turned down.

Groping at his growing goatee, he remembers: “Man, you know, I went to Sheer Sounds with the project.

I remember listening to them saying they could give me a 30% share. I was thinking, ‘It was a bad idea for me to come here and now I know’.”

The new deal with London-based Jazzman Records will see him take the lion’s share of the proceeds.

He will also retain ownership of the master tapes to use as he wishes in the future. Mogorosi tells me that the international

rerelease will be in May and will be marked by a few gigs and a new album cover.

It’s a well-deserved coup when you consider that Mogorosi largely self-funded the recording and production of his album. He is part of a growing wave of young musicians opting for independence from established record labels.

We reminisce about the two-day recording session of the album at Peter Pearlson’s studios in Linden, Johannesburg.

The events of those 48 hours kept to the proverbial form?–?memorable creative gestures and visionary works of art are often created amid life’s great banalities.

Consider that Duke Ellington was sitting at the kitchen table waiting for his mother to finish cooking dinner when he wrote Mood Indigo.

While composing A Love Supreme, John Coltrane was crowded by children’s dirty nappies, dishes and other trappings of a family home shared with newborns.

The recording of Mogorosi’s Project Elo also happened amid life’s unexceptional details.

It happened amid small talk and complaints about the November sun’s heat, a lost box of matches and some convoluted babble about who should fetch lunch.

While sitting outside the back yard studio, we see that the dreadlocked guitarist, Sibusile Xaba, has taken to the swimming pool.

He refuses to relinquish a joint from his lips at the risk of dropping it in the water as it slowly burns.

“Ahh my king, this comes with experience,” he says to approving laughter from other band members on a short break.

They include Malcolm Jiyane on trombone, Mthunzi Mvubu on alto sax, Nhlanhla Mahlangu on tenor sax and bassist Thembinkosi Mavimbela.

Says Mogorosi: “The guys really came through, you know. They were generous with their time and spirit. There were no quarrels about money or stuff like that, just a commitment to making the project happen.”

Project Elo’s line-up is dominated by the horn section to augment the music’s sonorous charge.

This plays well into the hymnal quality of the album.

Mogorosi’s compositions rely partially on the ebullient lift of the horns and a set of choral voices employed as part of the instrumentation.

He enlisted Themba Maseko, Ntombi Sibeko, Mary Moyo and Motuba in the choral section.

Their presence is part of one of the project’s important focuses.

“I wanted to find a way of using the voice not just as a vehicle for lyrics. I wanted more from them,” he says.

The evidence is in the soaring modulation with which the singers deliver the goods.

They lead the melodic movement in a call-and-answer pattern with the dexterous horns rising and falling in waves.

This motif is best carried on the closing track, Gift Of Three.

As the chorus flies, Mogorosi commands the musical direction from his frenzied drum kit.

His imaginative kick and snare or cymbals’ slap and crash guides the band into a thrilling intensity.

Project Elo is a drummer’s record. The rhythm makes the rules and sets the terms of exchange.

“It’s about the centrality of the drum,” says Mogorosi. “The goal or the philosophy is about liberating the drum from the usual role of just keeping time.”

To achieve this, the drummer has taken his lead from Truman Capote.

The late American writer often opined that “an artist ought to have all his colours, all his abilities available on the same palette for mingling and, in suitable instances, simultaneous application”.

Hence Mogorosi’s palette is populated by rhythmic elements gleaned from traditional music and sonic ideas lifted from the natural world.

Swinging jazz-rooted phrases are mingled with the sounds of crashing thunder or those of thundering animal hooves.

Mogorosi completed his jazz studies more than a year ago at the Tshwane University of Technology.

Catch Tumi Mogorosi and The Brother Moves On at 8pm today at the Lucky Bean Restaurant, 7th Avenue, Melville, Joburg

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