Dumama + Kechou's 'buffering juju': Freedom in two acts

Dumama + Kechou (Photo: Ayanda Duma/Supplied)
Dumama + Kechou (Photo: Ayanda Duma/Supplied)

Act I

"Who can think of kissing a stranger, jumping on to a bus or sending their child to school without feeling real fear? Who can think of ordinary pleasure and not assess its risk? Who among us is not a quack epidemiologist, virologist, statistician and prophet? Which scientist or doctor is not secretly praying for a miracle? Which priest is not — secretly, at least — submitting to science?" – Arundhati Roy

Sometime in February, the world as we know it shudders to a stop. For the most part, there had been a long, protracted forewarning: what had been killing people by the hundreds in Wuhan, would take root elsewhere in the world. Come 30 January 2020, there are more than 7 000 cases reported in China and 170 deaths. By 2 February 2020, the virus has made a complete mockery of borders, and cases are now being reported in Russia, Philippines, Sweden, Germany and Vietnam. By the end of April, there have been more than three million cases, more than two hundred thousand deaths and the virus that invents new ways to confound the brightest scientific minds is set to continue claiming more lives. The road has been long and deadly. But most still can’t help but feel we fell asleep one night and woke up having inherited a new world.

A third of the world is confined to their houses, unwilling to go back in public, lest a hug, a brushing of the shoulder turns deadly. Streets empty out. Sidewalks remain unoccupied. Tacked onto a row of street lamps, flanking the main road, a barrage of headlines announce our worst fears: "extended lockdown", "dead being ferried", "travel restrictions set to continue", "South Africans urged to social distance”". 

Act II

"The years of imprisonment hardened me... Perhaps if you have been given a moment to hold back and wait for the next blow, your emotions wouldn't be blunted as they have been in my case. When it happens every day of your life, when that pain becomes a way of life... there is no longer anything I can fear." – Winnie Madikizela Mandela

On 20 March 2020, South African-Algerian duo dumama+kechou released their debut album, buffering juju. The eight-track album is an omnidirectional work of music that considers the weight of colonial history and the future it inevitably gives birth to. When we are introduced to the nameless protagonist in "buffering juju", she is experiencing the velocity of escape. leaving prison, the album opener ends with the sound of prison keys unlocking a cell. A sparse two-minute meditation of swinging hi-hats and vocal chants, Duma incants the names of Busi Mhlongo, Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu. "Bahleli bonke entilongweni, bahleli bonke kwaNogqongqo," she sings, which loosely translates to: "They are sitting together in prison."

Dumama + Kechou (Photo: Ayanda Dumas/ Supplied)

                                           Dumama + Kechou (Photo: Ayanda Duma/ Supplied)

"Kechou and I formed the band in 2017 — a year after we originally met," says Duma. "We’d been working on a whole bunch of tracks since then and, by last year, we had a broad repertoire of songs we felt we could turn into an album. Then, at the beginning of last year, we had the opportunity to attend a three-week artist residency and that’s where we recorded the skeleton of the album. The songs told us how they wanted to be delivered; the narrative formed itself around the songs."

It’s an album that’s contrary to the global political moment. The idea of a personal freedom seems so alien given that a third of the world has been confined to their homes. It’s an irony that isn’t lost on Duma. "I'm in Berlin at the moment," she says, over Skype. "I came to spend some time with Kechou and his family after the passing of his father. I was meant to stay for nine days but corona said 'you will live here until further notice'. Which is a shame, we’d been looking forward to touring the album in March."

Kechou (Photo: Tselilo Monaheng/ Supplied)

                                           Kechou (Photo: Tselilo Monaheng/ Supplied)

The album "buffering juju" is a quiet, understated record of black endurance and what it means to fight for a freedom the world would not have you possess. wessi walking mama, with Siya Makhuzeni, features a clip of Mam’ Winnie Mandela recounting the brutality of the apartheid regime and how it gave birth to her grit. When you’re living in the maw of a system that routinely tries to rip the air from your lungs, resistance becomes hardwired into your DNA. 

"Me and Karim did our best to give the protagonist some interiority," says Duma. "We imagined her as a human being, defined by her travel and the need to escape. But the song – and the album as a whole – catalogued the experience of the women around me. I wrote wessi… with my sister after the father of her child up and left. I mean, it was surprising, but not surprising, you know what I mean? I wanted a song that tapped into her resilience. So, you imagine this woman walking a long, endless road with a baby on her back. She’s tired but she still manages to put one foot in front of the other." Like Mam’ Winnie, the protagonist collapses, gets water poured on her head, but the moment doesn’t break her, it’s regenerative. 

Dumama (Photo: Ayanda Duma/ Supplied)

                                           Dumama (Photo: Ayanda Duma/ Supplied)

In some senses, the album feels like an intergenerational conversation; a blending of the past and the future. Duma was mentored by the iconic multi-instrumentalist Xhosa musician Madosini. During the month-long mentorship in 2017, she was taught to play and handcraft uhadi and umrhubhe. Those instruments now form the basis of the vast tapestry of sounds on the duo’s album. With madala, the intergenerational dialogue continues.

LISTEN: to madala 

Written (and featuring) guitarist Madala Kunene, the buzzing discordance of Kechou’s synths crescendo with the Kunene’s folk guitar and Nobuhle Ashanti’s piano toward the end of the song in a moment of unexpected synthesis. But if the ideas and narrative are easy to define, the music itself defies pre-packaged classification. The piano section on madala, the trombone on wessi, walking mama and the near-whispering keys on mother time lend themselves to jazz. And some have dubbed it future folk – a title that’s a nod to Kechou’s blend of synthesisers, cascas, chitende and guitar rhythms. 

"We could just call it soul music," says Duma. "Future folk is a title I really like. So is nomadic future folk, but I want to drop the 'nomadism' because I think I’m ready to settle in one place now. The one thing I don’t resonate with is 'world music'. Just call it the folk music of the place it's from. 'World' is such a lazy title. Why is German folk music [for example] specifically that, but the folk from Africa is clumped with the Global South?"

The question is: does genre even matter? What are genres if not just naming conventions for music sales? Music, at its core, is a series of longitudinal waves vibrating across a deep expanse. On a philosophical level, it is an invitation by the artist to do away with the metaphysical divide that exists between the artist and external reality. And, given that most of us have become prisoners confined by an invisible enemy, an album that celebrates hard fought freedoms is not only timely, but revolutionary.  

WATCH: the making of buffering juju here

Purchase the album on Bandcamp.

Written by Rofhiwa Maneta, a Johannesburg-based writer and photographer.