Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Music, Loyalty and Death: Moses Taiwa Mololekwa

Moses Taiwa Mololekwa

I claim no expertise or special insight into South Africa but I am very fascinated with its music, and from the comfort of a Lazy Boy, I enjoy hearing about its politics.  So, unlike my friend Phillip, who is very much an expert on matters South African (music and politics) and who is also responsible for introducing me to today’s spotlighted artist, I enjoy the protection of the novice, which means I’m to be forgiven for making sweeping generalisations and broad judgments.

And my first such generalisation is this: there appears to exist within the South African soul an equal capacity for creativity and destruction. For art and violence. Sure, this is true for most human beings and societies at some level. But the two forces of violence and artistic imagination seem to find a unique hospitality in South Africa.

This thought came to me as I read an article about Moses Taiwa Mololekwa, the pianist/composer who died a dozen years ago. A death, not of natural causes or illness, but of violence.

Here is the article from the blog Africa is a Country

Moses Mololekwa and the loss of “new” South African innocence
Recently, I’ve found myself listening to more and more South African Jazz. In particular, I’ve been gravitating towards the late pianist and producer, Moses Taiwa Mololekwa. Now, I must admit that my appreciation for Mololekwa’s music did not come about immediately and I fully acknowledge that his music is not for everyone (especially his inaccurately-labeled ‘fusion’ work), but there is certainly something magical and profoundly important about his work.

The reason I chose to write about this now is that last Wednesday marked the twelve-year anniversary of Moses Taiwa Mololekwa’s death at the age of 27. On the morning of February 13, 2001, Moses was found hanged next to his wife, who had evidently been strangled, in their office. The circumstances of their deaths are troubling, to say the least, yet this should not obfuscate the significance of Mololekwa’s contribution to South Africa’s already impressive musical legacy.

Predominantly active in the 90s, Moses Molelekwa’s music fused an eclectic mix of influences such as Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, and Bheki Mseleku, among others. His compositions contain references to genres as varied as hip-hop, jungle, kwaito (in fact he produced a number of tracks for the legendary kwaito group, TKZee), and perhaps most notably, marabi. His ability to play around with and recontextualize marabi grooves was nothing short of spectacular and as such, his music should be considered the archetype or standard against which all bubblegum and crossover production and instrumental arrangement of the time should be compared. This is true more for albums like Wa Mpona and Genes and Spirits, than for his comparatively straightforward (yet equally brilliant) Finding One’s Self and Darkness Pass.

For many of those who listen to the former two albums today, the music may come across as rather kitsch. However, the sound Mololekwa crafted on albums like Wa Mpona and Genes and Spirits must be understood within a larger context. The particular moment in South African history in which Taiwa made his music was one of excitement and celebration, as the apartheid era officially ended and the popularity of the ‘new South Africa’ rhetoric reached its peak. From a musical standpoint, this was a moment of immense pride, where musicians were looking inward and trying to create sounds and aesthetics that were uniquely South African, thereby setting themselves apart from the rest of the world (people were attempting to define themselves largely in relation to their ‘South Africanness’). Hence, popular genres like kwaito and crossover emerged as this shift towards prioritizing and performing ‘new South African’ subjectivities picked up steam. To be clear, Mololekwa was not necessarily trying to create music that was uniquely South African in the same way that folks like Johnny Clegg and the Trompies were, but this sentiment and the sonic aesthetics of the time inevitably found their way into his compositions. In many ways, Moses Mololekwa’s music became emblematic of the ‘new South Africa’ and for some, his death signaled the loss of this ‘new South Africa’s’ innocence.

Today, it does not require much of a leap of the imagination to hear Moses’s influence when listening to much of the deep house music being produced by popular South African acts like Black Coffee and Culoe De Song.

What drives a man so full of talent and Spirit to kill his lover and himself? A man who is young and admired at that. What great darkness is so powerful as to extinguish one’s light with such finality?

There is a school of psychology and therapy which is founded on the belief that each individual belongs to a ‘system’ or more accurately, multiple systems; family, society, culture, class, country. And at an unconscious level she/he retains strong bonds of loyalty to the values of those systems and acts out what those systems demand. Healing is finally brought through awareness and consciousness. By consciously severing these bonds, one experiences liberation.

It seems as if many artists from South Africa (Oscar Pistorius, falls into this category, too. He’s an artist of the track) remain unconsciously but very loyally and mightily bound to the expectations of an apartheid society that was born and experienced in violence.  Art is never far from violence and death.

This recording is from 1997 when a 23 year old Moses Taiwa Mololekwa performed at the Nantes Fin de Siecle Festival. The music is thrilling. You can feel his talent and imagination. And at the end feel the sadness that he was unable to break the bonds of loyalty to a monstrous system.

            Track Listing:
            01 Biko's Dream
02 Matswale
03 Mountain Shade
04 Dance To Africa
05 Ntatemoholo
06 Spirits Of Thembisa

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