Beyond binaries and boundaries with Gabisile Motuba

The composer and vocalist’s new project finds its roots in liberation theology, and the idea that innovation in sound – what good jazz does best – needs to be encouraged.

“Binaries aren’t sustainable,” says teacher, composer and vocalist Gabisile Motuba. She is discussing the genre divisions challenged by her five-movement string project The Sabbath, which is slated for performance at the Makhanda National Arts Festival on 2 July. But she is also alluding to race, class and gender divides, and to the teacher/student barriers that obstruct music education. All have, at various times, overshadowed her own creative development, and overcoming them has been integral to the growth of her voice.

The Sabbath follows Motuba’s 2019 debut album Tefiti, Goddess of Creation and her 2020 Frantz Fanon-inspired collective trio outing The Wretched with drummer Tumi Mogorosi and guitarist Andrei van Wyk. Tefiti documented her first steps in incorporating string textures into her music but, as she explains, her thinking has developed since then – while Covid-19 provided fresh and difficult subject matter.

19 May 2022: Gabisile Motuba facilitating a workshop and preparing music students for a final performance at the Soweto Theatre, where she was an artist in residence.

“In Tefiti, I was exploring new ways of thinking through jazz, in terms of sound and how curious it is for female jazz musicians to have to see their sound through male musical models. I can’t separate my creativity from my body, and yet that’s how it’s taught. My experience in that space is one of dissonance: I hear other sounds than those heavy, rhythm-accentuated ones. Women are part of the music workforce – and yet even that idea of ‘workforce’ is imaged as male. The genre boxes are toxic; expression can’t be standardised like that.

“With Sabbath I’m more sure about what doesn’t resonate with my concept of jazz. That pervasive stifling of innovation by establishments is what has replicated how jazz is defined. Sabbath offers a moment to think and develop modes of overturning and restoration, because we can’t go on with this trauma of having to make music that’s either highly academicised and inauthentic, or highly commercialised – which is where creativity goes to die!” 

Motuba says Sabbath is a very personal album, contrasting with previous work “where I always looked at things outside myself. But then Covid happened. Many people lost friends and family and I lost my father: the first time I’ve been part of that kind of communal loss. It collapsed everything. My ideas became stronger by working through that mournful season of my life rather than letting it pass by.”

Liberatory theology in sound

Motuba found comfort and inspiration in the work of influential Black theologian James Cone: “Our inheritance as Black people, Christianity, the idea of Exodus, I wanted to spotlight those things and create a sound that would force one to bear careful witness. So now I’m experiencing strings much more than in Tefiti through the lens of four-part harmony and call and response, related to hymns and the religious practices of liberation theology.”

The work developed through performance, starting with a 2019 Cape Town tour. Initially it was a quartet work (voice, cello and two violins) with players encouraged “to have a real-time conversation on stage; let’s be free to open it up – that’s jazz”. Then Motuba began experimentally adding new textures, South Asian scales, the dissonances of Wretched, “all the things I hear in my other projects”. 

19 May 2022: Students rehearsing for their final performance as part of the music tutorial programme run by Gabisile Motuba at the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani.

For July in Makhanda, she says, “You can’t replicate a record. It’s never going to be the same thing twice with me! I’ll be going out of the comfort zone again. The sounds will be denser: more strings and a double bass. The arrangements will be reharmonised to create beautiful colours. The conversations of the call and response will be made more explicit in the tensions – almost a tug of war – between the bass and the string quartet to create a story told through the sound at its centre.”

Rooted in learning

The genesis of Sabbath illustrates the productive and sustainable slow burn of innovation that South African circuits, stages and events can nurture. That context has also supported Motuba’s other preoccupation for the past six months: her role as the first formally appointed artist in residence at the Soweto Theatre. 

Though the theatre had previously hosted intermittent teaching programmes from artists for its Soweto Junior Orchestra, “I’d talked for a long time to Makhosazana Hlatshwayo, their youth development officer, about developing something more systematised to equip students with a way forward”.

Her proposal was accepted in mid 2021: it detailed curriculum, process, assessments and in-class activities that could also germinate performances – “although I don’t like to centralise performance; on stage is only one of the ways to express what you have to say”. 

19 May 2022: Bongiwe Nkomo, 22, is a student in Gabisile Motuba’s music tutorial programme. 

Motuba built her teaching programme around jazz musician and educator Butch Morris’s conduction system. Conduction has affinities with Paulo Freire’s approach to literacy teaching in its focus on what the students themselves bring to learning music. 

“It’s about learning how we hear things,” says Motuba. “What is sound? Where does sound come from? What is sound to us, here and now? It makes the music personal to the learner. Forget sheet music. Think about your own experience of sound: the noise of a train, people celebrating, people mourning. Those first ideas about sound may be incoherent – but they make sense to you. So use those to develop short experimental pieces that can become orchestrated pieces.

“When I first read about it, I was like, ‘Wow!’ I’d have loved this kind of music education when I was studying. In formal music education we are constantly asked to think of ourselves as other people – but inside, you never believe it. Morris’s method gives us all a way to embody what we create. And for that reason it works really well with young people.”

19 May 2022: Music student Mlungisi Khathide, 25.

Motuba’s six months at the theatre have ended, though she hopes to retain contact with many of the young players she has worked with. From August, she is taking on a different challenge, as part of her membership of M3 (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians), an international collective of feminist and gender-nonconforming musicians co-founded by improvising vocalist Jen Shyu. Motuba, supported by the International Commission Fund, will be developing new music in collaboration with a Balinese counterpart.

For Motuba, growing up amid the linguistic and sonic heterophonies of the township – she proudly calls herself a “Mamelodian” – has been central to building these politics of challenging barriers and innovating. “There are other sources too – reading Toni Morrison, for example,” she says. “But what it all adds up to is you don’t ever have to choose one from two. There’s always a third thing.”

19 May 2022: Music student Chakala Khauoe, 25.
If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.