New Shane Cooper & Mabuta album gets into the groove

With the band’s second release, Finish the Sun, the bandleader finds inspiration anew in rediscovering his love of the guitar. As a result, he leans into funk and African groove.

One of bassist, composer and producer Shane Cooper’s greatest strengths is his ability to improvise – in music and in coping with life as an artist. This spirit of improvisation has guided him to a second Mabuta album, Finish the Sun, released on 13 May.  

A few years ago, Cooper was ready to give up music and hang up his bass guitar. The first album recorded with his band Mabuta, Welcome to this World, released in 2018, was a gruelling process. It was an ambitious, independent undertaking. 

Apart from composing and recording the music, he had created a six-week online crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the album. He also learnt how to silkscreen T-shirts, design logos and edit video. It was also the first time he had mixed and produced a band album, which he learnt on the go, and the process required months of post-production. He was left feeling depleted and burnt out.

“I was very close to giving up. I was physically, emotionally and spiritually empty after that process … I was very, very close to walking away from it all,” Cooper explains.

Once the album was released, he left for Switzerland to do a three-month residency. This gave him the “chance to breathe and renourish myself, watch a lot of gigs, meet people, just hang out and sketch music”. He adds: “Those three months, in many ways, maybe saved me and allowed me to come back to music, because there wasn’t this immense pressure. When I came back, I moved to Joburg.”

At the time, there were almost no live music venues left in Cape Town and the scene was at an all-time low. The move between the cities was the change Cooper needed to work creatively again.

Four challenging years have passed since then, but Cooper has emerged stronger and with new inspiration. Finish the Sun is due for digital release through Dox Records, based in Amsterdam. The vinyl will be released in July on Cooper’s own label, Kujua Records, which was launched with the first Mabuta record, and Rush Hour will do the international distribution.

A man of many projects

Though foremost a bass player, Cooper also plays synths, keyboards, percussion, drum machines and electric guitar. Throughout his career he has focused on expanding his interests in sound worlds beyond his comfort zone, working in theatre, film and as the beatmaker Card on Spokes. He is one of the hardest-working musicians in South Africa today.

While he has performed predominantly in the jazz world, a conversation with Cooper reveals how strongly his thinking about music is connected to his role as an electronic artist. It is evident just how much depth and thought he puts into every project he takes on, with each inspiring the next as he continuously builds his influences.

Mabuta were ready for the studio recording at the beginning of 2020, but the plan was halted when the pandemic hit. Cooper decided to let the project breathe and instead busied himself with other lockdown ventures such as Small Songs for Big Times, a quarantine album made in one day in order to generate revenue from Bandcamp Fridays.

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Unusual as it may seem, it was his love for the guitar that was the creative spark he needed. In 2019, he bought an electric guitar to play around with because he is always trying to grow as a musician and find new ways to express himself. Growing up, he had started playing acoustic guitar before he took up the bass, but hadn’t played it seriously since he was 14. His intention was just to play, but since lockdown afforded so much time at home, he says, he “would start every day by having a cup of coffee and plugging in my guitar and playing just for fun”.

He found a kind of freedom in this, because it didn’t carry the same responsibilities and expectations as the bass did. “That freedom every day revved me up, because things were so heavy at the time. It became an incredible source of joy for me. It felt like when I was a teenager, first picking up the bass. I felt super excited every day to get up and pick up the guitar.” 

As a result of that freedom, rich musical ideas began to flow. “When I first get an idea, I don’t hear that end result at all. But there’s some kind of burning thing inside. I physically feel it in my chest and it moves my blood and makes me excited,” Cooper says. This provides the motivation to flesh out the idea and fully realise it.

In with the new

New sound ideas would flow every day and he would record them on his phone. Soon he realised he had a stash of new material, which would become the rough drafts of the album. The earlier material was shelved. 

He ran these recordings through his computer and then added basslines to them – a totally different process to when he first started composing on the bass. “It felt like there were two of me and I was dancing this dance. It was amazing and unexpected. I would play guitar for hours every day. I just fell in love with it,” he says.

One of the first decisions Cooper made in defining the sound of Mabuta was to put his double bass aside, opting for the electric guitar instead. “With this album, I feel I shed even more of the jazz DNA and zoned it into a real afro-groove world,” he explains. 

Undated: Shane Cooper and his beloved electric guitar. (Photograph by Julia Ramsay)

Funk, his first love as a bass player, inspired the sound. “The core essence of funk is that it connects with the body. It’s music that people want to get down and dance to and it’s fundamentally about groove and about grooving the audience.” 

The writing process was never intellectual but intuitive, always considering this connection to the body. Cooper was also listening to African music such as Mali’s Oumou Sangaré – “that was the bulk of my subconscious feeling” – and paying more attention to the guitar, trying to understand the architecture of the grooves and opening up to the incredible wealth and depth of African guitar styles. Instead of writing sheet music, he composed on guitar and keyboard and presented that to each musician, who was free to give it their own interpretation. 

Banging different drums

Cooper was faced with the challenge of recording the album without Mabuta’s original drummer, Marlon Witbooi, who has switched gears from music. Inspired by his remote collaborations during lockdown, he decided to use different drummers from around the world. 

“I started to write down mind maps of how I imagined different drummers fitting with different compositions, because if I take one bassline and I give it to two different drummers, they’re going to feel it slightly differently,” he says. As a result of this approach, the drummers include Julian Sartorius (Switzerland), Lungile Maduna (South Africa), Jamie Peet (Holland) and Andre Toungamani (Senegal), to name a few.

The influence of Cooper’s electronic side on this decision is undeniable. “I feel like the essence of a track starts with the drums. These things really excite my producer brain, especially when you come from the sampling world,” he says.

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Original Mabuta members Bokani Dyer, (piano, keys, synths), Robbin Fassie (trumpet) and Sisonke Xonti (saxophone) all return on the album. Most of the recordings were done separately and the album was mixed by Cooper afterwards.

Not one to rest, under lockdown Cooper worked on the musical theatre production Samson and the collaborative sound project Happenstance. He also wrote the scores for the documentary A New Country and the virtual reality film Container, amid performing with other jazz musicians. His first time as a bandleader on stage since the pandemic began came in November last year when he performed with the Dinaledi Chamber Ensemble.

Starts and finishes

After a decade of also performing as an electronic artist, Cooper has decided to put Card on Spokes to bed for now, but not before releasing one last EP that he is working on. He is taking the time to reconfigure his ideas about electronic music – this time, with dancefloors in mind.

Finish the Sun was named after a moment in Bern, Switzerland, that occurred while he was sitting outside watching the sunset with fellow musicians Thandi Ntuli and Benedikt Reising. The sun was setting early and it would get dark quickly because of all the tall buildings surrounding them. “We were just having a coffee and someone asked if we should go inside to rehearse because we had to practise. And I said wait, wait, let’s first finish the sun. And that was it.

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“It was just about not always rushing to the next thing, especially when you’re in a moment of good vibes, nature, feeling connected, being with friends and family. That’s what that feeling was.”

Cooper wrote so much music in this time of inspiration that he has enough for another project, which he will work on this winter. “I was in one of the most generative periods of my life. And it all came out of the guitar. I was feeling super joyful every time I picked up the guitar. It felt good to feel good in such fucked-up times. The energy of that was feeding me and it was incredibly helpful to my mental health at the time.”

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