We access the divine in different ways. Gabisile Motuba finds her permutation in the quiet pockets of her voice. In her latest album, she layers ethereal vocals atop the classical stylings of a string quartet that summon Te Fiti, the goddess of creation, which is also the album’s title.
Coupled with the sensitive and masterful Kabelo Mothlomi and Lebogang Ledwaba on violin, Simiso Radebe on viola, Thembinkosi Mavimbela on double bass and Daliwonga Tsangela on cello, Motuba produces a reverent, distilled offering that cannot be understood simply as jazz or as purely classical music.
I was thinking a lot about struggle songs, and more specifically African American slave songs, [and] I was just really interested in the silence of the voice – the quietness.
This 10-track album evades easy categorisation, allowing MoAfrika ’a Mokgathi’s poetry and Tumi Mogorosi’s kettledrum to build into the collective sound that enables Motuba’s beautifully curated soundscapes.
As if mirroring the textural contrast between sound and stillness within Tefiti, Motuba arrives at our meeting adorned in a chequered black-and-white dress that billows after her.
“I was thinking a lot about struggle songs, and more specifically African American slave songs, [and] I was just really interested in the silence of the voice – the quietness, she starts as recounts some of the impulses that led to this project.
“That also led me to think about the environment, which didn’t allow for you to sing particular narratives. [I was thinking about] how song became a pivotal place of survival and how you needed to go to that place of ritual, of singing. This is what led to [an exploration] of the quiet sound, which is also a powerful sound,” she continues.
Women as artists, not sexualised commodities
The Mamelodi-born jazz vocalist is equally as impressive as a vocalist as she is as a composer. Having produced, recorded and released Sanctum Sanctorium in 2016 with Mogorosi, Tefiti is another foray into the delicate genius of Motuba’s compositional ear.
In a world that still assumes women performers as just objects of spectacle, bedazzled in their shimmering dress in front of a seemingly more serious male-dominated jazz outfit, it is important for Motuba to position herself as a consummate artist.
“It serves a purpose for women to be on stage. I think that women are overly sexualised in the industry today because women are understood as commodities, and it serves the industry for women to be seen as just the spectacle,” she says.
“For me, what would be really great is to completely do away with ‘the industry’, but right now, with this album, I am trying to imagine what it would be like if women didn’t have to occupy this performative space. Initially, I didn’t even want to feature in this album – I thought maybe I should just write,” Motuba continues.
A lot of times, as artists, we are quick to marvel at ourselves and at our genius, which I think is also a very patriarchal idea.
Motuba consistently emphasises the power of the collective, collective memory, and drawing from an array of artistic and spiritual lineages. This informed the ways in which she approached the textural and compositional aspects of the album. “I tried to find ways to have the voice and the vocals in a communal setting,” she explains.
“I didn’t want the voice to be overpowering any other frequencies, but to have it be part and parcel [of] what [was happening with the rest of the music], which resonates a lot with slave narratives [where] you couldn’t stand out but [had to] move within a group. This is why I chose the strings – I thought that this was the perfect bed to this type of sound”
Motuba says the collaborative process made this album possible, acknowledging how the musicians she worked with each brought distinct sounds and forms of knowledge.
“A lot of times, as artists, we are quick to marvel at ourselves and at our genius, which I think is also a very patriarchal idea. [For me], this idea of the community is the idea of feminism, because it is really trying to pull away from the idea that it was only my contribution that can make a work possible.
A lot of the ideas inherent in the work were brought forth by people who were just willing, and I think it is really important for us to acknowledge that it is our music.”
Motuba cites jazz trombonist and vocalist Siya Makuzeni as being an important contributor to her personalised sense of community. “Siya certainly paved the way. A lot of what I am doing just wouldn’t be possible without her pioneering spirit,” she says.
*Motuba will be performing at the Soweto Theatre on 25 August at 8pm at a concert, titled It’s Personal with Gabi Motuba, hosted by Bongani Drama. The concert will also feature the Soweto Theatre Junior Orchestra.