For those of us old enough to have spent our formative years listening to John Peel’s late night sessions under our duvets, the fusion of Western and African music feels like an entirely natural one. After all, at the same time as he was playing the first pivotal 12”s from British dance pioneers Coldcut – one of the key components in this cultural exchange project with South Africa’s Keleketla library of music – he was also introducing us to the delights of Zimbabwe’s Bhundu Boys, Four Brothers and numerous other African acts.
The links are obvious. Rhythm, of course, is at heart of both traditions. Both are instinctively and inherently political, too. Just as Thatcher and Reagan’s neo-liberalism was linked to apartheid and post-colonialism in the region, so too was the resistance to them from the musical world.
So, when Rangoato Hlasane and Malose Malahlela of Johannesburg’s Keleketla! Library, an independent library and media arts initiative started in 2008 and archiving donated items from the local community, were asked by charity In Place of War who their dream collaborators would be, their choice of Coldcut was an entirely logical one. The London duo travelled to South Africa and conducted the original recording sessions in Soweto, the project grew to with rapper Yugen Blakrok of ‘Black Panther’ soundtrack fame lining up alongside Nono Nkoane, Thabang Tabane, Tubatsi Moloi, Gally Ngoveni, Sibusile Xaba, Soundz of the South Collective and DJ Mabheko.
From there, the project grew into a truly global effort, with the late Afrobeat legend Tony Allen and Jungle Drummer adding drums, DeeJay Random taking on scratching duties and a host of other names getting involved. The final piece of the puzzle was LA’s The Watts Prophets and Antibalas from New York throwing their verses into the melting pot.
Keleketla means “response”, as in “call-and-response”, and it’s the dialogue between the musicians of different traditions and generations that the creativity here flows from. Bearing this in mind, the style is more of a junction point between genres than easily defined as any single one. The hyperactive honk of saxophones and hyped up tempos of Jo’burg jazz run through much of the content, with a subtle layer of programmed dance music grooving added. ‘Crystalise’, for example, uses organic live drumming is informed by UK garage’s frisky, off-kilter template. ‘Shepherd Song’ sounds like it might be tribal house at first, then widens out into upbeat Afrobeat heaven with warm harmonies and tinkling piano work. ‘Future Toyi Toyi’ is led by bewitching chanting but adds piercing guitars to ratchet up the intensity. ‘Freedom Groove’ is arguably the best example, with an acid house bassline melding with a parping brass section, with The Watts Prophets pontificating on the meaning of freedom in inspirational, polemic style.
There’s plenty of light and shade, for sure, with ‘Swift Gathering’ offering a fantastical instrumental interlude via clouds of ambience, gushing strings and melancholic piano, and there are good vibes aplenty on the sweetly voiced ‘International Love Affair’ too.
But the most agitational moments are this album’s most thrilling, like ‘Papua Merdeka’, where veteran activist Benny Wenda calls for freedom for the nation of West Papua from Indonesia, which he fled in 2004 after being persecuted by the Indonesian military. Tony Allen’s irresistibly danceable drumming just reinforces why he was known as such a legend, and indeed how much he’ll be missed.
‘Keleketla!’ is a great concept, but even more importantly, one that sounds as good coming out of your speakers as it looks on paper. An international love affair for sure.