Review Summary: An international love affair
Artists collaborations are a weird deal. More often than we would like to admit, the result does not accomplish anything that the individual artists/bands haven't previously done on their own. Mind you, not all releases are meant to change the game, yet collaborations have the unfortunate habit to deliver an outcome that is nothing more than two EPs mashed together. Less frequently, collaborations can offer absolute bizarre bordering on the offensively bad, as Lulu
did back in its day. In some extremely rare occasions, a collaboration aims at using all operating forces to push the notion of genres to its very limit. Keleketla is of that ilk, bringing together an All-Star crew from different horizons to come up with their very own take on modern music.
Let's first tap into the band's foundations and its multicultural origins. First destination: Johannesburg, South Africa. Multimedia library and community arts space Keleketla - meaning "call and response" - was created in 2008 as a space to host art exhibitions and musical performances, the underlying goal of the library being to support local arts. When the project of creating a South African music compilation came up, Keleketla founders contacted British band Coldcut to direct the project. Off we go to destination number two: London. As the British capital was already known for its central place among modern Afro-centric jazz, Coldcut's flair for mixing African music with typically Western genres such as house and breakbeat helped to cement the partnership between the two countries. Back-and-forth recording sessions between the two cities forged the record as it is, thanks to contributions from the late Tony Allen, London-based saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, South African rapper Yugen Blakrok, and Brooklyn afrobeat band Antibalas. Now we can finally skyrocket to destination number three: the g r o o v e
Groovy bangers are indeed the record's main asset, built as much by paying loads of respect to traditional African music as by embracing more modern forms of music. As the project's name indicates, and as Johannesburg and London witnessed multiple back-and-forths for the album to be created, call and response are the major components of the band's sound. These interactions occur on various levels, whether it’s in the way legendary drummer Tony Allen kickstarts opener "Future Toyi Toyi" by blasting polyrhythms along with South African rap collective Sounds of the Sound, or how Fela Kuti-inspired Antibalas plays along with Hutchings' furious solos on "International Love Affair". The quite deftly titled tune is yet another clear demonstration of the album's purpose, playfully incorporating jazz, dub, electronic - courtesy of Coldcut - into a communal and multilingual effort. The British band’s dense electronics are a major component of the call and response, setting up mechanical foundations on top of which the musicians’ organic acoustics can playfully answer their own musical vision. A great example of such exchange is closer “Swift Gathering” where these electronics lead a swift gathering of saxophone and electronics.
However, no track accomplishes this fusion tour de force as cleanly as does "Crystallise". The reason why it is one of the most forward-thinking pieces of 2020 music lies in how it does not eschew welcoming all of its authors' influences to come up as a unique take on the state of today's music. Taking all the different elements revealed beforehand and smashing them together, "Crystallise" sees Coldcut’s wobbling electronic basses lay the ground for the interplay between turntablist DeeJay Random's scratches and Osborn and Hutchings' sax lines. The track's real star, however, is South African vocalist Yugen Blakrok, rapping about communal memory and spirituality. As she provides vocals about community, the music at play is echoing her lyrics in a powerful crescendo of swaying electronics and piercing sax-led jazz.
Keleketla is indeed not without a message: on top of the massive rally call that the record represents thanks to songs like "International Love Affair" or "Crystallise", it also contains an insurrectional subtext. "Papua Merdeka" is the theatre of West Papua independence speeches sung by The Lani Brothers, while "Future Toyi Toyi" sees hip-hop activists Soundz of the South chant a revolutionary tune. In a way, it had to be like that: from the record's international origins to the explicit readiness to finding musical connections, everything screams cohesion and community. Expressing its call-and-response message through its recording sessions, musicality, and lyrics, Keleketla offers a glimpse into what's to happen. Different people from different horizons come together and blend their respective influences into a cohesive set that appeals beyond the musical scope. Is it the future of music? That's too bold of a take to claim. We should consider this record as an inclination, a template to work on for achieving true works of community and diversity. Let’s all embrace the call-and-response philosophy, and let’s all fall into an international love affair.