The debut album by Keleketla! is one of those instances where the back story to its creation feels just as important as the actual music. The reason it exists can be attributed to a set of circumstances that arose from various groups of people connecting and following creative impulses. It begins with a meeting between members of the Keleketla! library (a cultural centre in Johannesburg) and the charity In Place of War, a global organisation that uses creativity in places of conflict as a tool for positive change.
While exploring these opportunities to bring improvements to the local area, discussions between the two groups led to music and specifically if there were artists who could inspire a bigger project among South African musicians. When Ruth Daniels of the charity asked Rangoato Hlasane and Malose Malahlela from the library if they had any names in mind, the answer that came back was English electronic duo Coldcut. Via a combination of the British Council and South African label Mushroom Hour Half Hour introductions were made, connections formed and before long plans for a wide-ranging musical collaboration were being devised. What ultimately emerged was a project that crisscrossed countries, races and musical styles, a welcome reminder of what can be achieved when differences are seen as a force for good.
The writing and recording of the album was split between Johannesburg and London with additional contributions coming from Los Angeles and New York as ideas were freely developed, exchanged and integrated. The project bears similarities to Africa Express, another continent-spanning collective formed under the guidance of Damon Albarn, especially in how lesser-known artists end up in prominent positions. The main role of Matt Black and Jonathan More of Coldcut was to facilitate and inspire with their involvement centring on writing, production, arrangements and sampling. The album that followed is the proverbial melting pot of sounds and influences.
Opening track Future Toyi Toyi is based around the looping, tripping drumming of the late Tony Allen while the rugged vocals of South African hip hop outfit Soundz Of The South compete for prominence alongside guitar licks and whistles. If the album has any sort of manifesto it’s hard to look past the effervescent International Love Affair, which is propelled by the dual saxophone flourishes of Shabaka Hutchings and Tamar Osborn and the keys of Afrobeat leader Dele Sosimi. Yet, it’s the vocals of local musicians Nono Nkoane and Tubatsi Moloi that take centre stage.
On the citrus-fresh Shepherd Song their vocals switch between English and Sesotho as and further musical liberation follows on Freedom Groove, which sees proto-hip-hop trio The Watts Prophets offer lyrics that are both motivational and cautionary. Horns from Brooklyn-based band Antibalas pull and stretch the track into pleasing shapes, adding swagger and style. Like many songs on the album it is given time and space to fully establish itself. Crystalline sees South African rapper Yugen Blakrok come to the fore helping to deliver one of the more gritty, confrontational and razor-sharp tracks on the album.
After this the mood seems to change, and the remainder of the album plays out in a more reflective, occasionally mellow tone. 5+1 initially has a softer feel largely due to the flute of Tubatsi Moloi but later the track takes a pleasingly diversionary jazz slip road, aided by the presence of South African jazz musician Sibusile Xaba and the nimble piano playing of Joe Armon-Jones.
Papua Merdeka sees another switch in mood as The Lani Singers (husband and wife duo Benny and Maria Wenda) provide vocals and poignant spoken word that draw attention to the ongoing struggle of their homeland of West Papua to free itself from occupation from Indonesia. Final track Swift Gathering is a beautiful, if slightly unexpected, instrumental coda that allows a moment of pause after the preceding energy.
In short, it’s an album that demonstrates the continuing merit of musical collaboration while also offering a hopeful counterpoint to a world all too often consumed by negativity and strife.