The soul is dialectic

Drummer Asher Gamedze’s new album is a groundbreaking body of work in the musical trajectory of South African jazz.

Dialectic Soul album cover.

The drummer Asher Gamedze’s album, Dialectic Soul is out, released in early July 2020 via On The Corner record label. This promises to be the one of the most important releases of the new decade and an important footprint in the history of South African jazz. Through this record, we are taken through the genealogy of the pan-African struggle and resistance against colonialism, capitalism, and slavery both within the continent and in the diaspora. In his introductory essay of the album, the radical historian Robin D.G. Kelley describes it as “the most joyful proclamation of world revolution—cooler than the Internationale.”

Gamedze, originally from Johannesburg, is a Cape Town-based musician who cut his chops as a sideman playing with some of the most versatile artists, both local and abroad. He is best known for his seminal appearance on a fifteen-minute song titled “Capetown” by Chicago-based clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid. He has also worked with numerous South African artists that include multitalented singer-songwriter M’saki and jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhathini amongst many. In addition to his musical gifts, Gamedze is also an intellectual and academic with a master’s degree in African Studies from the University of Cape Town. His master’s thesis is titled “It’s in the out sides: An investigation into the cosmological contexts of South African jazz,” and traces the philosophical and spiritual practices that have informed the trajectory of South African jazz in the past century, placing South African jazz as an art-form rooted in the cosmology of African spirituality and the intellectual practices of the Black Radical Tradition.

Gamedze’s Dialectic Soul emerges at the turbulent crossroads of history; it is the product of the unfinished legacy of the #RhodesMustFall movement and its’ decolonial project; the abolitionist movement in the United States, South Africa, and the Caribbean. It places Gamedze amongst the pantheon of innovators of the avant-garde jazz tradition who have utilized the music to incite important societal and political questions.

The album kicks off with a suite titled “State of Emergence” that is divided into three movements: (i) “Thesis,” (ii) “Antithesis,” and (iii) “Synthesis” which invokes the Hegelian dialectic as the basis of understanding the torrid history of colonialism and slavery. 

The “Thesis” represents the naked violence of colonialism and slavery in Africa and the diaspora through the screams and wails of saxophonist Buddy Wells and the free-flowing rhythms of Gamedze, and is also a nod to the duets between John Coltrane and Rashied Ali on “Interstellar Space.”

Representing the resistance movement against both slavery and colonialism, the “Antithesis” is characterized by the free-flowing yet organized interplay between the horns and the rhythm section (bass and drums), and signifies a historical and cultural negotiation between past, present, and the future as per Amilcar Cabral’s concept of “returning to the source” in the struggle for liberation.

The “Synthesis” in triple-time, is based on a four note whole-tone figure by bassist Thembinkosi Mavimbela, where drummer Asher pulls out his chopping skills and his Elvin Jones’ polyrhythmic influences, and meets a unified response from the horns responding unfettered by any rhythmic constraints—a moment representative of the envisioned anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-sexist, decolonized, humanist society, emerged from years of struggle and resistance.

A spiritual ode to the Gods of the cosmos, “Siyabulela” is the fourth track, and is a slow-moving gospel ballad propelled by the lush, warm vocals of songstress Nono Nkoane with the horns providing a restrained yet genial accompaniment.

“Interregnum” begins with an accented rhythmic pattern by Gamedze in common time, reminiscent of the toyi-toyi marches that chartered a new method of protest in the 80’s onwards. The rhythmic introduction is followed by a surreal poem from Gamedze, Mavimbela joins in playing a pattern based on an alternating harmonic structure based on whole tones, evocative of the Uhadi music of the Xhosa people. The horns by Robin Fassie-Kock on the trumpet and Wells on the tenor saxophone simultaneously imitate the Uhadi bow.

“Eternality” is based in triple and quintuple time (5/4), with a Thelonious Monk-like introduction by the horns. It is the more straight-ahead, boppish selection of the rest, with the band hinting at the mainstream but avant-garde Ornette Coleman setting, adding a more Southern African sensibility to it.

“Hope In Azania” is the more joyful, danceable, and least cerebral selection of the rest, based on I-IV-I-V mbaqanga harmonic pattern with the horns playing a joyful melody in unison.

This selection promises to be a favorite among many jazz lovers with some impressive solos by Fassie-Kock and Wells, showing off their polished, yet raw knowledge of the mbaqanga melodic tradition. This song represents the bandleader’s vision of a South Africa liberated from the legacy of settler colonialism, recomposed into a new polity that represents the political, cultural, and spiritual aspirations of the African people.

“The Speculative Fourth” is the concluding piece, which alludes to the melodic structure of the second movement of the “State of Emergence” suite, with an up-tempo rhythmic backing and interplay between the bass and drums. The returning voice of Nkoane graces this selection while the horns provide melodic interplay that stretches towards the atonal behind her graceful voice.

This album is an important art-effect in what poet Fred Moten terms as “the genealogy of Black music in the Black Radical Tradition.” Not only is it a groundbreaking body of work in the musical trajectory of South African jazz, it is equally a testimony to the never-resting spirit of the avant-garde in jazz that stretches from the tone clusters of pianist Cecil Taylor to the polyrhythms of drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo. In the words of the bandleader: “Fundamentally, it is about the reclamation of the historical imperative. It is about the dialectic of the soul and the spirit while it moves through history. The soul is dialectic. Motion is imperative. We keep moving.”

Further Reading