Group therapy

South African jazz drummer Tumi Mogorosi’s latest project is a call to black people to share the questions that render our condition one of deep ache.

Cover art from Group Theory: Black Music.

Blacks know blackness. The self—based on the experiences of (political, social, and psychic) violence, and a perpetual yearning for freedom—begins to look outside. Coming to terms with the fact that “you,” the individual, is no different from those whose subjectivity holds similar conditions. As do artists, who use a range of modes to speak against blackness and what it represents in the current world; among these being the sonic, particularly through jazz music. Here we get to understand that black lament is an integral part of jazz composition, writing, and staging in South Africa, for as long as this country exists in a symbiotic relationship with black abjection.

It is easy for black jazz artists to fall into the trap of “attempting to pay homage,” because the past legacies of anti-blackness are undeniable in the present. However, drummer and composer Tumi Mogorosi’s work deserves a different kind of treatment.

In 2013 Mogorosi released Project ELO, his first album. In the following years, he would go on to spend time working with jazz bands like Shabaka and the Ancestors, The Brother Moves On, and The Wretched. Mogorosi also featured on Gabi Motuba’s debut album Tefiti—Goddess of Creation, as well as in Sanctum Santorium. As a result, his sophomore album, Group Theory: Black Music bears the imprint of the numerous influences preceding his work, both contemporary and historical.

To make sense of Group Theory, one is required to account for Mogorosi’s insistence that his words be considered as an extension of his larger body of work, beyond the sonic. Prior to Group Theory, Mogorosi released a book based on his MA dissertation called DeAesthetic: Writing with and from the Black Sonic. Accompanying the release of the album in July 2022, was a short documentary-film titled Group Theory: Black Music. The opening features Mogorosi in an extreme close-up.  He opens by uttering these words: “We need to start thinking about song way beyond its representational qualities in the sonic.” Together, these works are in the tradition of the photographer Santu Mofokeng’s call to artists to speak for the work, and about the work, beyond what readers (could) make of it through one medium. Mofokeng’s demand that artists should have multiple modes to express their work, has to do with the effort that goes into self-development; something Mogorosi models well, within the crop of artists of his generation.

Mogorosi’s opening reflection matters, because from here, he spends time making an intellectual connection between the role music has played in the struggles against racialized violence, and what it means to be black in the world; arguing that in the deliberate effort to look at what other meanings music holds, such an exercise opens room for us to also potentially consider the histories of black political mobilization, and the narratives of resistance ingrained in the sonic. By thinking of music in its expansive forms, we also can think of the past and present ways in which black people have attempted to end the world in its current unjust form.

Through the documentary, the audience learns that the making of Group Theory involved 16 people, Mogorosi included. And by seeking to cater for audiences beyond South Africa, Mogorosi thinks of blackness as a global experience; meaning that the violence tied to being black takes a transnational form. The documentary also attempts to bring the audience on a journey of what it means to try to complicate the boundaries and categories of “composer” vs “group/collective.”

In this instance, the deliberate inclusion of, and working with choristers Brenda Thulo, Cecilia Phetoe, Charles Shikwambana, Fortunate Jwara, Noluthando Biyana, Sibongile Mollo, Steve Mthombeni, Tebogo Magwe, and Thulisile Ntetha, under the conductorship of Themba Maseko, serves a purpose: to challenge the histories and traditions of assigning value as to who matters. The intention is to also introduce to the audience the role choral music has played in how black people have gathered around song; an act whose traces go far back, more  so when we think of the black church and its relationship with White colonial imposition through Christian missionaries in 18-century South Africa.

And although the album has well-known names, including vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu, composer and vocalist Gabi Motuba, trumpeter Tumi Pheko, guitarist Reza Khota, bassist Dalisa Ndlasi, saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu, poet and author Lesego Rampolokeng, and pianist Andile Yenana, the invitation of the choral music into the album, together with acknowledgement of everyone else’s role, enables us to think of what sits side by side with song, beyond the tendency to try and make short-sighted symbolic interventions through art.

Still from the Group Theory: Black Music documentary, 2022.

Here for example, we learn that Group Theory as an intellectual project, expressed through the sonic and in the invitation of the group of choristers, is also fundamentally intended to de-center the individual. The album challenges music and its conception within the capitalist and dominant Western liberal humanist registers. This also extends to what qualifies as jazz music, and how this art form ought to be consumed.

It goes without saying, that the documentary could have delved deeper into the contested spaces and processes of artmaking and music production, especially when we consider the very prevalent notions on the role of the individual. For example, what would it have meant, for Mogorosi to gently disagree with the choral leader’s conduct? Further, the quality of the questions posed to Mogorosi, as part of the making of the documentary, too could have been better. Abstract creative projects, a category within which the album might be broadly located, does not mean that Mogorosi did not have a responsibility to guide the viewers around how Group Theory came about.

In the documentary film, the only kind of conflict we see play out takes shape in the form of one of the choral members indicating to the group that the group is not paying attention to a key preceding what they were singing. And by conflict, I mean contestation; for it is out of encounters of this nature that we are able to learn more about the world we inhabit, and how we reproduce the very things we want to undo in order to bring the world closer to ideas of justice and freedom.

Beyond the choir, collaboration matters to Mogorosi. It then would have been great to see Mogorosi share his vision for Group Theory with his collaborators, among them, Rampolokeng. In his own right, Rampolokeng is prolific. The same observation applies to Mvubu, Motuba, and other artists who feature on the album. If the intention was to translate the idea of collaboration, its expression, to a filmic form, then the audience sadly never gets to fully see the creative process behind the scenes. A clear narrative arc and structure, central to the documentary film-making process would have resolved some of these issues. At the end of the film, one leaves with the sense that Mogorosi had more to say. That being said, nothing is lost, the album makes up for the documentary film’s shortcomings. Group Theory is beautifully crafted, well considered, and technically brilliant as a tool with which Mogorosi critiques Western modernity and how we make sense of the world and the place of South Africa in it. The 11-track album has clear questions, and aims, among these being: how do we carry into the future the traditions of questioning, left to us by those who are no longer physically present in the current world?

There are also themes to do with loss; loss of ourselves, but also of those who too were concerned with black freedom, including Bekhizizwe Peterson, the South African intellectual, screenwriter and literary critic. Mogorosi in track one honors the life of Peterson, whose nickname while growing up was Wadada. The same titled song accounts for the fact that we do not come to consciousness alone, in as much as we directly might experience the harshness of the world as individual persons. While the song signifies the importance of Peterson’s role in Mogorosi’s growth as an artist and thinker, it must be understood as taking stock on how the soil has been worked on by those who came before us.

One of the remaining legacies of Peterson is the study of music, and how through the genre of Kwaito, black people in the township and in urban South Africa deployed the sonic to produce what might loosely be termed black social life. And although in the case of Peterson, the studying of Kwaito enabled a deeper understanding around how black youth try to curve life in unfavorable conditions, the interesting shift Mogorosi adds to the debates around the function of music and its uses, is to demand of us to treat music production as an inherently political act.

Although both Mogorosi and Peterson contend with black aesthetics, both from the sonic, visual, and the filmic, Mogorosi however does not believe something can be salvaged out of blackness. While there are  certainly  meeting points for both Mogorosi and Peterson, there is also a serious consideration for what it means to explore black life through multiple mediums—textual, visual, and sonic.

Form is something that Group Theory calls on us to critically reflect on, as expressed in the invitation of spoken word, performed by Rampolokeng. Track 11, titled “Where are the Keys,” also featuring pianist Andile Yenana, sees Rampolokeng takes us on a  journey of recognition that our dreams are incompatible with the place known as South Africa. The demand that Rampolokeng makes with his words, is that we should break theory from praxis; a move away from Cartesian dualism, something that Peterson embodied as a scholar, a cultural worker, and filmmaker.

The natal alienation that the black child/person experiences in the world, at the level of ontology, takes place across gender lines. Group Theory articulates this un-gendering nature of global anti-blackness by having Motuba and Mthembu separately give a rendition of “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child” (tracks 5 and 10), drawing from Odetta (1963), a black American jazz artist who used the 19th-century church song to express the black American history of enslavement and family separation. Both renditions of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” provide an analysis of the black condition as complicating temporality and geospatial relations. Here Mogorosi does not give a psychoanalytic reading of life in South Africa, but instead, frames blackness as something that belongs elsewhere, outside of the Westphalian conceptions of the state. We could say of black music, what Adorno said of writing: for someone without a homeland, it becomes a place to live.

In track 7, titled “At the Limit of the Speakable,” Mogorosi plays into the politics sound, and black people’s capacity to speak in a world in which being human is reserved for White people. The function of speech, and to an extent dialogue, in Group Theory is interesting because Mogorosi carefully considers both, even at the level of jazz as a genre. One is left wondering, what is the relationship between speech, sound, what can be heard, and black people’s capacity to articulate that the world is unbearable for them?

The album, to some, might be regarded as one loud long song, but such a reflection would be lazy. Group Theory is consistent sonically, creatively, and narratively. It is is a dialogue, calling for us to not tire in our attempts to render the world ungovernable still. The feelings and emotional responses from listening to the album are intentional—blackness is the thing that is pithy, discomforting, complicated, and must be revisited multiple times; until we get a sense of how to end the world as it is.

Group Theory in general, is a sad encounter. As much as the album is attributed to the individual, Tumi Mogorosi, it belongs to us. Here we are called to sit in a circle, think, and share the questions that render our condition one of deep ache.

Further Reading