Once dubbed ‘the musical ambassador of South Africa’, multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed co-headlines the inaugural Cape Town World Music Festival with sounds of ancestral healing.
This article by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 11/04.
Born in 1949 in Benoni, Pops Mohamed started playing box guitar and, after hearing jazz legend Kippie Moeketsi and Abdullah Ibrahim at Johannesburg’s famed Dorkay House, he formed his first band, The Valiants, at 14. They played kwela, pop, Latin and soul tunes, preparing Mohamed for his next group, which featured Cape Town’s Basil “Mannenberg” Coetzee and Sipho Gumede, bassist of the pivotal Afro-jazz band Sakhile (seek out their “Black Disco” and “Inner City Funk” albums if you can). It was when Mohamed began exploring the indigenous musics and instruments of the continent, though, that he truly found his musical voice, and earned the moniker of “the musical ambassador of South Africa” in international “world music” circles.
Inevitably, this interview needs to tackle the term “world music”, which many musicians and critics regard as daft, if not actively insulting. Others see it as a useful and pragmatic term. “I know people get a bit pissed off about the term” says Mohamed from his home in Johannesburg, “But no-one can come up with a better word, so it’s what we’ve got. You can’t say ‘The Cape Town Festival’, because Cape Town already has a jazz festival, and other ones. If you say world music, most people know what they are going to get.”
“Around the world, world music festivals are very healing, and people go to them looking for certain kinds of answers that they won’t get at a big rave or a trance festival or a pop concert,” he adds, “We used to have the WOMAD (World of Music, Art and Dance) in South Africa, and people really loved it, but that has stopped. I’ve been traveling a lot, playing at festivals abroad, and I see lots of young people, people in their teens, also coming to hear this music. South Africa needs a festival of world music, for people to listen to, and also for musicians to play. I think it is excellent that Cape Town has this, and I think it will attract people from abroad who want to play there, in years to come. There are lots of messages of hope in world music. An audience at a world music festival will expect different stages, with different sounds and music that’s different to what they normally get. “
Mohamed knows a thing or two about “different music”. He plays the West African kora, the Zimbabwean mbira, the San mouthbow and its cousin, the berimbau, as well as keyboards, guitars and the like. His 1997 album, “How Far Have We Come?” (MELT2000), which saw him working with songs and sounds of the Kalahari San, was highly regarded as both a musical project and for its contribution to conserving heritage. He produced award-winning albums for the late Moses Molelekwa, has toured internationally with the likes of Andreas Vollenweider and Max Lasser, and worked with South Africa greats like Busi Mhlongo and Madala Kunene, as well as charting new territory with experimental electro-jazz player Bruce Cassidy. Early in 2012, he was a featured artist at Johannesburg’s International Mozart Festival.
“I did a workshop for them, and also played with (jazz pianist and composer) Paul Hanmer and some international artists,” Mohamed explains. “We formed an experimental orchestra, with different sounds and different instruments, and we had a conductor orchestrating it, working with moods and textures. Getting there, we didn’t know what to expect, which is really nice as a musician. I love improvisational work.”
For the Cape Town World Music Festival, though, Mohamed will be performing with a duo project with Nigerian-born, Mzansi-bases saxophonist Olu Femi, a pairing that’s been going as The Millennium Experience, for over five years, and forms part of Mohamed’s full band. “Me and Femi perform tunes, but we are also very improvisational – it’s good for musicians to feel what the music is, and the healing it wants, and to play with that,” he says. “We deliberately do not have a percussionist, so there is more space in the music – giving it more breath. I play kora, mbira, KhoiSan mouthbow and I do some vocal chants, and Femi has tenor and soprano saxophone, flute and trumpet. There are a lot of instruments on stage! It is ideal for a world music stage. We use tunes off some of my albums, like ‘Spirits’ and ‘How Far Have We Come’, and upbeat songs as well, but it is basically a sound journey. More heartfelt.”
Cape audiences may also hear music influenced by Mohamed’s experiences on “Southern Rhythms: Sacred Music of South Africa” (SABC3), which will also be released on CD in 2013. “Me exploring the different religions in South Africa, and exploring deeper into their sacred music – using Zulu music to fuse with Jewish; or Venda music with an Anglican Church,” he quips.
* Pops Mohamed and OluFemi’s Millennium Experience is on the main stage of the inaugural Cape Town World Music Festival
on Friday 9 November. Also on the festival, which offers three stages over Friday and Saturday 10 November, are Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi (Zimbabwe), Bholoja (Swaziland), Boom Pam (Israel), DJ Click Band (France) and, from South Africa, Freshlyground, and Madosini with Derek Gripper, as well as Adamu (Angola/SA), Sylvestre Kabassidi (Congo/SA), Johannesburg’s The Brother Moves On and Cape Town’s Babu, Mantras4ModernMan, Dirty Bounce, Cape Town Tango Ensemble, and DJs Toby2shoes, Jakob Snake-AfroClap, Maoriginal and more.
* A free stage running Saturday 10 November features Kongo Elektro (Congo, SA) and Kanimambo (Israel, Mozambique, Angola, SA), Langa-based band Abavuki and Cape Town’s Manouche, Taleswapper and Rumspringer, with DJ Fletcher, amongst others.
* Pops Mohamed also appears on the CTWMF workshop series, running at the Mahogany Room and the Red Bull Studios from 6 to 8 November.
Tickets R320 (weekend pass), R150 (Friday night), R250 (Saturday; all stages and DJ sets) or R80 (Friday “Nu World” DJ stage) from Webtickets.com
.This article by Evan Milton irst appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 11/04.