Following the release of her debut album, Gabi Motuba speaks about compositions and community

Gabi Motuba is a musician’s musician. It is a few days after the Soweto Theatre launch of her debut album as band leader, Tefiti: Goddess of Creation, and we sit at the front a busy Jozi coffee shop. The composer and singer is telling me about why she sent a social media call to all musicians who wanted to be put on her launch guestlist.

“I don’t understand this thing of musicians going to other musicians’ [events] and paying exorbitant amounts for ticket fees,” she says as she shakes her head. “In terms of this album, a lot of the creative process was directly linked to the musicians you see around. Musicians, fine artists, whatever. I’ve never understood artists paying other artists to watch them when artists are what influence the body of work.”

When she was growing up in Pretoria’s Mamelodi township, Motuba’s talent was encouraged, especially in church. But “I come from a Methodist home so we never had soloists,” she shares. “It was hymns so it was congregational so we had a strong sense of always singing together.”

She completed her studies at Tshwane University of Technology in 2013 – the same year that she was featured on drummer, Tumi Mogorosi’s Project Elo album. Soon, it became clear that this composer, arranger and vocalist wanted to be known for more than just her voice. She describes herself as a sound-based musician and not a singer “because I think of composition and how I can encapsulate ideas within harmonies and not of performance.”

Then, in 2016, she released Sanctum Sanctorium as part of a duo with Mogorosi. One of the songs that stand out on that album is Nefertari. “I wrote that one for my daughter,” she remembers. “I was pregnant at the time and it speaks a lot to the influences regarding this new album.”

“People ask me if Tefiti is a women-oriented album and I say yes, but it’s a little bit more than that. I was avoiding that whole patriarchal gaze and process in terms of being too individualistic and thus narcissistic.”

“I’m trying to illuminate that it’s a communal aspect and that the process is very much suggestive and free-flowing and about anything the listener is interpreting. This is what Nefertari stems from and I wanted to continue this process in Tefiti.”

Here, Motuba’s sublime voice only sings the title – the original name of Nefertiti – repeatedly, lulling you into wondering whether each different inflection has its own meaning. And then about two minutes into the nine-and-a-half minute long song, we don’t hear her voice again. I ask her why she wanted to do this with the song.

“That’s a very interesting question in that you’re going to out me,” she giggles mischievously. “I feel like the answer is going to put me in a predicament. But ok. In all honesty, I’m not such a great lyricist. Especially on Sanctum Sanctorium. I hadn’t been performing often and I was working a lot on sound and wasn’t focusing on written narratives.”

She continues: “A lot of what I was reading was informing the music but not in the sense that I wanted to be lyrical about them. I wanted to do a song that my daughter could sing along with.”

“And everything else that I do does not have lyrics so I thought ok, maybe if I name this album Nefertari – because we were going to name her Nefertari – I thought I should sing in a chant. So, yeah, it’s my handicap that made the song turn out like that,” she laughs. “But had I known more, I probably would’ve written more.”

Motuba seems to have been inspired by her daughter in ways that are conscious and ways that aren’t. “During the three years of working on this album, I came across this animated film called Moana because my daughter was really intrigued by Tefiti, this green goddess who was the source of all being,” she recalls.

“So I wanted to go really in depth in terms of my understanding of this kind of influence that makes things grow but has a disruptive-ness to it. I thought that spoke a lot to how this album was created. I didn’t want to create something that would assimilate. I wanted to say: ‘I am still a jazz artist but this is what I think it is now. So what do you have to say to that?’”

“All the musicians, academics and fine artists in my community are trying to redefine those spaces and interrogate what we think we understand. So how far are we willing to take it?”

Through Tefiti, Motuba adds her voice to the conversation by often literally taking it away and mostly, by letting melody guide her messaging. This is clear on Interlude 2, where her voice fleets up against violins, with urgency, like a bird that accidentally flew into a home and must find its way back out of a window. She says it was inspired by Gerald Clayton’s Life Forum album and particularly by Gretchen Parlato’s vocals.

“It was very interesting how Gretchen’s voice was an added on frequency and how the composition had no melody and was an improvised piece the entire time,” she says. Her eyebrows arch above her cat-eye specs when she explains.

“So I thought: ‘oh my god! I don’t even have to do melodies anymore?!’ It gave me permission to not want to be in that space. When I was trying to compose [Interlude 2] like this, it was very challenging. But through a lot of trial and error, I was able to produce the interlude. But the idea was to break away from being the soloist to everything being a chorus. That speaks to the idea of everything being community.”

Rejecting the notion that her voice is more important than all the other instruments on a song is part of Motuba’s disruption. Like the disruption she identifies with the goddess of creation, and perhaps as an extension of The Wretched – a Frantz Fanon-inspired group including Motuba, Mogorosi and Andrei van Wyk – Tefiti has a short song called The Disruption of the Black Child.

“When I was composing it, I was thinking of a particular time signature but then I remembered being at Afrika Mkhize’s concert and he was superimposing this one time signature on a different one and it made it very difficult for me to understand what was going on. But it was so beautiful! On this composition, I was trying to draw from that. You can hear that it moves and has leaps!”

Another song that stands out is Remember Me, which Motuba wrote about her late friend who was a trombonist. “Friends like you are rare,” she sings on the song. “Like when you held my hand when I was in despair.”

Motuba says: “It’s really complex and there are a lot of things written about sisterhood but in terms of this composition, I was trying to speak in all seriousness about my friendship with Lesego, who is now late.”

“I was trying to speak about the little, small moments that create a friendship and not just the result. I think other people can relate to that. It would be in vein if I had written just a simple song that spoke about how we were friends holding hands but this song is about process.”

Whether through composition, how she treats other musicians or even in her own life, it’s clear Motuba is about creating – especially if it disrupts the norm – and acknowledging the community. It will be interesting to see if she continues on this path with future albums because if the 10-track Tefiti: Goddess of Creation is anything to go by, there definitely will be more.