Happy New Year from the Castle of our Skins team! COOS is now in the second half of its seventh season. Time sure does fly! In this second half, COOS is planning two projects that feature music by African composers. It has been incredible researching this music, connecting with composers and musicians, and expanding our musical vocabulary. Fitting then is this first BIBA Blog of the new year - an artist spotlight of the incredibly talented, young South African composer, Monthati Masebe!
BIBA : How did you get your start in piano and in composition? Did they happen at the same time or one after the other?
MM : I come from a very artistic family lineage, both from my mother and father's side of the family. Ancestors I have never met before would speak to me in my dreams, teach me to play the mbila (also known as kalimba) or recite proverbs through song. I also always had toys that were mini pianos as a child, and at the age of 8 begged my mother to pay for piano lessons. I immersed myself in classical piano for 12 years and would always find myself making mistakes in my pieces and turning those mistakes into songs. I paid more attention to harmony and phrasing than precision and techniques. In 2016, I realized that I enjoyed the process of creating music and I would much rather create music for musicians to play. I believe very strongly in music cognition and that frequencies in sound can affect the frequencies in our brain. Composing music that can have an impact on how we feel, how we speak to ourselves internally, what we associate with emotions – that's how I make meaning of music.
BIBA : Your musical voice includes many different styles, genres, and approaches. What draws you to these styles and how do you combine them in your compositions?
MM : I come from a very diverse cultural background. I grew up in a home that was pan-Africanist in thought, food, art and spirituality. I listened to African indigenous vocalizations from all regions of Africa. Sometimes we would meditate with mbira music. My ability to identify African indigenous instruments led me to listening to genres that incorporate it. Latin jazz, cross-over jazz, afro-psychadelic rock, underground electro subgenres like electro-chaabi, kwaito, downtempo and lo-fi.
I like to seek out what I'm drawn to about each genre and embody that in my orchestration or textural preference. Sometimes the sound of an instrument will be the inspiration for a certain synth sound or a percussive pattern will influence the rhythms I choose for instruments. I think there's a natural osmosis that happens between music and memory, but not everyone is as conscious of how we all seek out patterns of familiarity to define our musical taste, both for listening and for creating.
BIBA : In your beautiful piece Disturbed Taboo (Dzata) for the Stockholm Sax Quartet, you explore complex rhythms and tonalities to evoke emotions associated with a violent, annual traditional practice. Can you please explain a bit more about this practice? What moved you to compose a piece about this practice?
MM : Bare knuckle fighting (amongst other cultural practices performed by various tribes) is a practice that symbolises strength and pride. Musangwe is a the name of this tournament and it is said to be a therapeutic experience that puts individuals into a trance that makes the seemingly painful experience tremendously bearable. The grounds are prepared with traditional herbs and plants, as well as a ritual for the ancestors to protect fighters in the tournament. It happens annually from the 16th of December to the 1st of January. Only one person has died since the beginning of this practice in the early 1800s. I wrote about this piece with the intention to interrogate the grey areas in life which usually go unspoken. When we remove the veil of right or wrong, maybe we'll start to see beauty in the mystique or at least see how our lack of knowledge about certain ways of life can make us assume the worst of people and practices. I never really fit in, and because of that I always found myself being understanding about the unconventional. I feel like I can relate to being misunderstood.
BIBA : Your artistic interests expand to visual art, including film and installation. In all of your endeavors, what is the most important aspect of yourself that you place in your various projects?
MM : I think I always want time to be a concept that is considered. That time can be confusing and feel like it has no start or finish but just an infinite loop of sonic pictures. That repetition can be daunting but sometimes it can be exactly what one needs to feel safe in the chaos of life. This sounds a bit flowery and poetic but if you listen to my music you'll see the common thread if you think about time in those ways. I never intentionally wanted this to be the signature but for some reason it's all I ever think about musically.
BIBA : I give you the commission of a lifetime - unlimited access to any musician, artist, studio, art supply, software/technology that you want, unlimited time, and your choice of location. What would you create?!?
MM : I would make a 7 part series of a global residency that has people composing with material that is considered non-musical to make a statement about the global challenges we don't speak about enough. For instance, imagine an orchestra of car hooters all lined up and down hills all over the world, commenting on carbon emissions and the environmental crisis we are faced with. The cars will all be grafitti'd by artists and it will be live streamed and turned into a documentary series. I really think we should be saying more as artists. And residencies or commissions are a good way of getting impactful information out there.
To learn more about Ms. Masebe, you can follow her on Instagram @Monthati_M, and you can listen to some of her music on SoundCloud!
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