For guitarist Reza Khota, “music without lyrics doesn’t have any specific meaning embedded within its sounds, textures or notes …[but] there is often a sensibility brewing within the sounds I’m working with, and the titles and themes emerge … from this non-verbal stage”.
Khota is artist-in-residence at the University of Western Cape’s Centre for Humanities Research, and has just embarked on reading for his PhD. He’s discussing his second album, Liminal, and the way the title of the final track, Ghosts, emerged. The title alludes to the continued haunting presence of the murdered strikers in Marikana.
That sensibility was only born into words after the tracks on the album had been completed and Khota was discussing a theme for the cover art with artist Grant Jurius. But the idea uniting them was what Khota refers to as “the liminality of the subaltern”: how vast numbers of people are forced to exist on the borders of capitalism, as literal refugees, or as outsiders to the resources they mine for others.
Liminal was written over three years. Khota’s first album, Transmutation, appeared in 2014, “so this second was long overdue”, he says. He describes his composing process as “solitary”, and Liminal was shaped by experiences as he travelled over the intervening years. The track Delhi Haze is relatively recent, written during a trip to India to work on a theatre production on inequality. “Air pollution is experienced as a perpetual haze engulfing the city … The haze became a metaphor for the intense combustive movements and toil of the working classes as they endlessly traversed the city,” he says.
Another track on the album, Unearth, “was also a reaction to my experience visiting Lagos with the band Babu in 2010. We were struck by the class divide and the excesses of the wealthy, who made their money extracting oil while leaving the majority of locals in poverty. The tune is a homage to Fela Kuti, who stood up against the corruption of the ruling classes … ” he says.
The first movement of the four-movement Ghosts is titled Favela, “a reflection on the hardships and death that inequality and structural violence impose upon communities”, but the piece is upbeat: “a kind of samba played by ghosts from the ghettos of Rio”, says Khota. For him, there are no national boundaries in either struggle or music. The second movement, titled Liminal, evokes “souls for whom justice has not been served”, while the third, Ritual, enters the cathartic state of those “between this world and the spirit world”. Finally, Underground, the fourth movement, “without wanting to stick the label too firmly into place”, made Khota think of “the groaning sounds of the bass combined with the metallic percussion [that] evoked the underground world of miners”.
Khota isn’t the first musician to call up Marikana in his work. Contemporary composer Philip Miller was also captured by the sounds of the underground, using electronically processed versions of those sounds as part of his scores for the performance piece Extracts from the Underground (which predated Marikana and portrayed mine life and exploitation) and the films Miners Shot Down and Dying for Gold. For him, there were ghosts too. “The scenes broadcast by the mass media bring the horrors of a seemingly concluded past into an increasingly troubled present,” he told journalist Diane de Beer.
Jazzman Salim Washington used the poetry of Lesego Rampholokeng to accompany his Tears of Marikana in three movements, with the final one again uncertain “as I do not have a definitive way to characterise what happens after the conflagration.” He, too says: “This is an unfinished issue …”.
There has been more: songs from rapper Slim Cash, Zakes Bantwini, Masello Motana, Lilitha, the Zayamlefela Cultural Group (Lalani Kahle Maqawe Akuthi – may our heroes rest), SOS’s Bloodshed of the Innocent and the Kalahari Surfers’ Many Are Afraid. Most controversially, director Aubrey Sekhabi produced a two-hour musical about the massacre, complete with what many found distasteful: souvenir green blankets (recalling the attire of slain leader Mgcineni ‘Mambush’ Noki) for theatre-goers to buy.
This proliferation of Marikana music should not be surprising. “We are all haunted,” observes Khota, “by such outright violations of human rights, which have become a routine experience on social media (…) As we scroll from utterly devastating images to ostentatious selfies and absurd memes … [it creates] a chasm in our collective psyche that will continue to grow as long as we allow the unchecked abuses of power exercised by governments and corporations.”
Transcending the bottom line
But Khota and his co-players on Liminal – bassist Shane Cooper, drummer Jonno Sweetman and reed player Buddy Wells – find joy in the music they make, even when it reflects these grim themes. That joy comes out of their collaboration and the process of working together. Khota notes that being an independent artist is difficult, and “it wouldn’t be possible without the enthusiasm and generosity of spirit of everybody involved”.
Khota draws on multiple musical traditions, including Indian cyclical patterns, the West African idioms of Nigeria and Mali, and the Ethiopian musical concepts of Mulatu Astatke. In the spirit of breaking down borders, these meet and cross with effects such as reverse delay and extended drones – a legacy of long-time collaboration with Cooper, whose other identity is as electronic producer Card On Spokes. Overlaying it all are the soloing of Khota and Wells, the latter bringing both questing harmonies and fiery grooves into the mix.
“In a society where the dominant forms of service and production are shaped by the bottom line, it’s useful to have endeavours that remind us there are more profoundly humane levels of achievement – levels that have nothing to do with the profiteering of a spiritually bankrupt minority,” says Khota.
A Marikana playlist
– Reza Khota – Ghosts
– Salim Washington – Tears of Marikana
– Zakes Bantwini – Marikana
– Slim Cash – Marikana Massacre
– Soundz of the South – Bloodshed of the Innocent
– Kalahari Surfers – Many Are Afraid