Their stage act resembles an inside joke; they play tricks on the audience, a wry sense of humour underlying the whole scenario. The guitarist will sommer play a lick off of a well-known song of theirs (‘76’ and ‘People of the light‘ come to mind) before bouncing right back into material from their most recent offering – Pick a Dream. The tightness of this four-man troupe pokes fun in the face of criticism, and casts all doubts of how capable they are of delivering good music aside.
They travel through sound, their subtle musical intonations meandering through shades of spiritual brilliance with the greatest of ease. They have taken their music across continents; North America and Europe have, at one point or the other, been exposed to the ebb and flow of their compositions. The quintet of Dave Bergman (bass), Paulo Chibanga (drums), Tumi Molekane (raps/vocals), and Tiago Paulo (guitar) is known to increasingly-wider audiences as Tumi and the Volume.
Bar from their current single, ‘Asinamali‘, riding the waves on South African commercial radio, these gentlemen have – by and large – been ignored locally. Though hip-hop aficionados rate them as one of the best hip-hop outfits this country has ever produced, one is more likely to see them on magazine covers, television interviews, and festival appearances in countries such as France, Senegal, and the Reunion Islands than they are to witness them in top form locally.
Their appearance at this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival, to which this article’s introduction makes reference, is but one of the few. However, matters seem to be taking a turn for the better; they were recently billed – along with Baaba Maal, Habib Koite, and the Mahotella Queens – to perform at the Afrika Day celebrations in Newtown towards the end of May. This writer does not own a television set, but it is reported that the event was broadcast live on SABC2.
Presumably, the event afforded Tumi and the Volume an audience they may have otherwise not reached. ‘Pick a dream‘ – their third album in a catalogue preceded by their self-titled studio debut and a live recording entitled ‘Live at the Bassline‘ (which featured the talents of Kyla-Rose Smith – now with Freshlyground) – is a sonically mature, lyrically-impressive collection of scathing socio-political commentary (‘Asinamali‘, ‘Reality check‘), par-excellence lyrical dexterity (‘Number three‘, ‘Enter the dojo‘, ‘Volume trials‘), and melancholic yet uncompromisingly honest self-reflection (‘Light in your head‘, ‘Moving picture frames‘, ‘Through my sunroof‘).
This, however, is not an article about the whole but the part; this is about a man who a week prior to our conversation was ‘at Analogue Nites playing to an almost-exclusively black audience’. Our meeting, however, happened in the wilderness that is the Nekkies resort in Worcester on a Sunday afternoon. The day before, Tumi had performed in front an almost-exclusively white, predominantly Afrikaans-speaking RAMfest audience; The Volume were nowhere in sight. Instead, the quartet of Peach van Pletzen (drums, Yesterday’s Pupil/Bittereinder), Richard Brokensha (guitar/vocals, Isochronous), Franco Schoeman (bass, Isochronous) and Alex Parker (keyboard, Isochronous) provided fitting musical accompaniment.
Aside from his band, Tumi also has a solo operation on the side. He started out in the Johannesburg underground circa 2000 with offerings such as ‘A dream led to this‘ and ‘Tao of Tumi‘ before linking up with what was then a relatively-unknown 340ml – minus Pedro and Rui. In 2007, he decided to strip the ‘live band elements’ and return back to the basics of hip-hop – the emcee and the deejay – by releasing his first commercial solo offering, ‘Music from my good eye‘. A lyrically-astute album in its own right with moments of sheer brilliance in many places, it did suffer from trying to fit too many things into one. As Tumi observes during our chat: “I almost had to prove to myself with ‘Music from my good eye‘ that, you know what, I can do this; I have the commitment to do this alone; to make the music, release the music, tour it, you know, on my own! And I failed at that, but I think with failure comes lessons and growth”.
I ask him to relay the story of The Volume, a question to which he replies: “I’ll try sum it up. As far as the band is concerned – Tumi and the Volume – at that point we were very much a spoken word outfit backed by a band. And I think over the years, just playing festivals and playing tonnes of different shows, we became a band period, you know”.
One of these was a slot at the Sakifo music festival at the Reunion Islands in 2004. Jerome Galabert from Sakifo records in France was so impressed that he decided to offer them a recording deal right there and then. This then enabled them to tour across South African boarders and reach a wider audience, one more appreciative of the type of sound they were trying to push. Regarding their sophomore offering, ‘The volume‘, Tumi states that it wasn’t well received in South Africa, adding that ‘it was more [well-received] in Europe, and that’s why our careers have pretty much been in Europe’.
‘Music from my good eye‘ saw Tumi incorporating more Zulu vernacular phrases into songs, a trend he had begun on the band’s self-titled sophomore. Reluctantly, I ask how important the multi-lingual expression is to his music, and how it has fed into the Tumi ‘brand‘. He retorts, though with apt subtlety: “I don’t like the word brand; I am not a brand, I am a man”. Engaging further on the language issue, he says: “I have so much respect for language. I would never just…just dabble. I believe in being prolific; the stuff I’ve heard by Bittereinder, Jitsvinger, is absolutely incredible. They absolutely explore the language, and it’s poetry. But you know, when things feel natural, I kinda do them. I reserve the right to rap in any language”.
He not only uses his calm demeanour to endear one’s favour in conversation, but to display a brutal sense of honesty whenever the situation calls for it. On two occasions, he forthrightly acknowledges his failures with regards to his music. Regarding their self-titled sophomore, Tumi says: “It was our first studio album. We really took our time with it; it was really thought out, and we were also struggling with how to transform our live sound into a studio sound”, he pauses, as though to reflect further before continuing “and in that respect we failed”.
But that very album gained them a following in Europe. As Tumi observes: “We created a different thing; I think we created an album that really got us into Europe…uh, people started regarding us as not just a performance band. There was real depth in the band, you know”.
Regarding their current offering, Tumi has the following to say: “With the new one I think it’s more us trying to fix all the mistakes we made with the last one, just in terms of radio didn’t want to play any of the songs, and we didn’t have any strong single – I think. We wanted to make stuff that’s more accessible, and I think we’ve matched our live sound – the quality of it”.
There is no denying Tumi’s writing abilities, nor his aptitude when it comes to flow. One feels no sense of pre-fabricated emotion when listening to him, only the raw sense of an individual who connects with the music on planes other than the one in which we exist. I ask him to break down the lyrics to the song ‘Number three‘, and after letting out a huge smile, he said the following:
“The song is just a Tumi and the Volume anthem”, he says matter-of-factly, while adjusting his sitting position. “If you think of how the A-Team starts, that’s what it is. We rarely do songs like that; we’re always kinda very conceptual with songs. So that was really…to have a song like that on a CD really just solidifies and kind of documents the really good relationship that we have as a band”.
Tumi continues thus: “In terms of the verses, I couldn’t stay away from not saying anything at all”, he states, another broad smile emerging from his lips. “The first verse, I used the whole imagery of fashion and design to kinda just talk about my career and what I’ve done”:
Rap’s society’s fabric/
Around here brothers are inanimate objects/
Mannequins subjected to the fashion of prospects/
“So there are a lot of references to like, ‘Singer‘ (sewing machine), Nubuck (a type of leather). And in the second verse I talk about travelling”:
When I say it’s a small world,
it’s not expression boy, I mean it/
The airport’s like my second home, believe it/
I take off like you take a walk, frequent/
“And the third verse is where I go ape-shit really. Like I said, we rarely do that, so it’s really kinda nice to just be able to do”.
Besides his affable persona, Tumi came across as quite an honest human being, very connected to his environment, and having a positive outlook on life and the prospects therein. We conversed further about Danyel Waro, Zaki Ibrahim, and twitter.
Tumi spoke in a radio interview of how Danyel Waro, the Reunion-island based maloya musician, is his favourite artist ever. “When I first heard Danyel Waro, [it was through] this amazing song that he’d done about his (now-ex) wife called ‘Tine blues’. I thought it was from New Orleans, it had a really bluesy feel about it. He was singing in Creole, but it’s the Creole they speak in the Reunion Islands, not in the US. I got the opportunity to meet him, and I pestered him on some ‘I try to do what you do, but I rap’. He told me some amazing things about singing, about art being functional in people’s lives, you know”. Tumi re-iterates his initial statement on the radio interview “he’s my favourite, favourite, favourite musician ever! He’s my absolute favourite singer, the stuff he makes is incredible, and I don’t think I’ll ever make another album without him, as long as he’s interested”!
In an interview I had with songstress Zaki Ibrahim, she made a statement regarding his relationship with Tumi: “[he’s] actually kind of become like a big brother to me. He checks me when I’m kinda dragging my ass, and I check him back too”. Tumi shares those sentiments; after meeting on tour (circa 2005/6), they have maintained a good working relationship together. Their camaraderie has extended into songs such as ‘Blink twice’ (Music from my good eye) and ‘Volume trials’ (Pick a dream). Of Zaki, Tumi says: “It’s so easy to work with [her]. It’s her and Zubz whom I trust with any song; I can literally say ‘here’s a song, here’s the idea, whatever you got’. There’s nobody else I trust like that”.
The conversation evolves into radio, and how his solo endeavours have – in a way – opened up channels for the type of music him and his band do to get appreciated further. Going back to the topic of ‘Asinamali’, the band’s current single, Tumi says: “Me and Zubz always sit back and laugh about it like ‘we’re out there on radio talking about SA’. It’s bitter-sweet; it’s sweet because there’s a track like that out, but it’s bitter because that’s one of the only tracks out there talking about South Africa. I think Simphiwe [Dana] does it, but aside from that you hardly hear about your own country in your music”.
There are arguments from all sectors of society for and against twitter. The naysayers speak of how it has erased the mystique of the celebrity; nothing is a surprise anymore, all gets put out in the open. For Tumi, twitter seems to be an alternative outlet, a medium as far removed from his personality on record as it is perhaps an extension of the views which ultimately form what we get to hear on those very records. He might tweet, rather surprisingly: ‘I was against releasing [Pick a dream] in South Africa’, or offer an interesting retrospective such as ‘I love how Verwoed sounded so intellectual with his Apartheid arguments. I would have loved to see him debate with Biko’. Whatever the situation, he has made good use of the medium thus far.
Of twitter, he says: “It gives space for more thought, you know? And also just the interaction; on a business level it’s great, on an artistic level…it’s a cool social toy”.
Tumi’s endless work ethic has also seen him releasing the POWA mixtape recently. Inspired by the story of Akona Ndungane, it is a powerful statement against women abuse. It is ‘not about beats and verses, it’s about a sad reality that affects too many people’.
Every person reaches a cross-road where they must choose which path to take; Tumi chose music, and as he declares: “I think there’s a lot of scholarship in what we do. It might be informal, but [it’s still scholarship]. I always say that it’s better to struggle at what you love; any job that you do is gonna be good and bad, and if you don’t love it, it’s gonna be really hard to keep on doing it”.
**Additional contribution by Sibongile Musundwa