Music is often a very collaborative process either between songwriters, producers, engineers or artists. Ideas flowing between different people can facilitate new creative sparks that are channeled into a song. When people from different backgrounds, musical, cultural and otherwise, come together, there is even greater opportunity to create something very different and unique. That is what has happened with Keleketla!, a collection of musicians coming together to make a joyous mix of jazz, South African rhythms, hip-hop, garage, house, afro beats and soul.
The group in its current form was founded by Coldcut and a cadre of South African musicians. It has since expanded with vocalists, Nono Nkoane and Tubatsi Moloi, and Thabang Tabane, Sibusile Xaba, Gally Ngoveni and Coldcut providing the music. There are also contributions from Tony Allen, Shabaka Hutchings, Dele Sosimi, Tamar Osborn, Miles James, Ed "Tenderlonious" Cawthorne, Afla Sackey and Antibalas. It was originally recorded at Trackside Creative studios in Soweto, though the music was eventually done in many different locations.
The story goes back to 2008 with Johannesburg’s Keleketla! Library, an independent library and media arts initiative, stocked since its 2008 inception with donated items from the local community. Run by artists and musicians Rangoato Hlasane and Malose Malahlela, they met Ruth Daniels of the charity In Place of War, who asked Coldcut to meet some of the local musicians, which helped spark many of the ideas for this.
The album is poignant and powerful with tracks like the soaring and joyous “International Love Affair” or “Freedom Groove” that implores you to fight for a freer world.
With an album this complex, we wanted to get to the bottom of it. We asked Coldcut to do a Director’s Cut for us and explain how all of these collaborations came together.
Stream the full album now and get your copy here now. Read on to see how this project came together.
1. Future Toyi Toyi
“Future Toyi Toyi” came about in the most unexpected way. We had been doing a Ninja Jamm workshop with Soundz of the South (SOS), some hip-hop activists in Khayelitsha township near Cape Town. They performed a powerful stomping chant which Dinaz Stafford (Matt’s wife) had the presence of mind to catch on a portable recorder so we could sample it. You can see a nice clip on the Keleketla! documentary where we are playing some techno beats behind the chant, and the crew are loving it.
Back in Cape Town we were booked to do a DJ show at an electronic music festival. Having been alerted to the Gqom sound of Durban by a friend in London, we did a mash up of the chants with a Gqom track by DJ Mabheko, and the audience went wild for this. On return to the UK we got in Tony Allen on that track as well (RIP – now with the ancestors), and the track took 2 different directions, one where we used the Gqom rhythm and the other powered by Tony's drums. Tony's one is the one, which is on the album as Ra and Malose (founders of the Keleketla! Library) and SOS both picked that, but we love the power of the Gqom version too. We contacted DJ Mabheko and made a deal to release his Gqom version alongside the album cut. Finally DJ Stingray produced a deep avant-garde super heavy electro treatment as a remix, the heaviest K! remix so far.
2. International Love Affair
“International Love Affair” is a phrase which came out of a group of our friends from mainly UK, Austria and Germany—we used to do raves themed around environmental positivity together, a wonderful shared experience.
On the 2nd day at Trackside in Soweto (where we recorded the initial sessions for the album) we suggested this phrase to vocalists Nono Nkoane and Tubatsi Moloi. It can feel awkward putting words into vocalists mouth, but they were up for it and pretty soon had come up with an excellent melody and harmony.
We dialed up a house speed rhythm from our Jamm Pro app and immediately Gally Ngoveni joined in on bass. There is that moment in the studio when you look around and everyone is smiling and nodding and you think this is a great vibe, we're onto a winner here. I remember that well from our session with Lisa Stansfield writing “People Hold On.” This was another such moment.
Sibusile Xaba was not slow in coming up with some catchy guitar lines and with Thabang Tabane’s percussion added it was quickly becoming a cooking groove. We spent a while structuring it out and trying different linking sections, and then Tubatsi put in a great flute solo.
Returning to London our first callout was to Mr. Tony Allen the Afro beat originator. We threw out our initial sample loops and used his organic rhythm instead. Matt’s best friend Duncan James, coincidently the first manager of Ninja Tune, and Matt's original guru for discovering and learning about Black music, has a son called Miles who has become an excellent guitarist and producer on the London scene—we invited him into the studio to add some more guitar lines. He then introduced us to Dele Sosimi on keys, and Afley Sackey on percussion. We had tried out getting a rap verse but this did not work out so instead we invited some more instrumentalists to freak out on the verse sections, and bagged great solos from Tamar Osborne, Shabaka Hutchings and Ed ‘Tenderlonious’ Cawthorne.
3. Shepherd Song
“Shepherd Song” started out as a couple of percussive samples. The “wo wo” electronic synth percussion had an interesting tuning & formed the initial musical root—this was a very basic demo originally from a recording session for our Outside The Echo Chamber album. As soon as we played the track Gally Ngoveni started playing a baseline that brought the track to life & gave a direction for the other musicians to follow. After several run-throughs with Nono, Tabatsi & Thabang adding vocals we had the basis for the track. We were chatting after the take & Matt asked Tabatsi for a translation & explanation of the song's meaning, we recorded that & you can hear Tabatsi's spoken word at the start. Returning to the UK, we recorded the drum parts with Tony Allen. This galvanized the tune with a new raw energy & flow. We added horns from Antibalas, a group that we have always regarded as one of the best of the new wave of Afrobeat influenced bands. Finally Joe Armon-Jones brought the wonderful piano. Originally about 11 minutes long—we had resisted any editing, but after Matt tried out an edit we managed between us to chop it down to 8 minutes!
4. Freedom Groove
At the end of the recording session with Tony Allen, when he had played on all of the tracks we had planned, we asked him if he would be up for a jam session. He generously agreed so Matt found himself in the drum booth with the legendary maestro, quite nervous, using Jamm Pro (the Coldcut beat instrument on an iPad). We got a good track down and got to hang out with Tony for a while more, having suitably offered further libations of rum to the ancestors.
Listening back to the track we decided our part of it was nothing special, but Tony's drums were exemplary. So we chucked out all of our parts, and built a new track on the drums.
We came up with new ideas, which we offered to Joe Armon-Jones to interpret and launch a solo from. Tamara Osborn provided an absolutely smoking baritone sax solo. Then, the track seemed finished.
However as the album was approaching completion, we were contacted by Darin “Freq Nasty,” who was helping Black activist poets the legendary Watts Prophets from Los Angeles, with some new recordings and reissues. We had experimented with mixing “Find A Way”—our old Coldcut collaboration with Queen Latifah—over the track and it seemed that a vocal could suit it. So on the off chance we emailed the backing track over to Darin with a suggestion he played to The Watts Prophets and see if they were possibly interested in doing a vocal on it. Within 48 hours he had got back to us with a rough vocal from Father Amde, on the theme of what is freedom. This immediately sounded brilliant, so we did more work on the track, writing some Fela style brass lines and then getting in Antibalas horns. Also adding some female vocals from Nono, from the original Soweto sessions.
“Nothing on Earth or the Universe is free – All must follow an order to be” …Wow!
“Crystallise” starting out as a slow downtempo track with a Go Go feel… Yugen Blakrok was inspired by the demo & brought her conscious lyrical flow. It seemed to come together very quickly with each musician from the session adding their parts. Back in the UK after plenty of editing we added layers of free blowing Tenor Sax & Baritone Sax from Shabaka Hutchings & Tamar Osborn. Finally enlisting DJ Random to add some turntable action & cut up Yugens vocals. This is the point where “Crystallise” is then split into two versions—the original “hip hop” version and, as Matt calls it “the speed garage version,” where Matt took the vocal, scratching & brass parts & re-worked them using our music production app, Ninja Jamm Pro. Unsure which version of the song to use on the album we asked Yugen, Malose & Ra from Keleketla! Library they all loved this new uptempo version so that went on the album. You can find the original halftime mix on a tasty 7-inch though!
6. Broken Light
The starting point for this was a demo track from the Coldcut vault—really just some programmed sampled drums & a few electronic FX & noises. We played it in the Trackside session & Nono came up with the idea for the song. The harmonies with Tubatsi’s vocals are really strong. Sibusile’s picked guitar lines added a hypnotic touch. The bass line from Gally locks it altogether. Back in the UK we replaced the drums with a live session from London based player jungle drummer. We then asked Ed “Tenderlonious” to add flute—We love his playing both solo & with Ruby Rushton. Tamar Osborn adds delicate brushes of sax. Finally we recorded Dele Sosimi on keys adding splashes of melody to support the vocals. It's a gentle track even though the drums are heavy.
During the Trackside session we had plenty of freeform jams. This song is a result of that process. Led by Thabang Tabane on percussion & vocals. No click track with this take, we let the players guide the tempo. On one take when everyone stopped playing & thought that we had finished the song, Matt brought in drums from Jamm Pro—you can hear the excitement as the whole crew just started up as one & took off again! Back in the UK we did some serious editing of the takes. Props to our engineer Al Riley for wielding the scissors on the edits. Then finally we added a stunning piano performance from Joe Armon-Jones & flute from Ed "Tenderlonious" backing up & expanding on a riff that Tubatsi had played.
8. Papua Merdeka
This song is the oldest one on the album, as it has been in production for more than 10 years. Matt met Benny Wenda (the head of the West Papuan Freedom Movement) and his family perhaps 15 years ago. The background is that in the 60s Indonesia illegally took over the country of West Papua and since then the West Papua people have been struggling to break free, with Indonesia massacring many hundreds and thousands of these native peaceful people, certainly one of the biggest and least reported genocide of modern times. We wanted to be involved with the struggle of Benny's people for freedom and suggested a collaboration to make a musical call for the movement. The vocals are from Benny's wife Maria who performs with their daughter Koteka as the Lani Singers, to raise funds and awareness of the struggle.
Having tried various directions to provide a suitable backing track for the message Papua Merdeka!—which means Freedom for Papua!—the Keleketla! project provided inspiration to make this work. Again funky guitar from Miles and exemplary solos from Tamar, Shabaka, Dele, and Tony Allen's powerful propulsion are vital ingredients. The rising guitar figure is frankly a bit of a lift from a much loved disco classic, see if you can pin it!
A footnote is that when Soundz of the South were telling us about the political work they do, we noticed a photo in a protest they had organized showing the Morning Star—the West Papuan flag outlawed by Indonesia—so even in South Africa, Black activists have the knowledge and heart to support other people still suffering from colonial domination and extractionism. Unfortunately governments such as the UK still selfishly further their own business interests with little thought for the damage they create, even selling arms to Indonesia which are then used against the defenseless West Papuan people. Hard to be proud to be British when this is how we act. Papua Merdeka!
9. Swift Gathering
"Swift Gathering" was the last track to be composed. This came out of a jam at the end of the day recording with Joe Armon-Jones, again with Coldcut performing using the Jamm Pro app.
We took Joe's rather brilliant one take of piano and chopped some bits out, then montaged and arranged them in Ableton using its sophisticated Sampler instrument. Initially some presets were used for horns and strings, but with the rest of the album having so much quality REAL acoustic sound on it, our presets came over a bit thin. So we invited Tamar Osborn in again to play sax and clarinet and replace our parts. Finally Eska who we collaborated with on our Sound Mirrors album, contributed some real strings for the icing on the cake. Track title is inspired by seeing swifts gathering together in the garden, collecting and separating, finally until the flock coalesces, the group mind makes a decision and they all take off for another place.
The final piece in the whole Keleketla! jigsaw was found when a call out was made to Eric Lau to mix the album. Eric worked from his studio in China. This was a new experience for us working remotely—It was actually a very cool way to work as we all had time to digest the mixes & we gave Eric space to work his magic.