In 2008 I went to a festival at the Artscape Theatre to experience spoken word poetry, but instead I found poetry of another kind – musical poetry, that of the indigenous people of South Africa. Surrounded by an array of instruments unbeknownst to me and draped under a curtain of moody, pale, blue light, sat a lone shaman-like figure using a stick to beat away on a string tethered to a concave wooden bow. The bow created a hauntingly beautiful drone, of the kind meant to initiate some kind of transcendental experience in both artist and listener. Out of the bow’s string emerged a spectrum of tone colours both amplified and manipulated by the mouth movements of the performer – its resonating cavity. The artist’s name was Ismail “Pops” Mohamed and this was my first encounter with the music of the San people of the Kalahari, who have been playing this particular instrument for more than 45 000 years.
Mohamed is a practitioner of many indigenous instruments like the Bushman mouthbow (!Xaru), the Mbira, the Kora (lute harp), Uhadi (Xhosa bow), Umrhube (played by Xhosa women), didgeridoo and a number of hand percussion. Born in Benoni in 1949, in his early teens he took classical guitar lessons at the legendary Dorkay House; where he rubbed shoulders with the musicians he idolized while growing up, “…we used to carry their cases so that we could get free entrance. The guys would come and say, hey my laaitie – vang hieso! And you would grab the case and you would enter…”
At Dorkay House, Mohamed met bassist Sipho Gumede; with whom he recorded his first album titled Black Disco alongside iconic saxophonist Basil Coetzee. It was released through The Sun Records, the label that recorded and released Abdullah Ibrahim’s hit record Mannenberg. In the 70s Black Disco and subsequent albums proved commercially successful, but still Mohamed felt that his music had not made a significant cultural contribution, “I thought…what’s my contribution in music? I want to do something but I want to have a good reason for continuing my music career…because I felt there was no direction in what I was doing.”
His interest in indigenous instruments started sometime after 1976, when Mohamed noticing the disappearance of the indigenous music he’d heard on street corners and in shebeens while growing up, decided to uncover the reason why, “…that was part of my upbringing and I missed that. So I decided to say as my contribution to the Struggle, I would love to see indigenous instruments being protected and preserved – because the Boers regarded indigenous/traditional music as musiek van die duiwel and kaffir musiek.”
After the apartheid government began shutting down radio stations that played indigenous music, Mohamed commenced a rigorous search for recordings of the indigenous music of the San people. His search came up bare, except for a single 30 minute cassette tape which he secured from the SABC archive sometime in the 80s – a recording made in the Kalahari in 1952 that was broadcast on BBC, before being bought by the SABC and dubbed into Afrikaans, “They thought I was mad, what are you gonna do with this? So I said nah, I just wanna listen…and then my mission was, okay this is what they sounded like in 1952 – what would they sound like now?”
In 1993, Mohamed made his first trip to the Kalahari and discovered that the music had not changed one bit, “It was exactly the same as it was on the cassette…it was undiluted and I felt very proud that at least, here’s something that hasn’t been touched. All the media was concentrating on was the San people shooting the bow and arrow towards Blou Gemsbok…and seeing the people as savages.”
In the Kalahari there exists around 30 000 San people who are deeply rooted in tradition and don’t believe in moving to the cities, “This one girl that I know, she speaks five different San languages. One of them was taught by her grandmother which is ancient, which very few San people understand.” Since then, Mohamed has developed a lasting relationship with the San, whom he has recorded on his frequent trips to the Kalahari.
In 1994, the SAMA winning Ancestral Healing: From New York to Jo’burg – Mohamed’s first international release, recorded in New York – fused South African jazz with these traditional sounds. Thereafter, he integrated the recordings he’d made in the Kalahari with a group of British jazz musicians for How Far Have We Come in 1996, when performed live was a fusion of jazz, traditional, trip-hop, hip-hop and drum & bass. After a slow start and earning little money from doing traditional music, his career took off in the late 90s when he started getting invites to perform all over the world, “…it was very new to them. Especially when I go to Europe, they know Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela…and when they hear me just playing all the indigenous instruments, but using a modern band – it was totally new to them. They would ask, is this the new sound of South Africa?”
Since then, Mohamed has been nominated for two-lifetime achievement awards and his latest album Healing Sounds from Mother Africa has been nominated for a SAMA in the “best instrumental album of the year” category. In addition, he has produced music for numerous films like The Return of Sarah Baardman, The Venus Hottentot, Paintings on the Wall and The Horse Whisperer.
He cites performing for Quincy Jones, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Bono as a career highlight, “…when it was over, Quincy went on to stage and he asked the people to give me a round of applause and a standing ovation.”
Mohamed continues to perform, presenting workshops in various parts of the world and running his label The Fucha-Rist from his home studio. Next to recording his upcoming album Pops Mohamed & Friends, he is teaching recording techniques to a group of San children who do rap music in their native tongue.
Originally published in B’Jazz magazine.