Next to the drums, absorbed in his craft, guitarist Louis Mhlanga picks a slick, bell-like West African groove. Beside him, drummer Justin Badenhorst taps the skins: all the precision of a drum’n’bass rhythm track with a lot more life. Stage left, Mel van der Spuy’s Fender Rhodes keyboard and Prince Bulo’s foot-friendly bassline raise the spirit of Harari and 1980s Afro-rock. Out front, Marcus Wyatt’s trumpet and Siya Makuzeni’s voice explore some outer-spacey, Sun Ra, minor-key ether. With the toes of his takkies precariously gripping the edge of the stage, MC Gwaza Juse energises the crowd with a very flaai taal indeed.
Logic says such disparate elements just shouldn’t work together – but somehow they do in the world of Language 12 and Maji Maji in the Land of Milk and Honey, their second album and current touring programme. Despite apparent spontaneity on stage, leader Wyatt says he plans the jigsaw carefully in advance: “I am quite controlling,” he admits. “There’s a unifying thread running through each song. For each, I have a very clear idea of everything: groove, bassline, comping. Then, it’s like a puzzle – things have to fit. When other band members have stuff to bring, those become additional pieces of the puzzle.”
Makuzeni, a major contributor of ideas, doesn’t experience this control as limiting. “Actually, Marcus lets us explore, to the point where working in Language 12 gives me a sense of growth. I can go in many different directions – not just delivering the melody with my voice, but creating soundscapes, playing with the rhythms, using electronics [the pedal] … even the rap thing.”
This approach – allowing each song its unique identity, with inputs from different band members – is part of what makes Language 12 so resistant to genre labels. “I’d rather we were identified by our attitude than by a label,” says Wyatt. “Of all the projects I’ve worked on, this one is probably the truest to how I grew up.” Wyatt’s father was a professional musician and he grew up “surrounded by everything, every genre you can think of”.
There’s more than eclecticism to the Language 12 sound, however. Duets between horn and voice – sometimes natural, sometimes processed with effects – both lead and underpin the mix. “But when I’m producing,” explains Wyatt, “I go for deliberate blending. Nothing sits on top. I want it all to feel part of the greater sound … The music is full of trumpet and voice but you shouldn’t get saturated by them.”
Electronic processing contributes to the varied textures of those sounds, both on record and live. But like many players who also sing – she’s a trombonist – Makuzeni’s vocal lines are also often conceived instrumentally. “Both my voice and my instrument inform what I bring,” she says. “If I have to think about how I compose, for example, the bassline will be a trombone line. That’s what I hear in my head and from there I work on it. So even with Language 12, it’s not about saying to myself that I must always do something that ‘sounds vocal’.”
A horn that sings and a voice that plays aren’t the only unpredictable ingredients. Wyatt sometimes deliberately subverts other kinds of musical expectations. On Dance of the Painted Faces (a song he originally recorded on the 2000 album Gathering but which had “never quite sounded as I wanted it to”), he plays with the emotional conventions associated with major and minor keys: “That ‘happy’ guitar riff is actually in a minor key; the contrasting, much darker passages are in the major – not what’s expected at all.”
The other unifying element in Language 12’s music is feeling: “the emotional grab of the music,” as Wyatt calls it. He cites the Terence Blanchard album Requiem for Katrina. “I love that album because of how it makes me feel when I listen to it. And in the same way with Language 12, I want people to be moved by those songs the way we are. To capture that in a studio album is incredible. From the hopefulness of the kids’ chorus on Show You to the extreme darkness of That Day She Left, I think we’ve caught some very powerful emotions here.”
The emotional intent, says Wyatt, is “in the music rather than in explicit lyrics. Actually, I rather like lyrics that can be misinterpreted.” Nevertheless, ideas about music as language gave the band its name. On the interlude track, Native Tongue, Wyatt has glued together samples of languages he has recorded over the years – Indian, Slavic, African and more – to allow listeners to experience language as sound rather than message. This concern with the idiomatic sounds of different tongues makes MC Gwaza Use (Nicholas “Pule” Welch) a natural collaborator. Welch is multilingual – and, says Wyatt, “he’s got the musicality too: he’s probably the only guy I know who can rap in seven [time]”. Makuzeni says she picked up an interesting reaction from the audience: “For some people, what he was doing explained the Language 12 bit of our name, because of the colours of all the languages he uses.”
There’s a lot of African grooving, and a fair amount of rock in the music of Maji Maji. Of the former, expressed most vividly on the song For the Giants of Motherland West, Wyatt says: “That’s a direction I’d love to explore more. But I’m very conscious that it’s something you can’t just touch on. You really need to be immersed in it. That’s why it’s so good to have Louis guesting on this album. But I love that approach: the endless groove that you can soundscape on top of …”
Recording Maji Maji, says Wyatt, was “one of the easiest sessions I’ve ever experienced. We averaged two takes maximum on each track.” For that, he credits the empathy of other players. On the bitterly melancholic That Day She Left, for example, “in an unedited tape, you’d hear me before the second take, urging Justin: ‘Come on! I want to hear you beat the shit out of those drums!’ But if the tape was running after that take, you’d hear my much more relaxed voice, saying: ‘Yeah … that’s more the vibe …’” After the recording, though, he and sound engineer Peter Auret “had the advantage of time. We were constantly gauging what worked as we mixed. I listened to the final mix and I heard far less of the rough edges we’d have left on a jazz album. It was quite surprising. I thought: Fuck! This is a pop album!”
But Wyatt’s talking attitude again, not genre, the kind of attitude that characterised pop before the corporates commodified it: accessible, scornful of categories, and with emotions potent enough to mainline. “If there’s one thing Language 12 shares with my other current project, the Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra,” he reflects, “it’s that they both produce music you want to be inside, music that hugs you.”
Language 12 present music from Maji Maji in the Land of Milk and Honey at 8pm on October 1 and 3 at the Dragon Room, and on October 2 at The Crypt as part of the Cape Town Fringe festival
A Gallery of photos from the Language 12 album launch at The Orbit by Tseliso Monaheng – Click on an image to see them in gallery form