Dumama + Kechou: Buffering Juju review – a bewitching musical odyssey

South Africa’s Mushroom Hour Half Hour label has been releasing some of the more ear-tickling sounds from the country’s experimental scene in recent years. There was 2019’s propulsive free-jazz ensemble debut Spaza, a series of beautiful folk-led guitar and vocal releases from Sibusile Xaba in 2017 and percussionist Thabang Tabane’s 2018 debut. Now offering up the label’s most narratively driven record is Johannesburg duo Dumama + Kechou.

Loosely concerning the story of a woman released from prison and her shapeshifting attempts to connect with the landscape via spiritual entities, its impressionistic folkloric narrative is sung in layered harmonies by Gugulethu Duma (AKA Dumama) and backed by choppy electro-acoustic production from Algerian-German Kerim Melik Becker (Kechou).

It’s a meandering listen, ranging from Duma’s crystalline choral harmonies on Leaving Prison and Mother Time, to the bent uhadi bow and garbled speech-in-tongues on For Madala. Yet Duma and Becker achieve a convincing synthesis, crafting electronic drum loops to layer beneath the Xhosa percussion and splicing modal keys between the harsh metallic plucking of strings. They are helped by a list of collaborators: pianist Nobuhle Ashanti and vocalist Odwa Bongo provide an undulating foundation in For Madala, while the synthesisers of keys player Dion Monti are a man-made, steely presence among the warm vocals and percussion throughout.

The album highlight comes on Uveni, perhaps the most straightforward of the eight tracks, with its cyclical song structure creating the perfect improvisational space for free jazz clarinettist Angel Bat Dawid to spear her keening riffs. Ultimately it is the cumulative power of this multi-vocal expression that allows for a soundscape to build over the course of the album. The varied sounds of the record reflect Johannesburg’s constantly evolving musicality and the duo’s mixed heritages. This is their titular juju, their spiritual power.

Also out this month

The first posthumous release from a giant of the trumpet, Hugh Masekela, featuring studio collaborations from his longtime friend Tony Allen. Pieced together from unfinished sessions in 2010, the resulting record, Rejoice, is a remarkably coherent blend of swing and Afrobeat, featuring some of Allen’s finest work behind the kit to date and Masekela’s inimitable horn melodies shining on numbers such as Agbada Bougou. The 80s synth experimenter Raviv Gazit reissues his overlooked 1985 LP Ze, a subtly challenging and meditatively pensive set of Synclavier works. All-female ensemble Divahn put their spin on a pan-Middle Eastern music with Shalhevet, featuring tender reimaginings of Sephardi songs and incorporating the powerful, ululating vocals of Galeet Dardashti.