A moment with Black Motion

Thabo Mabogwane & Bongani Mohosana have been making music together as Black Motion for the best part of the last decade. Coming through the ranks of South Africa’s vibrant House music scene, the pair count Culoe de Song and Black Coffee as their counterparts, but together they’ve established a sound in the South African House dialect all their own.

Black Motion’s sound is built on the foundations of the drum, with rhythms structured around native musical languages informed by rich cultural heritage of South Africa, but executed in the familiar style of House music. “We’ve never wanted to make house music,” they told Billboard magazine in a 2017 interview, “we’ve only ever wanted to make South African house music.” With rhythmical arrangements closer to Kwaito than House music, and diasporic influences from the wider canon of contemporary music informing their work, they’ve made a severe mark in South Africa’s music scene, signing as a joint venture artist to Sony and playing to stadium audiences back home.

Black Motion are a prolific musical duo, making their debut with the LP, “Talking to the Drums” and releasing an album every three years up until the present to their latest LP, “Moya Wa Taolo”. Lacing an intricate and deep narrative through their work, each album progresses from the last, both conceptually and musically and they trace a fluid line through South Africa’s cultural diversity. They’ve kept South African audiences entertained with their LPs and hybrid live shows for the best part of decade, and now that they’ve “hit” what they considered “the roof” of popularity at home, the next phase of their career is to export it to the wider world.

After establishing Black Motion as one of the highlights of the South African House scene, they’ve striked out on the international scene in recent years and again all on their own terms through their unique take on the live-DJ experience, perpetuating the Black Motion sound and energy.. We bared witness to their awe-inspiring craft on stage during their recent foray into the northern hemisphere, which found them playing at Jæger and in a brief moment we also found an opportunity to sequester Thabo and Bongani backstage between soundcheck and their show for a Q&A session.

“You are born into House music. There’s nobody that comes from the hood that doesn’t understand House music. Your daily life is House music and that’s why we incorporated it into our lives. “

How did you guys meet?

Thabo Mabogwane: We met in Soshanguve, in the hood where we are both from, through a guy called Moses. We were producing individually, and through Moses we linked up and formed Black Motion. This was 2010.

Moses, was he also involved in the House scene at the time?

Bongani Mohosana: No he’s just a guy who likes music and collecting music. He had some of my stuff and some of Thabo’s stuff and he decided he had to put us together. And I’ll say he’s the founder of Black Motion, because he invested in a lot of up and coming artists. He bought us our first equipment.

Soshanguve was there at the centre of the House explosion in South Africa in the nineties reaching up all the way to Polokwane. 

Thabo: O yeah, proper.

Were you aware of what was happening around you at the time in terms of House music?

Thabo: Yes, as soon as you are born into Soshanguve, it became culture, House music became tradition. You are born into House music. There’s nobody that comes from the hood that doesn’t understand House music. Your daily life is House music and that’s why we incorporated it into our lives.

Bongani: House music is also a little bit of our clan. We’re from the same clan, even though we might have different surnames. It’s a part of our roots, because we would play drums when we wanted to celebrate something.

Thabo: Or call the rain and when we want to heal somebody traditionally, we always want to communicate it with the drums. So, what better way than taking our culture and fusing it into House music. We started out with drumming and producing our own tracks and doing what we do in the studio on the stage. That’s the whole movement, that’s how it started.

I’ve read in past interviews that the drum is an important element to your music. So it is something that has been informed by the traditions of your clan?

Thabo: Yes, it’s always tradition, especially in our clan. We are descended from the clan of the rain queen, Queen Modjadji. The source of all communication, the most important part of our culture are the drums. Everything we do, we do with drums. Whether it’s the healing or an initiation… anything that’s cause for celebration. The drums are the key to everything and that’s why we incorporated it in our music. When we’re on stage and we’re playing the drums we think it touches people…

Bongani: Spiritually.

When you were listening to House music growing up, how much of it was from the States and Europe and how much was homegrown?

Bongani:  We were listening to everything. Music is music. When you check our phones today, it goes deep. Deep African music but also European music. We play those traditional sounds from other countries so we can learn where the music comes from.

Thabo: In the nineties we had a lot of music that taught us a lot about House music. I think it was around the eighties when vinyl started coming in from people like Frankie Knuckles and  a whole lot of artists from the US, especially Chicago – they opened up the scene in South Africa. Every day there were a whole lot of tracks that we would hear from vinyl. So I would say Chicago House influenced House in South Africa. Because we were not that privileged back in the day of owning a computer, we just relied on the music from overseas.

Bongani: And compilations.

Thabo: That’s how it circulated.

I’ve read that your philosophy is about exporting the Black Motion, and in extension the South African sound to the wider world.

Thabo: Yes, accommodate everyone.

How does the reception compare when you play in Europe and the States to back home in South Africa?

Bongani: It’s different, but for us it’s a fresh start to get to see people who connect through us through music even though they might not know us. They give you that 100% attention and for us it’s overwhelming. We feel that in South Africa we’ve hit the roof, so for us being here and travelling all over the world, we’re learning.

What is your connection with other House artists in the region like Black Coffee and Culoe de Song, do you feel you are part of a bigger scene there today?

Thabo: Yes, there’s always an involvement with whatever we try and do, especially with Afro House, the kind of House that we do and push. There are always a whole lot of collaborations with other artists and we have done a few tracks with Black Coffee in the past too. In December we did a surprise concert with him. So that’s where the link comes in.

Bongani: There’s usually a three year gap between our releases, because we dedicate a full year to other musicians. We collaborate with other artists and perhaps work on other projects with them and after that we’ll focus on our own album.

“We have to sit down first and tell each other stories and that’s where the song will come about, it’s a spiritual connection.”

Have you seen House music in South Africa evolve a lot with so much focus from the outside world looking in today through social media and the internet?

Thabo: Yes, it’s grown a lot, but in different genres too, I think. Sometimes the popping of the Internet can lead to a whole lot of pressures too. The internet is a buzz, it’s a moment, so there’s a whole lot of artists in South Africa that are only Internet based.

Bongani: They appear to be proper…

But then it’s just hype.

Thabo: Yes, but there are some real artists that are really making it big without the Internet

I believe there is some narrative that follows your music across albums (at least through Talking to the Drums to Ya Badimo) and that the “musical journey also mirrored that progress.” Can you tell us a little more about these themes?

Thabo: With the first album, “Talking to the Drums” it’s the first initiation of becoming a traditional healer. The first step is communicating through the drums which is opening the channel. The second album was entitled “Aquarian Drums”. This is the second step of becoming a traditional healer. You go underwater for six months, hence the title. The third one was “Fortune Teller”. This is where you are able to tell others what you’ve heard under the water. “Ya Badimo” was the step where we give thanks, like a thanksgiving ritual. “Ya Badimo” is the ancestors and we gather round to say thank you and give thanks to the journey. And now we’re at Moya Ya Taola, which is the spirit of the bones.

Yes, I was going to ask you where Moya Ya Taola fit into this narrative, because I’ve only heard the story up until Ya Badimo.

Thabo: That’s imbedi. This is the point where we’re going to tell you about the music. It’s a reference (to traditional healers) as they would throw the bones and tell you where to go. So, our bones is our music and we just throw it on the floor.

Bongani: It’s like we are giving the people what we learnt.

Is that why that album features the most collaborations, because you’re giving something back?

Thabo: Yes exactly, and if you check you see it is made up of people that are not popular in South Africa or that well known. We want to give people a chance. We only want to take people that don’t know the industry and give them a platform.

Bongani: And some of the (collaborations) are people that we were in the studio with three years ago. We take our time, we don’t just jump in and record. With our collaborations we don’t believe in image. We have to sit down first and tell each other stories and that’s where the song will come about, it’s a spiritual connection.

How do you come across these artists?

Thabo: In most cases they are people that approach us, and we can usually sense if they are serious. Other times it’s people that come via recommendations from people we know.

What do you look for in an artist for these collaborations?

Together: Originality.

Bongani: The artist needs to be themselves.

Thabo: And not try and impress.

Bongani: We’re not VIP guys, we’re very accessible. We like to be around people. We learned to listen to other people’s stories and that’s where we get our answers.

*Frædag returns this week with B.Traits