Musician and academic Asher Gamedze spoke with writer and filmmaker Tseliso Monaheng about Dialectic Soul – his new album that’s influenced by the sounds and rhythms of traditional South African jazz.

Msaki sessions day 1 (credit Tseliso Monaheng)

Prior to recording his debut album, Dialectic Soul, musician, thinker and academic Asher Gamedze was involved in bands that played a range of genres, from funk, to folk, to rock and punk. But jazz has always is the foundation. ‘Organically, it feels like that’s the music that I’ve been around for a long time; that I’ve loved for a long time,’ he said in this interview in the lead up to the release of his album. Dialectic Soul is a free jazz joint that swings harder than loose branches in a full-blown storm. A beautiful, challenging listen, the album’s a statement, an intentional jab on the side of oppressive systems and, importantly, a celebration of being revolutionarily bold, black, and gifted beyond words. 

Asher spoke about his choice of musicians for the album project; shared his thoughts regarding decolonization; and responded to the urgent question of whether it is necessary, as a newly minted bandleader, to make an album that is steeped in the South African jazz tradition. 

Msaki sessions day 2 (credit Tseliso Monaheng)

Did you compose the album’s music with specific musicians in mind?

All of the musicians are people I’ve played with, either in their bands or in other people’s bands. Mavimbs (Thembinkosi Mavimbela, bass) I’ve been playing with since 2015, in [singer-songwriter] Msaki‘s band mainly. Robin (Fassie-Kock, trumpet) I think I also played for the first time with Msaki, but then we played with [Nduduzo Makhathini, pianist] a few times as well. Same with Buddy (Wells, saxophone), the first time I played with him was with [jazz musician] Makhathini. Nono (Nkoane, vocals) I actually played one or two gigs about two years ago in her band, playing some of her music. It’s all people I like. That’s the first thing, that’s key. This relates to the compositional aspect as well. This is my first album as bandleader, and I knew I needed cats around me who were open to various kinds of music, and also open to different approaches. The album concept and the tunes were already worked out, and 80-90% arranged. Mavimbs helped with writing some chords for two tunes, and cats suggested a different harmony here, or something there. But it was really important for me to have people around me that I felt comfortable with in my own imperfections. For me, the tunes were the sketch of the emotion or the mood or the place that the music felt like it was coming from, and from there we danced.

What are your thoughts on decolonization, and would you say that your approach to playing music is decolonial in nature?

I think of my politics broadly as being informed by anti-colonialism and decolonization, for sure. My approach to music could definitely be understood in that way, but for me it’s a practice of how I’ve learned. It’s very much picking up the pieces from here and there. I’ve never gone through a formal curriculum. And so in that way, my curriculum has been made up by the jam sessions I’ve had, the different musicians I’ve played with, all the gigs I’ve been to, and that spans hip hop, to reggae, to punk, to funk, to jazz – all of that stuff. In a sense, the decolonial movement and moment is just academics realizing that they can do shit differently. In real life, and in music, people have decolonial approaches to the world. People listen to music that comes from Morocco, America, Brazil; their cultural universes are always made up of all of these things. It’s just academics that sometimes need to be convinced that they can be a little bit anti-disciplinary. There’s definitely a politics of anti-colonialism, a strong bent of that, in my approach to music and politics. 

Msaki sessions (credit Tseliso Monaheng)

Was it important to make your debut album one that is steeped in the South African jazz tradition?

Yes, but it’s somewhat of a complex answer. The project largely grows out of some of my academic work on South African jazz. Studying the South African tradition, particularly some of the more free elements of it, was a big part in me constructing my curriculum. But it’s also the sounds that we’ve grown up with; it’s the sounds that are around. To say that it was necessary, of course it’s a choice to play a certain kind of music. Organically, it feels like that’s the music that I’ve been around for a long time; that I’ve loved for a long time. And I’m interested in exploring [it]. It connects me with people here in a way that I value. My Masters project was on South African jazz and the kind of political philosophies and cosmologies in the music. A big part of that project was trying to think about what is it that is specific to this music? Not in an exceptional sense that it doesn’t exist elsewhere, but: What are the cultural roots? What are the spiritual roots? What are the practices that existed here, in this region, prior to them being labelled as jazz, or finding expression based on jazz? Through that, a lot of my own personal journey was an exploration of various kinds of Southern African spiritual traditions, and of course, my involvement in organized politics, largely [through] the student movement. That’s where the tune Hope in Azania [came from]. We used to sing that song all the time. We still do. It was necessary for me to have these tunes on the album. It couldn’t have been any other way, given my experiences, and trying to be true to that. 

Msaki sessions (credit Tseliso Monaheng)

What does being a working musician mean to you?

It means that one makes one’s living, primarily or partly, through playing music. For me, it’s important to think about it as that; to understand oneself as a worker, the central fact of that being that under capitalism, to get by, one has their labour to sell. As musicians, [our] specific form of labour is playing music. Obviously, musicians generally, not always, work in conditions far more privileged than the majority of workers. But the structural conditions of work in the sense of you don’t own anything, so you have to work, is shared. For the last 4-5 years, I’ve worked mainly as a musician and a writer, as well as doing some research work; that’s kind of how I got by. When I say a working musician, it’s just gigs that you get to get by, which sometimes means you play gigs that, if you didn’t have to make bread, you probably wouldn’t play. But at the same time, through that, I’ve been able to play with some amazing musicians, and met some amazing people. 

(credit Tseliso Monaheng)