The Sabbath: Glorious avant-garde vigil in sound

Gabi Motuba’s The Sabbath makes ears feel like they see, fingers seem to taste, and eyes listen to the world. Featuring compositions from the album released last year as well as new music, the live gathering of The Sabbath at the National Arts Festival holds a tight communal vigil that contemplates the end of things and the vastness of the world.

Death and life are raised by grand pitches and mined for their divine qualities. To say that the experience is sublime would be to miss the contrast of the rapturous ebbs and the vibrations of anguish flowing through the arrangements. Motuba choreographs the movements of the music to take advantage of the weight of juxtaposing sounds in the body. Two violinists, a viola player, celloist, and double bassist form a snug semi-circle around Motuba. They all seem to lean into the space as though to listen for whatever sacred momentum is built up by the combination of their presence.

Motuba stands at the center, but not like high priest or spiritual leader. She is conducting the ceremony as though she is part of the instruments. She listens more than she uses her voice. When she does release her warm delicate sound, it sussurates with the strings, without any strain.

At The Sabbath, the music is a channel for all who have gathered to spend time in lavish contemplation of the world and its many beginnings and endings. The massive volume of the sound of the strings creates an atmosphere expected of an orchestra in a large cathedral. Motubi combines different sounds to create a glorious avant-garde form. The music swells like a gothic opera. The height and expanse of the sound is seamlessly stitched to the landscape visuals that collaborator Zen Marie creates for the background. Palm trees glisten in the evening light, only in silhouette. The sweetest images of breezes and birds are always in tension. They are sometimes over-exposed or surrounded by looming grey clouds. Birds and palm trees in the breeze are always like a shadow. There is no colour except a burning sun and too-blue sky. Motubi’s arrangements also shimmer between light and dark, buoyancy next to scratching or sounds of supplication.

The opening song of the live set is ‘A Story Told in Sound’. When her crystalline vocals call into the space, she sings, “Who do I pray to? Will you keep me safe in this life?” The requiem begins with solemnity as all other instruments surround her but the transitions through each of the pieces in the set are definitely arranged to question whatever was just raised, to bring the elevated religious feeling to the ground again. After this opening piece, the double bass, played to its bare intestinal skins by Thembinkosi Mavimbela, is stretched and pulled using the fingers. Its quivering hum meets Motubi’s voice like a question to the heavens of the screen behind her.

The Sabbath is an experience of the passion of human life on this plane. The divine ear that it conjures is a full-bodied sensation. Zen Marie’s visual score brings the body into the tension of wanting to take it all in, whilst the music sometimes pulls at the heartstrings towards a more inward listening. It can be difficult to choose when to listen within and when to look to the whole landscape. This undulating feeling is part of the jazz package. You too must listen and improvise your part in The Sabbath.

The Sabbath was performed at the National Arts Festival on 1 and 2 July.

Credits: Singer and composer, Gabi Motuba; double bass, Thembinkosi Mavimbela; cello, Themba Mashobane; viola, Tiisetso Mashishi; violin 1, Kabelo Mannathebe; violin 2, Stella Mtshali; sound engineer, Tshepo Mothwa; visuals, Zen Marie

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