Dec 5, 2014

South African Hip Hop: Tumi And The Volume - Pick A Dream

You know what’s sick? The finest South African hip hop album of 2010 was released in France in April last year, but only made it to our shelves in November. Then it got buried in the glutt of Xmas releases, and it took another 3 months for the the first single “Asinamali” to surface on any of the local charts. It’s still hard not to come to the conclusion that the labels, radio stations and the South African music industry at large, slept on the biggest hip hop album of 2010.

But that’s just how it goes. The TATV Pick a Dream fiasco says more about the weight of geo-politics on the South African music industry than it does about the band’s intentions and the local industry’s apathy. A few years back Tumi and the Volume were invited to perform at the Sakifo music festival on Reunion Island, which belongs to France despite being stuck out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and is therefore the closest first world country to South Africa. So impressed was the festival organiser, Jerome Galabert, that he signed Tumi and the Volume to his record label right there and started pushing them through the channels in France and Europe. All of a sudden the band was being booked for epic 3 month long European tours and collaborating with a slew of French artists. Nowadays the majority of their fan base lives outside of the RSA. It was a lucky break. Had TATV stayed in South Africa they could have ended up just another casualty of the South African music industry, banging their heads repeatedly against the glass ceiling. Playing Oppikoppi year after year before the financial attrition wore them down or caused them to implode. Luckily, the French stepped in. But this also meant that one our most wildly original, authentic and relevant hip hop acts, making music that relates directly to this place and this time, suddenly graduated to a global stage and in so doing, kind of left us behind.

But this article is not all about us South Africans feeling like someone’s poor cousin, as our cultural jewels are pilfered by the fat, rich fingers of the first world. There’s a silver lining to this tale. Apart from the band being able to pay their bills; being the clear channels that they are, the new Tumi and the Volume album really captures and blends a lot of that creative French influence into their production. The lyrical content and the subject matter is still rooted in a South African context but the Francophone influences lift this from being just another local hip hop joint to a much more experimental, innovative and ultimately entertaining album. One of my biggest criticisms of Tumi’s lyricism in the past is that he’s always had a knack for pulling together the right musicians to create really interesting musical environments for him to populate with his lyrics, but at times on Live at the Bassline and the self-titled debut studio album, Tumi and the Volume, it was almost as if he had too much to say and just kind of crammed it into a series of rapid fire Tumi rhymes, without enough undulation or variation to keep you listening to what he’s actually saying.

Then between this and his solo albums, something shifted. Tumi now revels in the spaces between, dropping accessible verses ladened with meaning. There’s a maturity to his work. You can’t miss it. More than that, it really seems that as a musician, Tumi has something to say. Which is pretty indicative on this album, because he almost spends more time singing than rapping. It’s obvious that working with Danyel Waro (he’s like the Hugh Masekela of Indian Ocean Island’s music) has opened his eyes to new musical possibilities. As Tumi said in an earlier interview:

“I’m a vocalist. A vocalist raps, sings, whatever. And sometimes you just feel, this needs singing. You’re the vocalist, sing. In that way, knowing Danyel Waro changed my life. Danyel told me, ‘you go to a funeral and everyone’s singing’. I used to think of singing as Whitney Houston and Freddie Mercury. This is some high level, don’t fuck with this shit. I’m like, yo guy, this is a craft. I need to understand this thing. But Danyel Waro was like, ‘this is functional art. It doesn’t matter where it is, at a funeral, at a wedding, when you’re happy, when you’re sad. It’s your voice. So just sing man. Express yourself.’ And I’ve always tried to be more melodic in my rapping anyway.”

The first song on the Pick a Dream “La Tete Savante” breaks us a chunk of the new vibe immediately. It has a Malian feel with those repetitive Touareg tin guitar strings, clapping and sparse tribal percussion, some cowbell. Then changing it up, kind of futuristic and groovy, shades of Kanye in Bamako via Dakar and Soweto. And then this kicker which ties straight into the album cover. “They celebrated their liberation with so much libation that when the morning came they had lost their heads.” This is how I like my culture. Engaging, on point, relevant and cutting straight to the core.

The first single “Asinamali” is a straight up old skool hip hop track, reminiscent of the big beat late 80s, carrying more hardcore contemporary ruminations from the big man:

“I can’t decide if it’s the money / put a low price on your soul / I can’t decide if it’s the money / that’s got the people going out of control”.

“Number 3″ dips back into familiar TATV territory, it kind of sounds like a leftover track from their previous album. Melodic steady-fire flow from Tumi carried by a Tiago riff on the guitar. But compared to the innovation on the rest of the album this track just makes me feel like we’re time travelling. And just as I’m thinking that, they flip it and hit you with a chorus which is just so infectiously groovy that you can’t help but smile and nod your head. It’s the old sound but with a new twist, again referencing that 80s shout out hip hop made famous by Public Enemy, KRS1 et al.
“Limpopo” then breaks out into the true innovative direction of this album. Melodic chorus and melodic flow sing-song rapping, Tumi once again, digging the rich vein of his family history for lyrical content with the repetitive chorus reminding us, “one life to live, one life to give, one life you’re given, just one life.”

Next up Tumi channels the angst and insecurities of suburban housewives with “Moving Picture Frames”. Talk about flipping the script on all that overplayed sexist bitch and nigga hip hop shit. It’s got a laid back R&B kind of feel with Tiago tickling the strings while Tumi sings. Usually I hate on R&B but this is more reminiscent of the Motown roots than the travesties committed by Craig David and the slew of modern, wimpy bootie track R&B artists.

“Through My Sunroof” is possibly the most powerful track on the album. Downbeat. poignant. Sparsely populated percussive backbone for Tumi to string those lyrics on. It’s got car crashes, infidelity, melody, angst, despair, honesty. It’s a wild, different and compelling track. Hard to compare to anything being produced in or out of South Africa at this time. The whole song works like the moment after a traumatic event where time stands still. “A butterfly flew through my sun roof”.
Then straight back to that stripped down old skool hip hop pedigree on “Reality Check”.

“Of Parties and Stars” takes it to a smooth hip pop nod your head kind of place as the album picks up pace towards the back-end. “Made No More” implores us to “change the laws and turn pop into art like we did before”. And the album closes out with the melodic, sing-a-long “Light in your Head” before taking one more trip uptown to the jazzy “Play Nice” before finally letting us loose with the hidden track “Tine Blues” ending proceedings very nicely.

It’s still bullshit that the album was released in France 7 long months before we got to hear it at home, but at least Tumi and the Volume are scooping up their experiences and inspirations, crunching them through culture and serving them back to us on albums like this. At least it finally arrived. Truth is Tumi and the Volume are fast leaving the narrow confines of hip hop behind, they’re more like a world music outfit with a hip hop crush, that’s driven by an all emcompassing ambition, as Tumi says, when I ask him what he makes music for… “to change the world.”

And here’s a final thought from big T from the V.

“Before, if you listen to those old records there’s stuff in there. But it’s thick shit. It’s thick, gon’ take me some time to get this one. You know what I mean? With this album, I don’t think I rhyme better than Live At The Baseline but I do think I listen better. I know how to say something easier. I can get to the point quicker than before. Before it was like, I need to impress you. I need to prove that I’m fucking dope. I need you to know that when the song is done… this mother fucking band is the shit! Now if it’s a good song, it’s a good song. I know that you motherfuckers don’t have 3 minutes to waste and still try figure shit out.”


In an interview posted last year on French website , Tumi Molekane, front man of Tumi and The Volume, comments that he was actually “a little fed up with hip hop” before he met the musicians who would go on to form Tumi and The Volume with him. He goes on to note that the band evolved from a “spoken word back-up band” to being a tight unit, with its members inseparable from the music being created. And while TATV’s many fans, both locally and abroad, would have been able to testify to this musical fusion on the evidence of the band’s two previous albums (At The Bassline in 2004 and Tumi and The Volume in 2006), nowhere is it more evident than on their new project, Pick A Dream (Sakifo Records 2010).

TATV have been a busy band these past few years, regularly touring in Europe and playing more overseas than at home – or so it seems. While the band is hailed in South Africa as one of the most original and exciting acts we can call our own, few in the local scene are aware of the standing which they enjoy overseas due to their hard work and tireless touring. Through their travels, which have included regular returns to the band’s beloved Reunion Island, home of the Sakifo music festival, TATV have made some great contacts – one of these, Danyel Waro, shares the final track, “Tine Blues” with Tumi on Pick A Dream.A ballad in the Reunion Creole Maloya style, this song has Waro and Tumi trading verses and lines, and is an off-beat but completely fitting cap to a great collection of tracks.

Strangely, the album slipped out early this year in South Africa with very little hype, having already been released in April last year in France. On listening to Pick A Dream, one can only feel that it’s simply a matter of time before it starts ripping up the local airwaves, especially since the band has intentionally aimed for a more polished sound and slick, radio-friendly production on this release.
Engineer and producer Laurent Dupuy and crack French studio team T ‘n T teamed up with The Volume’s guitarist, Tiago Correia Paulo, for the production of the album, which was recorded at Studio Py in Paris, France. Going the extra distance to get the album done was certainly worth the effort, as Pick A Dream is packed with sharp-edged beats and great instrumental arrangements, all of which provide the platform for Tumi Molekane’s superlative poetic MC skills. Apart from the slick production and arrangements (which are refreshingly different in their tone from most of the local generic American-ish hip hop being churned out at the moment), the pace is relentless, and this release should banish any doubt (if there ever was any) that TATV is a world-class act.

Pick A Dream is TATV in take no prisoners mode, and there is not one lame duck track on the album. Lyrically, Tumi’s targets include music (and hip hop) industry stereotypes, those obsessed with the machinery of “celebrity”, and corrupt leaders. Tumi’s lyrics reflect a poet pushing the edge, both in terms of lyrical content and execution; there are few MC’s in SA, or the world even, who have the combined gift of the penetrating thought and dextrous delivery that is Tumi’s trademark. Of course, the band’s signature sound also depends on the fine work which the rest of The Volume puts in, and they prove time and again why a live band can generate exponentially more energy than any backing track being spun by a DJ.

Staying true to form, Tumi takes aim at the things which keep people down, and suggests that there might often be more going on than meets the eye. “La Tete Savant”, the opening track, is a semi-biographical symbolic tale about identity, expressed through the journey of characters literally searching for their heads; this mirrors the brilliant album sleeve artwork by French graphic artist Hyppolite. “Asinamali” and “Number Three” are TATV in full cry, and manage to convey something of the live energy for which the band is renowned. “Limpopo” is an uplifting ode to life, with a beautiful instrumental break near the end of the track. TATV delve into more introspective and sombre territory in “Moving Picture Frames” , “Through My Sunroof” and “Light In Your Head”, adding some shade to the album’s light. Other stand-out tracks include the funky “Reality Check” and the incendiary parting shot of “Play Nice”, which includes a cameo by Tiago and Paulo’s 340ml bandmate, Pedro Da Silva Pinto.

For an arresting and progressive document of a band pushing the boundaries of their genre, Pick A Dream is hard to beat, and the instrumentation and lyrics will bear up to heavy rotation; and although this album slid quietly onto the local scene, it’s sure to become a benchmark for future contenders for the throne of South African hip hop.


1 La Tête Savante 2:38
2 Asinamali 3:09
3 Number Three 4:15
4 Limpopo 4:31
5 Moving Picture Frames 3:43
6 Through My Sunroof 4:37
7 Reality Check 2:41
8 Volume Trials 3:10
9 Enter The Dojo 3:23
10 Light In Your Head 3:05
11.a Play Nice 9:43
11.b Tine Blues

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