South African artist and academic, Selby Mvusi, reflecting on the performance of sub-Saharan Africa bushmen, argued that there is a degree of precision inherent to natural vision and perception is something that can be learned. Put differently, our visualisation can be trained and by extension here, our visual sense in so far as it relates to sound can be precisioned. If sound is understood as a concrete visual sense, then we can begin to think infinitely about what we hear and how we hear. I am interested in how trained natural instincts can emerge with a social critique of music that places us beyond the parameters of solely thinking about sound as either something or nothing because even the blank spaces in sound can be heard. What an album articulates lies in this detail and this has allowed me to think about Angel Bat Dawid’s latest concert album LIVE, without any limitations, while also accepting Mvusi’s view that there is always a deviation in the actual result of perception. It is also inherent in listening because we never do hear one and the same sound the same way twice. I think part of training our ears has a lot to do with conceding to an existing visual perception of sound that does away with the discomfort of not always having a definitive or singular arrival. The point here is that, even this review must be read in between the line of what is both absent and present.
In my mother’s garden, I sat under the most indecisive Johannesburg skies with my ears tightly plugged to the beginning of an album that I would describe as pedagogical, confrontational, conversational, tender, dance worthy, full of love and categorically disloyal to fear and its criminal instincts. The latter is a recognition of the parts of us that white supremacy has tried to render unconscious. The first time I came across the name Angel Bat Dawid, was sometime in 2018. I had gone to visit two good friends, Asher Gamedze, and Ru Slayen at their home in Observatory, Cape Town. In habitual form, I walked in and dunked myself on their couch in anticipation of the usual super square conversation about music and life in its most mundane and spectacular sense. Ru stood in the kitchen with the warm smile of someone whose witnessed some hip shit. He proceeded to tell me that I had just missed out on a far-out session between Asher and Angel, and I am glad I believed him. This conversation subsequently made its way into Angel’s celestial debut album, The Oracle and such moments have stood out, as indicative of her approach to music making as dialogue. Her palette favors community and an unrestrained devotion to ways of pushing us out of genre logic assumptions. Angel is part of a fringe lineage of musicians with furious integrity, where music isn’t simply about the arrival, but the detail lies in the process and potential portals presented to the listener, and this potential has a lot of with what she does with space. Throughout the album, Angel’s range goes beyond the horizon, swirling through a constellation of sounds. It is impossible to listen to ‘We Hearby Declare the African Look’ with a straight face, without feeling the confidant and defiant pulse that only hip hop can manifest, or without being locked in the travelling consciousness of Phil Cohran.
Just when you think you’ve arrived in her ear there is an organic shift towards the Black church. And here I was reminded of a quaint moment in Aretha Franklin’s classic live album recording of Amazing Grace, where Aretha’s father Reverend C.L. Franklin situates her voice, style, tone and tradition within the Baptist church, firmly stating that: ‘If you wanna know the truth, she never left the church.’ Angel’s musicality can be firmly felt in the comfort of this moment. The Black church is ever–present in true negro spiritual form and voice. Its sprouting roots are life giving in ‘Melo Deez From Heab’N’ a reference to one of the grooviest church tracks ever made. The singing of Angel and Tha Brothahood members Deacon Otis Cooke and Viktor Le Givens and the character of their collective voice in ‘The Wicked Shall not prevail,’ and ‘Dr. Wattz n’em’ reminds me of something I have often seen in my grandmother’s pentacostal church. There is always a sacred time and space set aside for the congregation to go off in tongues and languages of the spirit that play, bend and twist voice and tone, calling into existence worlds unseen with the naked eye and casting away demons of a very real world. The point of this ritual is to leave no stone unturned and these sentiments are all over this album. If you have never been to a Black church, there are many ways of knowing god and the broader African cosmologies that have laid the foundational aesthetics that Black musicians often pull from.
‘Black Family’ bought me closer to Angel’s genius. Try listening to the first version in The Oracle alongside this live recording, not only for the formidable music making on both sides, but for a clearer visual sense, to witness, as if you were at the live recording, what it’s like to see the formation of the elephant in the room that Angel and her band confront out of the chest of a European audience that conveniently chokes when the dialogue requires an admission that the Black family is the strongest institution in the world. These words are insulting to some of the intimate fantasies of whiteness. And it does not help that these lines are delivered with incredible band form, a testament to Tha Brothahood’s dangerous unity and ability to speak like people who love each other, who can listen to each other with an unwavering spirit of generosity and respond both to anguish and joy collectively in complete isolation. They play like people who have asked and answered this question: who do we need to be in order to honor this experience of being Black in the world? This question is answered in the privileging of friendship, truth and softness that I found in ‘We are Starrz’ led by warm drum and bass undertones. It is dwells in the aching sincerity and deliverance of ‘What Shall I Tell My Children who are Black,’ borrowed from Margaret Burrough’s poem of the same title (Reflections of an African–American Mother). Angel and her band remind us about the place of Black children in the world and the ways in which they have waded through obscene subjection.
I started off by saying that this review must be read in between the line of what is heard and unheard. I have deliberately chosen to centre a visual perception of sound to invite us to abandon any allegiance to linear time and capaciously hear how this album implicates hopes of the future in the present. For people who have been refused dimension and historically cast aside, this album is indicative of a natural instinct for self-determination, improvisation and a predating radical lexicon of how to LIVE.