The sounds of survival loom large at the start of Buffering Juju, a new concept album from Johannesburg-based duo Dumama (Gugulethu Duma) and Kechou (Kerim Melik Becker). Opening track “Leaving Prison” joins Dumama and Kechou’s typically spacious sense of arrangement with the powerful harmonies of a South African struggle song, the slightest pitch distortions hinting at strange unknowns ahead for the album’s main character, a woman just released from incarceration and ready to find a new place in the outside world.
Her journey is long, stakes raised by the baby on her back, and the shapeshifting beings she meets along the way, drawing her into new realms. But as important as the story itself is the sound of it. Buffering Juju is an album that, like its protagonist, takes a heretofore uncharted route and starts walking, until, by the end, Dumama and Kechou have carved a new path and marked it with a wholly unique musical experience. With roots at opposite poles of the continent — Duma is local to Pretoria, while Becker was born in raised in Germany with some Algerian ancestry; the two met in Cape Town — both members of the duo have much to offer the whole. That’s clear even in simply examining the list of instruments used: vocoders, synths, darbuka, calabash, talking drum, chitende, found sounds, kashaka, and still more.
Also key to Buffering Juju is a careful selection of guest artists. “Wessi Walking Mama”, which finds the album’s central character walking with her baby beneath a hot sun toward no end, brings in Shane Cooper on formidable upright bass and Siya Makuzeni on trombone. Each of them underscores an existential need for resilience in the lives of women who have suffered beneath colonial and postcolonial burdens. Odwa Bongo’s vocals and Nobuhle Ashanti’s piano make “For Madala” particularly poignant. Starry “Uveni”, a lament about that oppression of women within their households, features vibraphonist Dylan Greene and brilliant jazz multi-instrumentalist Angel Bat Dawid, whose achingly impassioned clarinet playing conveys a stunning sense of both longing and urgency.
Underpinning the sounds themselves are aural leanings toward the avant-garde, but not for its own sake. Every choice Duma and Becker make is in service of the story, and to that end, the duo draws on the sounds of acoustic folk, free jazz, and stripped-down dub, stylistic diversity joined together in narrative unity. A crucial common factor is Duma’s exceptional voice, smooth, expressive, and as capable of soothing as it is of soaring. She bookends the album with the aforementioned interpretation of an older struggle song and closing track “Mother Time”, a lyrical meditation on order and cycles in which Duma glides from verse to chant to spoken word over an entrancing instrumental line.
Buffering Juju is unquestionably modern in its viewpoint, perhaps even more so for the generational trauma it invokes in its subject matter, and the plethora of folk instruments and styles Dumama and Kechou employ in their storytelling. This is a duo that does not shy away from suffering – or, for that matter, from anything. They confront the past and the present, taking on not only legacies of pain, but legacies of thriving through it. On Buffering Juju, Dumama and Kechou use histories to envision a new way forward, and they tell us all about it in ways only they can.