image Jojo Abot: Photo supplied

Jojo Abot and the South South Exchange

March is a big month for music down under with a variety of festivals bringing amazing artists from across the globe to Australasia. South African based Ghanaian musician Jojo Abot signed to the Akum Agency is currently enjoying a string of festival appearances at Perth Festival, Brunswick Music Festival, WOMADelaide and WOMAD New Zealand.

In Melbourne, Abot was fired up by a dinner party connecting her with African Australian poets, artists and musicians, illustrating the strong socio-political connection between Australia and South Africa.

“I discovered another layer to this idea of blackness. There are young people who live in these spaces who are black, displaced and feeling disconnected from the continent. Having everyone in the same space that night was about reaffirming each other and letting each other know that their presence is felt. Minorities come together to form a majority. This can be a source of support for one another. Issues of inequality and hatred are universal. We need more spaces of community and love where humans flourish and nourish together,” she said.

This need for creative connections, community and spiritual awakening through self expression is being filled by large scale music festivals. Music festivals worldwide have become a crucial space for an artistic community to gather and connect with other African musicians of the diaspora.

The WOMAD concept (World of Music and Dance) is the foremost world music festival brand. It was founded by musician Peter Gabriel in 1980 and has become a pioneer of cultural exchange worldwide, playing an important role in the South/South exchange between South Africa and Australasia. South Africa hosted a WOMAD festival in Benoni from 2000 – 2002. There are currently plans to bring the festival back to South Africa with negotiations for Nelspruit to host it in advanced stages. WOMADelaide has always been a stage for the South South exchange with the South African Band, “African Gypsies Project,” performing there in 2003.

Recent recording collaborations between Australia and South Africa, featuring Tumi collaborating with the Public Opinion Afro Orchestra and Wouter Kellerman and Soweto Gospel Choir are further adding to the South South exchange, however according to Australian born music manager Jess White, these are still in their early days.

White worked for the Australasian Worldwide Music Expo in Melbourne, Southern Hemisphere’s premier music industry conference and showcase. He relocated to Southern Africa, Maputo and Johannesburg, and founded the Akum music management agency in 2013. In 2016 Akum partnered with the Indian Ocean Music Market (IOMMA) in Reunion Island to promote musicians from the Indian Ocean in Australia.

The Igoda Southern African music festival circuit, links some of the best festivals in Southern Africa to create their own platforms for cultural exchange and international exposure. White has played a key role through the Mozambican leg of the circuit – Azgo. To date he has leveraged Australasian tours for Bongeziwe Mabandla (South Africa), Kiltir and Maya Kamaty (Reunion Island) and Abot.

According to White, “Australia is still very much focused on pop, rock and folk music. Without strong community radio stations such as 3RRR and PBS in Melbourne, RTRFM in Perth, 4ZZZ in Brisbane and FBI in Sydney and a strong festival scene these artists would not normally get a chance to grace these stages. And, due to the strong support Australian city festivals receive from their city governments, festival directors have the opportunity to program outside of mainstream media, and give a platform to more diverse and exciting line-ups.”

WOMADelaide is a big festival that has built its reputation as an open-minded platform for cross-cultural artists and a launching pad for international careers.

“I appreciate the expansion of these spaces and the growing open mindedness of these spaces. We experience life in a multi-media and multi-sensory form, so why shouldn’t our creative spaces be like that?” Jojo Abot.

Jojo Abot

Jojo Abot’s performance at the 26th edition was on the same bill as new generation artists such as Hana and Jessie-Lee's Bad Habits, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington and Baker Boy as well as veterans such as Pat Thomas and Tinariwen.

She was able to link with African Australian artists Sampa the Great, Remi and N’Fa Jones and collaborated with two sisters from the Kaurna Nation - the traditional custodians of Adelaide.

Her performance took place directly before Pat Thomas and his Kwashibu Area Band, masters of the 70s Ghana Highlife sound. For the audience it was an opportunity to witness the evolution of the Ghanaian sound from the traditional to the contemporary.

Abot grew up in the US. From an early age, she realised that she would never fit into the mainstream as a singer songwriter and would have to carve her own niche. A Ghanaian artist based in the US, Sam Adoquei, introduced her to the indigenous Ghanaian philosophers as well as deeply spiritual conversations regarding harmony, nature and God.

She built up her music and performance on the foundation of her Ghanaian heritage. Her traditional people, the Ewe’s, were nomadic. In ancient times they migrated to Ghana from Nigeria and Benin.

“Ghana is the core of my experience and offers an entry point to connect with others. Feeling I have access to all of the universe and feeling as though I can share my culture, my experience and perspective with the universe is that inheritance,” she explained.

Abot travels the world like a migrating swallow and has lived in Copenhagen, New York and now Johannesburg. Her career has been self styled and she has had to look beyond the creative, at all the aspects of the music business and be responsible. She explains: “To learn to fall on your face and get back on your feet, to learn from the mistakes of others, to talk to mentors and to figure out what it is like to build from the ground up; that is how it has been for me.”

Abot’s career has taken off since settling in Africa. Her strong New York trip hop influence of whispered vocals over lazy beats began to give way to the psychedelic Afro-punk flavor of the moment in Johannesburg, “Where music and fashion are intrinsically linked to culture, identity and creative expression,” as White described it.

Abot calls her musical style “Afro-hypno-sonic.” It includes music, dance, literature, film and photography. It references the culture and language of her people, and various rhythms from reggae to afrobeat and the new sound of Durban’s youth - “Gqom.” Her performances are marked by bright costumes and painted faces, choreographed dance moves, electronic beats meeting live instrumentation and backing visuals. She explains, “You find in genres like Gqom or Abadja which is from Ghana – there are so many similarities – there is a spiritual tonality and a rhythm that once you get to move your feet to, you go into a trance.”

However for her, everything underlies a bigger message. She says, “Our generation have turned to look for other forms of spiritual connection expression and exploration. The purpose of music is to offer a space of expression and healing and echo the very frequencies of the universe, our ancestry and our spirits.”

Struan Douglas

Struan Douglas is a writer and musician based in South Africa.