TUMI AND THE VOLUME , ZAKI IBRAHIM , ULTRA MAGNUS and DJ NANA as part of the African Way Tour, Hart House, U of T (7 Hart House Circle), tonight (Thursday, February 3). $tba.
TUMI And THE VOLUME with MASIA ONE , THEOLOGY 3 , DJ L'OQUENZ and ROD SKIMMINS at Revival (783 College) as part of the African Way Tour and M1 Academy, Friday (February 4). $tba. 416-535-7888. www.districtsixmusic.com.
Sprawled on the floor of a grungy west-end rehearsal space oceans away from the warm climes of home, their bodies wearied from so much travelling, three-quarters of Tumi and the Volume - drummer Paulo Chibanga, guitarist Tiago C. Paulo and emcee Tumi Molekane - are trading jokes about the headlines their band generates.
"'Turn up the Volume,' 'Turn down the Volume,' 'Can't turn down the Volume,'" Tiago deadpans.
The three burst out laughing. The trio, made a quartet by bassist Dave Bergman, are sharing a rare moment of calm before embarking on their first North American tour, The African Way. The seven-date tour has been made possible by the tenacity of District Six Music, a Toronto-based label committed to promoting South African artists.
"Dave (Guenette) saw us opening for Blackalicious in Johannesburg, and he really loved it," explains Molekane. "He got hold of our CD, At The Bassline, and licensed it for North America."
The story now brings them to Toronto for the last two dates of their tour - an intimate show happening this evening at U of T's Arbor Room, and a bigger bang-out party at Revival tomorrow night.
Though often pegged as a hiphop outfit, Tumi and the Volume are a remarkable fusion of four strong individuals wrapped loosely together by a distinctly South African flavour. Molekane is a masterful storyteller, combining sensitive poetics on everyday Jo'burg life with the anti-colonialist politics of Frantz Fanon, and the three instrumentalists rise high above backing-band status to form an integral part of the tapestry.
Molekane used to perform his spoken word while the band jammed behind him at a regular slam poetry night in Johannesburg. Somewhere along the way something clicked, and the group fused together.
"We started out as poetry and background music," explains Chibanga, "but now we're doing more shows so we're playing more hiphop.
"But there are a lot of influences. I think that's the spice of the band, the masala. It's very different individuals in a group just pulling up ideas at the same time."
And, Molekane is quick to point out, the sound they produce isn't always necessarily hiphop. "Just because I emcee!" he laughs. "That's the only connection sometimes. Some of the times it's like a rumba thing, but just because I'm rhyming, people are like, 'It must be hiphop. '"
The South African music scene, like our own, is struggling against the overwhelming might of globalization. Local artists must compete against MTV-backed American superstars, and African voices sometimes find only sparse encouragement to explore their own stories and unique personal or regional styles.
"There's this genre of music called kwaito back home," explains Molekane. "It's like house music, but with a lot of vernacular chants in it, and very beat-driven. When it started, people were like, 'Yo, this is bubble-gum. This is flavour-of-the-month-type shit.'
"Now it's starting to develop, and people just kept doing it until they created a market for themselves. That's what I'm saying - you can't help but be yourself."
They must be onto something special, because in the years since the release of their dazzling At The Bassline disc, they've been kept very busy with invitations to perform around the world - from dive bars to Olympic torch ceremonies to private parties for the European elite.
"We've played Norway, Belgium, Greece, Ireland, the UK and now Canada," says Paulo. "In terms of Africa, I don't think we've done enough. We've done South Africa and Mozambique and Swaziland. Hopefully this year and next year we'll do more Africa maybe."
And, he continues, "We definitely want to come to Canada again during summer." He smiles wickedly. "Maybe we'll do the United States and sell out completely!" Molekane and Chibanga laugh.
"We also want to promote the idea that there's really good music in South Africa," says Molekane, his voice warm and sincere. "And it's not like a charity thing. It's not an exchange program or anything. It's just good music."