Friedman x Makhene Electro meets percussion

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Burnt Friedman and Tlale Makhene in concert © Tseliso Monaheng

On tour in sub-Saharan Africa, German electronic music pioneer Burnt Friedman teamed up with South African percussion legend Tlale Makhene for a one-off concert. Tseliso Monaheng spoke to Friedman about patterns and the universality of music.

On an early Sunday evening in Parkwood, Johannesburg, a group of people gathered outside the Goethe Institut’s auditorium waiting for the musician Burnt Friedman to perform. A pioneer of electronic music in Germany, Friedman’s music drew interest from a wide array of people - from little children to old folk. A sizeable portion of them had been to see Mpho Molikeng’s performance earlier and decided to stick around. Inside the hall, Friedman and Tlale Makhene, the widely-respected and critically-acclaimed South African percussionist, did their final round of sound check. No one could have been prepared for the musical cook-up which was about to take place.

In front of a capacity crowd, Friedman and Makhene stepped up to perform their duty which, at that point, was crystal in its clarity - to obliterate the audience’s senses! The former fired up sounds from his intricate set-up of electronic hardware, letting his bass-heavy contraptions linger while Makhene mean-mugged his percussive genius in-between empty spaces, inherently producing a fuller, more dynamic and endearing sound. The first steps of their secret takeover had begun; they had successfully managed to grab people’s attention.
695x300_Tlale Makhene1 Burnt Friedman and Tlale Makhene in concert © Tseliso Monaheng The next hour and a half resembled musical manipulation of the highest kind. With only limited time to rehearse and no prior knowledge of each other’s work, Makhene and Friedman vibed off of each other like long-standing musical compatriots, steadily building solid walls of sound which they then effortlessly destroyed with their many twists and round-abouts. They essentially took people’s emotions on a rollercoaster, and everyone went along willingly because it was all so sweet, so endearing, so perfect!

Friedman smiled repeatedly, exchanging quick glances with Makhene who was egging people towards a semi-riot with his quick fire drumming, standing up when the energy got too intense, and settling back on his stool for brief moments of quiet. Found sounds, deep bass rhythms, multi-time drum signatures, and ambient psychedelic grooves proved just the right fodder for Makhene’s endearing antics. His ear for rhythm is second-to-none; it’s almost as if he knew, instinctively, what percussive instrument would work on every song setting. He progressed with the change-ups in the music, paid attention to Friedman’s off-kilter change-ups, and rallied the audience to join their movement of musical wizardry. Sharp, on-point, and always keeping track of the beat, Makhene proved the perfect wingman to Friedman’s more subdued demeanour.

We lapped it all up, clapping, whistling, and even ululating when the opportunity presented itself. A toddler even ascended the stage and danced around a bit while attempting to play side-kick to lend a third hand to Makhene’s playing.

From samples of Mongolian throat chants, to Makhene’s own vocal inflections which added an extra layer to the already thickly-textured sound the audience got treated to; from four-to-the-floor beats to funk-driven half-step grooves, the two musicians knew how to navigate often complex sonic terrain such that it translated to the audience. Some songs treaded dangerously on the edge of techno music territory before redeeming themselves and becoming something much slower and impossible to trace.

Friedman refuses to be locked within the restrictive zone of ‘genre’. To him, it’s all an interrelated sequence of conceptual frameworks, a canvas onto which he incorporates wild combinations of ideas. We discussed this approach prior to the show, as well as his impressions of the different cities at which he stopped over during his excursion to the African continent. This is what transpired.

You were in Kampala just yesterday. What were your impressions of the city?

It’s really different from this area for sure. The traffic is as [bad] as anywhere else, but I think it’s super-beautiful, tropical.

What inspired the tour which you’ve been embarking on?

I think the reason for this tour, whether conscious to the organizers or not, is the material I carry, the music itself. The rhythm language that I use originates from a partner of mine, Jaki Liebezeit. We both have developed a system of playing rhythms that could be called universal. It’s a kind of motion formula, a way to move that applies to all the instruments, all the elements in the music. They all follow the same…


It’s [a] pattern if you like, but it’s more than that. It also gives you a hint to move properly balanced; since this is frequency, it requires left and right, a plus and minus pole. It’s not something that could be memorized or played back by listening to it, it needs to be felt. Each stroke is felt when the motion formula is applied. I would claim that the rhythm works as the music requires it to move. With those physical components in mind - I’d say they’re the same anywhere in the universe. Usually, to all the regions I come to, and especially in Europe, we have one predominant rhythm. It’s slightly different from this continent, but it’s been exported to the US and most [other] places.

Is it the 4/4 pattern?

Yes! It seems like a harmless statement, but in fact it’s been drawn into everyone’s muscles. If another natural rhythm pattern appears, people tend to not understand it, especially people who are trained in music. It’s actually easier for people who have no knowledge about the ingredients [to be] more at ease with these irregular grooves. It’s just a different symmetry that incorporates longer cycles than four. On this continent we can often find, for instance on the West African coast, a constellation running in 12.

Or even 6/8 patterns?

You say 6/8, but this is already Western thinking, because how would you divide 6 by 8.

It’s not possible. Well, it is mathematically, but doesn’t result in a whole number.

It’s one indication that proves how mad and obsessively imaginative notation and musical thinking is, because it doesn’t account for the motion; it doesn’t account for a rhythm coming from somewhere, and going to [another place]. It doesn’t account for the cyclic nature of rhythm.

How do you mean?

Cyclic as opposed to rhythm and notation in bars. That’s called divisive rhythm - hence why we have sections in bars. A bar goes from a start to an end-point, and then repeats. But a cycle doesn’t have a start and end-point; it depends on your perspective, it accounts for someone who perceives the music. It’s not simply a picture of the music, it’s an abstraction of what’s in motion; it’s just an abstraction. With what we do, it’s much simpler; constructions like 6/8 or 3/4 are a big handicap [in understanding] how this music works. They are especially a handicap for people who try to drum to it. So what we have is 5/5, 7/7…

But that’s 1.

Why is it 1, 5 divided by 5 makes 5 equal components of the rhythm. It’s 5 equal components, which are 1 of course! So what I’m saying is it’s very simple, just divide what is called a bar into equal parts, and not into something that’s not real. It might be real for classical music, for instruments that follow notes. It defines the length of the note. But with rhythm you don’t have that. You have either a strong or a quiet impulse; you have impulses of almost the same length. Maybe you can have a deep and a high tone to account for, roughly. But that’s not needed, it’s superfluous. If you put it cyclically, you don’t have an accentuated or an unaccentuated part of the bar. The beginning of the bar must not be accentuated, not necessarily. That results [in] the natural motion pattern.
695x300_Burnt Friedman3 Burnt Friedman and Tlale Makhene © Tseliso Monaheng Those are interesting ideas.

Yes, you will see and hear what I think.

Have you always been inclined to electronic music?

No, I wouldn’t even call it electronic music. I’ve been using microphones and all sorts of instruments, but because I’ve started producing music as well to keep the recordings, to archive those recordings, to edit recordings, and to layer or overdub recordings, the recording tool or the electronic device...I take it for granted. I’ve been throwing synthetic and acoustic elements together. To me it doesn’t matter; it describes the surface of the music but not the language of it.

Is there a definition for the sound?

On this tour I came up with the term ‘traditional music from nowhere’ or neo-traditional music by electronic means. This means it can incorporate a computer as a recording tool. [It provides] treatment possibilities that are not possible with any other instrument, and it accounts for the playback on the speaker system. I’m used to having loud speakers; otherwise you can’t hear the stuff that’s been recorded.

German electronic music pioneer Burnt Friedman toured Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala and Johannesburg in 2013. In South Africa, he teamed up with percussion legend Tlale Makhene for a once-off concert at the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg on 13.10.2013.