A confluence of divine interventions brings to bear a magical synchrony that bestows a harmony in the pagination of our brotherly gifts from beyond this realm and towards each other.
Back in the 1970s, in the early days of the Steve Biko-led Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), Lefifi Tladi and I cultivated our respective seminal cultural groups along parallel lines across South Africa. While he led Dashiki in Ga-Rankuwa, Pretoria, I developed Malopoets in Clermont and Mariannridge, Durban.
At the height of the Black Consciousness Movement in the early 1970s, Steve Biko and his colleagues came to the realisation that the organisation needed to harness culture as the central pivot in the creative mechanism for galvanising the consciousness of the people. Without any hesitation, alliances were formed with artists of all idioms around the Durban area, where the BCM was founded and based. I became a part of this groundswell of creativity with the likes of Strini Moodley and Sam Moodley in theatre, and Ben Langa and Mandla Langa in poetry. However, I also brought to this mix my gift of fusing poetry with music and percussion. It was a natural step for me to go on to set up Malopoets in line with this format.
Across from the burgeoning Durban cultural milieu, the BCM alliances spread to other flourishing hot spots of rising consciousness around the country. The most prominent of these, alongside Soweto, were Mamelodi and Ga Rankuwa in Pretoria. With fellow musicians Gilbert ‘Gilly’ Mabale (flute and saxophone), Oupa Rantobeng Mokou (vibraphone) and Lawrence Moloisi (guitar), the young Lefifi Tladi (percussion and poetry), profoundly inspired by Philip Tabane, Abbey Cindi and Julian Bahula’s Malombo Jazzmen, formed Malombo Jazz Messengers, later changed to Dashiki. This group, moulded in a similar manner to Malopoets, but slightly earlier – in 1969, radically shifted the dynamic in terms of employing creative cultural expression as a means of raising the consciousness of the people.
The vibrancy of Lefifi’s and my creative cultural activism was bound to lead us to each other in the natural magnetic mode of a pair of energy lines of longitude that are parallel at the equator but converge toward the poles. The force of this timeous convergence sparked an explosion of expressive energy that sent ripples across the country. I remember several key moments in our unified flourishing of poetry, music and graphic expression that have stayed with me like the pulse of the blood in my veins.
Recently, I was invited by Mmatshilo Motsei to bring my water drum to initiate a ceremonial ritual of calling on our ancestors to bless our gathering at the Selepe forest in Hammanskraal, South Africa. The convocation was to honour the generations of work done by members of the neighbouring communities, for whom the sacred forest holds special meaning as a source of healing herbs, underground water supplies and a labyrinth of groves that store the memories of their navel ties to the earth.
I sprinkled water in the four cardinal directions of the universe, before playing rippling rhythms and engaging the circle of four generations of attendants in call-and-response invocations of the ancestral spirits who were still alive in the forest.
At the end of a series of testimonies from everyone present, we were asked to write down our contact details in a book that was passed round. After entering my details I passed the book to the man sitting to my left. He took the pen from me, and as he was about to write, he noticed my name. He nearly dropped the book in shock and immediately shouted: “Are you Eugene Skeef of Malopoets?” I said “Yes!” The book and pen fell out of his hands onto the grass. He stood bolt upright in front of me and stretched out his arms. I promptly stood up. We wrapped our arms around each other and squeezed in the tightest silent embrace I had ever experienced. Then, on releasing our grip, he ululated and proceeded to tell me that Malopoets had been one of the twin wings of the inspirational bird of his creative flight as a young man growing up in the wake of the Black Consciousness Movement wave of cultural renaissance. The other wing was Dashiki.
I bent to pick up the pen and book and passed them to my new brother so that he could add his name and phone number to the list of contacts. I shook hands with him and he promised to stay in touch with me because he would love for me to come to his cultural centre in Johannesburg to inspire the young members he teaches about Black Consciousness and the legacy of Biko.
It was emboldening to discover that the resonant antiphonal song that Lefifi and I sang way back in the 1970s still reverberates across the vast forest of time to echo in the galvanised hearts of contemporary gatherings.
Lefifi and I were forced into exile at different points – he in 1976, I in 1980. He ended up in Stockholm and I in London. However, the superficial division in time and place did not last long. Before we could fully inhale the incense of our separation, we would reconnect at my flat in Brixton. My home flowered into one of the most popular destinations for exiled artists and political activists from South Africa and across the African continent. It was here where we would consolidate our magnetic relationship into a hybrid creative language of our braided expressive dialects.
A vivid memory I have is of one of these visits from Lefifi that were essentially residencies in my family home. He would frenetically produce charcoal drawings while I wrote poems. We would combine these into posters and pages of a calendar that I designed.
This was the beginning of the cultivation of OASIS.
Then, many years later, when Lefifi had returned to South Africa and I was still in London, I arranged for my niece Noelene to deliver the manuscript of my symphonic poem ‘in search of my river’ to him in Pretoria. I had always wished for us to publish a book of my poetry and his drawings as a testament to our long creative association. The idea did not germinate, due to the social strains on Lefifi’s life at the time. So we let the concept fade into a long silence…
In 2019 our mutual friend Jessica Rucell, who was supervising Lefifi’s legacy, contacted me from South Africa about the urgent need to collate and digitise his vast archive that was scattered across the world. The feeling was that I could be of critical help because of my special relationship with Lefifi, but also because my extensive network reached many of the people who had possession of his unique original handwritten letters which often incorporated his ink drawings.
And so, our dormant dream was elevated from the parallel to the liminal. My beautiful brother and I rose to the choreography of the divine and danced across the temporary boundary to reunite at the confluence of our creative expressive song. Together we reignited our souls in the shimmering moment that seeped through the fissures of elongated time… and the braided waters of our bejewelled unity re-emerged among the quivering particles of sand.
It was left for the immensely inspired conduit of the cosmic muse to be brought to the valley of flowing fecundity for the initiation of our revelation. This happened during a Kaya FM radio interview when the renowned South African broadcaster Brenda Sisane was talking with me about my creative work around the world. Lefifi, listening to the show in Stockholm, phoned in and remarked that I was a roaming oasis to all those who came into contact with me. There was the title of our collaborative book!
We arrived at the estuary of our collaborative expression, with all its alluvial riches from the long flow from the headwaters of our shared history in the 1970s, during the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdowns of 2020. Lefifi and I immersed ourselves in producing daily pieces of ink collages and handwritten art poems respectively. We shared these with our global “followers” on our social media platforms.
In writing my poems by hand, I was echoing the inspiration of my childhood practice, whereby I started writing poetry at age five, using Winsor Newton inks that my father had bought me in support of my perceived gifts. In 2020 I found that exact brand of inks in one of the art materials cupboards in our home. Azra had bought them for our daughter Tulani, but she ignored them, preferring rather to pursue her passion for dance. The mini-poems flowed unceasing…
My poems garnered such interest in communities across the world that, in some cases, they were painted on public walls to inspire local communities to find positive ways of coping with the distress of the impact of the lockdowns on their lives. One particularly emboldening example of this was in the village of Splott on the outskirts of Cardiff in Wales, where the renowned violinist and singer Sianed Jones painted my poem a cherished self …. and featured it in her blog.
Then, Lefifi and I, together with Rose Ssali and our project manager Brenda Sisane, decided on a selection of poems and drawings to bring out as a cohesive book. We were ready to inspire a world yearning for peace in a time of unprecedentedly widespread uncertainty.
The love that suffuses our creative collaborative expression is infused with an element of sacrifice that transforms the oasis of our destination into an altar where the participants of our ceremonial gathering must perform ablutions that deep-cleanse the water for which they thirst, even as it is soiled by their tears.
A personal joy for Lefifi and me in delivering our book comes from the very special companionship that we have been blessed with all the way. This comes in the form of the foreword and previews by our esteemed and erudite colleagues Mandla Langa, Dr June Bam, Dr Wangui Wa Goro and Onyekachi Wambu, and the design consultancy and production partnership of Mudzithe Phiri and Lloyd Mudaly.
We give you OASIS.