'Again She Reigns', the latest offering from South African electronic music duo Batuk, consists of an EP and an exhibition telling the stories of iconic African women.
It wasn't long after their 2018 album Kasi Royalty that vocalist Manteiga and producer Spoek Mathambo of the electronic music duo Batuk started conceptualising and working on their latest project.
Its title "Again She Reigns" is a nod to the return of Batuk as well as the stories of legendary African women that are being highlighted on this audiovisual project. A celebration of exceptional women that span history, the project also sees the group exploring the right to write (or rewrite) history. "[Spoek] and I were learning so many things about African mathematicians, warriors, heroes that we'd never been taught about in school," explains Manteiga of the initial inspiration behind the project in an interview with OkayAfrica.
Comprising an EP that features eight sonic portraits named after the highlighted women, each song is paired with a physical painting of its subject. The duo started with a long list of women before deciding on which of Spoek's productions would work on the project and then finally deciding which women and their narrative fit which production.
The women Again She Reigns calls attention to range from freedom fighters to mathematicians with selections based on factors that ranged from the duo wanting to share relatively unknown stories to them resonating with the stories themselves. "There are some women like Hypatia that I've never heard of in my life, and I can't understand why I know about all these other guys from another continent and the science and mathematics they have developed but my own mother, I don't know about her? So it was about selecting those things that I would have loved to know about growing up and that I want my kids to know about," Manteiga notes.
The content on Again She Reigns is more focused than on Kasi Royalty, and the same can be said for the sonics. "It has much more intention. On Kasi Royalty, the songs were different, they had different elements, different subject matter, not necessarily important subject matter whereas this is quite intentional," says Mantenga.
The EP's first single, the stripped-back, piano-led "Mutumia Ngatha" released last year brings forth the story of Muthoni Wa Kirima, the only female field marshal in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army who fought for independence against the British colonial forces. A living legend, she is vocal about her disappointment with the post-colonial Kenyan governments and has vowed to never cut her dreadlocks, which she started growing in the 1950s when she went to fight the British in the forests of Kenya's Aberdare mountains until she sees the benefits of independence. "She was a leader, a front-runner one, now dirt poor, living with barely a roof over her head like the rest of the veterans and she's almost 90, she was fighting for her country and then they turned their backs on her," exclaims Manteiga.
The follow-up single and opening track released earlier this year is the Portuguese "Rainha Makeda" telling the tale of Negeste Saba Makeda, also known as the Queen of Sheba.
Manteiga, one half of Batuk, says in their latest project, they aimed to tell stories of iconic African women they would have liked to read about growing up. Image courtesy of Batuk.
The groovy, percussion-driven track tells the tale of this ancient African queen, a story that's been told and retold for almost 3000 years and features in the Bible, Qur'an and Tora, as well as in Turkish and Persian paintings, in Kabbalistic treatises and in medieval Christian mystical works.
Of the two upcoming singles, "Perpetua & Felicity" is the more energetic, summer-ready release and one whose writing process required a lot of research. "She had a journal, so I had access to that. It was both of us sitting, looking at poems and taking out what I feel from it," says Manteiga of her and Spoek's approach.
The result is lyrics such as, "Who deals the justice?/ No, they don't trust us/ Naked they cast us/ Thereto as witness," which paint a vivid picture of the two third-century Christian martyrs' violent ends with Perpetua, a married noblewoman and Felicity, a slave, a fact that also raises questions for Manteiga.
"Their story is interesting to me because I'm also not sure whether they were lovers. I'm interested in people standing up for their identities and pushing against whatever the system tells them they must be," Manteiga explains.
The other single, "Fezekile Khwezi" is more subdued, reminiscent of late nights, a perfect fit for the track's heavier subject, one that Manteiga tackled for personal reasons as well as for others. "We are living in the rape epicentre of the world. I feel we still haven't gone into her story. Things were kind of just stopped, he was protected. By his presidency, the ANC Women's League and it's the same, so many people are being protected today. So many rape cases are being pushed under."
Mutumia Ngatha (On the Other Side) www.youtube.com
The track details the experience of Fezekile Kuzwayo, also known as Kwhezi or accuser x in the rape trial of former South African president, Jacob Zuma, a person she considered as a family friend, father figure and uncle. Having been disappointed by the outcome of the trial, with no resolution found, she fled to the Netherlands and would only return to South Africa in 2011. She passed away in 2016.
"I have a similar experience where seven years later there is still no justice for me and I know that so many people have that. So I celebrate her bravery, I honour her and I honour my bravery and everybody else who has been through that. It's important as a form of healing for me to put it out there and for others who have the shared pain to potentially heal from that," says Manteiga.
While the subject matter on Again She Reigns may be heavy, the sonics don't convey this, with Batuk retaining their bold, dance-focused energy using strong rhythms and grooves. Manteiga explains, "We love the drums, we love the euphoric expression that it gives us and that we try to put out. Also, some of the stories are really gloomy and I don't feel we need to do that. We need to uplift people. We need to speak about what the different women went through, but we don't necessarily have to make things dark and gloomy."
Again She Reigns is a clear step in the evolution of Batuk and has seen them become more cohesive and conceptual in their execution. Producing music that can make you dance or make you think, the duo has found a way to live in the club and gallery at the same time.