Dr Philip Tabane hated being labelled. How he’d feel about the all official obituaries that confine him inside the jazz envelope is clear: “ The jazz label – or any other label – has never worked in my case. Once, I went to play at a competition in Durban and in the end I was given a special prize because I could not be categorised. To this day, they still cannot categorise my music.”
That was at my second interview with the artist, in 1997 at the old Kippies jazz club in Newtown. The first had been almost a decade earlier, sitting close to the riverbank outside the Woodpecker club in Gaborone. Clouds of smoke from the log fire he’d made them light kept the mozzies away, and began the slow, careful process of drying out his malombo drums, whose skins, he felt, were a bit damp and stretchy for tonight’s gig. There was other smoke too, grey-green and herbally aromatic.
The rumour was that Tabane was a difficult interviewee. Sometimes he’d refuse to speak at all; often – as was his constitutional right – he refused to speak in English. I never found him anything but gravely courteous, so long as you listened. He tolerated my linguistc inadequacies, called in other band members to help out – but sometimes there was a flow of ideas that simply couldn’t be pinned down in English like a dead butterfly to a display card. Because his music couldn’t easily be be discussed in such a tight-assed, pragmatic language. It was intimately woven into his cosmology and spirituality; he needed to talk about them all together and the English language was too culturally bounded to provide him with the right words. Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini is currently working to develop a terminology that better captures the spiritual dimensions of African improvisation, and Tabane’s music needs that.
So I’m reluctant to attempt any kind of evaluative obituary. You really need to be an insider to do that. But there are two fine pieces of writing that do get there. The first is Lucas Ledwaba’s work-in-progress biography, from which you can read an extract here: https://mukurukurumedia.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/the-world-that-made-philip-tabane/ For my money, Ledwaba touches the soul of malombo music and its origins in a way that few other writers have. The second is Bongani Madondo’s account of his expansive week-long interview for Rolling Stone SA in 2013, reprinted in his book Sigh, the Beloved Country (http://panmacmillan.co.za/catalogue/sigh-the-beloved-country/ )
Tabane was born in 1934 (though some biographies give other dates) in rural Ga Ramotshegoa, into a family of guitarists: his elder brother, he told journalists, was “better than Wes Montgomery” and the adulation radio stations gave to American players mystified him. His mother Matjale was a spiritual healer, and from her he absorbed the music of her calling; his father, a devout Christian who fostered hymn-singing at family services. He heard Ndebele and Sepedi traditional tunes from his local village band, and despite being chased away from social functions because he was too young, he did what many young South Africans did: he covertly improvised an instrument from an oilcan and a broomstick, and tried to learn. He also sneaked in to attempt his brother’s guitar while Mmaloki was out. By his teens, his parents had relented and he acquired a real guitar.
Uprooted in 1953 by brutal government clearances, the family settled in urban Mamelodi and by 1959, Tabane had formed his first band, the Lullaby-Landers. But as the 1960s progressed, he became more interested in exploring how traditional sounds could be interpreted and extended via a blend of modern and traditional instruments. He formed Malombo, which won first prize at the 1964 Cold Castle Festival.
Malombo went through multiple personnel changes as participants sought other musical directions or chose exile, but retained its percussionist rock: Gabriel “Mabi” Thobejane.
In the 1970s, Malombo spent time in the US, including an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, of which Jet magazine said: “”One of the most pleasurable finds of the Newport Jazz Festival this year was Malombo from South Africa, Malombo create some weird and haunting music on a variety of African instruments.” The time in America convinced him of the necessity of holding fast to roots inspiration, which he saw as a springboard for limitless imagination and innovation in technique. Tabane worked with players such as Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, and even in his later days, he relished Miles’ music. But – “he plays to make money, and I play for the spirit,” he often told interviewers. When it was suggested he played “like” Davis, he responded: “No, I don’t play like Miles. Miles plays like me.”
He always resisted the hybridizing marketing label “malombo jazz”.
But during the 1970s and 1980s, when recordings of Tabane gained overseas status with afficionados as astounding music, it was hardly heard at home. Many Tabane albums were not even available here. It was only after 1994, that the re-releases started happening, and fresh recording and performance opportunities began – too slowly – to emerge.
Tabane was not “like” any other player, and his various honorary doctorates were less than his status as an original creator of unique sounds merited. To hear him live was miraculous. Dressed in a blend of cowboy-guitarist suit and traditional adornments, he’d proceed to travel from delicate, poignant melodies (often recalling his first rural home and its ways of life) to fast, mercurial runs of astounding technical virtuosity and harsh, minatory chords that seemed to rip the guts out of the instrument. His music took you to the spheres and back: he was our Sun Ra, our Ali Farka Toure, and a great deal more.
You’ll still hunt for a complete discography anywhere. Below is my attempt at one. It indicates the rest of his career, but it misses many of the multiple compilations on which his tracks – sometimes stolen or unacknowledged – crop up.
Tabane’s death underlines the urgency of getting Ledwaba’s book out. But nothing can make up for his loss. Just listen to the music and you’ll hear why. Hamba Kahle.
SELECT DISCOGRAPHY AND LINKS
1964 Cold Castle Jazz Festival (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wK-FFe9SyU )
1969 The Indigenous Afro-jazz Sounds of Philip Tabane and Malombo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdH-2pOgIpY )
1976 Pele Pele
1976 Malombo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAs4bvnf8T8
1978 Sangoma (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCm2Z5H4Neo )
1986 Man Phily (compilation)
1989 Silent Beauty (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiMAAgjeGdE
1976 Malombo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qX5pJlBMRbo )
1996 Ke a Bereka
2010 Live at The Market Theatre (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjmyPh5TJy4&list=PLV9rfa2PuXiU2lLFV_Om0QHt95LMM8Qbc )
2013 Bajove Dokotela (SABC documentary by Khalo Matabane) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qX5pJlBMRbo