Grandmothers are powerful. It was the late Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile’s grandmother, Madikeledi, who planted in her grandchild the love for deep SeTswana tradition and language which became the root of his work. And it was Thabang Tabane’s grandmother, Matjale, who endowed her son, the late Philip Nchipi Tabane, with a rich legacy of traditional healing sounds, and her grandson with the spirit he brings to his drumming. “She used to call me that I must be with her at all times,” Thabang told Afropop Worldwide music writer Banning Eyre (http://afropop.org/articles/thabang-tabane-introduces-his-debut-album ) “So I think that’s where my father saw this, that I am a boy who can take this thing further. Because no-one taught me how to play drums…music was in me. So I think that’s the calling I had with her.”
If you know malombo music, your image of Thabang is probably of a very young man, enriching with all manner of percussion his father’s dazzling, flamboyant, guitar and song. But Thabang Thabane has not been that youngster for a long time. He’s 39, and over the dozen years before Philip’s death in May this year he took an increasingly front-of stage role, when first the death of the elder Tabane’s wife, and then his father’s declining health, made performing increasingly difficult. Thabang began working on his first album as leader two years ago, recording it in the family’s Mamelodi home. But the stresses of his father’s final time meant that it wasn’t ready for release until September. Now it’s out (https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/matjale/1427593376 ), and named for Matjale.
There have been many attempts to define and ‘own’ Malombo music, from the highly reductive labels ‘music accompanying Venda exorcism rites’ and ‘sound of the malombo drum’, to the various sonic concepts resulting from the break-up and re-formation of popular malombo groups under different leaders. The music cannot be confined by any of these.
For a start, it can’t be reduced to the word ‘music’ – at its origin, malombo represents not simply the sounds accompanying certain ceremonies, but the entire philosophy that those ceremonies embody. Tabane the elder rejected any attempt to call his work ‘music’ (never mind ‘jazz’), and his son continues that line of argument: “Malombo is spirit…healing…The stage is the platform for me to heal people [because] my grandmother is with me all the time.”
The most detailed study of the malombo sound so far was undertaken by Dr Sello Galane in his 2010 doctoral thesis (https://repository.up.ac.za/bitstream/handle/2263/24447/Complete.pdf?sequence=9 ). If you’re interested, and have not yet done so, read it. Galane acknowledges the syncretism that performing malombo in modern social settings and overseas brought. He also traces a dozen phases in the development of the malombo sound, with Phillip Tabane as its undisputed architect.
Matjale brings us what’s probably a thirteenth phase in the music’s development. The album comprises 10 tracks, mostly Thabang’s own compositions or developments of ancestral themes, with some drawn from his father’s work (Father and Mother and Ke Mmone, the latter based on Ke Utlwile) and one Venda song taught to Thabang by veteran percussionist Mabi Thobejane (Nyanda Yeni; see the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5HpESss0PE )
So what does this new malombo bring? There’s much that feels faithful to the music’s roots: the prominence of rich percussion textures and the focus of lyrics on important social themes, for example. Nyanda Yeni talks of drought; Babatshwenya attacks xenophobia in his home town: “We are all one; we should not do this…” There is still dazzling guitar work, this time from Sibusile Xaba. He’s clearly been influenced by Philip Tabane, but equally clearly is a voice in his own right. Xaba’s guitar work is edgier: less
flamboyant, but quietly subversive of any expectations your ears might bring. And then there’s the stuff that’s new. As my colleague Kwanele Sosibo (https://mg.co.za/article/2018-08-03-00-reserved-thabang-tabane-wants-to-keep-his-sound-simple , and who also wrote the album’s thoughtful liner text) has noted, the sounds of Thulani Ntuli’s electric bass feature in a way you’d not have heard in historic malombo, even in its most popular incarnations.
The bass does two things. It provides the groove that younger ears crave. “I know that mdala’s music could be difficult for people…I want [this] to be simple on people’s ears,” he told Sosibo. Ntuli, though, is a sensitive enough player not to shove in front of rhythm or lyrics.
Additionally, the bass reaches outwards, underlining a shared sonic space with pan-African and diasporic sounds. That’s most explicit on the opener, Richard, a dedication to the highly influential Camerounian bassist Richard Bona. Tabane says Bona’s onstage discipline reminds him of his father’s stern approach, and his innovation has constantly impressed. Another track, Freedom Station – that surely has to be named for Steve Mokoena’s sorely missed music spot? – even flirts briefly with soul. The final novel element is Thabang’s voice. He has told interviewers he never thought of himself as a vocalist until a Xhosa healer from Amampondo (with whom he was working in the combined ensemble PedXulu) urged him to release the “inner voice” with which his mind accompanied his drumming.
Thabang sings nothing like his father. Where Philip bent his voice around phrases with a rounded sound that was almost a yodel, Thabang’s singing declares him a drummer. His declamations, growls, whispers and breaths don’t only convey compelling messages, they also enrich and embellish the rhythms.
Thabang Thabane wants his music to heal, and that it surely does – including providing balm for the ache of emptiness his father’s bereft audiences feel. Because this is, unmistakeably, malombo that genre fans can embrace with joy. But it’s malombo for today – malombo crossing borders: generational, musical and geographic. It would never have worked for this album to simply ‘cover’ the malombo tradition. Philip Tabane was an impossible act to follow because he wasn’t any kind of ‘act’; he was 100% authentic. With Matjale, Thabang Tabane has shown us that he is, too.