Re­served Ta­bane wants to keep his sound sim­ple

Mail & Guardian - - Film & Music - Kwanele Sosibo

Nearly two years have elapsed since Tha­bang Ta­bane’s solo de­but Mat­jale was recorded at the Mamelodi West, Pre­to­ria, home he shared with his fa­ther, gui­tarist Philip Ta­bane.

Since then, Ta­bane has toured Europe, test­ing the ap­petite for his own ma­te­rial and that of for­mer record­ing spar Sibusile Xaba.

Be­cause of un­fore­seen cir­cum­stances, the re­lease of Mat­jale, by Jo­han­nes­burg-based la­bel Mush­room Hour, was pushed back by more than a year and eclipsed by the death of Ta­bane’s fa­ther — his men­tor and mu­si­cal teacher — in May this year.

“I have re­ally avoided the pres­sure,” says Ta­bane, when asked whether his fa­ther’s death will weigh on his mu­si­cal fu­ture. It is a warm Sun­day af­ter­noon. He is dressed ca­su­ally, seated in the same court­yard that served as his record­ing grounds some years ago.

“My [old] timer was my timer. Sharp. But he didn’t put me un­der any pres­sure to see this as any­thing other than my way of life. There is no par­tic­u­lar way I am ex­pected to be­have.”

That last bit is im­por­tant, and per­haps in­struc­tive about the prod­uct we will hear when it fi­nally hits the shelves in mid-Septem­ber.

“I like to work na­ma­jitha,” says Ta­bane of his ap­proach to mu­sic mak­ing. “I don’t want to work with some­one who has some pro­fes­sional airs about them. As you see me with [per­cus­sion­ist] Den­nis [Moan­ganei] Ma­gag­ula, he’s an outy; you would never say we play to­gether. It makes it easy for me. I pre­fer that set-up. Yenza um­culo ube­grand.”

Al­though Ta­bane was groomed in the tra­di­tion of mal­ombo, of­ten dodg­ing school, as his fa­ther did, to kick­start his own mu­si­cal ex­per­i­ments, his ver­sion of the mal­ombo sound is im­bued with an ur­gent, al­most sur­vival­ist ex­pres­sion of joy, set over bass heavy per­cus­sion-pro­pelled grooves.

“It’s be­cause I want it to be sim­ple on peo­ple’s ears,” he says, as he and Ma­gag­ula half tend to a char­coal fire in an­tic­i­pa­tion of an af­ter­noon braai. “I know that mdala’s mu­sic could be dif­fi­cult for peo­ple. Some peo­ple are only get­ting it now.”

Dur­ing the record­ing ses­sions, Dr Mal­ombo was there, more a spirit guide than a phys­i­cal pres­ence. “He was al­ready un­well but he would shuf­fle about, act­ing like he wasn’t pay­ing at­ten­tion when he was,” says Ta­bane, a warm tone pierc­ing his scratchy voice.

“When it came to mu­sic, he would just give you the punch­lines. It wasn’t like change this or change that, he would slyly re­lay what he thought. When we would re­hearse, there was a look that would pop up on his face, and from that I could tell how he was re­lat­ing to the mu­sic.

“He wouldn’t try to put me down ver­bally. If he didn’t like what I was do­ing, it would be there on this face just the same.”

When Ta­bane later played the mu­sic for his fa­ther, he would ask: “Ke mang oa tshamekang mo? Ey ba tshame ka monate yo!”

For Ta­bane, the pre­cepts of mal­ombo are straight­for­ward: a re­turn to a knowl­edge of self in an age when ur­ban­i­sa­tion has in­ter­rupted lines of com­mu­nion with an­ces­tral spirits.

For Ta­bane, too, the ne­ces­sity of forg­ing his own mu­si­cal jour­ney has cre­ated a tinge of bit­ter­ness in his heart. It is some­thing he wears on his sleeve like a badge, a shield against ex­ploita­tion and what­ever per­ceived or real slights.

“I think I have com­pro­mised a lot and I feel like they don’t ap­pre­ci­ate what I have given to the mu­sic,” he says. “I have that anger af­ter putting in so much [ef­fort], but maybe it’s be­cause of my quiet­ness be­cause, when I play with other peo­ple, I don’t speak as much as I am speak­ing now, out of re­spect for other peo­ple’s mu­sic.”

Through Mat­jale, whose ti­tle refers to Ta­bane’s grand­mother, he sketches a new blue­print for mal­ombo, one that si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­flects his jour­ney as a con­tem­po­rary black man from Pi­tori whose an­ces­try tran­scends the stri­a­tion of the black ex­pe­ri­ence.

There are odes to his mu­si­cal he­roes, such as the gui­tar wail and bass thun­der of Richard, which re­calls the ef­fect Richard Bona has had on his mu­si­cal sen­si­bil­ity. “Be­sides the fact that he’s an ex­cel­lent bassist, I just watched him from afar,” says Ta­bane. “He’s into his per­sonal space. Like, back­stage, you can’t en­ter his quiet space, which is what I think makes him so great. His dis­ci­pline is scary. But other mu­si­cians have been so in­flu­enced by him as to copy him, so I tend to leave him alone a bit.”

Ng­wananga, in which twisting, of­ten sharp drums run against gui­tars and iso­lated bass lines, re­calls an in­ci­dent in which Ta­bane was ap­proached by a healer about find­ing his in­ner voice. It stretches back to Ta­bane’s PedXulu days, which in­cluded men­tors such as Mabi Thobe­jane, gui­tarist Madala Kunene and mem­bers of Amam­pondo. An­other stand­out is Ba­batshwenya, a chill­ing cry against xeno­pho­bia that cen­tres Pi­tori as its ral­ly­ing point.

Lop­ing, in­fec­tious and cycli­cal, Mat­jale, es­pe­cially given the try­ing cir­cum­stances of this year, is Ta­bane’s step­ping into the fray of a com­mod­i­fied and con­tested mal­ombo sound.

“If we are go­ing to do some­thing, it is ei­ther we do it prop­erly or not at all,” says Ta­bane, the pun­gent smell of char­coal waft­ing through the air.

“As one grows, one learns how to stand on one’s own two feet, hence my thing about do­ing these gigs ekasi. Just get a venue, tell peo­ple and they’ll come and sup­port the move­ment.”

A new blue­print: Tha­bang Ta­bane is tak­ing mal­ombo for­ward. Photo: Lidudu­ma­lin­gani Mqom­bothi

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