Notes from the heart

Before we have even settled in our seats at a Newtown coffee shop, two passers-by have given bassist Bakithi Kumalo the ‘Wow! You’re back in the country!” treatment.

Kumalo left South Africa a quarter of a century ago to complete recording Paul Simon’s Graceland project and—although he has visited and played here many times since—fans tend to think of him predominantly in terms of his New York base and success. This visit, though, has been particularly low-key, because its main purpose has been family reconnection.

Kumalo’s early childhood was fractured: his musician father deserted his singer mother in favour of the other family he maintained in Durban.

Now, finally, Kumalo has seen the sister whose existence he knew of for 56 years, but whom he had never previously met. He is visibly moved simply describing the reunion: ‘As an African man, I need to rebuild these links. You don’t want the ancestors turning their backs on you —”

Legacy is important to Kumalo. His own musical lineage, he says, is ‘what saved me. Those were the riot days and school wasn’t a place you wanted to be. I don’t know how I would have turned out without music.”

Music from the heart
A saxophonist uncle’s band used to rehearse in Kumalo’s Soweto home. They left their instruments lying around and the young Kumalo, before he was seven, picked up the bass. ‘It was so big I had trouble playing it. But I loved the bass sound—when they rehearsed I could feel it in my chest, right in my heart.”

Not long after, his uncle’s bass player ‘got so drunk he couldn’t play. I volunteered.” He smiles ruefully. ‘I suppose I was messing up the gig a lot. I was young, but my spirit was there.”

Though he also played guitar, it was on fretless bass that the self-taught Kumalo developed his unique sound. He pioneered the use of the instrument in township bands.

‘I immediately heard that the fretless could be a real, great African instrument. It has a human voice and it can tell stories.”

The middle part of Kumalo’s life story is the best-known part: mentorship from, among others, Kippie Moeketsi, the Jo’burg club and function circuit, tireless session work, ducking the pass laws—and then the fortuitous link-up with Paul Simon and the ticket to New York.

Musical family
In the 25 years since he has settled in Brooklyn and founded his own family with singer Robbi Hall—‘my guide, my partner, my wife”.

Hall works in the city education system, giving Kumalo opportunities to teach at school level, and he is also a visiting faculty member at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

As well as sustaining his own bands, Kumalo has been bass player of choice for artists as diverse as Cyndi Lauper, Gloria Estefan, Harry Belafonte and Herbie Hancock. ‘In those contexts,” he says, ‘I’m always a student. New York is the best place to keep on learning.”

The bassist has recorded six albums. The best known here are 1996’s Step on the Bass Line and 2009’s Change. He is disappointed by the narrow attitude of local record labels with which he has had dealings. ‘They don’t know what to do with me. I’m a South African bass player and also a smart musician who can play anything. I’ve had accolades as one of the world’s top ­bassists and had my solos transcribed by international jazz magazines. But when I bring them ideas, they’re just sleepy.”

The current idea is for an album in tribute to his mentor, Sipho Gumede. ‘There’s something ­special about Durban players: the late Sipho, Bheki Mseleku, Allen Kwela, Themba ­Mkhize — The peaceful atmosphere, the lack of resources and so people are making their own instruments and compositions and not worrying about recording—it all feeds into tremendous creativity.”

Inspired by memories
That is not his only project. Alongside a long-standing desire to teach in South Africa, Kumalo is collaborating with fellow fretless bassist Carlo Mombelli to promote in schools an invention inspired by memories of his seven-year-old self struggling with an unwieldy Fender: a tiny ‘ukelele-bass” with rubber strings. ‘It’s small, light, fairly cheap to make and it looks good. Even my own kids prefer it.”

Thus memory and legacy inform Kumalo’s life. They will flavour his performance in Jo’burg, with pianist Stix Hojeng. Several of his family—known and rediscovered—will be in the audience.

‘I knew Stix from before I left with Graceland: a serious, studious young player. And then I met him again purely by chance, playing in the hotel where I was staying. We just had to work together. Everything started for me here and that’s why it’s so important to bring the music home.”

Bakithi Kumalo and Stix Hojeng (with guests) play in Talk about Jazz in the Circle Bar at the Rosebank Crowne Plaza Hotel on Friday February 24 from about 7.30pm.

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