Barney Rachabane: The little giant of jazz

Barney Rachabane is a walking, talking record. Not the kind that plays music, although Rachabane is certainly able, but an account of South African music and life in living form. Something about the way he is able to recall six decades of South African jazz history makes one feel that if Rachabane were to die, a great deal of history would be lost. He is a living documentary.

He settles down on his couch at his Soweto home, arms outstretched: light blue jersey, jeans, trademark hat in place, and he doesn’t remove his sunglasses. He’s “hip”, the 68-year-old Rachabane reminds us later in the interview. He is also short, but what he lacks in height, he makes up for in wit. 

Rachabane was one of many South African musicians who played on Paul Simon’s Graceland tour — which lasted 20 years. The last gig was in 2012 in Amsterdam. 

“He’s a beautiful guy,” he says, when asked about Simon. 

While he is walking and talking, Octavia, his jazz-singing last-born, emerges carrying a brief history of her father’s life — a treasure trove of photographs from his career. 

Unthinkingly, he brushes away the band photographs of Simon’s tour and other snapshots of great players with whom he has shared the stage. He picks up a faded portrait: six young black faces. Penny-whistle players, mostly, and one guitarist. Rachabane is at the end; shorter than the rest, wearing oversized trousers held precariously in place by a belt. 

“I was eight years old in this picture. Eight! That means I have been playing for 60 years. Sixty!” 

They called themselves the Kwela Kids. Rachabane lights up. He doesn’t mention it but the picture was probably taken in Johannesburg’s Alexandra, in the township where Rachabane lived until apartheid’s police came knocking. A forced eviction moved the family to Soweto. 

But he says he’s really from a little further afield. “I’m a Pedi. A Pedi from Pretoria.”  

The house in Soweto is where the Rachabanes have lived ever since that cruel eviction. This is home. Rachabane laughs off the idea that the pants he is wearing in that photograph are clearly not his own. He insists that they were intentionally oversized. He was “hip” even then, and clearly a trendsetter and predictor of future fashion fads, he says. “This is what all the kids are wearing today.”  

Speaking of today, Rachabane is not amused with “that talking music”. “You know that music where they just talk, man,” he says. “You know? It’s just talking. Just talking. I think they call it rap music.”  

His disdain for the genre extends to most popular music. “It changes all the time. Now it’s rap, in 10 years it will be something else. But jazz? Jazz is forever.” 

And Rachabane would know: his brief flirtation with kwela would evolve in the Sixties and Seventies, becoming intertwined with the jazz that was being played in the township. In many ways, that jazz, that tradition, remains Rachabane’s flesh and blood; it is in every fibre of his little being. 

But if he considers all popular music a lesser art form, it should follow that the Paul Simon tours were not musically satisfying. But that is not so, and he answers the question with surprise. 

“It’s good music. Have you heard that album, Graceland? It’s very good music.” 

Back to the photographs, as Rachabane remembers Darius Brubeck, the American pianist who has remained a life-long friend. 

Many other musicians in the photographs were met at jazz festivals around the world: Montreal, New Orleans, Cape Town, Rome, New York City.  

Rachabane’s alto-saxophone case carries a souvenir from the Big Apple: an address of the hotel Rachabane “always” stays at whenever he visit the city. 

This international career would no doubt never have taken off were it not for the exposure he received from the Graceland tour, but it was a controversial tour at the time. Simon was heavily criticised for breaking the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa. 

On the tour’s final leg in 2012, Simon furiously defended his decision in an interview with the reporter Robin Denselow.  

“I’m with the artists. I didn’t ask the permission of the ANC. I didn’t ask permission of Buthelezi, or Desmond Tutu, or the Pretoria government. And, to tell you the truth, I have a feeling that when there are radical transfers of power on either the left or the right, the artists always get screwed. The guys with the guns say, ‘This is important’, and the guys with guitars don’t have a chance,” Simon told the Guardian at the time. 

Rachabane seems to share such sentiments. He isn’t political, he says. “I’m just a musician.” But he has strong views about the treatment of the arts in South Africa. 

For him, artists have been given short shrift by governments, which just aren’t interested in funding the arts. In the South African context, this angers him, because he sees the music scene of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties as one that was supportive of the anti-apartheid movement and especially the ANC. 

Rachabane was never a member but “we played for the ANC”, he says, recalling the many arrests artists endured while performing with white players. Now, Rachabane says, “we have an arts minister who is a policeman” — referring to the former police minister, Nathi Mthethwa. 

These days, Rachabane still makes his living from gigs only, a rarity for musicians, many of whom have had to supplement their income with other projects.

But he can’t fathom doing it any other way. He is almost entirely self-taught and has never known another way of life. And the knowledge of that is all one really needs to know about Rachabane in order to understand him. 

There is nothing particularly spiritual about his musical experience. Not in the way that Herbie Hancock practiced Buddhism or the way Zim Ngqawana believed jazz was a spiritual experience. Rachabane has a “finish en klaar” attitude about life, and jazz. Things are the way they are, and Rachabane is “just a musician”.  

Barney Rachabane Quintet will be performing on August 29 at the launch of the inaugural Mail & Guardian Friday Festival (running in conjunction with the M&G Literary Festival) in partnership with The Orbit Live Music & Bistro, 81 de Korte Street, Braamfontein. For bookings email [email protected] or call 0113396645

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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