In a YouTube video of a live concert, guitarist Sibusile Xaba runs through a few tracks. The first is an excruciating-looking solo acoustic version of a three-chord progression called Liyabukwa. Here, in the form of blurted one-liners and incantations, he toys with two concepts: isinamuva liyabukwa and isixaxambiji.
These notions refer to “the last ones taking centre stage” and playing music in a communal setting, respectively.
The other track, titled Open Letter to Adoniah, is an ephemeral ballad with a sweeping melody where the artist sings: Ngisebenzela izingane zami/ Izingane nezingane sezingane zami (I am working for my children and their children’s children).
He also speaks of other isiZulu idioms such as those referring to instilling discipline in children from a young age.
Xaba, an acoustic guitarist based in Pretoria, is among a new crop of artists playing avant garde music, completely unconcerned with the machinations of the popular music strictures.
In a break midway through the recorded performance, Xaba, who sometimes plays this material with malombo drummer Thabang Tabane, explains that songs from this repertoire came to him over four consecutive days in the form of a dream.
“I kept constantly dreaming that I was in some kind of pastoral area, a mountain of sorts, with some of my ancestors and elders. It was some kind of ceremony, with the calabash being passed around. When I’d wake up, always around 4am, I’d pick up the guitar and play the progressions to the melodies I still had in my head. This was the first time something like this had happened to me.”
Xaba explains that isixaxa refers to the original setting in which the music called maskandi developed, a kind of informal jamming that, in some cases, involved herd boys.
About Open Letter to Adoniah, he explains that references to “working for my children and their children’s children” have nothing to do with material acquisitions, but rather with “the feeling that I have taken on the mantle to help people restore themselves”.
A lanky, dreadlocked figure, he is currently making music mostly with two projects, the Unlearning Ensemble (with Bonolo Nkoane on drums and Ariel Zamonsky on bass) and Open Letter to Adoniah (with drummer Tabane).
While his utterances may paint him as a channel for supernatural dialogue, it is his guitar skill that is universally praised by his peers.
He has a habit of turning up in the liner notes wherever progressive or largely improvisational music has been recorded. He has recorded as part of Tumi Mogorosi’s spellbinding, operatic Project Elo, played guitar on Nono Nkoane’s expansive, earthy album True Call and collaborated on free-ranging, hymnal acoustic soul music with Naftali of the Royal Family, to name but three.
Born in Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, Xaba dabbled in kwaito as a teenager but credits the decision to study music at the Ochrim School of Music in Pretoria as a turning point in his life. “I remember once, Bra Max [Baloyi, one of the lecturers] said to me: ‘It’s either you want to walk up and down Church Street with your guitar and you’re like this cool cat to girls or you really want to play this thing, like change people’s lives with this thing.’ It only hit me later what he meant, but that seed that he planted stayed.”
While simultaneously delving into the “whole other spiritual side of this thing [jazz]” at Ochrim, Xaba began playing in a band called Green Orange and later, in one named Four Seasons. Four Seasons played what he describes as modal, groove-oriented African roots music.
Xaba’s distinctiveness is centred on his continued reinterpretation of this aesthetic in varying formations, where a guitar phrase, or a verbal one, might be stretched out for several bars, as the rhythmic axis shifts underneath. This turns Xaba’s music into incantations as opposed to songs – and, as a result, they resonate primally.
“Music is the way you actually are as a person,” says Xaba. “So the only thing that can come out when you’re playing it is what you really are. You can’t pretend, then practise your chops and your harmony and then think that people are only going to hear how technically good you are, and not get your true essence.”
Following Xaba along this logical thread, it is easy to assume him to be a man of few accoutrements. “When I’m here at The Space [U – The Space, a house and live venue in Pretoria that Xaba is leasing with a few friends], I do gardening. I’m dealing with birds, eating my fruit, and that brings me closer to the music.
“I get to observe things differently, like: ‘Okay, here I have planted so I must tread carefully.’ I can’t kill my seedlings. It keeps me open, so that when I pick up the instrument it helps me depict those experiences that I have seen in the day on to sound.”
Besides observing nature, Xaba has also sought mentorship from elder-generation guitarists such as malombo architect Philip Tabane and maskandi blues guitarist Madala Kunene.
Of Tabane senior, Xaba says he is “the most chilled-out cat” who can say the most profound things out of the blue. “It could be an unresolved issue you have been thinking about and he will just be clear and simple. You can see it in Thabang [Tabane’s son] how special Philip Tabane is.”
Xaba says watching how much respect Kunene has for his instrument when they last hung out during the latter’s recording sessions was inspiring. As far as verbal advice goes, Kunene was typically muted, offering only the sage words: “Just hang in there.”
If music is Xaba’s only hope to wade through an increasingly unforgiving world, the anger and the helplessness are absent from his face. His world-view seems rather simplistic – “There should be peace, equality and happiness for all, with immediate effect” – but perhaps it is expressed thus because it emanates from a lived experience.
“My problem is words and how they limit things,” he says.
Xaba says he understands exactly what his Christian mother means when she tells him to pray. “She means when you submit to a higher force, it responds. ”
In this vein, the song Sibongile, which forms part of the Open Letter to Adoniah and the Unlearning Ensemble repertoire, is a slow-building chant built around a crescendoing short prayer. The track is anchored by what could be described as a hip-hop-style breakbeat. But the beat is neither steady nor skeletal.
Bonolo Nkoane squeezes impossible polyrhythms into its framework, while Xaba seems to be closing the session in a fervent prayer, Last Supper-style: Sesikuqedile okwanamhlanje/ Siyabonga nkosi ngesipho osiphe sona [We are done with the proceedings of the day and we are grateful, Lord, for the gift you have offered us]. It lends extra meaning to a phrase often uttered as a matter of course after public gatherings: “Thank you so much.”
The public realm is important for Xaba. It is where the performative aspects of his persona play out and where his quiet charisma finds a space. Hence the formation of U – The Space. “The name comes from isintu [black culture]. The term “u” is like a U-turn; it’s from the origins of the Hebrew black people. Every time they would return to the source, they would write the U symbol, hence the West uses it to refer to the U-turn: going in the right direction.”
As Xaba says, it does not yet make commercial sense, but “it became evident that as artists we need to develop places where we can play or express comfortably without thinking: ‘I have a 45-minute set, so I have to do four songs and then it’s done’.”
Sibusile Xaba’s collaborative projects Open Letter to Adoniah and the Unlearning Project will release albums later this year with Mushroom Hour Half Hour