The newest Tabane album is many things but the malombo music draws you in
Philip Nchipi Tabane’s latest album, Modumo Kgole, occupies an improbable place in the musician’s canon. For one, it is an album guided by the ill-advised premise of diluting Dr Malombo’s music for younger audiences. The second is it contains very little new music, just different versions of the doctor’s favourites.
It is quite easy to dismiss the album as a farcical attempt to foist the good doctor back into the public consciousness on terms other than his own.
But the thing about malombo as a genre is that it is guided by such an unassailable life force that it gravitates to those who seek it.
As probably anyone with even a passing knowledge of malombo can attest, it is the stripped-down iterations of Tabane’s sound that showcase him at his most potent. He needs nothing more than a drum or his dependable Gibson Super 400 for maximum effect.
His clarity, borne out of the necessity for self-expression and his connection to the healing traditions of his mother, meant that for pretty much his entire career, Tabane put the functional aspects of the music above all else, including fortune and fame.
His careful, minimalist scoring of the clandestinely shot 1974 apartheid documentary Last Grave At Dimbaza hints at the plaintive side of malombo and its obvious political leanings. What the doctor’s unfettered, early discography tells us is that malombo is as much about the silences as it is the “distant thunder” or, as Tabane himself puts it, “the sounds from afar”.
One can quite easily label this overproduced album as – to borrow a Hendrixism – “Earth fucking with space”, until one realises that, first, some of the musical choices being made here could not be avoided in some instances. Also, malombo as a lived philosophy does not favour such neat binaries as minimalism versus clutter. Tabane has always conducted his musical endeavours as a house with revolving doors, taking in everyone from a young Bheki Mseleku in search of a sound to co-opting Patricia Majalisa for a spot in the chorus of Ke A Bereka.
For one as hermetic and individual a guitar player as Tabane is, the man has surprisingly conventional musical tastes, professing to being a die-hard gospel music fan (his pre-malombo Lullaby Landers were a vocal harmony group). “I grew up in the AME [African Methodist Episcopal] church,” he said while sitting on the verandah of his Mamelodi West house. “I go to church if I feel like it, but it doesn’t control me. Growing up, my brothers were into it. So when I think about a tune I just go there and listen.”
To be fair, Modumo Kgole is a mixed bag, moving from a body of work showcasing vintage Tabane, capable of evocative, off-kilter phrasing delivered through jangly tuning to being an exhibit of a late-career master no longer able to fully harness his gifts.
At the age of 83, Tabane is given to bouts of amnesia that are tempered, to a great extent, by the sheer will to keep playing his guitar – which in this sense functions as a restorative time machine.
The sequencing of the album seems to be an attempt at alternating between works where Tabane is able to marshall some of his abilities and those where his presence is nominal, to create an overall sense of balance.
Take, for example, the track Ba Nyaka ke Wele, which also appears on the 1996 album Ke A Bereka. The modus operandi on the Modumo Kgole version is to take the parts where blistering malombo drumming by Oupa Monareng would have dominated the open mix, and fudge these with breezy saxophone and piano to create a faux-jazzy lilt.
The interesting bit about the Ke A Bereka version of Ba Nyaka Ke Wele is that it lists Khaya Mahlangu on flute and saxophone. His contributions span but a few moments of the song’s lifespan, with his saxophone chiming in on the song’s cyclical phrase for about eight bars as it reaches its emotional zenith. The new version of the same song merely plods along.
The percussion lacks verve, more metronome than pounding polyrhythmic assault. Tabane’s guitar work ambles as opposed to marching insistently, while Percy Mbonambi’s saxophone and Mduduzi Mtshali’s piano clutter more than they support.
Songs that fare better are the likes of Badimo, whose rapid, gallop and possessed scatting recall Tabane at his most vital. Sadly, the eviscerating picking style evident in an earlier version of Badimo (also taken from Ke A Bereka) is conspicuously absent.
A malombo enthusiast I played the album to likened it to that moment during the 2010 World Cup when Nelson Mandela was wheeled out on to the FNB Stadium to sprinkle some Madiba magic, which consisted of a pasty smile and Graça Machel periodically propping his hand up so he could continue waving.
I found that reading harsh because it is complicated by the fact that Tabane himself is fond of several numbers.
When I visited, Dr Malombo was in the care of playwright and poet Themba ka Nyathi. He was in a fine, acerbic mood, complaining that the rigorous photo shoot was turning him into someone serving time, “a bantinti who has to follow orders”.
I asked him how he selected the cast of musicians who featured on the project, some of them long-time collaborators such as bass players Zakes Ntuli and Fana Zulu.
“The musicians that played on this album are so good that I don’t think I could have disturbed them with an invitation,” said Tabane. “It was more a case of them wanting to be a part of it.”
Listening to the album with him, he was quite visibly moved by Matjale (it is named after his mother), even though it suffers under the album’s stylistic regime.
He called the saxophone chorus of Foolish Fly “beautiful”. Malombo’s Jazz made him reach for his pennywhistle and scat to the beat.
When Pele Pele came on, he was playing serpentine sketches over the tune. By the time Mpedi came on, Tabane was ready to grab his guitar and treat us to an impromptu session on his unplugged Gibson.
What Tabane lacked in form and force, he made up for in honesty and an assured joy. A peaceful wave descended and filled up his lounge.
It suddenly hit me that, as shapeless as the music was, it was the pure intent behind it that validated and decoded it. At that moment of communion, Dr Philip Tabane became, simply, Bra Phil.