The rhyming drummer: ​Marlon Witbooi

Drummer and rapper

‘When I was young I used to play beats on the desk and rap Eminem lyrics to those, and then when I got to South Peninsula High School I went to the music room and then I was like, “Can I play drums?”

Music seems to be encoded into Marlon Witbooi’s DNA. You can see it in his versatility, how he straddles genres and milieus. A hard-driving gig with Mabuta one night, and a night in the studio the next, laying down a rap verse with unpredictable, witty flows.

Born in 1991, Witbooi was raised on what he calls crossover jazz: “your Lionel Ritchie, Simply Red, Incognito and so on. It was when I went to UCT [University of Cape Town] that I discovered bebop.”

Witbooi was not entirely floored by the more intricate music. “I wasn’t fully invested in that style of music but I knew what it could do for me as a player to open up to that kind of music. The only programme they offer is jazz. You have to learn what they teach you and, while you are there, learn other styles of music. As a working musician, you need to be versatile.”

He spent much his time at UCT anchoring the university’s big band under lecturer Mike Campbell.

After graduation in 2014 and hitting the jamming scene at Swingers, which Witbooi considers a school, his recording career picked up in earnest. Some of his early credits include singer Melanie Scholtz’s Our Time (produced by Bokani Dyer in 2013), Bokani Dyer’s World Music (2015) and the Marcus Wyatt-led ZAR Orchestra’s One Night in the Sun album.

Work and meaning

Witbooi does not regret joining the exodus of players who have left Cape Town because of the shrinking live scene. What he says makes it sound as if he had circled it long enough to want to extricate himself from its rhythms.

“There are lots of good jazz players in Cape Town. They can play jazz well but, anything else, not so well. Jo’burg has more versatile players. You get put in positions where you learn at the gig. Cape Town, doesn’t put you in a position where you are out of your comfort zone. Here you can move from an Afrikaans gig to a pop gig to a festival gig and to a reggae gig.”

But he believes Cape Town, perhaps driven by the vital programme at the university, will fare just fine without him. There is still work and many young people coming up because of it.

Witbooi’s itinerary has involved being part of the house band for the talent search show The Voice for two seasons (2016 and 2017) and part of the Coke Studio house band, which is somewhat incongruous, but he is fulfilling his mission in the City of Gold and staying true to his closely held eclecticism.

The eclecticism offers him a form of controlled power, not too dissimilar from his approach to the drums on the recently released Mabuta album, Welcome to This World, on which Witbooi not only plays within tight grooves but also colours them with charismatic intuition.

Future plans

If you search for Witbooi on YouTube, clips of his collaborations with the likes of bassist Benjamin Jephta will come up, but a lone video on his newly launched channel will perhaps offer the final word on his limitless possibilities.

Footage in black and white of Witbooi (going as @makes_blvd) rapping to a mic stand illustrates some of his forthcoming endeavours.

Half-a-dozen tracks with production duties from fellow musos Shane Cooper and Bokani Dyer are slated for release over the next seven months. Judging by the first snippet, expect an exhibition of the voice treated as a percussive instrument.

But also witness the portrait of a young man come full circle from his days of banging beats on his school desk and rapping Eminem rhymes.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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