Spat clouds malombo festival

These days it is hard to get a word out of master guitarist and band leader Philip Tabane, also known as Dr Malombo. It is perhaps deserved for a man who wielded sacred noise and sound art as his weapons of choice.

An upcoming concert, the Malombo Jazz Festival, points to both the gift and the curse contained in Dr Malombo’s new wave of silence, brought on by poor health.

The festival, billed as a tribute to Philip Tabane, gives top billing to Julian Bahula and the Togetherness Group, a British-based group, which the formerly exiled Bahula “worked a lot with during the struggle”.

Communication between Bahula and the Tabane family is apparently poor, and Thabang Tabane, himself a formidable malombo drummer and recording artist, initially refused to endorse the concert. An agreement has since been signed.

“We started on the wrong note,” says the younger Tabane. “He [Bahula] didn’t even tell us at home, So I figured I would boycott it. Then he came to us and told us that the municipality had given him a venue. I can’t ask him too many things.”

Bahula claims Thabang Tabane, despite not being on the poster, will feature in one of the shows slated for this weekend. “He will be playing with his group,” Bahula says. “He will be playing in Mamelodi but that is not necessary to write about.”

Bahula would also not discuss the funding being made available for the festival, adding only: “I’m the organiser; the funding we are not writing about. It’s costing us a lot of money and we just want to help Philip Tabane. We are paying tribute to his contribution to music. He started malombo.”

In the 1960s, Bahula and Abbey Cindi formed the original malombo line-up, the Malombo Jazzmen, who, following a split with Tabane and the addition of Lucky Ranku on guitar, became the Malombo Jazz Makers. Cindi played the flute and Bahula played the hand drums.

In his doctoral thesis, The Music of Philip Tabane: An Historical and Analytical Study of Malombo Music, Sello Galane writes: “Tabane owes the enormous knowledge of music to his family background. He owes his strong sense of self-concept, discipline, hard work and mentorship to his family. His mother was his first mentor. She is the one who has deeply nurtured Philip Tabane’s musical spirituality. It was from her that Philip aspired to retain the spiritual link with ancestry which pervaded his musical purpose and expertise. This nurturing affected Philip’s musical concept so much that it affected the naming of his genre and the business deals overseas.”

Although malombo is a family treasure, now passed down to Thabang Tabane, history shows it to be an open school of thought and approach to music, influencing the likes of Galane, pianist Bheki Mseleku, percussionist Azah Mphago and guitarist Sibusile Xaba, to name but a few.

But tagging the event as a “jazz festival” contradicts the ethos of malombo as theorised by Dr Malombo, a realm in which the idea of jazz is nonsensical.

Galane’s research suggests that the line-up of Bahula, Tabane and Cindi did not last much longer than the celebrated winning of the Castle Milk Stout Jazz Festival competition in 1964, forming what he calls the “sixth phase” of malombo’s development, in which the term is first used in the name of the band.

It is also the phase of what Galane calls “profundity in minimalism”, with the silences allowing Tabane the space to make profound musical statements.

The recent Julian Bahula compilation album, Spirit of Malombo, features music from groups Bahula was involved with between 1966 to 1984 — the Malombo Jazzmen (and Jazz Makers), Jabula and Afrika. Bahula left South Africa for the United Kingdom in 1973.

Although Tabane sought to root the music in minimalism, Bahula worked out a different route. Although the first 12 tracks feature the guitar work and the spacier ethos of Philip Tabane, Jabula went the more contemporary route, if one could call it that, delving into the sounds of Afrorock and funk, in the mould of nyahrock outfit Cymande. There are punchy horns, hard-driving drums and plenty of funky guitar.

It is the sounds of a world in flux, in many ways, in keeping with the spirit of Bahula’s popular African music nights in the UK’s Club 100 that featured the likes of Manu Dibango and Fela Kuti.

Even during tracks such as Jabula’s All for One, seemingly powered by just hand drums, guitar and bass, the music rumbles forward at breakneck speed, never pausing for breath, until joined by a melodious horn arrangement.

In our strained interview, during which Bahula was arranging for the arrival of members of his band for the concert, I could not help but be disconcerted by his caginess about the funding of the festival. There was also the feeling that Tabane’s family members were still against the use of Tabane’s name as part of the festival’s branding. This was confirmed by Thabang Tabane.

A short Twitter exchange between someone called Anti Malombo Jazz Festival (@exphumy) and someone called Julian Bahula (@malombomovement) echoed these feelings, and seems to have put paid to @malombomovement’s use of Twitter to market the event. There were also accusations of blocking on Facebook.

At the time of going to press, the promoter Julian Bahula had not confirmed whether the event, slated for May 5 and 6 in Moreleta Park and Morula Sun, was in fact going ahead. Numerous attempts to reach him by phone went unanswered 

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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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