Dr Philip Nchipi Tabane, the inimitable guitarist, philosopher and conduit of malombo spirits passed away today at a Pretoria hospital.
Tabane, who was 84 years old, was the creator and conjurer of malombo music, a sonic tradition centred on the healing arts as passed on to him by his first mentor, his mother. It is a style of music that has been pursued in various guises by musicians who have played with Tabane over the years, such as Mabi Thobejane, Julian Bahula and Abbey Cindi, as well as a younger generation of players such who have sought mentorship from Tabane such as Azah Mphago, Sibusile Xaba and Tabane’s son, malombo drummer Thabang Tabane.
In the new millenium, malombo has also stretched its tentacles into popular culture, with the house duo Revolution remaking Vhavenda in 2002 from Tabane’s 1998 album Muvhango.
Born in March 1934, the elder Tabane, also known as Dr Malombo, had been in a period of semi-retirement, due to the frailties associated with old age, but had released a double album titled Madumo Kgole (Sounds from Afar) in 2016 through recording company MSS. A compilation album featuring mostly some of Dr Malombo’s favourite compositions, it now functions as his last recorded testament in a prolific recording career that stretches to the 1960s.
Prolific in the pennywhistle, the harmonica, as well as malombo drums, Tabane first learned the pennywhistle at the age of seven and led a church ensemble in his hometown of Riverside, and learnt guitar at the age of 10 from an older sibling. His mother bought him his own guitar, a Framers model, in 1960, according to Sello Galane, a musician and biographer who wrote his doctorate thesis analysing the musical philosophy of Tabane.
According to Galane’s research, Dr Malombo is also a self-taught bass player, marimba player and playwright. Although Tabane’s breakthrough malombo release in the early 60s came to be credited to the Malombo Jazzmen, Tabane has always sought to set his musical template apart from the idea of jazz, preferring that African musicians interpret their own creations on their own terms.
Over the years, Tabane has travelled extensively, his musical achievements being celebrated globally with a stint in the US in the 70s and an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1977 with Bheki Mseleku, who was among the scores of people who went through the seeming open-door school that was malombo music.
In South Africa, Tabane remains an institution beyond the worlds of music, having created a self-contained, multi-faceted lens through which to view the world and to regard the self.
This is a developing story. A deeper exploration of Dr Tabane’s work over five decades in music will appear in next week’s Mail & Guardian Friday.