Reserved Thabang Tabane wants to keep his sound simple

Nearly two years has elapsed since Thabang Tabane’s solo debut Matjale was recorded at the Mamelodi West, Pretoria, home he shared with father, guitarist Philip Tabane.

Since then, Tabane has toured Europe, testing the appetite for his own material and that of former recording spar Sibusile Xaba.

Because of unforeseen circumstances, the release of Matjale, by Johannesburg-based label Mushroom Hour, was pushed back by more than a year and eclipsed by the death of Tabane’s father — his mentor and musical teacher — in May this year.

“I have really avoided the pressure,” says Tabane, when asked whether his father’s death will weigh on his musical future. It is a warm Sunday afternoon. He is dressed casually, seated in the same courtyard that served as his recording grounds some years ago.

“My [old] timer was my timer. Sharp. But he didn’t put me under any pressure to see this as anything other than my way of life. There is no particular way I am expected to behave.”

That last bit is important, and perhaps instructive about the product we will hear when it finally hits the shelves in mid-September.

“I like to work namajitha,” says Tabane of his approach to music making. “I don’t want to work with someone who has some professional airs about them. As you see me with [percussionist] Dennis [Moanganei] Magagula, he’s an outy; you would never say we play together. It makes it easy for me. I prefer that set-up. Yenza umculo ubegrand.”

Although Tabane was groomed into the tradition of malombo, often dodging school, as his father did, to kickstart his own musical experiments, his version of the malombo sound is imbued with an urgent, almost survivalist expression of joy, set over bass heavy percussion-propelled grooves.

“It’s because I want it to be simple on people’s ears,” he says, as he and Magagula half tend to a charcoal fire in anticipation of an afternoon braai. “I know that mdala’s music could be difficult for people. Some people are only getting it now.”

During the recording sessions, Dr Malombo was there, more a spirit guide than a physical presence. “He was already unwell but he would shuffle about, acting like he wasn’t paying attention when he was,” says Tabane, a warm tone piercing his scratchy voice.

“When it came to music, he would just give you the punchlines. It wasn’t like change this or change that, he would slyly relay what he thought. When we would rehearse, there was a look that would pop up on his face, and from that I could tell how he was relating to the music.

“He wouldn’t try to put me down verbally. If he didn’t like what I was doing, it would be there on this face just the same.”

When Tabane later played the music for his father, he would ask: “Who is playing here? They play really well.

For Tabane, the precepts of malombo are straightforward, a return to a knowledge of self in an age when urbanisation has interrupted lines of communion with ancestral spirits. For Tabane, too, the necessity of forging his own musical journey has created a tinge of bitterness in his heart. It is something he wears on his sleeve like a badge, a shield against exploitation and whatever perceived or real slights.

“I think I have compromised a lot and I feel like they don’t appreciate what I have given to the music,” says Tabane. “I have that anger after putting in so much [effort], but maybe it’s because of my quietness because, when I play with other people, I don’t speak as much as I am speaking now, out of respect for other people’s music.”

Through Matjale, whose title refers to Tabane’s grandmother, he sketches a new blueprint for malombo, one that simultaneously reflects his journey as a contemporary black man from Pitori whose ancestry and genealogy transcends the striation of the black experience.

There are odes to his musical heroes, such as the guitar jive and dubby bass drive of Richard, which recalls the effect Richard Bona has had on Tabane’s musical sensibility.

“Besides the fact that he’s an excellent bassist, I just watched him from afar,” says Tabane. “He’s into his personal space. Like, backstage, you can’t enter his quiet space, which is what I think makes him so great. His discipline is scary. But other musicians have been so influenced by him as to copy him, so I tend to leave him alone a bit.”

Ngwananga, in which twisting, often sharp drums run against guitars and isolated bass lines, recalls an incident in which Tabane was approached by a healer about finding his inner voice. It stretches back to Tabane’s PedXulu days, which included mentors such as Mabi Thobejane, guitarist Madala Kunene and members of Amampondo. In the song, as in others, the voice becomes an abstract and direct instrument, relaying the narrative of the story while also acting out its premise. Another standout is Babatshwenya, a chilling cry against xenophobia that centres Pitori as its rallying point.

Loping, infectious and cyclical, Matjale, especially given the trying circumstances of this year, is Tabane’s stepping into the fray of a commodified and contested malombo sound.

“If we are going to do something, it is either we do it properly or not at all,” says Tabane in an assuming-the-throne sort of way, the pungent smell of charcoal wafting through the Sunday air.

“As one grows, one learns how to stand on one’s own two feet, hence my thing about doing these gigs ekasi. Just get a venue, tell people and they’ll come and support the movement.”

Matjale is being released on September 14 at Victoria Yards, 16 Viljoen Street, Lorentzville, Johannesburg. Doors open at 7pm.

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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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