In 1965, Malombo were the toast of the black world and they knew it. A teenage guitarist, with hardly a guitar to his name at that stage, knew it too, which is why he trekked from eMkhumbane to Curries Fountain in Durban to see the duo.
That afternoon, the young guitarist’s imagination would be captured less by his counterpart Philip Tabane’s picking skills than by percussionist Mabi Thobejane’s showmanship.
“Well, I went to the show because I liked his style,” says Madala Kunene about how their friendship began. “I liked the whole group, but him the most because I imagined us playing together.”
After watching the band’s performance on that day in 1965, Kunene started on his way home, only to be confronted by a man asking for 50c in exchange for a Berliner guitar that was missing a string. “Fifty cents was exactly what I had,” Kunene says. “I looked at the guitar. It was a beautiful, gleaming thing and he said, ‘Look at it, it’s in good condition.’ I took out the 50c and gave it to him, and there went my bus fare.”
Kunene walked back to Curries Fountain in the hope of asking his newfound comrades for the bus fare back home. The bus carrying the band was leaving the stadium but when the driver saw Kunene, he slowed down a little, just enough for Thobejane to see Kunene’s signal for money and toss out a 20c coin.
“The bus fare was three cents so I made it home okay,” he says.
He is in a lounge at the Village, a Mamelodi venue where he and Thobejane are playing the last of their 50th anniversary shows.
Kunene says that guitar changed his fortunes. It replaced a beat-up, painted “thing” that didn’t sound right no matter how he tuned it.
“Back then, as a performer, you couldn’t earn money regularly. You could earn food. So that guitar literally became my meal ticket. I would perform at weddings, at stokvels. I played it so much it allowed me to master the guitar.”
Kunene says, from his base in Durban, he kept thinking about Thobejane over the years. “Even when I was in Jo’burg with [theatre auteur] Gibson Kente, I would go and watch Malombo, and we would chat about possibly playing together in the future.”
That finally happened in 1979, when Thobejane had joined the line-up of Afrofusion band Sakhile, which was largely based in Durban. “I found a gig in Durban, at a spot down Hermitage Passage, and I stole him away,” says Kunene. “The way we played at that gig, the old ladies who ran the venue wanted to book us for three weeks. But where was I going to find him? Nowhere,” says Kunene, chuckling.
“My brother, uMnguni [Sipho Gumede], said to him, ‘I can see your ways, Mabi. You’re going to go back to Pretoria if you’re not careful.’ So I could tell that it wasn’t the right time to play with this person.
“When someone is in a group and you want to pull them aside, it’s no fun. In our case, I play guitar, he plays percussion. But he plays percussion with other people who play guitar, so [that] was very difficult.” Kunene ended up completing those dates with Sdumo Ngidi on flute and saxophone and Cilo Magujwa on percussion.
“People liked the fact that our sound was full even though it was just a duet,” says Thobejane. “On that show, I played percussion, mbira and storotoro. Madala played guitar. He was still learning the storotoro at that stage.”
The storotoro, played with the mouth, produces an elemental vibrating sound. It has become a staple of Kunene’s shows. He used it to haunting effect in his score of Yesterday, the HIV-awareness film starring Leleti Khumalo.
It was in 1994 when Thobejane and Kunene finally recorded together, ironically connected by Gumede, who was the producer of Konko Man, Kunene’s first recorded album.
“I was as happy as a baby inside, but I couldn’t share it with everyone,” says Kunene about when he found out Thobejane was going to come to the sessions. “It was as if there were otherworldly sounds. Even Sipho was just like, ‘Hah, these people produced this?’ You can hear his distinctive percussion style there. We have been playing quite a bit together since then.”
Thobejane features on Kunene’s albums such as First Double One and Two, the bootleg album King of the Zulu Guitar and Freedom Countdown.
As I take turns speaking to the two men, I note that their distinctive speaking styles are parallel to the way they interact musically. With Thobejane, there are these punchy two-liners that bear coaxing, and Kunene speaks in these paragraphs that need no interruption.
I’m reminded of their performances on stage, which include truncated conversational passages that segue into long tranquil grooves, in which the percussion propels rather than interrupts the flow.
As Thobejane completes his stage outfit, laying what looks like python skins over his Swati print loincloth, I ask him to describe Kunene’s style. The response comes back in trademark compact form: “It’s music from KwaZulu-Natal, but remember Bafo is a Swati, not Zulu. OwakwaKunene.”
“Do you think it bears traces of maskandi?”
“It started with maskandi, but then it expanded and has became more African. It’s gonna keep expanding; that won’t change.”
“Ukuchaza ngani uBafo? [What are the characteristics you find unique about his personality?]”
“Isilungu akasazi uBafo, but uzokukhulumela esinye isilungu nawe uze umangale, ‘ey, kwenzakalani manje?’ [Bafo can’t speak English, but sometimes he pulls it out of the pocket and you’re like ‘what’s going on here?’]”
We have a little laugh. Thobejane’s is throaty and toothless, with a mischievous glint in his eye. He asks me to apply the calamine spots on his body, while I pose an asinine question about his percussion style.
“Ngidlala isiPedi, ngidlala isiSotho, ngidlala isiShangane, ngidlala isiXhosa. But remember, ngingumuthwa mina. The more I disrobe the shorter I become,” he laughs.
“But do abathwa [the First People] play drums?”
“They do, you could argue they pre-empted the drums from the earth.”
Thobejane describes their playing style as a catch-up conversation between friends, with traits of overfamiliarity and traces of how seriously and intuitively they approach music.
On stage that night, they start with their usual opening conversation, before giving each other space on their individual compositions. They are joined by many friends, such as the versatile Lerato Lichaba on guitar and the legendary Ngwako Manamela on vibraphone. The affable Paki Peloeole holds down the drums and European Matt Abächerli is put through his paces on bass, learning his way through mbaqanga and other rootsy grooves.
There is a carnival air and Thobejane segues his way through all of it, even as Kunene takes a breather.
In the cold Pretoria night, I wander far back from the stage, observing two men growing old gracefully. I take in their different approaches to life; Mabi, a rascal to his dying days, and Bafo, a streetwise sage. Given their countervailing outlooks, I ponder the compromise it has taken to keep their friendship alive.