/ 29 October 2021

Revisiting Planet Jabba

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‘Generosity and genius’: For Jabba, aka Hip Hop Pantsula and HHP, music was a gateway to the world. (David Harrison)

In the process of putting this edition together, one thing has crystallised into an unassailable truth. It is that everybody has a Jabba moment — probably a whole series of them.

In the original version of this article, farmer and rapper Mo’Molemi speaks of an occasion that illuminates Jabba’s generosity, a trait that invariably comes up whenever his name is mentioned. 

Having turned his back on the music industry, Mo’Molemi, in a Facebook post in tribute to the late musician, speaks of a Jabba visit that coaxed him out of his rapping sabbatical. One day, Jabba showed up with beats he was compiling for an album. They messed around with rifles and smoked under the stars before HHP pulled out his bag and played a rough version of Let Me Be, which samples Aretha Franklin’s Walk On By.

“I just burst out with a mean verse,” writes Mo’Molemi. “… botshelo ke sera, don’t be too friendly hao phela … after a long break I was officially back rapping … I’m only one of tens others that you touched with your generosity … and genius … and this is your legacy forever HHP … bosso.”

For Jabba, motswako was an approach to music-making, rather than a genre in a strict sense. As he said in an interview in 2010: “Ishmael, I don’t know whether he did gospel, kwaito, R&B, hip-hop, muthaland crunk. He’s somewhere in between. That’s motswako … I liked rap, I liked R&B, I liked choral music. I could merge all these things together.”

Jabba’s career started out inauspiciously, as part of a teenage group called Verbal Assassins. Introduced to Chicco in the late 1990s, the group put out the album Party, which sort of fizzled out, but set the stage for the emergence of Hip Hop Pantsula. 

“My advice was that the best thing to do is to rap in Setswana because there were very few artists back then doing it,” said Chicco on the night of Jabba’s death. “He took my advice and then things started happening.”

Vusi Leeuw, an A&R at EMI/CCP at the time, says he was introduced to Jabba by producer Isaac Mthethwa. Leeuw signed Jabba on the strength of his demo. “There was something different that I heard,” says Leeuw. “There was Setswana and it was commercial. But it wasn’t until Harambe [his third album] that South Africa picked up on Jabba.”

Jabba’s first two albums Introduction and Maf-Town, sold in the hundreds, according to friend and business partner Seabelo Modibe, who tells the story of how things first got popping in Botswana before Jabba was re-signed to EMI/CCP. 

A borderless approach to making music and, indeed, to thinking about his place on the continent and in the diaspora laid the foundation for a career whose breadth still needs proper contextualisation. 

A charismatic showman on a stage, he stayed winning converts. I bore witness at his triumphant set to close a Cape Town International Jazz Festival at the Basil Mannenberg stage. He embodied the idea of synthesis, not only at the heart of jazz, but motswako itself 

In an interview at the time of his death, collaborator and production associate Thasman remembered Jabba as efficient and taking inspiration from wherever it came. “Initially, he would come to the studio, listen to the beat, come up with a hook and then he would contextualise the verses,” says Thasman. 

“He went to the States and, when he came back, he was like: ‘The game in the States is on some other level.’ From then on, he felt like too much time spent on contextualising was time wasted.”

His new approach included reacting emotionally to a new beat, as if trying to capture its spirit. He would then spray it with an array of ad-libs “and then when he comes with full verses, you hear the ad-libs starting to make sense”. 

In this edition, which includes more contributions online, writers and photographers honour Jabulani Tsambo, in some small way shedding a light on how music was, for him, not just a creative artform but his gateway to the world. 

As Bradley Williams said, pondering his demise in 2018: “It’s hard for an artist coming from an era where music is celebrated to [adjust to] where it’s more like a branding and celebrity thing.”

Not unlike Sun-Ra, for Jabba, there were other worlds out there.