The Portfolio: Shooting the maestro

Seasoned photographer and journalist Jacob Mawela sadly wrote on Monday morning on his social media page that “renowned saxophonist, [Barney] Rachabane, had a few months ago lost his wife and his passing occurred a fortnight after he had undergone surgery to remove cataract.” Mawela lives in Pimville, Soweto, a few houses away from the late self-taught musician. 

They worked on a photo shoot that became an advertising poster for an event by the Barney Rachabane Quintet in 2014 at the now defunct jazz club, The Orbit, in Johannesburg.

The legend, who had been in the music industry for more than 60 years, died from natural causes on Saturday night 13 November, according to a statement from his family.  

Rachabane was born in Alexandra, Johannesburg, in 1946 and became a leader of the Kwela Kids at the age of eight. 

“We played in the streets of Johannesburg. It was that time of pounds and I was making good money for someone my age. Most white people appreciated our music. We used to perform around Johannesburg on Saturdays and on Sundays we would perform in Hillbrow,” remembered the artist about the group’s penny-whistle busking days in a brief interview I did with him after an unsuccessful photo shoot. 

When I met the then 72-year-old horn player, I was working on a personal photographic project titled The Legends, which was born after the death of another great giant, the gentle Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, in 2018. 

I was running the Mail & Guardian’s picture desk at the time of Bra Willie’s death and I struggled to find powerful images that would complement the tributes to the celebrated poet and political activist. 

I then took it upon myself, as a black photographer, to document our heroes and heroines who contributed to fighting apartheid using their different talents. The project has taken me into the intimate spaces of some of South Africa’s most significant figures. My intention was to photograph everyone in his or her home or in spaces they felt comfortable in. This journey eventually led me to Rachabane’s home. 

I don’t recall exactly how I got the old man’s contact numbers but I think Mawela gave them to me. I phoned at about 9am and the phone was answered by his lovely wife, Nini, who (as I shockingly discovered while writing this) died three months ago. He was still sleeping and I was politely told to try him later. I later came to understand why the jazz maestro was fond of his sleep — he remained busy through most of his life, working mostly at night. 

We were eventually able to meet in the afternoon of Monday, 20 April 2018. My intention was to capitalise on the reddish autumn sunset light during the shoot. Because of work commitments and traffic jams in the afternoon from Rosebank to Soweto, I arrived at the neat brick house in Zone 3 as sunset was about to become dusk. I knew that I might not have as successful a photo shoot as I’d planned, but I had hope. 

After having officially introduced myself and explaining my project to the inquisitive family (Nini and Octavia, the musician’s daughter), the photo shoot eventually took place in the lounge because it was dark outside. 

The friendly jazz guru was wearing a colourful, vintage shirt and denim jeans. He did everything I suggested but nothing worked. The shoot was a flop, but the friendliness of the family made me feel at ease. Instead of leaving, I decided to hang around and that is when the interview happened. 

Jazz was softly coming through the speakers. Rachabane  explained to me how he had shifted from playing the penny-whistle to playing the clarinet and then the saxophone. 

“I played the clarinet because I could afford to buy it,” he said. “Somebody died in my street [who either played it or owned it] and I bought it for about 10 pounds.”

He also fondly recalled how he used to rub shoulders with the people he admired — fellow horn players Zakes Nkosi and Ntemi Piliso — in Alexandra. He briefly mentioned working and recording on the Techno-Bush album with Hugh Masekela in Botswana. “My first overseas trip, I was with Masekela on the Don’t Go Lose It Baby tour. We went to Europe and America. I think … it was in 1984,” he said.

The research I’ve done through the internet points to Rachabane’s career heading in another direction through his participation in Paul Simon’s Graceland album in 1986 and its subsequent world tours that lasted for 20 years and ended in 2012. 

“Paul Simon came here to this house. He came here twice to have lunch with me. He was my buddy,” Rachabane said.

When I asked him about the effect of the restrictions he endured during apartheid, he paused for some time before saying: “I can’t remember how many times I was arrested. We got arrested for nothing; we were just playing music, nothing else.” 

He added proudly that he had never worked for a white man in all his life.  

He concluded the interview with these words: “Music is a gift from God. It’s been there and is going to be there forever. It has made me who I am today. This home was built by music, my children, my wife and everything. My life is music.” 

I arranged another photo shoot with him and it happened a month later. It went much better than the first one. 

Our appointment was after 1pm and the light wasn’t harsh and I found it interesting. I decided to photograph him outside, against his neighbour’s plain wall instead of doing the shoot indoors. I had, and still have, a fascination in exploring shadows and light. I took along the white cane chair and asked him to bring his saxophone with him. 

Rachabane was wearing his trademark hat with sunglasses, and jeans complemented by a blue shirt. His cooperativeness and participation while being photographed made things much easier for me to execute the task at hand to my satisfaction. 

Rachabane is survived by three daughters and grandchildren.

Barney Rachabane’s funeral will take place on Saturday, November 20, from 9.30am to 11.30am at 3571 Manqokwe Street, Zone 3 Pimville, and proceed to the Westpark Cemetery

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Oupa Nkosi
Oupa Nkosi

Oupa Nkosi began taking photos in 1998 with a pawnshop camera, before enrolling at the Market Photography Workshop. He began freelancing after graduating and has since run community projects, won a Bonani Africa award, had his work selected for exhibitions in Zimbabwe and Japan, and been invited to international workshops. He began at the M&G as an intern and is now chief photographer. He also writes features for the paper and lectures at his alma mater.

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