/ 30 November 2021

Bra Herbie’s instinctive time travels

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A sprawling album: Herbie Tsoaeli’s At This Point In Time: Voices in Volumes has enough to keep a listener engaged for ages. (Photo: Lindokuhle Mbhele)

With At This Point In Time: Voices in Volumes, bass player and composer Herbie Tsoaeli intensifies his sonic explorations, stretching his compositions out and warping time even more purposefully than he did on his certified classic, African Time.

The metaphor of the train, spelled out explicitly on the song East Gugs Skomline to Khaltsha, is useful throughout: the compositions have the built-in, wobbly gait of a train as it steadies itself on the tracks, as if burdened by its human cargo.  

When the momentum of African Time built some years ago, eventually turning the album into a people’s movement, the fans were drawn as much to its musical accessibility (in which jazz is both a broad church and an intimate “chapel”) as they were to Tsoaeli’s singular singing style, built on evocative choruses and imagery.

Tsoaeli brings this tonal, “narrating” style on board for this album, injecting in some of the songs a sense of melancholy, place and drama. “I’m coming from an era whereby we used to sing,” Tsoaeli says to me one Saturday in October. “Thina abantu abamnyama siyathanda ukucula nje. Nase spotini. Afike nom’umuntu enxilile … Kodwa ucula ingom’ethile emnandi. Uzayimamela. Kodw’ushushu. Udakiwe.”

There is a sense of cohesion to Bra Herbie’s compositions, contained as they are by a solid, overarching framework; “a template”, as he says, offering up a term given to him by a listener on Facebook. That template, at the risk of oversimplification, is built on his ability to distil decades of musical experiences into a concoction he refers to as “hours music” — music from the subconscious, music inherited from lives with which he came into contact, music from his grandmother’s house. 

 “My uncle, who lived with us, was a bass player,” says Tsoaeli. “Wayedlala umgqashiyo, but he listened to American jazz a lot, your Coltranes, and even the Blue Notes, o Mongezi. I carried his instruments to garage gigs, to the halls where they’d play music.” This is the same uncle, Stadig Mofokeng, memorialised in that iconic African Time opener, Hamba No Malume, in which Tsoaeli invites us to mourn the times they could have spent together, beyond the confines of grandma’s house. 

Grandma’s house in Nyanga East was a spot in which people came through bearing songs embedded in their DNA, or rather, where the pangs of the migrant labour system came out in song. Within earshot, in workers’ hostels and other public spaces, were variations of this rich, cross-cultural sonic maelstrom.

“I’m trying to reflect on my upbringing up to this date,” says Tsoaeli, adding that, as opposed to “fusing”, he’d prefer to think of his practice as a way of “encompassing” his musical experiences, in which he has played literally every style.

The music, then, with its spare bass notes and Ayanda Sikade’s intuitive drumming style, is roomy as opposed to showy, with warm, often plaintive solos from its cohort of players. (That’s not to suggest that it lacks intensity.) Tsoaeli enlists Andile Yenana and Yonela Mnana on piano, Sakhile Simane on trumpet, Steven Sokuyeka on trombone, Sisonke Xonti on tenor saxophone, Tshepo Tsotetsi on alto ­saxophone, as well as Gontse Makhene, Busisiwe Sibeko, Khumbuzile Dhlamini, Bongani Nikelo, and Sakhile Moleshe on voices. Yenana and Mnana’s distinctive styles on piano contrast well, giving the music added dimensionality. 

A sprawling album, as if compensating for the lag since African Time, there’s enough there to keep a listener engaged for ages, as one picks apart the compositions, revelling in the intricacy of each solo, the chain-gang style choruses and other structural sensibilities. From its Nyanga axis, the music gives a panoramic exploration of what jazz is, making it a discursive exercise involving various generations. 

At This Point In Time: Voices in Volumes (released by iSandi Sarona) is an apt title, for you hear the voices calling way after the music stops, in this, the valley of dry bones.

On December 4, Herbie Tsoaeli’s In The Meantime quintet (featuring Steven Sokuyeka, Buddy Wells, Tefo Mahola and Ludwe Danxa) play two shows at the Blue Room, 103B Bree Street, Cape Town. Tickets cost R250. Bookings can be made via grubandvine.co.za/events/the-blue-room.

The following day, the same line up plays Sikis Koffee, 7 Ntaba Street, Phakamisa Litha Park, Khayelitsha. For details contact 068 1504 122