Tabane reached into the depths of the human soul to heal, to hurt, to torment

Philip Tabane performs with Malombo at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival on March 28 2014. Picture: Denvor de Wee
Philip Tabane performs with Malombo at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival on March 28 2014. Picture: Denvor de Wee

Philip Tabane, who has died at the age of 78, was a deeply talented genius and extraordinary talented man who always strived for perfection writes Lucas Ledwaba

The audience at the packed Kippies Jazz Club in Johannesburg roared in unison, begging, calling, chanting and demanding more of Philip Tabane’s dose of malombo music.

Club proprietor and legendary musician Sipho Hotstix Mabuse went backstage to plead with Tabane, who had just finished his set, to return to the stage just one last time.

The patrons erupted into brawling applause when the maestro, his Gibson Super-400 guitar in hand returned to the stage with his son and drummer Thabang, and percussionist Mphunye Motau in tow.

A hush fell over the crammed club as Tabane prepared to belt out another of his hypnotic tunes. He strummed the opening chords of Ngwana o ya lela. But just as he began to sing the sound system crackled irritatingly. Tabane continued to play but the same technical glitch interrupted his spirited performance yet again. He lost it.

“O ska mpha die nonsense man! (Don’t give me this nonsense man!),” he yelled at the wide-eyed young sound engineer.

He stormed off the stage leaving his bemused band members frozen in silent confusion. There was no doubt the show was over. Tabane was a perfectionist genius who preferred training his band members himself so they could produce the sound he preferred.

During the height of the state of emergency in the 1970s, he was stopped by soldiers patrolling in the streets of Mamelodi. The young, arrogant band of youths in brown uniform demanded to know where he had gotten the pair of boots he was wearing.

He lost it there too. He shot back at them in his powerful voice, asking where the hell they had gotten the boots they were wearing.

As they battled to force him into their armoured Casspir vehicle, one of the local police officers who knew Tabane warned his army colleagues that he was a famous and well-loved man and arresting him could lead to an outbreak of riots. They let him go.

Although he was quiet and humble, he was also fearless, packed an explosive temper and didn’t take kindly to being pushed around or taken advantage of. This is a trait that helped him resist attempts by promoters to dilute his malombo sound into what he called “commercial nonsense”.

It is this unique sound, inspired by the teachings of his diviner mother Mmatjale Tabane, that endeared him to music lovers at home and beyond. In 2001, an American woman, overcome by the power of Tabane’s malombo music, broke down in tears during a live performance at Congo Square in New Orleans in the US.

Tabane, with his son Thabang on drums and Motau on percussions, was administering his potent, spiritually moving dose of healing sounds to a mesmerised audience.

Overcome by the music, another man in the audience dumped his crutches and danced up a storm on one leg as if in trance.

Such is the overwhelming power of Tabane’s wailing guitar, accompanied by the thumping of malombo drums and various hand percussions that it reaches into the depths of the human soul, to heal, to hurt, to torment.

Writing in The Saturday Star of October 1999, jazz writer Gwen Ansell described Tabane’s music and stage persona: “Artists from the Northern Transvaal carve wonderful sculptures, releasing birds, fishes and spirits from the living wood in which they were trapped. The music of Dr Philip Nchipi Tabane is the aural equivalent of those statues. His voice grows out of his guitar. He engages in manic dialogue with the other musicians and trash guitar abstractions, fractures the timing, sides elegantly into and out of blues grooves. Sometimes the spirits are clearly speaking, sometimes he is just having fun. He is quite simply mesmerising.”

Tabane, who died at the Mamelodi Hospital on May 18 after suffering ill health for years, caught the attention of the music scene in 1961 after winning first prize in a Dorkay House talent scout competition.

But it was in 1964, playing with flautist Abbey Cindi and drummer-percussionist Julian Bahula that he shot to national prominence after winning first prize in the Castle Lager Jazz Festival at Moroka-Jabavu stadium.

The trio, known simply as Malombo, recorded their first album named after the Castle Lager Jazz Festival, that very year. Cindi and Bahula went on to form their own band, Malopo Jazz Makers.

In 1969, playing with his nephew Gabriel Mabe Thobejane, Tabane recorded another album titled The Indigenous Jazz Sounds of Philip Tabane. It’s a hauntingly beautiful, yet moving piece of music, with Tabane on guitar and Thobejane on malombo drums, mbira, shakers and other hand percussions.

The duo moved to the United State in 1971. During the same year they performed at the London Sea Jazz Festival. Their unique sound caught the attention of US promoters and soon Malombo found themselves performing at such revered venues as the Rafike Club in New York, the Philharmonic Hall, Village Gate and Whisky A-Go-Go among many others.

During the same period in the early to mid-1970s, Tabane also performed with Miles Davis, Stanley Turrentine, Charlie Mingus and McCoy Turner among others. He also performed at the New York Stadium during a farewell ceremony for Brazilian football legend Pele who was calling an end to his career with New York Cosmos.

Tabane returned home to SA in during the repressive and volatile late 1970s, turning down requests to stay on in the US and make music with Miles and other top jazz acts.

He was born in Ga-Ramotshegoa, east of Pretoria on March 24 1940. He often gave his date of birth as 1934, but official documents and family say he was born in 1940. His three brothers, Mmaloki, Lawrence and Mabitsi were also gifted musicians who played in their uncle’s band.

The young Tabane would often bunk school to practise on his brothers’ instruments. In his late teens he defied the apartheid authorities who required that every black man in the urban areas be employed or be sent back to the homelands.

Instead, together with Bahula and Cindi they would lock themselves in the Mamelodi Community Hall all day to perfect their craft and evade the harassment of police officers who enforced the pass laws with enthusiastic vigour.

It was this kind of dedication that saw Tabane, who would often spend hours cleaning and polishing his guitar and rehearsing new tunes by himself even well into his 70s, record eight albums in his illustrious career.

Among the musical jewels he left behind are the albums Silent Beauty, Sangoma, Uhn!, Muvhango, Ke a Bereka, Philip Tabane and Malombo Live at Market Theatre and Modumokgole.

Tabane is survived by his son Thabang, himself a prolific drummer and recording artist. His wife Thuli passed on in 2006, a loss that left Tabane a broken and depressed man. True to the Sepedi idiom that ngaka ga e ikalafe, even his healing spiritual sounds could not mend his broken heart and his health deteriorated through the years until his passing last week. He will be buried in Mamelodi on Sunday May 27.

* Lucas Ledwaba is the editor of Mukurukuru Media. He is writing With Strings Attached – the life and music of Philip Tabane.

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