Like Sibusile Xaba in 2017, Thabang Tabane signs a sumptuous album of malombo, a genre created in the 1960s in Pretoria by his recently deceased father. The succession is assured.
In September 2017, the discovery of the double album “Unlearning / Open Letter to Adoniah” by South African folk musicians Sibusile Xaba, provoked an emotion that has been renewed with every listening since. The singer and guitarist was accompanied, among others, by percussionist Thabang Tabane. The name speaks for itself: he is the son of Philip Tabane, creator in the 1960s of the malombo genre, a combination of traditional music—including ritual drums—and the sophistication that constitutes jazz, against a background of philosophy and spirituality. His death in May 2018, at the age of 84, came at a time when a new generation was claiming his influence.
The story goes that Philip Tabane, who was successful with his band The Malombo Jazz Makers, refused to play with Miles Davis. “That’s true and it was one of his favorite examples when he taught me about the music industry. My father wanted to create his own music, so he didn’t want to depend on the fame of others to develop his career,” Thabang confirms. Today, at the age of 39, he still lives in the same family home in Mamelodi, a township in Pretoria founded to house the black population expelled from the city centre by apartheid laws. His father, like his mother (a nurse), first wanted to dissuade him from following in his wake: “He knew the struggles involved and he didn’t want me to have to go through it. He tried, in every way that he could, to protect me from the music industry. But something was calling me irresistibly and my father realized that there was nothing he could do to stop me. And he offered me his help.” It was an early vocation: Thabang has been playing professionally since the age of eight.
Thabang Tabane finally released his first album, Matjale, on which we find Sibusile Xaba’s guitar (both artists recorded on the Mushroom Hour Half Hour label). Matjale is the first name of his grandmother, who was a sangoma (healer). “In her head, she always heard music, which she reproduced while singing,” says Thabang. Then, her children grabbed instruments to interpret the same rhythms.” The issue of heritage is central to his work, since even the term malombo means “ancestor’s spirits” in Venda, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages. “I am African and I believe in my ancestors. Of course, this is a difficult idea to maintain in our modern age. Times are changing and people are adapting their behaviors to Western culture. But basically, I always do what my father taught me, and I will continue to do so, because that is what I know and believe in.” Like his grandmother, the percussionist defines himself first and foremost as a healer: “Music heals people, especially blacks for what they endured during the apartheid years. Music helps relieve pain. ”
However, this anchor does not block Thabang Tabane in traditional formats. He is also connected to contemporary expressions, starting with jazz, especially Richard Bona’s, whose degree of perfectionism he would like to achieve: “He reminds me of my father.” Thabang also paints a portrait of the tensions at work in South African society. “Babattshwenya”, for example, talks about xenophobic attacks in Pretoria: “This issue concerns me a lot and I needed to write a song to express my feelings. I am a spiritual being and everything that bothers me deeply is converted into music.” The video of “Nyanda Yeni”, which exhumes archival images of segregationist propaganda, is explicit. Its director, StraitJacket Tailor, explains, “The idea was to use visuals from a time when Blacks could not exercise any control or express an opinion on how they were presented on the screen. We wanted to give these images a new life and a new meaning, by subverting the stereotypes. In this way, the characters regain a power they did not have in the colonial and apartheid context. ”
The spiritual and political charge contrasts with the airy grace of songs like “Freedom Station” and “Ke Mmone,” to name just two tracks from an album that is poignant from beginning to end. After Sibusile Xaba, Thabang Tabane thus confirms the revitalization of malombo in Pretoria, on an exciting scene where artists like Azah and Naftali also perform. He won’t be alone in perpetuating his father’s legacy.
Thabang Tabane, Matjale (Mushroom Hour Half Hour)