For Barney Rachabane, jazz was a way of life: New Frame

When the South African media finally notices the passing of saxophone hero Barney Rachabane on November 13 – at the time of writing, 36 hours later, only one newspaper did – they will undoubtedly highlight his participation in 1987. to Paul Simon Graceland project.

For Rachabane, and many other South African musicians who participated in the project, it was Graceland who have brought their sound to stages, audiences and international collaborations; it was an important professional opportunity.

But it is a big mistake to present this opportunity as what “made” them. Simon was brought to these artists by savvy local producers as they were already stars on South African stages. They were stars because they came from the people and created music that spoke to the people and to the people.

This was certainly the case with Rachabane, who was part of the generation that shaped the sound of modern South African jazz.

August 18, 2014: Barney Rachabane at his home in Soweto, Johannesburg. (Photograph by Madelene Cronjé)

Rachabane was born in Alexandra Township on March 2, 1946. His father was a bus driver and also played the piano. Alex, the first township to settle on the outskirts of Johannesburg, was declared freehold in 1912 and famous for its political activism and complete lack of street lighting, earning it the title “Dark City” . It was also home to notable senior jazzmen including Zacks Nkosi and Ntemi Piliso.

In the early 1950s, Rachabane was just one of dozens of little Alex boys who admired these conductors from afar, climbed on top of each other to watch their performances through the windows of the community hall and ended up having the courage to offer to carry their instruments – for pennies, or just for the honor of walking alongside them or sneaking into the show.

At the age of seven, Rachabane and two of his peers acquired penny whistles and became The Little Bunnies, a street band around the corner, whistling, as the late National Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile titled an essay, “For pennies”. The nickname “Bunny” has long followed Rachabane.

“Whatever your turn of mind,” writes Kgositsile, “the lyricism and anguished sometimes bluesy happiness of this seemingly casual music touches your sensibility… sometimes robust, sometimes twirling, always brutally moving and demanding, [it] has all the ingredients of township life.

Join life

By the time Rachabane was a teenager, Nkosi and Piliso both noticed his enthusiasm and talent and began to invite him, he recalls, to perform “at weddings. I was still in school so I could only play on weekends… In the townships, music was life… the only way to play was to join the old people and play alongside them to find out more.

Rachabane’s heroes were American players on LPs and national icons such as Nkosi and Kippie Moeketsi, “the closest thing to anything I listened to on record.” I always thought I wanted to be like this man… In the late 1950s, at Selborne Hall, I would be in all these [Township Jazz] shows playing the whistle and that’s where I listened to the wonderful play of Kippie behind the curtain.

Around 2003: Barney Rachabane at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, with Bongani Sokhela on double bass. (Photograph by Rafs Mayet)

Rachabane was nonchalant about his own transition from whistle to alto sax and clarinet. “It was very easy; you don’t need anyone to show you. Just grab it and play it, ”he told music specialist Chats Devroop.

But while it was true that several other penny whistle childhood stars, including “Little Lemmy” Mabaso, made the same transition, not all of them were, a few years later, hanging out with the jazz elite. modernists from Dorkay House in Johannesburg, experimenting with fast and risky local bebop sounds.

Photographs from this period show a still surprisingly young Rachabane playing with his peers and elders, the cream of the crop: trumpeter Dennis Mpale, pianist Tete Mbambisa and more. By 1964, at just 18, he was considered accomplished enough to replace his hero Moeketsi in drummer Early Mabuza’s quartet at the Castle Lager Jazz Festival.

Circa 1964: From left to right, Dennis Mpale, Barney Rachabane and Ronnie Beer at the Thibault Square Recording Studio in Cape Town. (Photograph by Ian Bruce Huntley)

He went on to work with the Big Five of Mabuza, and with several groups led by Tete Mbambisa, including the Big Sound and the small band the Jazz Disciples in Cape Town, which he said he found a little more “laid back” town. than Johannesburg. in terms of the application of apartheid.

Rachabane featured in some of the landmark recordings of the late 1960s and 1970s, creating both intense modern jazz like that of the Soul Giants. I remember Nick and music that was more oriented towards popular trends. In his own group, Roots, with Mpale, Jabu, the son of Zacks Nkosi and Sipho Gumede, he explores jazz fusion. He worked on the early Beaters, Harari, recorded bump jive and even mabone (sax jive) with the Sound Proofs.

He developed a distinctive saxophone voice and his own stage image, straight out of the street fashion of the Canton of Joburg – often a plaid shirt and almost always a poor boy’s cap. From a player of not much over five feet tall, the sound of the sax was surprisingly large, round and warm, characterized by a reed cry that, when heard, remained in the auditory memory forever.

A homebody on tour

Life was tough in the late 1970s and 1980s for musicians. Censorship, small audiences and onstage segregation, curfews, violence and states of emergency forced players to travel and take on whatever meager work they could find in any genre, or stay at home, make up and starve. “The guys couldn’t really make the money,” Reed said. He has never dissociated himself from the struggle against oppression, participating in the 1982 Medu Festival of Culture and Resistance in Botswana.

But he loved his home and his family. “I felt the pain during apartheid,” he told Devroop, “but I didn’t want to run away from it. He described the time as a time when he was “very militant” but “I did not go abroad. I just stayed here and accepted the whip… I stayed here at home and played and practiced. Of those who endured exile, he said: “I think they were very brave to do it. ”

Rachabane recorded two more albums as a leader, blow barney blow in 1985 and Barney’s path in 1989. Between Graceland, a project with which he stayed for 20 years.

Time on the road with Hugh Masekela following Botswana Techno-Bush the recording gave him the opportunity to travel and interact with his previously missed American jazz peers. Simon hailed him as “one of the most moving saxophonists in the world; one of the best I’ve ever played with. Rachabane remembers a conversation with American reed Michael Brecker: “[He] used to say ‘this is unique, man’. He never hears anyone in the world playing like we play. Even if you try to play American tunes… you still have our flavor. We were born with… it’s just different.

Around 1964: Barney Rachabane at the Thibault Square studio. (Photograph by Ian Bruce Huntley)

The tour was a mixed blessing. Rachabane has told numerous reporters that he is still regularly homesick and can’t wait to be back. And he didn’t idealize New York: “A very difficult place to live. I could never have imagined jostling myself in this place. Arrrgh! Very hard… You will see a guy sleeping in the park and he has his saxophone – the sweepers are jazz players – and people are cold… ”

International opportunities continued, including a partnership in 1990 with pianist Darius Brubeck and bassist Victor Ntoni at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with Afro-Cool Concept. He displayed a different musical character in an intense and contemplative relationship with trumpeter Bruce Cassidy in Conversations. More recently, he had the opportunity to reunite with Mbambisa when the pianist went on a review tour of his Big Sound concept including musicians from the UK. He will also appear as a guest on South African stages, performing as well, if not better, than ever before and ultimately receiving some recognition for the role he played in creating that distinctive jazz sound at home and in the world.

At the end of 2020, the Fredericksburg label remastered Roots for reissue. The horns, relegated to the background on some tracks of the original, now sounded loud and clear. Rachabane was thrilled that the album was back in circulation, but As-Shams record archivist Calum MacNaughton said he was more interested in talking about “his home and his family.”

Undated: Barney Rachabane in full flow. (Photograph by Siphiwe Mhlambi)

The saxophonist had worked hard to keep this together over the years, and that was his pride and joy: three daughters (the youngest, Octavia, is a jazz singer) and a son, Leonard, also a saxophonist, who has passed away. tragically young. . Today, grandson Oscar continues the saxophone tradition. Rachabane had met his wife Elizabeth Nini when he was 14 and they had been together for 60 years. He told Devroop: “I still love him so much.” Elizabeth died on July 30. Eyesight problems and his devastating grief over this loss have contributed to his growing fragility this year.

In his personality, Rachabane was very different from the fiery Moeketsi whom he had admired so much at the time. He just quietly continued his musical work, with the fire confined to his sound, and was prosaic about his accomplishments. But he had regrets. He told me when I interviewed him that “history is not written anywhere. There have been albums and now you don’t even know what they were. The history of our jazz has been thrown away… ”

That this was not the case in his own life, quite remarkable. Hamba kahle.

January 20, 2021: A recent photograph of Barney Rachabane at the time of his album Roots has been relaunched. (Photograph by Calum MacNaughton)
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