Mabi Thobejane was a gentle giant of jazz: New Frame
South African politicians who don’t know much about music were seething with excitement when the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge briefly broke the internet in 2020. Jerusalema‘s beat sampled the “eish… eish” of traditional BaLobedu music, but it was by no means the first time that these roots have mesmerized international audiences. Master drummer Gabriel Segwagwa “Mabi” Thobejane, who died Thursday, June 3 from a stroke at the age of 74, has innovated (in a constantly evolving form).
Born in Mamelodi in 1947, the young Thobejane was fascinated by the BaLobedu drummers of his neighborhood playing their families on stave drums. “I didn’t decide,” Thobejane told the Courier and tutor in a 2015 interview. “My grandparents, my ancestors, they came to see me while I was sleeping. When I was born my hand was closed like this [in a clenched fist]. And when my hand opened, like 10 years later, that’s where I took over.
Thobejane’s mother discouraged this enthusiasm, hoping that her son would one day become a Christian priest. But growing up, he used discarded skins from a nearby tannery to cover his own drums, ending up performing – as he told the MELT 2000 website – outside the Kguguludi tavern, which clearly looks like at a church.
One of Thobejane’s senior uncles was Malombo guitarist and frontman Nchipi Phillip Tabane. When drummer Julian Bahula left the Malombo Jazz Men in 1965, the clearly inspired Thobejane was recruited to occupy the percussion chair, where Tabane continually mentored him.
From that moment on, his life traced a circuit between the poles of “jazz” and “tradition”. It was a journey that challenged both these categories and the supposed distance between them.
Look for the opposite of “traditional” and you will usually find the word “modern”. Look for tales of Modernism in music and you will find a text that pits modernism against the cultural traditions of historical political regimes such as the BaLobedu, but against the much more recent “traditions” of European concert music of the 18th and 19th centuries. . . These included tight gender envelopes, prescribed shapes with clearly defined beginnings, midpoints, and ends; rhythm relegated to a background measured by the melody; and a “pure” tone.
Historical music from grassroots communities (and not just outside Europe) had rarely fetishized these traits. They put up with improvisation; cyclic structures without prescribed finish; counter-voice; complex, syncopated and jagged rhythms with a space for silence where a dancer’s foot would fall; and tones that bent and traveled around in a fixed pace for emotion or just exploration.
This kind of tradition offered many more points of contact with “modern” music than all the elitist and Eurocentric things in between. Percussionist Thebe Lepere amusedly recalled how, when he arrived on the European improvised music scene, “I found it a little hilarious. Here, all these musicians talked, theorized and made a big deal out of this music, whereas in Africa, it was a common, daily thing.
This is why Thobejane, as part of Malombo’s tour of the United States in the 1970s, was able to happily identify with the music of Miles Davis (which he later described as influential) and impress Miles. and others with the long solos he took. And how, well into his later years, he was able to make exciting contributions to the work of British trance band Juno Reactor and house DJs.
But it is to take the plunge.
You can’t repeat the feelings
Returning from the United States in the 1970s, Thobejane forged many playing relationships developing a very distinctive style of drumming. Still rooted in what he had heard from those walking Pedi drummers, he was constantly adding ideas, instruments and vocals from whatever he heard: modern African jazz from South Africa – also a historic voice from South Africa. Mamelodi – and the drum sounds of American jazz and other African Styles that he encountered on tour.
A Thobejane solo has never been predictable, always with complex patterns, but always always accessible to all its listeners. These solos were very personal explorations. Although he practiced the drums, he did not imagine what the music on stage could inspire him to play: “You cannot repeat your feelings. Can you repeat your feelings, wena self? Do you know how you are going to feel tomorrow? It would be a big mistake. “
He had a long-standing musical relationship with guitarist Madala Kunene, whom he first met at a stadium concert in 1968 and on tour with half a century later in 2018, as well as with jazz guitarist Doc Mthalane. He worked with bassist Sipho Gumede and later became a part of Sakhile, where his percussion voice was more assertive and surprising than that of his equally capable predecessor, Makhaya Mahlangu, leading changes in mood and tempo. music.
He has worked with Amampondo, Busi Mhlongo, African Dreamtime by Pops Mohamed and on a series of other projects for the MELT 2000 label, including these deejay concerts. He released his own album as a leader, Madiba, in 2002, when he was based in the Ga-Rankuwa smallholding in Gauteng where he cultivated and gathered his family around him.
The label’s staging often featured an “exotic” image of Thobejane, with dramatic face and body painting, exaggerating previous garments that had always shown a shrewd understanding of the importance of stage presentation. Yet many of us have heard him deliver equally transcendent bursts of percussion, wearing a plain cloth cap and T-shirt. Usually soft-spoken, he could jump with a loud chuckle at a joke when interacting with group mates. He didn’t like media interviews – which is why there are so few of them – and his regular meditation with a cigarette before a concert was not performative; it was time to get in tune with music, ancestors and the universe.
What you didn’t notice, with such a assertive performance and presentation on stage, was that he wasn’t a big guy like the lanky Tabane or the sturdy Kunene. But with her passing, like her trace Baele said, one of the giants has passed. Tsamaya sentle. To go well.