The little giant from South Africa who took an epic jazz journey

While preparing for a jazz concert on November 13, 2021, I learned of the passing of my South African soul music brother and childhood idol, Barney Rachabane. He was 75 years old. The words of American alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy crossed my mind at that moment:

When you hear music, once it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You will never be able to capture it again.

The words echo my feelings about Barney – a little giant, whose unique music and sound I learned in my youth, and who has become essential in my later years. Reflecting now, after his passing, I think musician Kevin Davidson’s academic article, which reviews Barney’s stylistic traits, appropriately captures his contribution to the South African musical landscape. He views the deceased artist as a master at capturing the emotions of the listener, helping to shape a definitive African sound.

In this tribute, I deliberately avoid categorizing Barney’s music into a genre. After all, when Chris Walton and I asked him about his musical composition for our book Unsung, he replied:

I’m pretty versatile, I could play anything. I also played in The Buddy Holly Story; it was a rock and roll musical. I could play mbaqanga, and I did a lot of sessions with all kinds of music: classics, soundtracks, whatever. I played the transverse flute, the soprano and alto saxophone, the tenor saxophone. So I work a lot in different areas of music.

Now that he’s passed away, the tributes will continue. Scholars will delve into the details of his life story and his life’s work. They will establish the exact dates of the recordings, correspondence, performances and interviews. They will map associates, influences and antipathies. Final collections, bootlegs and archive fragments will be published.

Detail of the cover of the Sweet Matara album, 1976.
Black music

Paradoxically, it is at this point that Barney will be lost in the story – the real story in which he died and lived. It will be part of the obligatory jazz experience and the world of respectful quotes, lineages and footnotes. His music might, with luck, not suffer the same fate.

Penny whistle on saxophone

The township of Alexandra in Johannesburg was one of the first sites of black resistance to white minority rule and apartheid in South Africa. It was also an important cultural center. It was here that Barney was born in 1946 into a working-class and music-loving family. He admired the great jazz musicians of the time, such as saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, and from an early age he started playing in a street orchestra.

Barney worked actively against apartheid but made the decision to star in Paul Simon’s controversial Graceland project, which brought him a lot of money and made him famous. He would play with the greatest and tour the world.

The romance of street musicians in a legally separated South Africa resonates with the stories of the many street musicians of all genres around the world who are harassed daily by authorities – only to ingeniously return to a better disguised corner of the world. public domain .

An old man in a suit and tie blows a saxophone on stage, bright lights behind him.
A former Rachabane.
© Courtesy of Rafs Mayet

The encounter with the saxophone was, according to Barney, a key to directly unlocking the many recordings of American jazz, then part of the American cultural exercise of soft power over all nations threatened with Soviet ideological influence. Barney sees it as his vocation to imitate this music in a long self-taught adventure, while finding ways to adapt it to what he calls “our music”. He said to Walton and I:

I put these American phrases above our mbaqanga. I still do it now, I have fun doing this… We have an African identity, but the American influence has been too strong… You hear African music, you hear American solos on top, all the time, if you like it or not. It’s just natural, you know. This influence has been there for years.

The long experience

Barney’s long experience took him on a cosmopolitan journey, an epic journey that included a closeness to working with, but never absorption into, the various experiences that then attempted to distill new music suited to the South African experience. from the eclectic sources of South Africa the post-1959 jazz boom (which began with the revolutionary musical King Kong) and the Broadway musical. Barney’s discernment is evident in the many recordings he did not make during this time, as much as in the ones he did.

Rachabane jamming in a Johannesburg jazz club.

His project has often covered the clichés of episodes of Paul Simon. But Barney’s eclecticism, unlike that of Simon, was a delicate experience to explore the transition from street performance to the special condition of recorded jazz. Barney tried to avoid anything that aspires to a mainstream without falling into idiosyncrasy. In this respect, his musical project most resembles that of the composer and pianist Igor Stravinsky, whose starting point was also imitative collage but whose tenacity forced him to find more and more minute degrees of freedom in the detail.

A relentless rebellion

In this time of mourning and praise, we should pay homage to Barney Rachabane in a way he would expect, paying an unprecedented level of attention to the music he loved and lived for, without prejudices of academic dogmas and jazz, leaving the circumstances of his music to the antique dealers.



Read more: Remembering Zim Ngqawana 10 years later, a singular force in South African music


It was under these circumstances, then and now, that his music was his constant, silent, subversive and relentless rebellion against conformism and apartheid, and an expression of his creative African spirit. The last words belong to him:

If you play the whistle (you can) just take the saxophone and play it. I can play a song immediately… I felt the pain during apartheid but I didn’t want to run away from it. I wasn’t a threat either way, although I was also very militant, you know. I loved being here.


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