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Interviewing Themba Mkhize
Jazz music has always been seen as a genre of music only enjoyed by the more mature crowd. It came as a surprise for me, well maybe a little disillusion on my part for thinking I wasn’t a grown up, when I fell in love with this beautiful form of expression just a few years ago. I learnt to undertsnad that it’s all about how you interpret what you hear when you listen to any type of music. Jazz in this country has been enjoying an ernomous support for many years. There is also a notion that this type of music actually originates from Africa. Whatever the case is, jazz has certainly produced many a sterling performers, who have gone on to impress the world with their craft. One such great is bab’ uThemba Mkhize, a prominent Zulu pianist, father, son, and a brother to many, hailing from KwaZulu Natal.
Bab’ uThemba Mkhize was born in the province in 1957 and by the age of 7 was already engaging his mind in the form of art his friends didn’t even think about at the time. His list of work is endless and impressive, having worked on many music productions, and with countless number of musicians. I saw bab’ uThemba perform live for the first time last year at the Joy Of Jazz Festival, and to say I was mesmerised is an understatement. Not being biased really, because we share the same surname or something, but I was amazed by his immaculate style of playing. That experience gnawed on mind for a while, until our paths crossed recently when I did this interview with him. He was performing at the Sejacufe Festival this past weekend and when I saw the lineup and was presented an opportunity to interview him, I knew then that I wanted to pick his brain and learn more about this unheralded legendary pianist.
Luck was on my side when arrangements for an interview proceeded as smooth as the sounds of his piano when his fingers gently caress those black and white keys. After attending the launch of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival some time in February, which sees him making the colourful line-up, I headed to his home near Kensington for the big moment. The nerves quickly subsided as he gave me a beautiful welcome upon introducing myself. He topped me with izithakazelo zakwa Mkhize and I felt like a chief that I am. The best was yet to come as we held a profound, interesting, inspiring, engaging and open conversation. Don’t take my word for it though, draw your own conclusions after reading how the interview transpired:
You have been in the music business for a long time; I believe you started taking piano lessons at age 7, what was it that drew you into the instrument and eventually into the jazz genre of music?
Actually before I started playing the piano, I played the guitar. For some reason, people from Durban have this thing with a guitar. Just like Eastern Cape people like piano; I don’t know how it happens. Almost every musician who plays any instrument can play a guitar. This bagan from the very early days, playing with the oil tin guitars we used to make ourselves.
Let me tell you about how my parents and family were involved in it. My late father passed away last year at age 81 and my mother as well, who was 79. My mother told me that, when she was a teenager, before she even met my father; she had this prediction that her son was gonna be a musician. My father was a choir conductor. My aunt Audrey Mkhize, who lived at Umlazi, was teaching piano lessons and my father took other kids to the lessons, that’s how it all started.
How was your childhood like? Did your introduction to classical music at age 7 sort of give you an idea that you would be a big jazz musician one day?
From the onset, I knew what I would be. Like my eldest son Afrika, I would say as a kid, I wanted to be a musician. I knew that I wanted to be a musician but didn’t know at the time what type of music it would be. And then when growing up, you tend to change and find interests in different things. There was a band called Gasa Brothers, zazibuya! (Meaning they were rocking). I have never heard such umgqashiyo (a zulu genre of music, dominated by a guitar); even today, nobody does it like they did. At the time there were no keyboards so each member will improvise and spew what instruments would sound like. I still have pictures in my head of the person that was playing a guitar, with a burning cigarette in his mouth. My friends would accompany me to watch. That’s where I started picking up sounds. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay with my aunt for long. I didn’t know at the time that people like Joe Sample had classical background, because I would have continued. The discipline it provides prepares you on relaying the message you want to relay in music and other facts of life.
Tha’s such an incredible tale. You started recording with Sakhile in 1981, what did you do after leaving high school? Did you study it professionally or it was one of your passions and talents that you didn’t need to study for?
I had been playing all along. I went to Inchanga Boarding School; it was a Catholic Mission school near Hammersdale. I went to that school because I wanted a school that taught music. I joined a band called Comrades which was headed by a guy called Spaklaza. Qunta Mbhele also had a group called Stax that I was once a part of around those days. There was also a group of guys who called themselves Black B’s. You know at the time everything was Black this and Black that. In the band there was Vusi Thusi, a guitar player who eventually went to Germany, Mpumelelo who was on drums and also another guy called Thami, who also played drums. So, I didn’t stop really, I was always a part of a particular band.
Looking at the music industry when you started out and comparing it to now, which are some of the positive improvements you’ve seen?
There are many. There is a group of people like Jimmy Dludlu, Nhlanhla Magagula, Judith Sephuma and Andile Yenana; who are all college-educated musicians. It has an impact on how the records are made. The song has to be good, but it has to be known how it was played. That’s what the education element brings. Availability of many musicians also makes the music sound more descent. The level of production itself is in a better level after musicians started producing themselves. During those time producers were like talent scouts. They were acting as middlemen between record companies and the musicians themselves. Education is very important. Perhaps one of my greatest regrets is not educating myself further with my aunt when I had a chance to.
Sakhile was very much a full jazz effort, but you joined Bayete, which was also a jazz outfit, but more flexible with their sound, what was your intention with joining Bayete? Was your experience different to that of Sakhile?
Sakhile was great. They came out with a unique sound, which was more of a fusion, if I may call it that. They drew their sound from experiences of bands like Weather Report Band. It was great; it’s where I cut my teeth, so to speak. Bayete did more groove-based music and it was also very rootsy, if there is such a word. Actually, Sakhile disbanded when Sipho Gumede left the band. You may remember that he brought the band back together but it was proved again after his death recently, that he was what was the force holding the band together.
Oh, ok. After coming back from touring with the musical Buwa, you joined Hugh Masekela’s band. How was it working with such a prolific musician?
That was my first experience to go overseas. It was the first time going further than Botswana at least. Guys like the late Sipho Gumede, Conry Ziqubu, the late Khaya Mahlangu; it was during the era of exile and they were looking for a local sound. My hero is Caiphus; he took a liking in me and spent about 2 months teaching me. We are actually thinking of doing Buwa again, mordenise it a bit; and use somebody like Matsemela Manaka to direct it. When we came back from touring with the musical from overseas, we continued with the likes of Jonas Gwangwa, Dorothy Masuku, Sanza, June Magase, Barley Rachabane, and Sipho Gumede. We performed it in Zimbabwe, and then recorded the Buwa music in Sweden in 1987. We did Nigeria in 1988, but more musicians were no longer there. We even went to countries like Burkina Faso and Ethiopia. It was great working with all those guys.
Baba, you have done a lot of work with and for so many artists and have been involved in many big music productions and huge bands, and yet you only in recent years decided to release your own album, why did it take you so long to do that? And what did it take for you to finally decide to put out your own full-length album?
My first solo effort was in 1999. I was coming from a band culture. You remember earlier I mentioned the Gasa Band, and then went to boarding school. Before Sakhile I joined an Indian band called Jukes Combo. Maybe it’s because the instrument I play was taken as a backup instrument. I had written many songs, I had a studio in the mid-90’s. With the advent of computers here, I got more interested in production. The material grew and grew, and I thought it was time to put out an album.
Actually how it started is like this. I did a tour with Sibongile Khumalo, a guy called Oumasangari from Mali, En Salinyoro from Cameroon and Arch from Madagascar; in England. The guys from Sony in the UK came to the show with one of the South African executives. Adam from Sony UK particularly loved the music. He turned out to be a keyboard player himself. It was a nice conversation that I had with him; it was nice talking to someone who knew the intricacies of music. He raved about my playing and he said to me, “Have you ever thought of doing your own record?” Then Duncan Dbongs from Sony SA proposed I come to them on my return and speak about it.
How was the album Tales From The South different to the works you had done for the likes of Sibongile Khumalo, Hugh Masekela, Vusi Khumalo and even Zamajobe, to name but a few?
My latest album is gonna be called The Last Dance. My mom used to dance very nicely. She had arthritis and she would still stand up and dance. (He showed me pictures of his late mother that were plastered nicely on the glass coffee table). Afrika got married to Miriam Makeba’s granddaughter, Zenzile, last year, that’s where these pictures were taken. She was dancing like she wasn’t sick at all. So that album is dedicated to the memory of my parents, because that was in a way her last dance.
The stuff I had done for people like Hugh Masekela was their music. Tales From The South represented me. I had a chance to experiment with the stuff I had been dreaming of doing; mixing traditional elements with jazz. I like to create a unique South African sound with room for improvisations. I have been told by musicians that I can’t do certain things. It’s not that I want to create a certain style, but I want a sound without boundaries. That’s what I was thinking of when I did that project.
You have been awarded numerous awards, some of them indirectly (like Sibongile Khumalo’s Standard Banks SAMA awards for her debut album, etc). Do you feel it’s enough recognition for your talents or any musician talents?
That was actually for Milestone, a musical written by Mandla Langa which featured Sibongile Khumalo and Gloria Bosman. I don’t know how the awards process work really; I don’t sell as many records. But getting awards says to me, carry on. You may not have sold 100 000 copies, but someone out there is listening. What is more rewarding for me is getting calls from people I don’t know and they would tell me what they like about my music. Just the other day I received a call from somebody who told me they have never thought it was possible to mix the two styles of music after working with Bhekumuzi Luthuli. I also met somebody in Soweto who told me that the reason why they enjoy my music is because they know that in my album song number 1 is not the same as number 2 or any other songs in the album. I like and appreciate that more because they are not buying face. If you get the awards, it’s still good, because it means that somebody is listening.
Now, let’s get a bit personal. If you don’t mind, can you please tell me a bit about your family? How has the support from them for your career been over the years?
I have a wife, who is a scientist by profession. I have two sons and 1 kid I got out of wedlock; a big girl, she is 27 years now. And Afrika, that we spoke about earlier, he got married to Zenzile and they now live in France. And the young one is Khwezi, who is doing his Master’s Degree in Literature. What else can I tell you, I live here, near Kensington; and have a studio in Newtown called DIGIHut Studio. teh suppirt is amazing. the know that this is my dream and they give me their utmost and undivided support.
Would you advise any of your children to follow in the same footsteps as you? If so, why?
Look, I didn’t even have to. It just happened with Afrika. I obviously started him off when he was 6 years, teaching him a few things here and there. When he was 10, I showed him how production works, the programming and stuff like that. I wanted to share something with him if he wanted me to share that with him. He then went to the National School of the Arts to pursue it further. It’s not a question of advising or not advising, it’s about letting them decide on their own what they want to do. You can intervene if things don’t go the right way. I grew up in a conservative family, but still my parents gave me insurmountable support.
How do you balance the life of a married man with children and wife to take care of, with the pressures of a busy musician life?
It’s difficult, I’m not gonna lie; it’s very, very difficult. Especially if I’m very busy with studio work. You can’t have specific times of what you are going to be doing. A person only tries. Like this week and particularly today, I asked you to meet me here because I’m busy working from home. But the kids are not young anymore, so they understand. I have roped my wife in as my manager, so we are together most of the time. Balancing the two, I’m fortunate that my wife loves music and Khwezi is a great composer as he sometimes contributes. If Khwezi were to win a lottery, he would buy tons and tons of CD’s. There is a lot of traveling involved too, but I try as best as I can.
What is it that you feel has kept you going for all these years? What do you attribute your longevity to?
I think, forever chasing a certain dream. To other people, they may think you are there, but you are never there. You always want to improve. You create your music, and then when you have a chance to perform live, you do things differently. You get fulfillment from improving on your craft and your life in general. That’s what keeps me going. I must tell you, complacency kills; especially for a creative person.
What are some of the adversities you’ve had to overcome that you feel contributed to the way your life is today?
Some of the things I’m thinking of, there are too many. Last year, I lost both my parents, it’s unbearable; you don’t get used to it. The way it happened, it was not good. Just now, I was looking at the picture of my mother with you; I haven’t looked at it for months because it’s still hard. I thought I would spoil her for much longer.
Other musicians I have played with that are no longer with us as well. People like Zoli Bacele, a guitar player who could do anything; he could use the space unbelievably. He died from a car accident last year. Chicco Mtima was a drummer from Kwamashu who worked on my album Lost And Found. He was like a young brother to me. He was not just a drummer, but a good musician. And also people like Jabu Khanyile.
I spoke about an Indian band called Jukes Combo. There was another Indian group called Rebirth when I used to work at a hotel in Chatsworth. They were like a resident band; they did what they did because they liked it. They did songs from the likes of Earth Wind And Fire and other songs that were popular at the time. I remember there was a time when we got a gig to play at the Playhouse where we were due to open for an American band. We did the first night, and were told to not come back the following night. We were crushed. My heart had never been so sore. I went to Butterworth and drank my heart out.
Another scenario happened at a club in Park Station where I was to perform with Bayete. It was the first time a black band was to perform at that club; I think it was called La Parazium (he had to call Mshengu to confirm the name of the club). Remember that were we very excited. It was during the apartheid era and this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. On the first night, before we even played, the club was burnt. We didn’t even perform; we only did the setup and the sound check. Those are some of the things we had to go through.
If you were to collaborate with anybody else in the international jazz spheres, who would it be? Who is the ultimate person you would like to work with?
If you were to say in a jazz world, the likes of Joe Sample, Richard Bona, Lee Ritenour, etc, may come to mind. But for me, a person like Busi Mhlongo, it would carry more weight to perform with her over those people. If I had a chance I would have loved to work with Princess Magogo. She was such a phenomenal composer. Busi Mhlongo represents everything a black person in music does. She’s one singer who can do a jazz standard, but people don’t know that about her. When she sings or does anything for that matter, she gets into it and becomes what she is doing. I remember, I had an opportunity to work with her in France, with Mara Louw, Dolly Rathebe, Hugh Masekela, and Light Swingsters. We had a group of backing singers, and she would do as much as she could. She was the only one to bring the house down; she would just shine out of all of them. But I believe that she is not very well now, she’s suffering from breast cancer. I would really love to do something with her.
Finally, what are you promising the fans that are going to see you perform live at the Sejacufe and Cape Town International Jazz Festival?
I’m promising them umculo omnandi (very nice music). Bazobhema bakholwe (a term to symbolise satisfaction). They are going to experience Themba Mkhize like they have never seen before. (I also asked him to send a message to his fans). My message to my fans: They are the ones who keep me going. If it would have not been for them, I would be playing for myself. Like I said earlier, people I don’t know end up being my friends because they appreciate the music first. Not 2 weeks pass by without talking to some of those friends that I have made. I may not have a million people buying my records, but I know for sure that those that do buy my music are not buying my face.
Well, there you have it, this has got to be the best interview I’ve ever done since the inception of this website. Bab’ uThemba is such a warm and kind soul, all this deduced from the instant we met. The way he treated me and the guy who I had arrived with, who wanted to meet him, was that of respect and humility. The manner in which he opened up to me about different parts of his life was awesome. I got a rare opportunity to see a side of Bab’ Themba Mkhize, that many South Africans don’t get to see, and I’m grateful and honoured to have had that experience. I shall certainly keep it with me and treasure it for as long as I live. To top it all of, he played the piano for me at the end of the interview, as I clicked away the pictures I wanted to use for this piece that I’m so proud of. Moreover, he was only talking the truth when he said he has made friends with people that he meets all the time. Testimony to his friendly nature is evident with how we have kept in touch since that day and now have this very special relationship. Not that my own father is not a great man, but Bab’ uThemba is like the father I never had. I hope you have enjoyed reading this as much as i enjoyed writing it; and got to know more about this amazing soul. If you want to experience his magic, be sure to see him when he performs on the 30th and 31st of March in the Mother City at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. And since I met him, I’ve even made time to listen to some of the work he has done. Go to record shops and listen and get yourself a copy of any of the titles, I promise, you’ll fall in love from the first listen. Thank you Khabazela, the world of only the best to you.