South Africa: Mabi Thobejane Was a Gentle Giant of Jazz

The master drummer from Mamelodi drew on his upbringing among BaLobedu drummers, playing solos in the moment and crossing over to genres such as house and trance.

South African politicians who don't know much about music worked themselves into a lather of excitement when the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge briefly broke the internet in 2020. Jerusalema's beat sampled the "eish ... eish" of BaLobedu traditional music, but it was by no means the first time those roots had hypnotised international audiences. Master drummer Gabriel Segwagwa "Mabi" Thobejane, who died Thursday, June 3, from stroke-related complications at the age of 74, broke that ground (in a constantly evolving form).

Born in Mamelodi in 1947, the young Thobejane was fascinated by the BaLobedu drummers in his neighbourhood playing their pitched families of standing wooden drums. "I didn't decide," Thobejane told the Mail & Guardian in a 2015 interview. "My grandparents, my ancestors, they came to me while I was sleeping. When I was born, my hand was closed like this [in a clenched fist]. And when my hand was open, like 10 years later, it's when I took over."

Thobejane's mother discouraged this enthusiasm, hoping her son would one day become a Christian priest. But as he grew up, he used discarded hides from a nearby tannery to cover his own drums, eventually performing - as he told the M.E.L.T. 2000 website - outside the distinctly unchurch-like Kguguludi tavern.

One of Thobejane's senior uncles was malombo guitarist and leader Nchipi Phillip Tabane. When drummer Julian Bahula quit the Malombo Jazz Men in 1965, the clearly inspired Thobejane was recruited to fill the percussion chair, where Tabane mentored him continuously.

His life from that point on traced a circuit between the poles of "jazz" and "tradition". It was a journey that challenged both those categories and the assumed distance between them.

Look up the opposite of "traditional" and you'll usually find the word "modern". Look up accounts of modernism in music and you'll find text that sets modernism in opposition not to the cultural traditions of historic polities such as the BaLobedu, but to the far more recent "traditions" of 18th- and 19th-century European concert music. These included tight genre envelopes, prescribed forms with clearly defined beginnings, middles and ends; rhythm relegated to a measured background to melody; and "pure" tonality.

The historical music of grassroots communities (and not only outside Europe) had rarely fetishised these features. They accommodated improvisation; cyclical structures with no prescribed finish; counter-voices; complex, syncopated and jagged rhythms with space for the silence where a dancer's foot would fall; and tones that bent and journeyed around fixed pitch for the sake of emotion or simply exploration.

That kind of tradition offered far more points of contact with "modern" music than all the elite, Eurocentric stuff in between. Percussionist Thebe Lepere recalled with amusement how, when he arrived on the European improvised music scene, "I found it a bit hilarious. Here were all these musicians talking and theorising and making a big deal out of this music, whereas in Africa it was a common, everyday thing."

That's why Thobejane, as part of Malombo's 1970s tour of the United States, could happily identify with the music of Miles Davis (which he described later as influential) and impress Miles and others with the extended solos he took. And how, well into his later years, he could make exciting contributions to the work of British trance outfit Juno Reactor and house deejays.

But that's jumping the gun.

You can't rehearse feelings

Back from the US in the 1970s, Thobejane established a host of playing relationships as he evolved a highly distinctive drum style. Still rooted in what he had heard from those peripatetic Pedi drummers, he was constantly adding ideas, instruments and voicings from everything else he heard: South Africa's modern African jazz - also a historical voice of Mamelodi - and the drum sounds of American jazz and additional African styles he encountered on tours.

A Thobejane solo was never predictable, always intricately patterned, but still always accessible to whoever his listeners were. Those solos were highly personal explorations. Though he practised drumming, he didn't plot out what the music on stage might inspire him to play: "You can't rehearse your feelings. Can you rehearse your feelings, wena self? Do you know how you're going to feel tomorrow? That would be a big mistake."

He had a long-standing musical relationship with guitarist Madala Kunene, whom he'd first encountered at a stadium concert in 1968 and toured with a half-century later in 2018, as well as with jazz guitarist Doc Mthalane. He worked with bassist Sipho Gumede and later became part of Sakhile, where his percussion voice was more assertive and surprising than that of his equally able predecessor, Makhaya Mahlangu, leading shifts in the music's mood and tempo.

He worked with Amampondo, Busi Mhlongo, Pops Mohamed's African Dreamtime and on a range of other projects for the label M.E.L.T. 2000, including those deejay gigs. He released his own album as leader, Madiba, in 2002, while based at the Ga-Rankuwa smallholding in Gauteng where he farmed and gathered family around him.

The label's staging often foregrounded an "exotic" image of Thobejane, with dramatic face and body paint, exaggerating earlier attire that had always shown a shrewd understanding of how important stage presentation was. Yet many of us heard him produce equally transcendent percussion flights wearing an ordinary cloth cap and a T-shirt. Usually soft-spoken, he could startle with a loud cackle at some joke in exchanges with bandmates. He didn't relish media interviews - which is why there are so few - and his regular meditation with a smoke before a gig wasn't performative; it was a time for getting in tune with music, the ancestors and the universe.

What you didn't notice, with such assertive onstage performance and presentation, was that he wasn't a tall guy like the lanky Tabane or the solid Kunene. But with his passing, as his track Baele says, one of the giants has passed. Tsamaya sentle. Go well.

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