South Africa: The King of Congas Is Dead. Long Live the King!

Legendary percussionist Mabi Thobejane banged the drum with flourish and put the instrument at the very heart of the unforgettable music he has left the world.

Rhythm was the lifeblood of the incomparable percussionist Gabriel Mabi Thobejane, who died at the age of 74 on 3 June. Thobejane played the cowhide drum with a croaking and thundering "kuruku-duku boom-boom" that earned him the nickname "Segwagwa", or bullfrog. There was also that throaty crack and cackle of his infectious, blissful laughter.

Many hearty ensembles have grooved at about 120 to 125 beats per minute pulsating percussively through Thobejane's palms. But it was a break, perhaps a dischord, in the rhythm of blood flow to his brain - a stroke - that took him from this world, his family said.

More than a mere musician, Thobejane was on a search that began before birth. He arrived into the world with clasped hands that only opened when he was about 10. "This is when I took over," he once told an interviewer, sharing tales of how his grandparents and ancestors appeared in his dreams with the gift of drums and music, merging ethereal inspirations and earthly missions that manifested in his musicianship.

Drum supremacy and the centrality of rhythm underpinned the meaning of Thobejane's musical message. His approach was rooted in a simple but fundamental African musical ideal: a sonic universe of rhythmic and colouristic patterns at whose heart was the pursuit of all the sound possibilities provided by percussion instruments gathered together.

It created a sonic architecture in which drum figures were the lead while flutes, strings and other instruments functioned as accompaniment. This prioritising of rhythm and timbre, which left melodic and harmonic development in a subservient form, was central to how Thobejane's artistic vision was to flourish. This is unlike what happens in much of Western music where drums are often subordinate to melody. Thunderous to the touch, Thobejane was therefore poised to stand out.

His sagacious singularity was observed by his longtime collaborator, maskandi guitarist Madala Kunene, who notes that Thobejane was "a showman on and off the stage ... in his playing, in his dress style and just in person". Kunene once said in an interview that standing alongside Thobejane led to the drum master "stealing the limelight... And not in a selfish way. It just happens like that."

Malombo music

We can credit this force to the ease with which he settled into the role of drummer in Philip Tabane's group, Malombo. This was after the original Malombo Jazzmen split up in 1966 when their founding drummer, Julian Bahula, and flutist Abbey Cindi broke away from Tabane. They kept the Malombo Jazzmen moniker, while Tabane recruited a young Thobejane and together they continued as Malombo. Thobejane's substantial craftsmanship and charisma worked wonders over the years. It is no surprise that when most people speak of an unforgettable encounter with Malombo music, it is the Tabane-Thobejane incarnation they talk about.

Together with 19-year-old Bheki Mseleku on piano, Malombo toured the United States, largely thanks to opportunities made possible by their links with the Brubeck jazz family and their industry networks. Malombo played at Carnegie Hall in New York as part of the 1977 Newport Jazz Festival. They even managed to appear during halftime at an exhibition football match between the original New York Cosmos and the Portuguese club Benfica, which was made possible in part because Cosmos was owned and promoted by the Warner Music Corporation, whose label Warner-Elektra-Atlantic had just released the Malombo record Pele Pele.

Pianist Darius Brubeck, who hosted Malombo at his family apartment in Brooklyn, often remembers the drama and spectacle that Thobejane and Tabane caused in the neighbourhood. "They managed to somehow find someone in Manhattan to sell them a live chicken. Our neighbours were astonished at seeing a live chicken slaughtered, plucked and braaied in the backyard," he says. The incident was a metaphor for what Malombo communicated in performance: "something mysterious, unique and challenging".

It figures if one considers that Malombo is a Tshivenda iteration of the Sesotho word malopo, which refers to the drumming trance-dance ritual of traditional healers and diviners. These rituals are governed by a sustained pulse and beat that goes "aah-boo-ku, aah-boo-ku, aah-boo-ku" for days on end - a sustained intensity meant to open up portals to ecstasy and other realms of perceiving and being.

The traditional Malombo performance is based on three types of drums: a big bass drum called sekgokolo, a middle-sized drum called kgalapedi and a set of two smaller drums called matikwane. Anthropomorphically, we can think of sekgokolo as the father, kgalapedi, which defines the melodic line, as the mother and the two matikwane as the children. They play off what the larger drums are doing.

Sakhile and a solo career

In 1982, like many South African artists energised by the Culture and Resistance symposium and festival that the ANC helped organise in Botswana, Thobejane joined forces with saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu and bassist Sipho Gumede to create the band that became Sakhile. Other members who would join include vocalist Shaluza Max, keyboardist Themba Mkhize and Menyatso Mathole on guitar.

The band, as Mahlangu remembered in an interview for Gwen Ansell's jazz history, Soweto Blues, "came together when a lot of musicians were looking to the US for their identity. We proved that our music could be developed from its folk roots - if you like - to an American level of sophistication, but still retain our identity and incorporate our politics. That's a hell of a legacy to be proud of."

The suave and home soil-rooted musical sophistication of Sakhile was made even more brilliant because it became the sound that cushioned the repressive state of emergency years in South Africa. The 1980s required music that could console, comfort and cajole the people into committed action against the dying yet still brutal apartheid. Thobejane's drums were there to answer that call.

Building on the success of Sakhile, Thobejane pursued a career as a solo artist and also did a slew of landmark collaborations with the likes of Doc Mthalane, Pops Mohamed, Busi Mhlongo and Dizu Plaatjies. This chapter of his career was made possible in part by the rise of M.E.L.T. 2000, the record company for southern African music that was started by Swiss-born Robert Trunz. It was unique in its ability to connect musicians across the Global South with players from a newly liberated Mzansi.

Thobejane recorded and released Madiba in 1997 through M.E.L.T. to celebrate Nelson Mandela as a symbol of the possibilities of freedom. He long considered the idea of a follow-up release - a drum orchestra to stretch his ideas and vision for percussion. His passing stole this from him too; now it will never materialise.

Some of these ideas saw Thobejane also join up with the percussion supergroup Amampondo. The ensemble allowed him to explore and test his drumming idiom in the context of other traditional musical forms and instruments. He found a way for Malombo to mingle with instruments like the marimba and jembe, and with Nguni song styles.

Thanks to his global reputation as a king of congas, he got the nod from British producer Ben Watkins and his collaborative project Juno Reactor too. The outfit worked promiscuously across forms, including experimental sounds for theatre, film scores and other kinds of art music. Notable among their breakthroughs was working with Don Davis to create the music for the Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix and its sequels Reloaded and Revolutions.

Born into turmoil

Thobejane was born in 1947, just as the fundamental rhythm of Black life was changing for the worse in the country that colonisers have called South Africa. The year of Thobejane's birth was also the year of the young visionary Africanist Anton Lembede's death. And in 1947 the National Party launched the election manifesto that would win it power at the polls the following year and a mandate to mount legal apartheid.

The Thobejanes would be caught in the tumultuous turn wrought by forced removals that destroyed Lady Selborne, the urban settlement at the edge of Pretoria, and in 1953, the conversion of Vlakfontein into a location that would later be called Mamelodi. Along with Atteridgeville and Ga-Rankuwa, it became a convergent township for multi-ethnic migrant labourers from across the greater Limpopo River basin.

This diasporic mass brought their myriad ceremonies and music with them. Mamelodi with its hostels became a hive for cultural cross-pollination. It was alive with inspiration for people of potential like the young Thobejane - in part, thanks to a socio-cultural orbit orchestrated by impresario Geoff Mphakathi, the visionary who encouraged, supported and at times managed the artistic dreams and careers of young creatives in greater Tshwane. In his sphere of influence Thobejane found a safe space to develop too.

It is this same ethic that saw Thobejane, as an elder musician, being committed to guiding young prospects: a new generation of Malombo drummers like Tabane's own son Thabang as well as Azah Tinyiko Mphago and others.

In Ga-Rankuwa, northwest of Pretoria, which he had made his home, Thobejane walked the streets with the rhythm and verve of a kind of comedic griot, often barefoot, sometimes with shakers on his ankles, greeting every comer, waving and laughing with figures in the middle distance. Many times heard but not seen, yet always felt. Similarly, his death commits us to seek him in the sound he left behind and to live with his corporeal absence.

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