Tete Mbambisa – Quiet Hero of South African Jazz

Tete Mbambisa at the Cape Town launch of his new solo piano album 'Black Heroes'.
Tete Mbambisa at the Cape Town launch of his new solo piano album ‘Black Heroes’.

A soccer star stands sweating in front of sponsors’ boards moments after leaving the pitch, desperately trying to render in words what is of boot and ball. Then, thanks to a peculiarly modern magic, he appears – ITHI GQI! as Dudu Pukwana might have put it – re-suited and differently booted on another channel, describing his alien lifestyle to a chortling, knowing, chat show host.

Those celebrated for their culinary skills are required to shout over the sizzling of that for which they are famous, as the latest in digital, HD, widescreen technology strips out the two most important senses from their art. “You too, can do this at home!”

(Of course I can; just like I can run one hundred meters down my street in considerably less time than it takes you to read my first two sentences. If only Usain Bolt would explain how…)

Perhaps you’d expect poets and novelists to be more at home describing what they do. After all they don’t have to swap their medium, the skills honed by their art transfer neatly. Martin Amis, Nadine Gordimer, Seamus Heaney, Antjie Krog, Es’kia Mphahlele, Iris Murdoch, and Njabulo Ndebele all stand out in this regard.

But by his own admission, Tete Mbambisa is not much of a talker. In a way that’s quite refreshing given that we’re so used to our stars spending time describing what they do, before, after, even whilst, doing it.

It’s true, some musicians do have a great talent – perhaps it’s a calling – for shaping words and commenting on the world. Mam’ Miriam Makeba’s powerful 1963 and 1975 addresses to the United Nations General Assembly are a case in point. And anyone wondering about the extent of Bra Hugh Masekela’s collaboration with D. Michael Cheers in writing Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela will have been left in no doubt as to his articulacy having heard the public discussion he had with Sarfraz Manzoor at the 2009 Hay Festival.

In fact musicians have long been commenting on their own lives and music in public. Beethoven famously wrote letters, and although letters are not quite the same as an interview for Rolling Stone Magazine one thing is clear; neither letters nor interviews are Tete Mbambisa’s bag.

Who is to know whether or not Beethoven would have gone in for status updates, ‘liking’, and tweeting? Although it appears to be de rigueur for the contemporary musician to tend their Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts, Myspace pages, and websites – as well as making time for the more established TV, radio, newspaper, and magazine interviews – perhaps as an elder of South African jazz it is not surprising that Bra Tete hasn’t taken to the latest in social networking and other web-based technologies. After all 2012 is the fiftieth anniversary of his recording debut for Gallo Africa (‘Msenge’, ‘Dudu Wam’ and
‘Ubuhlungu’ were recorded by his group The Four Yanks on 17 July 1962).

But what has surprised me in the four years since jazz photographer and man behind capetownnatural.blogspot, Gregory Franz, first introduced me to Bra Tete in the break of a gig at the Green Dolphin on Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront in 2008, is Mbambisa’s fundamental reluctance to talk about his music. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you are the host of a radio show, a print journalist, or a fellow musician; Tete Mbambisa is not a talker.

There are, as ever, exceptions; Lars Rasmussen published a lengthy interview with Bra Tete in Jazz People of Cape Town (2003), and Gareth Crawford’s Mbambisa interview was published in Devroop’s and Walton’s Unsung: South African Jazz Musicians Under Apartheid (2007). These are both excellent, and it is not without justification that Bra Tete asks why he must repeat this information all the time.

The short answer to his question from interested parties (journalists, academics, authors etc.) would probably be that it keeps musicians in the public eye, thereby helping to promote their gigs and recordings. Perhaps being in the public eye also helps guard against unfortunate errors (Bra Tete was described as ‘late’ in Beyond Memory: Recording the History, Moments and Memories of South African Music, Max Mojapelo ed. Sello Galane, 2008).

But there is a deeper issue here, and one which Kofi Agawu addresses in his book Representing African Music. Even when either commercially available or archival resources exist, there is a certain cachet to be had from fieldwork or interviews with practitioners. Agawu’s point is essentially the same as Bra Tete’s; why can’t people write about, or otherwise celebrate, his music without needing to ask the same questions over again? (And here perhaps I should also hold up my hand; Guilty As Charged.)

All this notwithstanding I must state clearly that Tete Mbambisa has been very generous to me with both his time and expertise. But he has also challenged me profoundly by asking ‘What’s in it for me?’

Although this question was never directly posed by Bra Tete – he got me to ask it myself – I have thought a lot about this over the past four years. I think about it because I still find it difficult to answer.

It is a difficult question to answer because at the start of a project there aren’t always clear outcomes. Until work has begun the potential may not be fully understood; is there enough material for a book? Scope for an article? Will anyone publish it if there is?

But ‘What’s in it for me?’ is also easy to misunderstand. Not only in economic terms – although it’s no easy ride to make a living as a jazz musician – but also in rhetorical terms. I would like to suggest that the value of this question is really in its reflective properties. Understand one thing. If someone asks this question, realise that there is an obligation to ask it of yourself.

I am a musician, but I also have a full time job at the University of York in the UK. I receive a wage for my university work and part of the way I ensure that this happy situation continues is to be an active researcher. The results of this research find their way in to my teaching and into conference papers. The students who take my courses benefit from this information, for which they pay the university tuition fees (which, in turn, enable the university to pay me).

But the information from my research is only partly mine, although I benefit from it all as I’ve just described.

The thoughts I have on Bra Tete’s music are of course just that, my thoughts. Having listened to the sides he made for Gallo Africa in 1962, the albums he recorded for Rashid Vally’s As-Shams label – Tete’s Big Sound (1976) and Did You Tell My Mother (1979) – as well as numerous others both as a leader and a sideman, a composer and a performer, I can find plenty of interest to say, so rich is the music. But the other information I am privileged to, having spoken at length with Bra Tete, is not mine in any real sense. I have to do little more than turn up and listen, yet I clearly benefit personally and economically via my university affiliation and associated salary.

How, on the other hand, does Bra Tete benefit from our hours of discussion? If I came to him with the credentials of Gwen Ansell having written the wonderful Soweto Blues, or Chris Ballantine and his Marabi Nights, or David Copland and his In Township Tonight, that would be a different matter. But I didn’t. If I was a staff writer for a global music magazine or a national paper, then Bra Tete could reasonably expect some publicity. But I’m not.

As I said, I’m a musician and an academic, and whilst the academic community (and perhaps some students) value publications in scholarly journals and presentations at academic conferences, are these things of sufficient interest to a musician such as Tete Mbambisa? Are they of enough interest to patiently teach me about his life and music over many hours?

This, I know, is quite an extreme argument and I wouldn’t like to see it dictate any sort of policy. There is, no doubt, a basic human pleasure in sharing information and helping when asked. And everyone, every project, has to start somewhere. How for example could Sathima Bea Benjamin and Carol Ann Muller have developed their book project Musical Echoes: South African Women Thinking In Jazz without an initial trust, an initial leap of faith?

Nevertheless I accepted Bra Tete Mbambisa’s generosity with an understanding that, all things being equal, very few things are equal. The discussions that were so interesting for me may not have been so interesting for Bra Tete. My time investment is not comparable to his time investment. The security of my institutional support, and the dynamics of interviewer and interviewee, can produce certain power relations (although I cannot say I ever felt powerful faced with Bra Tete’s lived experience, musicality, and knowledge).

I started off by saying that it was refreshing that Tete Mbambisa, by his own admission, is not a talker. Perhaps I should qualify my statement? It’s refreshing, until you find yourself asking, hoping, relying on, someone to tell you things.

Noticing how difficult it seemed to be for Bra Tete, it did occur to me that I was the wrong person asking the wrong questions at the wrong time. Or maybe I was simply asking them in the wrong language (I understand very little isiXhosa)? Or perhaps I was asking them in the wrong context?

I was discussing all these things one evening in 2009 with musicologist Stephanus Muller. As a member of the South African Society for Research In Music (SASRIM) executive committee, he suggested that one way forward would be to propose a composers’ panel for the IMS-SASRIM conference to be held at Stellenbosch University in 2010. I could then assemble a panel of distinguished South African jazz musicians and the conversation would be between peers, rather than between an outsider and an informant.

The conference programme committee agreed and on 16 July 2010, Tete Mbambisa, Louis Moholo- Moholo, and Zim Ngqawana, met in front of an audience at Stellenbosch University to discuss various ideas of South African jazz. A strand of the discussion, prompted by a question from Ncebakazi Mnukwana, became the focus of a documentary film by Aryan Kaganof (The Legacy), and so in this and several other ways the platform was extremely valuable. But in terms of providing a more appropriate space for Bra Tete to talk about his music, an easier space even, it was less successful.

Talking is, at the end of the day, still talking, and so not being a talker it’s perhaps obvious that this wasn’t an ideal solution for Bra Tete. That said I should confess to a couple of further blunders that complicated matters. Firstly, as someone who works in universities it is easy to forget that, like any institution, they can be imposing places. Secondly, South Africa’s recent political history, and the place of Stellenbosch in that history, is much more real to South Africans of Mbambisa’s, Moholo-Moholo’s, and Ngqawana’s generations than it will ever be to a foreigner of my age and background. Thirdly, I hadn’t anticipated that when I played recordings of Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes playing Bra Tete’s compositions in Europe as part of the panel, this would be the first time that Bra Tete had heard these recordings and he was, understandably, quite surprised. (McGregor recorded ‘Umsenge Mabele Lo’ on Piano Song Vol.1 in 1977, and the Blue Notes recorded ‘Msenge Mabelelo’ on Blue Notes In Concert, also in 1977).

Still, as the panellists and audience were leaving, Tete Mbambisa sat down at the piano and began to play. It was a remarkable moment that seemed to put into context so much of what had been said as well as seeming to capture that which had escaped words.

Both Ngqawana and Moholo-Moholo had been on true revolutionary form that afternoon, and both proved to be confident and eloquent speakers. But as jazz bassist Marc Duby later pointed out, for a musician of Tete Mbambisa’s background and generation, playing mbaqanga on the Steinway grand piano in the concert hall at Stellenbosch University was no less a profound, revolutionary, and eloquent statement.

You just have to have the ears to hear it.

So at last to the point. The opportunity. The realisation that here was a musician who hadn’t recorded under his own name since 1979, despite being described by Chris Ballantine (author of Marabi Nights) as “one of the greatest pianists to come out of South Africa”, and who Chris McGregor consistently championed saying of Tete Mbambisa’s The Four Yanks “very sophisticated, very modern, superb, with fantastic dance routines. I adored that; they were really very, very fine, very sharp. If one could have heard them in Europe a bit later people would have been knocked out.”

What’s more, this pianist who is so important in the history of South African jazz, had never made a solo piano recording. When I pointed this out in another conversation with Stephanus Muller – this time in his capacity as director of the Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS) – he immediately offered to fund two days of recording in the Fismer Hall at the University of Stellenbosch. The idea that Stephanus and I hatched was that Bra Tete would be able to use the time as he wished with no further obligation on Tete’s part except that DOMUS would hold tapes of the sessions for study purposes by students and researchers. Bra Tete could bury the recordings if he wished, or release them if he preferred.

The new solo piano album Black Heroes by Tete Mbambisa
The new solo piano album Black Heroes by Tete Mbambisa

In the event Tete Mbambisa recorded a number of his own compositions, as well as a couple of South African standards, on 14 and 15 August 2010. Aryan Kaganof filmed the first day of recording, Keith Goodwill was on hand to tune the piano, and Gerhard Roux engineered the sessions. Theo Herbst arranged for us to use Stellenbosch University studios facilities and equipment, and a number of friends dropped in and out over the two days.

I produced the recording and, in working so closely with Bra Tete, gained more insights into his processes and music than my limited skills as an interviewer could ever yield. This was the space Tete Mbambisa needed to say his piece.

After a period of editing at the Music Research Centre (mrc) in York, and a further editing session with Bra Tete in Mdantsane, the outcome was the album Black Heroes, mastered by Denis Blackham at Skye Mastering. Denis had previously mastered Very Urgent by the Chris McGregor Group, Up To Earth by the Chris McGregor Septet, and Our Prayer by the Chris McGregor Trio, so he seemed ideally placed to work with Tete Mbambisa’s music.

Pinise Saul (vocalist for Dudu Pukwana’s Spear, Adam Glasser’s Mzansi, and director of the South African Gospel Singers in London) was Executive Producer of the recording and when I played her the first edits she responded “He’s an amazing pianist, the world must hear this pianist from home. Hamba Mbambisa! He’s got all the harmonies, he doesn’t need singers. Everything is there.”

So if you want an insight into the career of one of the few musicians who can legitimately claim to have played with three generations of South African jazz greats you need to get a copy of Tete Mbambisa’s Black Heroes. Of course I’m biased, but I think it’s truly great music. And if you do have the ears for his message, you can rest assured that this project is driven by Tete Mbambisa and all profits from sales of the recording go directly to Bra Tete. No middleman. No fat cats. Just the quiet hero of South African jazz.

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Jonathan Eato

Jonathan Eato

Jonathan Eato is a composer and saxophone player with interests in a wide range of contemporary musics, jazz, improvisation, South African popular music, interdisciplinary performance, music and postcoloniality, and music for dance.
Jonathan Eato

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