Maakomele R. Manaka revisits a soundtrack of his dreams, long and rhythmic and hypnotic across time, space and struggles. The music and wisdom of Bra Herbie Tsoaeli lives large, therein, at “the foot of memory”. Illustration by Donovan Ward.
“Ba ya si biza, bathi e khaya, zi ya jabula ingana, zi ya jabula. Ma se goduke, si hambe e khaya…” It is almost impossible for me to hear Herbie Tsoaeli’s energetic yet nostalgic sound without thinking of the quiet, nonconforming voice of Johnny Dyani’s double bass. During my brief stay in Berlin, Dyani’s voice stained the dingy passages and half-lit corridors of Europe, while also plaiting cornrows of the sun’s rhythm with notes that reminded many of home. It was there that I found myself fanatically singing his song “Namhlanje”. I am a poet, not a singer, but before spiting my talent to articulate the human condition, I would sing this hypnotic tune. It became my prayer, and to a certain extent, I was calling my South African brothers and sisters back home. The night before I left Berlin, I learned that Johnny Dyani had lived, died and was buried deep in the age-old bosom of Deutschland. All this time, the uncompromising chord progression of his upright rhythms had been the soundtrack to my dreams and bass-line to my step – eish! Later, confined in a metal box with wings piercing through time and space, I came to the realisation that I was not only calling my friends in Berlin to come back home, but also calling for the repatriation of Johnny Dyani’s spirit, a call to reunite him with the soil from which he once came.
I first heard Herbie Tsoaeli recite “Kerekeng”, from his debut album African Time (2012), at a multimedia art gallery at the foot of memory – an oasis in the desert of Johannesburg, the Afrikan Freedom Station. That night was magical. I felt the spirit of Dyani move through us, and through the spaces between Bra Herbie’s fingers. Time paused, and we all sank deep into a prayer that echoed through every solo progression, from the magnetic innuendos of the saxophone to the pianist’s enchanting melodies, reminding us that no matter the weather in our pockets, “a re hlompeng batho bohle” (“let’s respect all people”).
Another chapter in the book of South African jazz had been written.
Herbie Tsoali’s album African Time has an energy that evokes my childhood; the unforgettable sounds of opening nights at the Market Theatre, at a time when Kippies was the hottest jazz joint in Johannesburg. “Ndi zo hamba nomalume,” sings Bra Herbie with that rough yet toned voice, as if the brother is talking to my blues and evoking Don Mattera’s book Memory is the Weapon. True indeed, memory is a weapon in a country that suffers from amnesia. Where is Sakhile’s name on our sidewalks of fame? Who will play blues for Malombo when all the thin skins on our drums have been ripped off by an eMpty-v generation that does not understand “African Time”? Bra Herbie reminds us that we are neither late nor early. We are on time.
I first met Bra Herbie at a bar in Melville. He had come from a gig in the city, but to my surprise this humble, unpretentious, yet well-dressed man had the swag not of a jazz musician, but of a street poet. After learning a little about his background – he was born in the Xhosa-speaking streets of Nyanga, but raised under his mother’s Sesotho name, Tsoaeli – we dived into a conversation about art. We spoke of South Africa’s blatant disrespect for her artists, of how often established musicians are sidelined by younger artists who can’t hold a note, but who can make eMpty-v audiences gyrate. Bra Herbie said that there is no music industry in South Africa, with the look of man who had won the battle but lost the war. “Our artists will continue to suffer,” he said, “unless they compromise their sound to suit what politicians want.”
As Bra Herbie spoke those words I found myself recalling Johnny Dyani’s haunting voice on “Ntsikana’s Bell” (Good News From Africa, 1973), when he intoned: “u za kuyi thetha le nto, u buyi thetha emva kwendlu” (“you will reap what you sow”). I told him so. I couldn’t help but notice the contour lines on his face when he laughed. This man has seen struggle, heard struggle – not only apartheid struggle, but the stale stench of disappointment, the bitter taste of waiting to get paid after work, while you try to make ends meet and provide for a family. Yet through all the blues, Bra Herbie, like Dyani, keeps faith in our music when he chants: “Asiyibambeni sonke” – let us keep it alive, otherwise our tomorrow will shine with a lesser glow and keep getting dimmer.
Our conversation took a turn, and I asked Bra Herbie about “Kerekeng”, one of my favourite songs on African Time. In the song he says “Kerekeng!” and then follows with “no ya phezulu”. As people, we sometimes hear what we want to hear, or rather, we hear the essence that a song was recorded from, instead of the actual lyrics. Before I was corrected, I would always say “woza moya” (come/arise, spirit), to the melody of “no ya phezulu”. I said this to Bra Herbie and he gave me the thumbs up to sing it with my own words.
Two weeks later, I had the privilege of opening for a friend of mine who was launching his new jazz album. My father once said that “where there is trouble, there is literature”, and indeed, on my way to the venue, the fan-belt of my car snapped. I finally arrived at the venue, frustrated and with hands covered in grease. Backstage, in my two-piece black suit with turquoise All Stars, I was a ghetto jazz poet/mechanic. But as I got onstage to warm the people for the main act, Bra Herbie’s song “Kerekeng” came to me. I used it as a thank you chant, singing “Kerekeng!” and calling for the people to respond “Woza moya”. The reception from the crowd lifted the frustration I had carried on my shoulders upon arriving on stage. What Dyani’s “Namhlanje” had been to me in Berlin, “Kerekeng” was to me then. And it has been ever since.
After the show, like a typical jazz cat, I went straight to the bar. As I ordered a double shot of whisky, an old yet stylish brother tapped me on the shoulder and said, laughing, “Mchana, we bethile, you got the sentiment of the song, thank you.” I had sung Herbie Tsoaeli’s song not knowing that he was in the crowd, singing along to the new lyrics of his own tune.
African Time is the preparedness we need to move on, or to move in.
This is an excerpt from Maakomele R. Manaka and Donovan Ward’s tribute to Herbie Tsoaeli, published in the December 2013 edition of the Chronic.
Maakomele R. Manaka is a poet and performer. HIs anthologies and spoken word albums include If Only (2003), Word Sound Power (2008) and In Time (2009).
Donovan Ward is an artist who lives and works in Cape Town. He explores the fragmentary attributes of history and global culture using found and made objects, images, text and paint.