Johannesburg - As we talk over pots of Earl Grey tea, it occurs to me that Sibusile Xaba’s relationship with his guitar is like a Venda woodcarver’s relationship with wood. Admiring a particularly beautiful guardian sculpture at a chief’s house a few years ago, the carver told me not to look at the object as just decorative. Venda woodcarvings are living, useful objects, he said. The tree that the wood comes from bears the spirits of the ancestors by way of the stream that flows past its roots and the birds that inhabit its branches. When greeting the sculpture one is greeting the ancestors and receiving their blessing.
That’s how it is with the soft-spoken, dreadlocked Xaba’s astonishing, uninhibited voice, his clipped Philip Tabane-style guitar and his harmonies like fields of green. His songs are useful, living things, like warming your hands at a fire or drinking from a stream. And if that’s too poetic for you, I don’t really care. Because Xaba is teaching me to be an unapologetic and uninhibited love missile in this time of our bruising.
The young jazz maestro’s double-album release – Unlearning, recorded with Nduduzo Makhathini and Nelius Zeak, and Open Letter to Adoniah, recorded by Nhlanhla Mngadi and Andrew Curnow (who joins us on the pavement outside Poppy’s in Melville) – have been on loop at our house for almost two weeks now. It’s a situation I don’t see changing any time soon, because Xaba’s music is like medicine, and right now we all need all the healing we can get.
The first thing that strikes me about your albums is that they are more like channelling than singing. It’s like music beyond language. Is it part of your project, to find new language, to channel spirits?
Sibusile Xaba (SX): [Laughs] I don’t know. I guess I do see myself as a passage of some sort, a vessel. And I think for the past years I’ve been trying to work on clearing myself, dealing with myself, to be as honest as I can be. So I think that project kind of led to the music being an extension of me. It’s like trying and trying to get it right and then, when you forget about it, things start happening. And you meet the right people and things start happening. It’s a lifestyle.
Andrew Curnow (AC): And scatting? [In jazz, scatting is defined as singing random words and phrases, even nonsensical ones.] Have you studied the art of scatting? Cos you’ve elevated it to the next level.
SX: I just love the texture of the guitar and then I try to mimic it with my voice.
Were you born into a musical family?
SX: No, but my dad loved music – jazz and maskandi and serious stuff – and my mum used to sing in church. I was born in Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal. There was always music.
A sangoma friend of mine is particularly moved by the spirituality of Open Letter. Is music like a calling to you – or am I being that white guy?
SX: [Laughs] It’s this thing of submitting. To stop thinking about it and live it. It’s energy, so I guess it falls under “calling”, connecting to other realms. But it’s also about connecting to this present moment. You and I being able to love each other, embrace each other. It’s a lifestyle.
You speak about healing and clearing yourself. Of what? Toxic masculinity, of ego?
SX: All of the above and fear, anger, you know.
Black life and anger?
SX: Humanity as a whole. I don’t get the black, white, Indian. It doesn’t make sense. It frustrates me that this beautiful species is still baffled by these colours.
How did you first venture into music?
SX: The music always called in different ways. In high school we were into kwaito and dancing pantsula. Dickies and Trompies. We were naughty township boys, but it’s almost like the teachers knew, just give them this music thing, have them coordinate a festival or a fundraiser and we’d excel at that ... Kwaito gave us a voice. Ai, we’d been listening to mbaqanga and maskandi. Kwaito was something new. It was relevant. It was us. So in matric, what you wanna do? Music.
Is it only after school that you started playing guitar?
SX: Well, at home we used to make them. But they were toys. When I got to Pretoria I started playing properly. I went to a pop music school called Ochrim in the city of Tshwane, in 2004. Later I went to Tshwane University of Technology.
There are a lot of famous musicians to come from there during that era.
SX: For sure. That’s where I met [drummer] Bonolo Nkoane and [upright bass player] Ariel Zamonsky who recorded on Unlearning, my first album, with me.
AC: So when did you get your first guitar?
SX: I always knew I was going to play guitar. I got my first one in 2006.
AC: So, it’s only 10 years. That’s fast, man, I would’ve thought you’ve been playing for much longer than that.
You have been mentored by some of the greats, including Sazi Dlamini, but also the guitar maestros Madala Kunene and Philip Tabane. It feels to me like they never truly got the fame they deserve, and now it’s happening through the next generation. How did they enter your life?
SX: I just had to track them down, go to the source. I was introduced to them by Steve Mokwena from Afrikan Freedom Station. Then it was a matter of going to see them and spending time with them. Then, me and Thabang Tabane [Philip’s son] have been playing together for some time. They taught me life, man, these guys, the simplicity of life. It’s more than just the music. It’s how they conduct themselves. Bab’ Madala is a family man, it’s incredible, he’s the father figure that I never got a chance to have, cos my dad died young, you know, when I was 10 or so.
Thabang plays percussion on Open Letter. Honestly, it’s one of the most amazing musical dialogues I’ve heard, your guitar and his drums ...
AC: And Thabang has his own album coming later this year...
So what else did you learn from your mentors?
SX: Be good. Be a good person and good things will come to you. You don’t have to rush anything. Their approach to music is their approach to life. It’s about conveying a message of unity among the human species. And if you regard art or music or journalism as a medium that can be used to make that message clear. Clear. Not, like, how we gonna do that? But having faith in oneself. I can be the worst guitar player, but if I’m channelling a certain energy that is good, regardless of all the technicalities, the discipline of playing for eight hours a day, tuning, all that. For me their agenda is bigger, it’s existence and the human race. It’s love. The idea of me playing guitar has to die. With the musicians I play with, it’s the same for them. Even the great masters. We become balls of energy and the hats of master and student disappear and it becomes like one big voice, saying, now is the time, it’s all good, even with all its imperfections.
SX: Jazz has given me a klap to say work, work, work. Cos with jazz you can’t lie. You have to just put in the hours. If you play for eight hours on your own obviously you’re going to transcend and you’re gonna find yourself.
So the other big thing with your albums is that they feel truly Pan-African. I can hear Swaziland, Malawi, Mozambique. They cross borders and this is underscored by the immigrant narrative in them, the quest. Am I wrong?
SX: No, you’re right. I backpack Africa. I just go. Anywhere my heart feels. Malawi, Tanzania. I went via Mozambique to Swaziland, where I wrote the song Swaziland.
I think you’ve already answered this – why you called the first album Unlearning.
SX: Yeah, I just wanted to strip myself of all these things and unlearn them to get to a place where I am honest, honest with myself... But Unlearning, I think I was a bit angry. I had to confront myself about things that were blocking me. I wanted to change the world. After I recorded it I realised I’m just a teardrop in the ocean and I can only do what I can do. I can’t be angry at white people all my life. What happened is that I realised that, to change anything else, you first have to change yourself.
So, Andrew, your label Mushroom Hour Half Hour recorded Open Letter. What is it about Sibusile’s guitar that is particular for you?
AC: I’m a vinyl collector and I love South African music and I try to find rare South African albums to collect. For me, I was a fan of [Philip Tabane’s band] Malombo from a young age and I was DJing at a gig at Wits once and I was playing a Malombo record and Sibusile came up to me, WTF, where did you get this from? And he performed shortly after that with his Unlearning trio and it all made sense to me immediately that he’d been mentored by Tabane. It killed me. To hear all those influences come back into play, like you were saying. But it’s also about the way Sibusile uses his voice in conjunction with his guitar ... Later, he approached me and said, listen I want to record an album and he wanted to do it at once. My business partner Nhlanhla was there. He’s more reserved than me, he thinks things through more. Nhlanhla just agreed immediately. And we didn’t know what we were going to be recording, even. We didn’t even have a record label at that point. I think immediately Nhlanhla and I knew we’d have to start one now.
Watching the music videos and you performing, there’s a kind of a ... don’t take this wrong ... A kind of a Lauryn Hill madness, a freeness ... Where you’re willing to make yourself responsive, ridiculous.
SX: Yeah. [Laughing.] All of me, take all of me, I’m not hiding, I’m not apologetic.
How did Open Letter to Adoniah form in your head?
SX: Through a series of dreams...
SX: So, I would just wake up, man, every time, just remembering the melody. Clearly. Just grab the guitar and the harmony just comes on top.
And then, what, record it on your phone?
SX: No. Just keep playing it and playing it for long.
What were the dreams?
SX: Different kinds, but similar. Freedoms. Open, green spaces with like just old ladies singing, chanting, some in huts. A mama would come, just sit down and just sing a melody. There was never fear. Just stillness, contentment – it was beautiful.
AC: Had Adoniah been born yet? Adoniah is his daughter.
Aha. I was going to ask.
SX: No, my princess hadn’t arrived yet.
So what is informing where your work will go next?
SX: More honesty, more love, you know. So I need to open up to more people, more spaces, more music.
How do people respond to you overseas?
AC: The gig we did in London sums it up. It really was amazing to see. The crowd just stood there, silent, for a long time, gobsmacked. And Sibusile has mastered this thing where, at the end of each song, just as everybody is about to start clapping, he starts the next song, so you can have a whole set going without any applause. Which, for me, enriches everything cos people have to really engage. [Young jazz star] Shabaka Hutchings was at that London gig and the next day he posted that it was healing music. Everyone says that and it feels that way, cathartic.
I guess that’s where we’re at, though. We’re all trying to find new ways to be free.
SX: That’s it. That’s it. You said it, man. And you know what? It’s something we can actually do.
(Photos: Harness Hamese, Fabrice Bourgelle, Laura Fiorio)
- You can download the albums at Apple Music or buy the double CD at the shop at mushroomhour.com