It’s disturbing to have mourned so many South African musicians in recent years; and lately the number of unexpected deaths is unnerving. Alongside unacknowledged geniuses of a generation past; we’ve buried stars that seemed too young to die, or those that were yet to ‘be heard’.
Now one of our finest has departed – a pioneer who offered a way across eras – an artist who’s still part of our present ‘story’.
Aged only 49, Jabu Khanyile, died at his home in Soweto last Saturday night. He was diabetic, and his health had deteriorated since being diagnosed with cancer a year ago. Although his passing was not sudden, the reality is equally devastating.
This multiple-award winning, world renowned singer/songwriter, will more likely be remembered as an enigmatic performer – weaving his musical magic with an exquisite voice and his trademark African fly-stick wand.
His vocal identity was distinctive, with captivating warmth – and impressive, since it’s only the top echelon who’re known to crack a ‘signature sound’”.
Jabu Khanyile was inherently musical – and from the start, against all odds, he carved a career for himself as a drummer, and as such, he joined Bayete in 1987. This innovative Afro-jazz-band-with-attitude was renowned for being ‘defiantly’ outspoken – addressing social concerns and voicing issues of the homeland. He soon became their vocalist, and during this time he made his mark as a musician. After Bayete disbanded in 1993, Khanyile continued writing lyrics that addressed traditional ideals, spirituality, people’s concerns, and always Africa!
Amid the ‘Bubblegum’ era, he adventurously started his solo career – drawing from his traditional roots, he buffed raw honesty urban polish and, creating an inherently South African, international sound.
As a staunch defender of traditional values, he could, in some ways, have appeared conventional – but this quintessential Zulu Man was also cutting-edge – reaching across the continent, he proudly asserted an African identity and encouraged empowerment. He was an equalizer, reaching people with an openness and enigmatic grace.
He was constantly involved in collaborations, both small and big. He’d worked individually with African greats like Baaba Maal, Angelique Kidjo, Salif Keita; and recorded with masters like India’s Trilok Gurtu. As part of a group, he was equally at ease, as seen on the profound peace project, “So Why?”
And best of all, he was never to ‘big’ to share the same enthusiasm with unknown artists – debut albums have been found featuring the famous Jabu Khanyile.
A variety of people who’d worked with Khanyile over the years, were independently asked to describe his contribution – the results showed an amazing commonality, with the exact same words appearing.
‘Unique’ was a firm favourite.
Lindelani Mkhize of LME Entertainment, Jabu’s record company tells how he affectionately named Khanyile “the vulture of sound”, saying that “he had his own way of interpreting sound …and his famous, Awaaahh and awehhh, were just like the sounds of wild birds calling…”
‘Polite’ was another word that came up often, and Lindelani believes that Khanyile was “ so down-to-earth, so disciplined, because he “respected his art… and the politeness came from that…”
Widely admired for the way he conducted himself as a musician – he was professional and “easy to work with!”
Ian Osrin, who engineered a number of Khanyile’s albums, describes him as “…the best singer I ever recorded – on every level! Even recently, he was already really ill while recording his last DVD, but was always perfectly in tune – music was inside him!”
Studio recordings often magnify flaws that often go unnoticed in ‘live’ shows, but this singer was unusual, recording most of his material in just one take.
Ian tells of Khanyile’s “…endless creativity… my favourite story was while recording “Mmalo We” which was originally called “HouseOn Fire”, we began talking about how in the country, at that time, people were always singing about difficulties and sad things, which wasn’t nice… so instead why not sing about a beautiful woman…”
At that point Jabu left the room, returning 5 minutes later with “Mmalo We”, which became the title-track of his debut solo, and a massive hit!
Jabu Khanyile often used the word ‘Ubuntu’ – but in a way that was real – beyond being a word, it was for him, a belief system.
Although independent for many years, the Bayete concept stayed synonymous with Jabu Khanyile, and since Bayete is translated as: “a salutation to king; hail!”
let us salute the spirit of Jabu Khanyile… as his music lives on….