Herbie Tsoaeli fans call him uMalume (uncle) because of his experience, wisdom and generosity of spirit. This is the first thing the bassist shows when my arrival at Radium Beer Hall in Johannesburg for our interview is delayed. Far from expressing impatience, Tsoaeli assures me that I arrived exactly on time. “When you said you were late, I thought, you are on African time because African time has principles which [go]: arrive safely at your destination while you are there.
Tsoaeli sits alone on the secluded floor of the bar. He calls it his temple and being alone in this space is where he finds refuge. A cool breeze that day reminds him of the sea breeze in Cape Town, where he grew up.
Almost a decade since her award-winning debut album African Time (2012), Tsoaeli returns with At this precise moment: voices in the volumes, released on November 5. For him, time is not something that can be pursued or overtaken. So, despite the nearly 10-year period between albums, this one also arrives just in time.
This notion and metaphor of time filters through our entire conversation, which spans nearly four hours. Tsoaeli’s philosophy revolves around African time, as an ideology and as a community ethic. It’s wacky stuff, but there is wisdom behind what he has to say.
Tsoaeli is somewhat of a professional neologist and has created his own lexicon and his own philosophies through which he understands the world around him. His way of speaking is reminiscent of a jazz composition, with wild improvisation but at other times phrases that are repeated in different forms. “Terms and Thoughts” are preferable to “Terms and Conditions”, “Business Activity” refers to the clutter of everyday affairs, “Resistance to Disruption” is his mantra for fending off negative energies… and so on. Those who meet the elder quickly learn to switch to his code.
Tsoaeli released his album the day before we met, to coincide with a performance at Jazzfest Berlin in Johannesburg. On the show, he dedicated a deeply touching never-before-seen song to his daughter titled The beauty in you, and the crowded crowd rooted for the Elder they had so missed seeing on stage.
Talking in the past
“My ear is like a conveyor belt in a factory… the conveyor belt of the African era,” he says of how he picked up all kinds of music. In more ways than one, Tsoaeli’s album pays homage to those who came before it. “I don’t play my music. I play music from my ancestors and all the superpowers, ”he says.
This is best illustrated by the song Abadala Baholo, which refers to alumni such as bassist Johnny Dyani, drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, saxophonist Winston Mankunku Ngozi and pianist Tete Mbambisa. It also pays tribute to family members, teachers and community figures. “Abadala Baholo (the elders) will always remain in our hearts as they have guided us in our homes and our lives, ”Tsoaeli said.
Voices in Volumes in the album title refers to the voices that resonated through Tsoaeli. “The two and a half decades spent learning music with the elders in different band formations have taught me so much about the life we live as artists. I decided it was time to express my voice! he says.
Growing up in her grandmother’s house in Nyanga East, Cape Town, her youth was a collage of sounds. “There was music all around me. Sounds of gospel on one side, the Zionist church on the other, traditional healers at the back of the house then inns playing mine music and gathering ceremonies from all walks of life. He often refers to his grandmother, paying homage to the teachings, morals and values she passed on to him.
Tsoaeli’s mother listened to jazz and her uncle was a bassist. He also grew up watching the jazz greats of Cape Town. “Every time they rehearsed, I was there.” Later in life he would perform with these same musicians. “These were the spaces I was crazy about. And these spaces have informed my way of thinking and my way of moving forward, ”he says.
Having attended various community music schools, the bassist is largely self-taught. If he does not write music, his whole being is the music itself. On stage, he swings his bass wildly and stamps his foot hard as he sings, even though there are no lyrics.
Growing up he was a “frustrated saxophonist” and tried out many different instruments, including drums, before settling on bass. He insists that it was the sound and the melody that attracted him with the saxophone. The soft tones of the singers of bands such as Earth Wind & Fire intimidated him, but he finally found his voice. Many tracks on the album feature him singing.
A new rhythm
The new album plays with different rhythms. At times it accelerates, as in the blowing and catchy bassline of East Gugs Skomline in Khaltsha, referring to the central train line that would bring him home. The pace is slower and there are melancholy tones at other times, as in Alone alone, something he says he always has been. The album also talks about the healing process.
Tsoaeli has developed a “natural time frame” for his life and work. “I rethink the notion of time and look for a way to free myself. There is so much going on in the middle of time because he goes forward and never backs down. But the past, present, and future are another time frame that one draws from African time for mental freedom. Time has so many frequencies and speeds, which at one point translate into musical symbols [such as pulses, anticipation, syncopation, tacets and dischords]… At this point, I guess I’m dealing with the time inside.
He considers his philosophy of African time as a search for oneself in the midst of those who came before him, considering heritage as a source of research for knowledge and wisdom.
For Tsoaeli, “the music of African time is an institution of consciousness. As Biko told us, “You write what you like”, and right now I’m on that path. “He continues:” I played with Zim, he was on his own way. I played with master Abdullah, he was on his own path – whom I respect so much. Winston bra, own path. Bheki Mseleku, own path. Ezra Ngcukana, his own way. Duc Makasi, own way.
The album was born out of the hard work of a team of supporters, who helped guide the project. “I call them honorable. These guys have been coming to all of my concerts for almost 10 years now, wherever I play. They heard a cry… I would like to thank them all, hence the word honorable.”
The “cry” to which he refers is that of not having enough funds, despite the desire to release a second album. Businessmen and fans Moeketsi Boikanyo, David Njuki and Mduduzi Godlo came together to form iSandi Sarona (Our Sound), an independent label co-managed with Tsoaeli, to release the record. The label takes care of all the administration, or “business activity,” while Tsoaeli focuses on music. The process started last year and the album was recorded in March of this year.
Tsoaeli originally intended to feature alumni on a few songs, trumpeter Stompie Manana and saxophonist Barney Rachabane, but was unable to due to funding issues. “I decided instead to honor them with the song Abadala Baholo. Rachabane passed away in mid-November; Tsoaeli had performed with him before. “Bra Barney, his music and his teachings continue to live on in my life,” he says.
For the recording of the album, Tsoaeli assembled a dream team of grassroots musicians and frequent collaborators: Andile Yenana and Yonela Mnana on piano, Sisonke Xonti on tenor saxophone, Ayanda Sikade on drums, Tshepo Tsotetsi on alto saxophone. , Stephen Sokuyeka on trombone and Sakhile Simani on trumpet. There are additional backing vocals on some tracks.
While honoring his elders, Tsoaeli himself is an elder who ushers in the next generation. He is delighted to work with young musicians.
He says hopefully, “The only time you can have an eye on an artist is to go out and do some scouting. And go to shows and watch them play in different formats, which I normally do all the time.
“I go out and watch concerts and that’s how I spot young musicians who are energetic and beautiful. Because as you can see, jazz is bubbling up in South Africa. And they’re all wonderful and beautiful, they do great stuff, produce their own records and perform. So it’s just beauty all around.