JABU KHANYILE fronts Bayete - a group which has a history dating back to the 1980's, but which is now synonymous with the name Jabu Khanyile,and is one of South Africa's most visible touring groups in the 1990's.
Born in Soweto to a playboy father and a mother he would lose through illness, Jabu was never able to finish school. And nor was he able to hold down a regular 9 to 5 job. It was probably because music coursed through his veins from an early age and influenced largely by his father whose interest in mbube music would inspire young Jabu. 'On Sundays, Dad would round up many of his hostel friends and they would spend the afternoon singing mbube songs to remind themselves where they came from' Jabu says. Some of his happiest memories involve stamping away at the old idlamu dances while his father co-sang in harmony.
But a more active nudge along the show business path came from his elder brother John, who led a group called Editions. They released a couple of singles to moderate acclaim. John allowed the young Jabu to tag along to gigs and even bought him a guitar which he quickly learnt and earned himself hard cash by busking in the stations.
Jabu's first love however was the drums and whenever near a kit he'd jam. Recognising his talent, the manager of the Editions approached Jabu to reform the group once they split up but with younger musicians. Jabu leapt up at the opportunity, putting together fine players who became the rage of Soweto culminating in a record deal -but by this stage many of the musicians had fled into exile or into the solace of the bottle.
Tenacious as ever Jabu merely put togeter another set of musos and released 'Izinyembezi' (my tears). The Editions were now firmly on the map of Africa. Their follow-up album again hit a snag and Jabu found himself once again looking for a band. This time he brought in The Movers and they struck gold with the self penned hit 'Inhlonipho'. But fame brought its attendant problems with a power struggle erupting within the band. For Jabu it proved to 'be the last straw' and he quit the group. 'I decided to leave the band because I had spent ten years struggling under that title not really getting anywhere.
It proved to be a fine move in retrospect because a hot new eight piece outfit with horns and brass were looking for a drummer. Auditioned by producer Koloi Lebona, Jabu got the gig. The group was Bayete. And together for ten years their presence was felt very strongly on the South African music scene.
In 1987 they released the immensely popular 'Mbombela' - title taken from a Miriam Makeba song. 'We took Miriam Makeba's 'Mbombela' and wanted to show that the very same steam train was taking people away from their families to seek work in the towns. And many fathers never made enough money to ever return home'.
This was followed up by 'Hareyeng Haye' in 1990 which gave birth to the hit 'Mbube' (lion). It came at the turning point of the South African struggle and people used to substitute 'Mbube' with 'Mbumbe' , meaning unity. Bayete sung the original lyrics but infused the song with the spirit of unity. Regrettably that's where the unity ended and the group split in 1993. Everyone wanted to pursue different intersts and goals. And so once again Jabu found himself without a band. But well schooled in the art of struggling it didn't take him long to put things back together again.
'Mmalo-We' started a fire in South Africa before the raging winds of change carried it to the ears of Chris Blackwell from Island Records who released Bayete's disc on his world music label Mango. That came hard on the heels of the album going gold in South Africa (now fast approaching platinum) and climaxed in Jabu Khanyile walking off with the fistful of SAMAs (South African Music Awards) - Best Male performer of the year, best song of the year (Mmalo-We), and his producer Thapelo Kgomo winning best producer. You could say '94 was a vintage year.
Jabu Khanyile and Bayete's new disc 'Umkhaya-Lo' carries the pan African themes 'Mmalo-we' explored headfirst into the heart of Africa with the belief that what we have here is beautiful, strong and something we should be proud of. 'We must respect our beauty. People grew up believing that what was white was better than what we had. That's not true.' Teaming up once again with his hit production team of Thapelo Kgomo and Ian Osrin, Bayete have spent a good six months maturing their new sound. It's a sound that both borrows from and interprets Africa - for on his travels throughout the continent Jabu realised very clearly that Africa's traditions and cultures are similar to ours in the Southern tip. Says Jabu by the way of example 'When we slaughter a goat to feast and pray to our ancestors, I realised that people all over the continent do the same thing.' His support-act role to Salif Keita's Johannesburg concerts further reinforced his beliefs 'We talked and talked and found how similar our ideas and beliefs were and yet we were countries apart.'
'Umkhaya-Lo' is a combination of songs written mostly by Jabu and Thapelo that weave a tapestry of West African and South African rhythms that lyrically find root in the South. On the title track Jabu sings of his searching for the perfect woman, a woman with a love stronger than the distinctly African Baobab tree, for the stronger we are the longer we last.
His voice exquisitely set against the sweet vocal harmonies so distinct on 'Mmalo-we' witha funky seventies guitar hinting in the background. 'Inkinobho' is literally a button without a hole but is a metaphor for the state of of our culture today; in traditional society man had little greed nor love of money, but money changed people's hearts and created hatred and jealousy. As Jabu says 'Our lives no longer have any value - that value went into money.' And 'Amadlozi' is a tribute to the ancestors that guide out paths. Jabu thanks God often but as he says 'I don't say I don't believe in the bible, but for Africans the way to contact God is through the ancestors.' Don't lose it. 'Amambawu' continues where 'Mbube', one of Bayete's most famous songs, left off. Traditional beer goes hand in hand with partying. And as Bayete did to Miriam Makeba's 'Mbombela' so they have done to the Dark City Sisters' 'Mmangwane Mpelegele'. 'You can take a standard tune and rework it but you must expand on the ideas of the song.' In all the album is 10 new sublimely African tracks that embrace the skills of Victor Masondo, Jabu Sibumbe, Kenny Mathaba and Don Gumbo amongst others.
Live, Jabu Kanyile has taken to sporting an African Flystick, usually the domain of African Royalty. It was on tour in Kenya that someone in the audience got on stage and presented him with the gift - it was in recognition of Jabu's pan Africanism in his dress, his music, his philosophy. And it is a crown he wears regally never gracing the stage without it. It is a role he has grown into gracefully over many years of frustration and success.
And even today Jabu insists the original Bayete has not broken up 'It's just up to me to carry the name forward until the other guys are ready to return'. Maybe the seeds have been sown because keyboardist/arranger Themba Mkhize shares songwriting credits on 'Cheeky Mama'. And as for the future well there's talk of a possible African tour. Africa features big on Jabu's dreams - it's a peaceful dream that sees the continent cherishing and nurturing its artistic sons and daughters.