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Sam Tshabalala: Returning Home

Seton Hawkins By

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Back home, you've got so many musicians. It's amazing, so rich with art. —Sam Tshabalala
The late 1970s saw a surge of extraordinary musical creativity in South Africa. Driven in part by a changing political climate reflecting the youth-led Soweto uprising of 1976, a younger generation of South African artists harnessed the arts to give voice to a new chapter in the anti-apartheid struggle. Indeed, rising ensembles like Movement in the City, Sakhile, and The Beaters all embodied this post-1976 ethos, both in their messages and in their cross-genre vision for music. Within this artistic environment, the Malopoets were born in 1978. Drawing on a range of South African musical traditions, the Malopoets developed a remarkable songbook of music and poetry and would, in its decade of activity, achieve some international acclaim with its bold and boundary-breaking music. Even after the ensemble's dissolution in 1988, the individual artists continued to achieve extraordinary work throughout the world, as exemplified in the music of singer and composer Sam Tshabalala. Now based in France, Tshabalala has continued the work he began in Malopoets, most recently with his third solo album Back and Forth, a beautiful and deeply personal record that brought him home to South Africa to reconnect and perform with local artists.

All About Jazz: You first rise to prominence with the Malopoets. How did that ensemble form?

Sam Tshabalala: The Malopoets started in 1978. Three musicians came from Mamelodi, Pretoria. That's where I grew up. I was born in Hammanskraal, and I moved to Mamelodi when I was 17. I had a cousin there who was a musician, playing in weddings. I decided to follow him all the time because I loved the music. I was already playing some self-made instruments. After they split up, that's when I met [future Malopoets bandmates] Pat Sefolosha and also Pat Mokoka in Mamelodi.

Pat came to fetch me after he joined Abey Cindi's group Afrika, and he had also asked Pat Mokoka to join. We went to Durban for our first gigs with Abey Cindi, but things didn't really go well. We were supposed to go there for a weekend, and we ended up there for three months waiting for gigs that were not coming. We had a festival in Durban. It was our last gig, and we decided to stop playing with Abey. At the same festival there was Bruce Madoda Sosibo and Duze Mahlobo, who were playing with another band. But they were in the same situation, because they were going to stop with their band. So after the show, we got talking, and we decided to get together.

Then we met Eugene Skeef and Ben Langa, who actually came up with the idea of the Malopoets, mixing up the music we were playing and the poems. That's why it became the "Malopoets." Eugene came up with it with the combination of two names: one African name "malopo"—which means "spirit" in seTswana—plus "poets." That was a great idea.

We started getting really deep into the songs that we sang when we were young. We realized that the songs were so important. In South Africa, everyone wanted to have something from overseas and everything that came from outside was "better," we had thought. But what Eugene and Ben were writing really made us strong; I've learned a lot from these guys.

It wasn't easy when we were in Durban, but at the same time we were playing important venues like universities. We understood that people were following us and were interested in what we were saying or in the music. We left Durban in 1981, and we decided to move back to Johannesburg. That's when things were getting really difficult in South Africa. Eugene knew Moses Manaka's brother Matsemela Manaka, who was a writer. It is Matsemela who asked Eugene if his brother could join the group. I think Eugene contacted Moses Manaka just before we went back. In Johannesburg, of course, it was not easy to find accommodation or to find record deals and producers, because of what the Malopoets stood for. But we didn't give up. We'd find some concerts, we played universities like the University of Cape Town. We were the first band to play at the Market Theatre [in Johannesburg], because at first it was just for plays. During this time, we did an album called Fire. Some of the tracks were censored on the radio, some tracks were not played.

AAJ: You mentioned playing at UCT and the Market Theatre. If we think of the era in which the Malopoets were formed, it's two years after the Soweto uprisings and therefore in the midst of a clampdown by the apartheid system. You're recording in the midst of the strict Radio Bantu regulations, and yet you've got an ensemble that's mixing different groups of people. You're also creating music that doesn't adhere to any specific style. Can you talk about the decision to embrace this approach?

ST: We were different, yes. I always considered myself as Shangaan; my great-grandfather was Zulu and married a Shangaan woman, but there was a separation. So my grandfather grew up with a single mother, I guess. That's when the language and Shangaan culture came into the family. Then my grandfather got married to a Zulu woman, Ndlovu family. In fact, I'm Zulu, followed by Shangaan, and simply South African.

So for me, the Malopoets making this style of music and expressing ourselves, it was a way of fighting against discrimination. People were already mixed in the townships. When I was in Mamelodi, it was a Shangaan township, but my uncles were married with Tswana people's families. People were already mixed. So for us it was about fighting this separation of black people.

Talking about, June 16, 1976, they were scary moments, but I think we didn't even think about it. We had to continue. And after meeting up with Bruce in Durban, that added even more into the spirit of the Malopoets, of the oneness. It came out in the music: all the influences and different touches from South Africa became as one. This was the idea of the people becoming as one. So we thought this was something that could attract people. There were many groups that we were kind of against because we didn't understand why they were playing music and performing for big audiences, but not saying anything about the situation. It wasn't easy, but we believed in the project.

AAJ: You mentioned the idea of censored tracks on your album, and it is crazy to see records from that era where certain tracks on records have been deliberately sliced with a knife!

ST: That happened to us! You know, when I went to record my latest album, there was a lady doing research on South African music in the 1980s. She went to the SABC [South African Broadcasting Corporation], and she found one of the albums that had been cut.

AAJ: You mentioned the debut album Fire. If we think about the '80s, we do see the rise of a few independent labels in South Africa during that decade. But at the same time, we still see a lot of censorship and control by the larger labels. How did Fire get recorded?

ST: When we went from Durban to Johannesburg, it was a time when Johnny Clegg was performing a lot. He had a producer called Hilton Rosenthal, who got interested in the Malopoets. That's how we got that deal. He was brave. I think it was timed when things were just moving, nothing would stop, things were boiling. So he decided to make the album with us.

AAJ: At what point did the band decide to travel to France?

ST: While we were in Durban, we thought about musicians who left South Africa. People like Hugh Masekela, Julian Bahula, Miriam Makeba. But it was just a dream for us. You couldn't even imagine. I never thought that one day I would find myself in Europe; I didn't even know where France was! I didn't learn anything about Europe. So it was like a dream that maybe one day we could also go, because if we were having difficulties to perform here, maybe if we'd go overseas, we would have more opportunities.

It inspired us. But it was not easy to get out, because we didn't have passports. What happened is that we were playing at this club in Hillbrow. Not many African bands played there, and there was no black audience. But it was young audiences, and Hillbrow and Yeoville at the time had a lot of musicians, so it felt good, like you were in another country. But at the same time there was still a gap between us. We talked a bit about music, but it was very difficult in South Africa to become a friend, because you don't know who's who, and the opportunities don't allow you to have this time of sitting together and talking.

But we did have some friends, musicians who sometimes invited us over. But you had to hide when you'd go and see them, saying that you're going to paint or to fix something. So, in this club where we played, Pat met a lady, Christine, who was from Switzerland. I think she liked what we were doing and believed in it, and she fell in love with Pat. She thought, "Well, since you wanted to leave the country and play outside, maybe we try it."

So Pat left with Christine, and they went to Switzerland. He brought the Malopoets' music on a cassette. In Switzerland, they told him, "If you want to do something with African music, Switzerland is not the right place, so you'd better try France or Germany." So he came to Paris and he met the producer Martin Meissonnier, who was at that time working with a many African groups like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade.

Martin asked Pat, "These guys, who are they, how many of them are there, and do they have papers?" Pat said no, and Martin said, "Okay, just tell them to ask for papers. We will send them invitations." We waited three months for our passports, and we were not sure that they would let us go. But finally, they let us go. One main reason they let us go is that if you are a troublemaker, maybe it's better you make trouble somewhere else! And at the same time, it's like, "We'll let you have papers. See? We're not that bad!"

This was the time of cultural boycotts. When we got to Europe, people didn't know who we were. We had finally gotten our passports and came to Paris, and there were already festivals organized for us to perform. It was a shock to see so many people listening to African groups, and not understanding what we're saying or what the other African groups were saying. For us, it was a moment of going, "Oh wow, we were right!" In South Africa, there were moments where you were made to think that African music was bad and not interesting.

When I arrived, I decided to stay here. I didn't want to go back to South Africa, but I was obliged to go back. We came to France in 1983 and I went back to South Africa, but I returned in '84 and I knew that that was it. There was a tour planned in America in '85 and so I went back and I came back in '84 and waited. I went to Switzerland, I stayed with Pat, and I waited for the other guys to come. Bruce and Moses came back in '85. There was an album, Malopoets, which we recorded in France. So they came back in '85 and that's when we started having problems concerning the cultural boycott.

In England, they didn't want us to play there, and in America it was the same thing. So we had to justify and explain and explain. The argument for us was, "Okay, we can't play in South Africa, and you don't want us to play here. So where do you want us to play?" Finally, they allowed us to perform. We went to the States for a three- month tour. It was like a dream coming true. I remember when we played in LA, there was Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder, and other people we admired who came to the concert. There was Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu, also Sammy Davis, Jr. So for us it was like, "Wow, we were right to continue!" For us, it was like we won.
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