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Sounding out a masterful musician

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By Therese Owen

Never let it be said that Tonight does not give credit where credit is due. Therese Owen pays homage to Themba Mkhize, |a musician, producer, musical director and talented pianist who has played a central role in many lives of other |great South African musicians.

It was while watching Themba Mkhize perform at Cannes, France, that I fell in love with this musician’s talent.

The occasion was Midem and South Africa was the host nation at the world famous music conference in 2010. The French Department of Arts and Culture had invited the South African music industry to a dinner where Mkhize was commissioned to direct a tribute to the late Miriam Makeba – an icon who was very popular in France.

When Thandiswa Mazwai and Caiphus Semenya and the like performed her songs under the watchful eye of Mkhize, the French cultural dignitaries took to their feet in delight.

“I’ve never seen this before at this party,” whispered a seasoned Italian music journalist. “The French are normally so reserved on nights like this.”

It certainly was a proudly South African evening that left the South Africans and the French smiling.

The pianist, composer and producer had had the privilege of working with Makeba and many other South African giants such as Semenya, Hugh Masekela, Busi Mhlongo and Judith Sephuma, Sipho Gumede and Jabu Khanyile.

Mkhize is a Sama winner and has released three albums. He also commands great respect among musicians across the board as a talented pianist. He is one of those quiet musicians who fly under the radar. Yet, when he performs live, there is magic in the room.

Watching him as the musical director at a gospel show at The Playhouse just before Christmas last year was also a fantastical experience. Included in the line-up was the KZNPO as well as Sephuma and Siphokazi.

Like all good musical directors, Mkhize is a perfectionist as well as a patient man.

“I do have patience,” he admits. “When I walk into a gig I know I am going to find problems. I never raise my voice, however, no matter how angry I get. But, believe you me, I’ll never work with that artist again.

“My job is both a nanny and a daddy and I need to be firm.

“That is how I have eliminated certain difficult musos from my life. There is no rule that says geniuses must be crazy. There is no rule like that.”

The straight-talking musician also has a great sense of humour and enjoys his life.

His latest project is a recording label, Mavovo. He has signed six young musicians and artists. This includes an a cappella group called Africapella.

“They are influenced by Take 6 harmonies, but with an African influence. We are doing a lot of Struggle songs. The album is set for release next month through Universal.

“This country is abuzz with new talent and educated musicians who have a lot to offer. During the Struggle days the world listened to us because our stories came with a lot. Our Struggle isn’t over, but the young people have a different story to tell. If we don’t give them a platform we face our music becoming stagnant and redundant.”

His musical journey began in his childhood town of Durban where he grew up in Umlazi.

“I was eight years old when I studied piano,” he recalls. “I always knew I wanted to be a musician. When my mother asked me what would I do as a musician, I was like, I could be an engineer or a producer, even though I had never been in a studio.

“One of my first bands I played in was called The Comrades, for obvious reasons.”

Early on in his career he was spotted by Gumede and he found himself playing in the band Sakhile in Joburg in 1984.

“Sakhile was popular at the time. Things were difficult then, but it is harder for live musicians nowadays because of deejays.”

Mkhize then joined Bayete and Gumede did his own thing.

“I stayed with Bayete for the next nine years. During that time I was introduced to Semenya and Letta Mbulu.

“Caiphus came up with an idea to unite exiled musicians with local musicians under the banner SA Artists United. He created the musical Buwa, in 1986, which means “speak out” in Sotho.

“Our first meeting was in Zambia where we did a gig for some ANC dignitaries. We also did shows in Zimbabwe and Sweden. That is where I met all the exiles, including a young man called Lebo M.”

Back home Bayete was doing gigs for Cosatu while Mkhize split his time touring Buwa from Nigeria to Burkino Faso to Libya.

“We were about 30 in the cast and we flew to most places. But on the way from Burkino Faso to Ghana we ran out of funds and we had to sit in the trucks with equipment. The roads in that part of the world are bad. However, with all those troubles, the one thing I found fascinating was the love West Africans have of their culture.

“Cultural colonialism bought good and bad. It robbed South Africa of our culture. I often think about what scale I would be playing if we didn’t have that settler/colonial influence. Whereas in west Africa it was done by remote control because the colonialists wouldn’t stay there because of the mosquitoes.

“Back in South Africa we were in the turbulent 1980s and that, of course, came with tear gas. In the early 1990s there were hush-hush talks and talks about talks. Then everything was unbanned and with that the exiled musicians returned.”

Masekela offered Mkhize the role of musical director for his show Sekunjalo. He then left Bayete and joined Masekela to tour the world.

“But during the Bayete era we were blessed to have the late Victor Ntoni in our lives. He was educated at Berklee in Boston. Bra Victor brought with him a light. He was a street musician and a college educated muso, a bit of both really. We were fascinated by this man. For me his passing signifies that the university has been closed. He was the first black guy in this country to run his own big band. I was this young guy who hung out with him. I owe him a lot.”

Another musician he speaks highly of is Sibongile Khumalo, who he met through Masekela in 1994. He produced her first three albums.

“She brings order with her. She always comes prepared for any occasion. But at the same time she is funky. What I enjoyed when working with her is sitting on the other side of the desk with the engineer. It would be more like a performance and I am in the audience.”

“Having toured with Busi Mhlongo I am lucky to have been in the company of someone like her and realise the power of African music. With Miriam I learnt that it is important to be who you are.”

His debut album, Tales From the South, won two Samas. His third offering, Hands On, won a Sama for Best Male Artist.

His musical directorship achievements included Kwela Bafana, theatre productions such as Milestones by Mandla Langa, the World Cup opening ceremony and the Confederations Cup which he did with “my old friend, Lebo M”.

This wise man ends the conversation with a quote from his album Hands On: “It’s okay to talk about how we won our freedom, but we should realise the honeymoon is over. It is now time to work for our country and for every citizen to adopt a hands-on attitude.”

We have been warned by one of the best.

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