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A Quietus Interview

Jabula Happiness: Julian Bahula Interviewed
Clyde Macfarlane , January 21st, 2015 11:00

The South African drummer and ANC activist talks to Clyde Macfarlane about his achievements and the release of a new compilation, Spirit Of Malombo

Julian Bahula with his Order of Ikhamanga in Gold, by Alexis Maryon

When 1983 saw Nelson Mandela turn 65 in prison, few people in England understood what he or the ANC represented, and newspapers were reluctant to report on anti-apartheid movements. Music enthusiasts, however, may have been drawn to London's 100 Club, where exiled South African drummer Julian Bahula was running a night of African music every Friday.

Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango and Hugh Masekela all visited London and played there with Bahula; all three had fused American funk with traditional African music in an explosive way. Bahula's horn-heavy sound, which he called jabula, was an instant hit, too, but Bahula's aim was always to bring his anti-apartheid fight to as big an audience as possible. With the Anti-Apartheid Movement, he organised African Sounds, 1983's Free Mandela/65th Birthday concert at Alexandra Palace which featured a set from Masekela among its highlights. The concert drew a 3000-strong crowd, prompted anti-apartheid gigs across Europe and marked the climax of Bahula's activism.

"I don't regret my career choices," Bahula says. "There's nothing better than a free human being. I could've made a lot of money and forgotten the apartheid struggle, but that was never an option."

Bahula's efforts in the fight against apartheid were acknowledged in 2012, a year which marked the 100th anniversary of the ANC, when he received the prestigious Order Of Ikhamanga In Gold. He remains the only musician to have been given the award.

I've phoned him in the wake of a compilation of his best work on Strut Records. The double album, Spirit Of Malombo, features work from 1966 to 1984. It includes several live tracks from African Sounds, and music from before his 1973 move to London. In addition to his malombo drums, Bahula's pre-exile line-up - the Malombo Jazz Makers - included fellow South Africans Philip Tabane and Abbey Cindi on guitar and flute. All their tracks are incredibly calm; fans of Miles Davis' In A Silent Way will approve. When I make a comparison with nyabinghi music - a raw, flute/hand-drum exchange from rural Jamaica - Bahula enthusiastically recounts how he once explored this similarity with Black Uhuru's Michael Rose. The drums sound big and earthy, and possess enough dexterity in the right hands to beat out an array of emotions.

Your drums are more than just an instrument, aren't they?

Julian Bahula: Malombo means spirit - the spirit of our people, our gods and our ancestors. The drums speak. When people weren't feeling well, they would be healed by these drums. I smuggled ANC documents into Botswana using the body of a malombo. "Here he comes again with his stinking drums!" the border police would say. They didn't ask questions. When I look back I was brave. I had a great manager, the photographer Peter Magubane, who always stood by me.

But we weren't thinking about risk, only of freedom. I was fortunate because I had white friends, and they used to invite me into their homes. This put me on the right side of the police. I reconnected with these guys recently through Facebook, and when I go home now we laugh about that. I will never ever forget how I was treated by these good people.

What was the music scene like in South Africa back then?

JB: There were many great South African jazz groups in the early 60s. I still consider South Africa to be the home of jazz. These musicians were making money abroad, but I was so angry about the apartheid situation that activism at home was my only option. I used my music as a weapon; people would sit up and listen when we played. If we had left South Africa in 1963, I'm certain we would have made a big name for ourselves. South African music was just catching on at that time, because Miriam Makeba had opened the gate.

I toured South Africa with Steve Biko and a political theatre group called the Tecon players. We played at universities, and Steve would give incredible speeches about black consciousness. I decided to leave the country after that as it wasn't safe, which proved to be a wise move. I brought the drums with me to England of course.

How did you find living in England?

JB: It didn't take me long to love London. What a place to be a musician! I was like, "Phoooooooeeeee!" Back home, we were on the run the whole time. Even when you were sleeping, cops would wake you up. At first I didn't find it easy here because I played such a different style of instrument. I'd brought with me some tapes of malombo music. It was new and exciting, but when I took the tapes to record companies they couldn't understand it. They liked the music, but they said it wouldn't sell.

Was there a big break?

JB: The same year I arrived, Art Blakey was playing at Ronnie Scott's. He was a huge inspiration - I tried to play the way he played. I was walking along in Soho and I saw a man I recognised from my Jazz Messenger record covers, so I approached him. Blakey asked if I'd like to see him play that night, and I told him I couldn't afford it so he let me in for free. He bought me drinks and gave me a seat right at the front. In the audience that night I met my wife, Liza - five years later we were married. I have a lot to thank Art Blakey for!

How important was the 100 Club?

JB: I was in the scene after Ronnie Scott's. The 100 Club owner, Roger Horton - a great man - let me promote African music for him on Fridays. Back then Zimbabwe was not free, and nor was Namibia or Mozambique. I made a home in London for all these nations where they could go and enjoy themselves. Eventually I got enough support to host an African music festival at the 100 Club. One time I asked Youssou N'Dour to come over from France to play, and later at a party I introduced him to Peter Gabriel… the rest you know.

What was the reaction to the African Sounds concert?

JB: The ANC liked my idea of Free Mandela/65th Birthday concert, and its success led to ANC gigs in other countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. The concert gave Mandela and other political prisoners an international profile, so it's a great thing I came to this country. My contribution was easy because I enjoyed playing the music so much. People stood up and took notice after the concert. I had many congratulations, both from the ANC and from people in England who opposed apartheid. By now everyone loved what I was doing musically.

What now for South Africa?

JB: Now is the time that we South African musicians can show the world what we can do culturally. I'd like to play a big venue back in South Africa, because the situation now presents a platform that I would be proud to stand on. When I go back I'm happy with what I see. I used to only get as close as Botswana, which was heartbreaking. I love meeting up and playing with my Jazz Makers band mate Abbey Cindi - he is like my twin brother. Now we can deliver and show the world what we were fighting for. We can play music that makes people think, and I'm blessed with the power to bring happiness.

Spirit of Malombo is released by Strut Records

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