“Wake up and let’s go!!” motto determines how a 20 year old brotherhood-in-music reacts to its artistic challenges of the day. This Xhosa-speaking group, calling themselves ‘Abavuki’, from Cape Town’s oldest ‘township’ community of Langa, have lived and supported each other’s musical growth with undying loyalty. Let’s just say, they are Brothers at heart and mind!
Abavuki say their style is unique, in that they play the traditional African instruments (drums, percussion & marimbas) along with brass (trumpet, saxophone and trombone) , vocal harmonies, and the occasional dance jive, that Abavuki ‘shuffle’. Infectiously energetic, these young men, now in their mid 30s, present a vibrant and contemporary Mzansi sound that is also mixed with kwaito, jazz and Latin American rhythms.
A viral pandemic has not reduced their vigor honed by a past decade of overseas tours performing in music festivals in some 13 countries including China, Algeria, and Germany. Even a two month cruise gig in 2010 as the Resident band on the Viking Line ferry operating between Sweden and Finland. These multi-instrumentalists and multi-award recipients have journeyed from busking as young teenagers at Cape Town’s popular V&A Waterfront (sometimes without a permit) to full time musicianship joining other bands as the professional career and financial needs called for their individual participation.
Coming from some rough neighbourhoods of Langa, all was not easy to make some survival money as a young teen. “Some of us started playing informally with local bands, such as The Little Giants, and Jika. We were first African drums, brass plus vocals and took to the streets with this unique sound. As we got booked more and more, we added dance, then marimbas,” explains Sabu Jiyana who went on to study traditional African music at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music. “We had fun busking and made a lot of money at the Waterfront, like one hundred bucks (Rands) a day for each of us was a lot of money at age 13/14!”
So how did they afford to get their marimbas and these brass instruments as teenagers? Luck found them: A marimba-maker, Andile, in Langa needed to test out his marimbas before delivering to the customers. So he gave some to the teens who profited with busking on streets and at the Waterfront.
“Andile organized gigs for us, but didn’t pay us, but said we would eventually get our instruments. We called ourselves ‘Abavuki’ which means ‘wake up early’ and go busking, which is what we guys loved doing! Andile called us one Sunday saying he had a gig for us for R700 at the Switching On the Lights in downtown Adderley Street as part of the Christmas celebrations. At that point, we kids had never played together with marimbas. So we all frantically rehearsed together in the Railway Station toilets! We were given only 10 minutes to perform, at the corner of Wale and Adderley.”
That was in 2001. Their luck continued to grow.
“That’s when we met Beverley who lived nearby and heard us playing. She offered to stick with us and help us get gigs from then on. We were 13/14 year old kids, and we thought everyone would take us to London and other places, like what happened with Amapondo who were famous at that point.”
Beverley Gough managed Abavuki from that time until she passed away in 2019, much to the sadness and loss felt by the group who called her a Mother to them. In 2002, the group met a couple from USA who tape recorded them. “We still were ‘borrowing’ Andile’s marimbas until one day, after the recordings and when we had the CDs in hand to sell at our gigs, Andile took our marimbas away. We couldn’t gig or sell the CDs!! “
Never deterred but always driven, Sabu explained how they would find marimbas and ‘steal’ them, make some money from them, and then pay the owners for the instruments. “We had just reassured the owners that we were ‘borrowing’ the marimbas!”
So what is so unique or special about Abavuki? It’s their style, they explained.
“ There are marimba ‘groups’, but we call ourselves a band because we are a brotherhood, like family, we’re brothers. At the time, there were only two bands that played marimbas with brass, one of them was Amapondo. We came along and changed the game… We made a decision to not be ‘a marimba band’, but a band that uses marimbas. So you would think someone is playing a bass guitar when he would be playing a marimba using 3 sticks. When Kim plays soprano marimba, it will be highlights or cues for the brass to play, for instance, while the tenor marimba will carry a melody.”
This certainly seems to bring out the versatility of this wooden marimba. “Instead of playing chord progressions and your own thing, you’ll play an actual melody on the bass marimba or tenor marimba while mixing rhythms.” So far, according to spokesperson, Sabu, the Abavuki songs have not been scored or archived for younger players to study. Why not?
“We found that if a teenager listens to the music and really catches on to it, he or she will learn it. Some local projects for kids eventually disappear, money disappears due to corruption, etc. Some kids join for the wrong reason, maybe to get money quickly. But our young man who has joined us was serious about learning our music, so we have taken him on. Covid has interrupted a lot of what teaching we wanted to do in the schools in Langa, like Thambani Primary School and Langa High School. And not everyone takes African music seriously – they like their kwaito and stuff. But we’re on a mission…..”
The ‘mission’ has been tough during COVID lockdown, now a year and one month without playing together as a brotherhood, just surviving with individual gigs here and there. Some South African musicians have used this period ‘off’ to compose more songs for later recordings and concerts. Has Abavuki?
“When we started as a 14 piece band, we had three fundamental goals to achieve: getting instruments; recording albums; and traveling internationally. We’ve achieved these and continue to develop these goals with more instruments. We’ll do a different album than previous tours. Regarding developing songs, a band member will throw out an idea and we’ll all work on it together. Noone dominates.”
But then COVID hit!
“Covid became frustrating because we were used to being together and making music together. We would get rusty on our instruments. However, we would share ideas, but get discouraged by the whole environment. It’s been tough. The idea of our 20th anniversary launch tomorrow [12 June 2021] is to say to organizers that ‘we are still here’. “
And Yes, they are here! The future sees these jolly musicians push forward with more exciting compositions and local and world tours, COVID-permitted. It’s simply amazing how they have stayed as closely knit together as the audience witnessed on that June 12 evening of 20 years celebration! In all their credits, they never fail to give tribute to their deceased band members: Gaz Matsila and Thulani Mtyi. And always to Beverley Gough, their band manager (2001-2019).
View Abavuki in action here, and check out that Abavuki dance shuffle that is their signature act! https://www.abavuki.com/videos?wix-vod-video-id=44fb17ff082e4aed819404c9dcd912aa&wix-vod-comp-id=comp-jzsgxhd9
Albums ‘Decade’ and ‘Africa Got Soul’ and other Abavuki albums are on Spotify, Soundcloud, and other digital platforms. See their Facebook page: