Sibusiso Mashiloane’s Solo Piano Unveils Native Hymns about Origins

Unlike his previous four albums, jazz pianist Sibusiso ‘Mash’ Mashiloane’s new album, iHubo Labomdabu (released this January 2021 by his own record label, Unlockedkeys Records ), exhibits how solo piano can pull out layers of rootedness as he explores what nativeness means musically. This exploration continues his journey articulating stories of ‘home’, following themes begun in Closer to Home (2018), his third album, which was nominated for a SAMA Award for Best Jazz Album in 2019. Mash seeks to understand the rudiments of South African musical identities in order to decolonialize his own (and certainly the listener’s) mind about Africanness. For this, his current Ph.D. study focuses on ‘ home’ music, and what constitutes the fundamental roots of musical expression in his African context. It’s about soul, rhythm, and emotion rippling through a divine connection.

The album cover suggests this connection by showing Mash sitting with other dark figures, but all highlighted with yellow halos around their heads, presumably realizing their human meaning and purpose blessed by the Divine. His pursuit of nativeness falls also during the now globally recognized annual Black History Month of February celebrations which incorporate not only the historical realities of the early American slave societies but from this, the emerging global call to address all forms of Black colonialization and liberation still operating in our contemporary world.

Solo piano often means pure ‘heart’ playing, configuring sounds driven by feelings in the ‘now’, often reflective and whimsical, but always ‘ in the present moment’. To Mash, therefore, no song can be repeated in quite the same way. Which makes this album very textural and even ephemeral, each song touching the listener’s soul and emotions directly, like a contemplative oracle.

The tracks in the album cause spikes of alertness, calm, care, and wonderment, about that daunting wilderness we all face at times, and particularly in the time of the COVID pandemic.

‘Sabela Uyabizwe’ starts off the album with an aggressive, repetitive left hand phrasing that holds tight the somewhat auspicious undertones expressed by right hand chords that fall into each other. This is not something subtle but alerts to what is to come. Like the post-romantic impressionist painters Monet and Renoir, who experimented with form and colour, Mashiloane paints his songs through the senses, with textures familiar to such impressionist composers like Saint-Saens or Debussy who would please at his rhythmic African twist. One hears in his songs a tidy wind, the forest of chirps, rain cascading on rocks, or sees a foggy window obstructing nature’s beauty, or the stumbling of people wearing torn shoes (reminiscent of his days witnessing township living). There’s images of child’s play or dance (in “Ihubo Lasekhaya”) and dissonance ( in “Uthando Olunameva”) to arrive at my favourite piece on the whole album, “Colour of Peace”, a masterful song, so thoughtful, with calculated notes, and a highly meditative and soothing progression of chords and runs. Here, one can see how Mash considers himself multi-ethnic in the African sense, having grown up with influences from different parts of South Africa. That Peace is universal.

In “World of the Free”, there’s a familiar liberatory message as Mash starts and ends with a harmonic melody, but in between is a restless piano scurrying in and out of discordant runs, accompanied with a bluesy attitude. All resolves into “Choices of Life” as the album ends with caution, returning to that left hand which fingers a query: Is there hope imbedded in Mash’s future, one wonders? He winks a ‘ yes’……

Without knowing the songs’ translations into English, one can simply hear and imagine, with eyes wide closed, how sound connects with the visceral, with rootedness, and then with Spirit which is Beauty. Mash intended this. He speaks to a spirituality he is experiencing through his sometime one-note finger play on the keys. He is known to carry this spiritual thread into his teaching and mentoring, namely at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban.

Clearly, such mastery on the keys can only continue his climb to musical gianthood.

His album can be bought on all digital platforms. Follow his journey at
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