by Struan Douglas,

=========== [Further adapted from by Struan Douglas,] ==============

In 1980 Barney and Elizabeth Rachabane had their last-born child – Octavia Rachabane. Their first born child was already out of school, and the other two were strong achievers. However life in Pimville, Soweto, had been very difficult during the 1960s and 70s for musicians, in particular. Barney had opened a curtain business and a corner spa shop just to ensure his children had shoes for school.

Octavia was a blessing. Her dad, born in 1946, was a virtuoso saxophone player that despite the difficulties of the period, had played regularly throughout the 60s and 70s with many bands in Cape Town and Johannesburg. He was with the Rockets in Cape Town, and a classic photo exists of him performing at the Market Theatre alongside Bheki Mseleku and Allen Kwela.

Barney’s long-time collaborator throughout this era was Dennis Mpale, the legendary trumpeter. Together they formed the Jazz Disciples, The Soul Giants and the Count Wellington Jazz Band. Barney also had his own project, The Sound Proofs. 

Saxman Rachabane with Jazz Disciples: credit Ian Bruce Huntley

In 1982, Octavia had her first taste of the travelling life of the musician when she travelled with her mom and dad for the TechnoBush project with Hugh Masekela in Botswana.  Hugh was in exile, living in New York since the 60s. Barney never went into exile. He stayed at home. But regardless of the path musicians took, they were all united by the common reality of livelihood.

Apartheid in South Africa had already been examined through the 1976 youth uprising in Soweto. And Paul Simon’s Graceland recordings in 1985-6 eventually broke the cultural boycott and started what would become the musical march to freedom. And he built it around the music of mbaqanga, or what he called “the reggae of South Africa.”  Barney, himself a mbaqanga jazz pioneer, had joined the Graceland project which also included Joseph Shabalala and Ray Phiri.  Together, they formed a life-long friendship with Paul Simon as seen in a telling photograph which hangs in Barney’s lounge of them playing together on his stoep around 2012. 

B Rachabane with Yonela Manana Dec 2019

Graceland also brought in much money for the family (“briefcases,” Barney said), and gave Barney the opportunity to add a second storey to his family home.  However, money and the music business was touch and go since Barney went professional at the age of 9 in 1956. This was the age of the “Pennywhistle Jive” or the “Kwela Craze.” Barney was already very hip and earned a bit through his pennywhistle busking on the street corners of Johannesburg.  Born into the pennywhistle hotspot of Alexandra Township, near Sandton Johannesburg, in 1946, he joined with many penny-whistle players, like Ntemi Piliso who formed the African Jazz Pioneers, Spokes Mashiyane  who started the Alexandra Dead End Kids, and Lemmy ’Special’ Mabaso who had the Alexandra Junior Bright Boys. Barney Rachabane started the Alexandra Junior All Stars who made their first hit, called the politically incorrect ‘Piccanini” in 1957 with an independent record company called Jive.  Not much is known about the role Jive records played in exploiting South African music but it grew to become the largest independent record company in 2000. Barney never saw any royalties.

Barney Rachabane, 10 years old, Jan 1959: Bailey Archives

Barney “Bunny” Rachabane hit the news when his Alexandra Junior All Stars were stranded in Cape Town after appearing in Lofty Adam’s ‘Africa Sings!’ The Union of Southern African Artists came to the rescue and sent the boys money to come home to the Rand. Immediately they were back they were plunged right into the ‘Township Jazz,’ wrote Drum Magazine.

Barney and Lemmy’s penywhistle comradery reached a turning point when Barney’s role as the pennywhistler in the musical, ‘Kong Kong’ was given to Lemmy Mabaso. Barney’s mum had said her son was too young for a musical that was scheduled to go to London. It may have been a bitter pill for Barney to swallow at that tender age, but it was for the best and perhaps the very first indication of what Barney means when he says, “I walk with God.”

Those years at home became the seminal moulding period for Barney Rachabane. He started building for his future, met his future wife at age 16 in 1962, and started a family.  Dorkay House, where Barney learned to read music, was abuzz with the stars of that era, jazz singers Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and Letta Mbulu, music educators such as Phineas Phetoe and the finest saxophonists Zakes Nkosi, Mackay Davashe and Kippie Moeketsi.  Soon, Barney joined ranks as an alto saxophonist and shared the stage in 1963 with the Chris McGregor’s Castle Lager Big Band. By age 19, Barney had his baptism of fire in African Jazz, recording with the all saxophone section of Kippie Moeketsi, Dudu Pukwana, Mackay Davashe and Christopher “Mra” Nguckana, impressing one international producer with his “attack and swing”.   Pianist Rashid Lanie describes: “Bra Barney was able to fuse elements of Bebop Jazz with Kwela and Mbaqanga like no other. His fearless approach to his improvisations and compositions were world class all the while fingering those iconic Barney Rachabane screaming cry-licks he was so well known for. And lest I forget, his sneaky humour too.”

By the 1980s Barney was known as “the most soulful saxophone player in the world,” according to Paul Simon.  He performed at festivals and events on all 5 continents, particularly with Graceland, and he recorded two solo albums in London produced by Hugh Masekela.  Barney’s only son Leonard studied saxophone at the UKZN jazz department directed by Darius Brubeck. This was a golden period for jazz in Durban with two generations of musicians sharing the bandstand at the Rainbow Restaurant in Pinetown under the banner “Jazz for the struggle and the struggle for jazz.” Other  young students of the day, like bass player Lex Futshane, and trumpeter Feya Faku, performed with the veterans, including Barney and Winston Mankunku, on a regular basis and in a manifestation of how the baton is passed from one generation to the next.  As veteran trumpeter Prince Lengoasa says, “It is the divinity and godliness in us that makes us care for others as we care for ourselves. UBUNTU in practice.”  Some highlights of this era were recorded by Melt2000, ‘Darius Brubeck Live in New Orleans’.  

The Children

Barney faced family complexities.  Son Leonard was a rising star on the UKZN jazz scene.  It was through Leonard’s band that his sister, Octavia, still at school, had her first break as a singer.  Leonard’s death was sudden and a shock to the Rachabane family as was the puzzle around his unborn child.  After his death, records in South Africa showed that his girlfriend had given the child up for adoption, destination unknown. Miraculously, one teenage violinist from a wonderful home in Australia uncovered from adoption records of a ‘David Webster’.  David was reunited with his grandparents in 2014 and with cousins, like born saxophonist Oscar Rachabane.

(L-R) Struan Douglas, Octavia, Barney, David, Oscar at home-Dec 2019

Oscar grew up on the penny-whistle, but fell prey to substance abuse.  Barney never understood what happened to Oscar, but were expecting his return from rehabilitation soon.  Barney knew so well the downfalls musicians can face, having to himself overcome a drinking problem. Many of his colleagues never did.

Wife Elizabeth and daughter Octavia were planning their second visit to Australia when Elizabeth died suddenly on the 31st of July 2021. She was 73. She and Barney were together 57 years.  This author had first met Barney in 2012 at the Grahamstown National Arts and Jazz Festival when the three Rachabane’s –  Octavia, Barney, and Oscar – performed in one of the most exciting family bands I had seen.  After journeying with them for another 9 years, I learned on August 1 this year of Elizabeth’s passing from his fretful phone call to me.   I visited him for what became the last time then, and as I drove away from the family home in Pimville, he sat on the stoep with his arm raised in power. The image he gave me was of the indestructible beat of Soweto. Barney died three months after his wife on 13 November 2021.

Octavia had burst onto the South African jazz scene whilst still a student. She was lead singer in Louis Moholo’s Dedication Orchestra at the age of 19. Her sheer beauty, together with a real knowledge of this jazz music was invigorating.  Her musical dedication was always to her father. Over the last twenty years of his career, they performed together at various venues around Johannesburg and travelled together for festivals and sessions, including a Graceland Reunion in 2016 in Scotland.

Oscar played with such an infectious joy and seems to be making a comeback. He took a break from rehabilitation to perform at Barney’s Memorial, blowing his sax alongside Khaya Mahlangu and Mthunzi Mvubhu with that typical Oscar confidence.

“I walk with God,” Barney describes his life-journey. And this was abundantly clear at the funeral service, where a Department of Sports Arts and Culture police escort led a wake including some of the finest Johannesburg musicians of all generations right into Heroes Acre in WestPark .  Here, the great man was laid to rest among some of our other jazz heroes like Bra Hugh and Bra Victor Ntoni.     

Legacy was important to Barney. Today we have a generation of young lions that have learnt from the greats. In 2015 Barney played in the Mzansi Music Ensemble, an orchestra playing Victor Ntoni’s music with over 50 years age -difference between oldest and youngest performers. As the musical director of the show said, “The South African Alto is in great hands. The proverbial baton has been passed to Mthunzi and Moses and Nhlanhla.” 

Some of Barney’s unfinished dreams include the completion of his biography by Octavia, the release of his last solo recording, Upstairs on the Township, and a book of solos. Khaya Mahlangu mentioned at the memorial the need for a Barney Rachabane bursary for up-coming saxophonists.

Upstairs in the Township is re-compiled and edited from an unfinished session recorded around 2010. Barney produced, arranged, composed and performed.  No other details are named. This album is currently being remastered for release hopefully in December 2021. More information:

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