Bassist Herbie Tsoaeli Minces African Timing with Ancestral Voicings

Self-taught bassist, Herbie Tsoaeli, hails from Nyanga East, a Cape Town Location, where he grew up trying to find musical instruments that suited his ‘sound’ needs. He studied at music schools in Cape Town, like Nyanga Art Center, MAPP and at the Merton Barrow Jazz Workshop. Much experience was gained from the 1990s onwards as part of the Live at the Market Band with the late Sibongile Khumalo, Khaya Mahlangu, Themba Mkhize, Prince Lengoasa, & Vusi Khumalo. Other bands included Mahube with Steve Dyer.

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His ancestral calling resonates around musical concepts of ‘African Time’, his debut album by the same name winning him a SAMA award for best jazz album in 2013. This recent album just launched, At This Point in Time: Voices in Volumes (2021) strikes lyrical cords as he laces his compositions with pentatonics, ballads, a bit of bebop, then some swing here and there, all seemingly spirit-driven with ancestral overtones. He talks to All Jazz Radio Internet Radio about his concepts of Time and the Now, influenced by some Covid Lockdown blues with contemplation on how to voice hope for the future. It’s a very thoughtful and appealing album for those who enjoy the ‘jazz’ genre with improvisational character and changing time signatures.

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The album opens with ‘Wozani nonke Sizothandaza’ (‘Come all we will pray’) with a distinct drum accompaniment of Ayanda Sikade’s drums, Tsoaeli’s bass solo, all layered with his raspy vocals, and horn harmonies carrying the tune. One can forgive Tsoaeli’s sometimes off-tune vocals which adds emotion to his different voicings.

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Ayanda Sikade-courtesy: Music in Africa

Voicings and timing go together. We talked about the ‘art of slow’ which Tsoaeli immediately could identify with. “We all struggle with our voices as we go thru the Lockdowns. Lockdown is just a continuation of my African timing, coming to your Art of Slow, telling us to just slow down! Some people say, ugh man, you’re just old, slowing down anyway. But yes, wise move.” In the album notes, he talks about voicing against societal malfunctioning: “inequality, unemployment, gender-based violence and mismanagement”.

The tenor saxophone genius of Sisonke Xonti shines as he gives visual movement to the amorphous concept of ‘timing’. In ‘Alone on Your Own’, he seems to depict a child softly skipping along, not in any hurry. Then the sax becomes frantic as though life is too slow. Time to catch up…. The song ends with the bass and drum having a boppish tete-a-tete sealed with the sax approval.

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Sisonke Xonti

The Samba beat appears on several songs, like in ‘Abadala Baholo’ (‘elders’), which bring out tight three horn harmonies, with men’s voices giving an “appreciative gesture to elders who shepherd young ones away from criminality and gangsterism in located areas” (album notes).

Tsoaeli likes free jazz. But what is it in the African context? “Free jazz is the same as avant-garde. African time has its own timing. When I was young, I was dabbling in all genres of music – rock, pop, TV hip, etc. It’s what I call the 3Gs – ‘Genres Generic Genes’; there’s pop and rock elements in my ‘African time’. The 3Gs is my blood heart & soul as I have apprenticed with so many different sounds.” Here is an example of why writer Attiyah Khan calls Tsoaeli a “neologist’, someone who creates new words or concepts. “There’s structure. I tell my students they must learn structure when learning music. “ One hears those chordal structure changes in ‘Umntu’, for example. A free improvisational piano of Yonela Mnana in ‘Palama’ (‘come, let’s leave’) speaks to our hurry to get in that idling car after spending hours visiting family or friends, and then saying the goodbyes. The impetuousness of contemporary life. Then, there’s that sometimes frantic but impressive command from Xonti’s sax in ‘Backyard Background’.

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Yonela Mnana

So, are no filters that harness the essence of a ‘free’ jazz? “All my songs are composed randomly, but I know what notes to give out. I like that – doing things on the spot – composing ‘improvisingly’. When meeting my band members for a rehearsal, I call it ESSMG: Energy Scanning Screening Meeting Gathering – but without instruments. Just a few notes.” (Neologically said.)

Compositional Creativity
“I don’t write scores anymore. I used to.” So how does Tsoaeli teach structure with his students? It’s about African Time: “African Time is from the garden, the soil. After planting those carrots, in time, they will mature and become something useful, like to eat. You gather your hands in the soil and pull out that carrot. That’s the way I teach my students.” But then one remembers that the younger ones are in a hurry, and aren’t interested in the art of slow. Computer software is there to quickly compose, edit, transcribe, etc They don’t want to take time to grow that flower, or carrot, right? “I told my son recently to take a picture of that building that housed the Jazz Workshop where Milton Barrow gave me free lessons. That building had a particular time structure to it, during apartheid, as I was finding my way with music.”

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Herbie Tsoaeli at Blue Room, CapeTown Dec 2021

Young Tsoaeli grew up frustrated that he couldn’t learn saxophone, or play guitar like Grant Green or Wes Montgomery. Then he found the upright bass. “I remember with my uncle, we used to listen to all the Blue Notes, the Stanley Turrentines, the Brotherhood of Breath, the trumpeter Blue Mitchell , and that sound of Jimmy Smith on organ. Then mix that with the Mbaqanga in that house. The sound then escalates with my neighbours who were church people, and then there was the Zion church, and in the back were the traditional healers. On Friday and Saturday were burial stuff, and sounds that go with that.”

This mixture of influences with tight horn trios comes through in Mbaqanga-styled ‘East Gugs Skomline to Khaltsha’ about a commuter train route through Cape Town’s townships that leaves many passengers behind. This song remembers township residents being bypassed during Apartheid – for housing, or left on the tracks, or lined up in job queues. This song cries out for healing.

Ancestral Healing with Hope
One hears in several songs a low register male repetitive chant followed by higher register vocals, such as in ‘Palama’. But could not ancestralism have bad blood as well? “For me, when I do music, people are talking spirituality. I don’t say I’m a spiritual healer, so people can’t say that I am a spiritual musician. People may find it in my music, but I never pronounce it on paper that I am spiritual. I’m just making music for my inner healing. That’s beautiful, if it also heals others. My sounds come from different formats; they may be coming from the rock, or from the swing, or from the mbaqanga.” One result can be enjoyed in the contemplative ‘Woza Moya’ (‘At this point in time’) which portrays a sense of joy and purpose.

Yet, there’s a yearning hope in ‘Siwa Sivuka’ (‘straight to the point’), a song meant to convey how our human Spirit can rise and triumph. Tsoaeli demonstrates his compositional interplay with bass, horns, and piano announcing a better future through soft female vocals. One just sings along, gleefully.

‘Siyabulela’ (‘thank you’) concludes the album very peacefully, with female vocals closing out the volumes of voices that puncture Time. Yet, the volume of voices still need to protest against the immediate injustices and other society ills inflicted on the marginalized. One hopes it won’t take another ten years to hear Tsoaeli’s next album message, no doubt, geared to Youth. …….Speaking of the Art of Slow…….

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