Jabu Khanyile

Afro-jazz singer-songwriter


Jabu Khanyile, singer, songwriter and drummer: born Soweto, South Africa 28 February 1957; twice married (seven children); died Soweto 12 November 2006.

In his native South Africa, Jabu Khanyile's name was synonymous with the band Bayete, an Afro-jazz group that was very successful at home in the late 1980s. An articulate, modest man with a distinctively mellow, soulful voice, he enjoyed a brief period of international fame in the mid-1990s as a solo artist fronting a different group. They retained the name Bayete, but adopted a more pan-African musical sensibility with a generic Afro-pop/reggae style, releasing two albums in the UK on the short-lived world-music label Mango and one on Wrasse records.

Khanyile shared stages with artists such as Youssou N'Dour, Angélique Kidjo and Papa Wemba, and was renowned for his generous, nurturing attitude towards the younger generation of South African musicians who emerged after the end of apartheid in 1994. He was also known to be a favourite of Nelson Mandela, who is said to have become a fan of his music while still in prison.

It was at a 1996 gig in Mandela's honour at the Royal Albert Hall in London that Khanyile's fiery set nearly caused a breach of royal protocol. According to tradition, nobody sharing the Queen's box should rise before she does, so when Mandela spontaneously jumped to his feet to dance, the Queen hurriedly did the same to avoid embarrassment.

Khanyile's mother died when he was young, and his father brought him up in Soweto. He first developed an interest in music by joining in Sunday-afternoon mbube sessions (the a cappella style later popularised by Ladysmith Black Mambazo) with his father and his colleagues. Leaving school at only 14 to work in a bottling plant, he realised the nine-to-five life was not for him, and took his first steps towards a career in music by sitting in as a guitarist with a local band, the Daffodils.

In 1974, he joined the Editions, a group heavily influenced by American funk and pop and led by his brother John. At the same time Khanyile was also busking to supplement his living and gravitated towards playing the drums. When the Editions split up, the group's manager approached him and suggested he reform it using younger musicians. Despite some success, this and a further incarnation of the Editions fell apart when members were forced to flee the country or go into hiding in the political unrest before and after the Soweto uprising of 1976.

The following year, Khanyile first heard Bob Marley, whose influence directed him towards a more African notion of what his music should be. When the Editions fell apart during the recording of an album, Khanyile joined the Movers, a successful group fusing American soul and the local marabi jazz style. However, he eventually left them too, auditioning with the group Bayete, and joining as their drummer in 1984.

Khanyile soon took a role in song writing with the new brass-based Afro-jazz outfit. They didn't shy away from politics, and, despite a radio ban of one of their songs, achieved considerable popularity with their first album, Mbombela, in 1987. A second album, Hareyeng Haye (1990), spawned the hit "Mbube".

After Bayete disbanded in 1992, Khanyile was approached by the entrepreneur Lindelani Mkhize, who convinced him to embark on a solo career, teaming him up with the producer Thapelo Khomo, famous for his work on Paul Simon's Graceland album. They released Mmalo-we in 1993, the first of eight solo albums mostly billed as "Jabu Khanyile and Bayete", although none of the personnel from the earlier group was involved.

Mmalo-we was picked up by Chris Blackwell's Mango label for international release and bagged three Samas (South African Music Awards) the following year. Just before they were closed down by their parent label Island, Mango also released Africa Unite (1997), a compilation of remixed songs from Mwalo-we and its 1996 follow-up, Umkhaya-Lo. The album was notable for its inclusion of pan-African sounds. The singer Sibongile Khumalo believes Khanyile's greatest legacy flowed from such an outward-looking attitude:

One of the early things he did with Thapelo was to incorporate into their music elements of African music beyond the South African border, and I think that kind of helped the South African ear adjust to other influences beyond what we were familiar with. He took us out of our comfort zones, as it were.

Khanyile became known for performing dressed in traditional Masai costume and carrying an East African fly whisk which had been presented to him while there on tour and symbolised royalty.

His profile wasn't as high in the later part of his solo career, partly due to the shift in fashion towards the kwaito style (a mix of hip hop, house and South African styles) and being eclipsed by exiled artists returning to South Africa. Even so, he was still active until recently, despite problems with diabetes, and later the prostate cancer which eventually claimed his life. "I think he had a chance to become a major star, with that voice, but illness held him back," recalls Ian Ashbridge of Wrasse records, who licensed his album The Prince for the UK in 2000.

Khanyile's most recent release was Hiyo Lento (2005). In July 2005 he performed at the Live 8 concert in Johannesburg. He made his last public appearance in Berlin last July at the "Africa Calling" handover ceremony at the end of the World Cup.

Jon Lusk

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