Bakithi Kumalo – San Bonan

Bakithi Kumalo

San Bonan

South African composer, vocalist, and bassist Bakithi Kumalo (Bah-gee-tee Koomah-low) was born in the Alexandria Township of Johannesberg. Abandoned by his father as a toddler, he was raised by his mother, who was a singer, and his family in nearby Soweto. He was exposed to local musical styles such as mbaqanga (a groove peculiar to the townships), mbube (a cappella vocal music), and jive (electric, urban pop) while he was very young. At an early age, he decided to become a musician and at seven, was already performing in his uncle’s band. Due to his persistence, he quickly became a regular on the wedding and party circuit around the township. At ten, he went on a tour into Zululand where he remained for a year and a half. During that time, he practiced the bass tirelessly. It was at this time that he developed his unique approach to bass playing.

With a reputation as a prodigy now established, Bakithi started to get recording session work, but the record companies were exploitative (he was paid as little as $2.50 per side) and money remained scarce. He did any work he could do to get by, including selling newspapers. As an only child, he felt a profound sense of responsibility towards his mother, but never doubted that he would someday become a famous musician and would be able to take good care of her.

In addition to economic hardships, Bakithi was also dealing with an oppressive political system. Under Apartheid, the police could commit any atrocities they pleased against people of color and never be held accountable. When Bakithi had a recording session in the city proper, he had to carry papers that authorized his presence in town. Without them, he would have risked nearly certain arrest and detainment.

Bakithi’s fame grew, but his musical career was still a terrible struggle and he was seriously considering taking a job as a car mechanic at the time Paul Simon came calling in 1985. Simon was in South Africa to assemble a band for his Graceland album. A well-known Johannesberg producer suggested Bakithi for his unique ability. Simon was entranced by his sound and, after some preliminary sessions in South Africa, he flew Bakithi to New York City to complete the tracks. Bakithi was both thrilled and terrified to be in New York City. He had always longed to go to New York, but he barely spoke English and was understandably overwhelmed by this sudden dramatic change in fortune. However, his misgivings did not affect his playing and his indelible contributions to the Grammy-winning Graceland album gave him major visibility in the American music industry. He found himself in much demand for recordings and tours with many great artists such as Chaka Khan, Harry Belafonte, Cyndi Lauper, Laurie Anderson Inn Secada and Gloria Estefan

 Today, Bakithi has put down roots in Brooklyn with his wife, American singer Robbie Hall, and two children. They went to the new South Africa during 1997, and again in 1998 where Bakithi performed at several cultural festivals. Having been in South Africa as a free man, Bakithi is relieved that his people will never suffer the oppression of Apartheid again. The Kumalos are planning to keep a home on both continents.

Bakithi has just completed work on his debut recording San Bonan (Greetings). San Bonan is World Music in its truest form. Featuring guest artists such as Donald Harrison, Chieli Minucci, Steve Khan, Robbie Hall, Don Alias, Marc Quinones, and Tony Cedras, Bakithi has managed to combine his personalized South African sound with Latin, Jazz, and R&B influences. Bakithi’s music is refreshing in its originality and upbeat spirit.