Barney’s Way : a tribute to Barney Rachabane

JAN1959 – “10 year old Barney “Bunny” Rachabane of
Alexandra Township. Bunny hit the news when his group,
the Alexandra Junior All Stars, was 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. Image
courtesy Bailey’s Archive

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 through the late 60s and 70s had been very difficult, for musicians in particular. Barney had opened a curtaining business and a corner shop just to ensure his children had shoes for school.

Octavia was a blessing. Her dad 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.

In 1982, Octavia had her first taste of the travelling life of the musician when she travelled with mum 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 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, mbaqanga jazz pioneer, was included in the Graceland project. He, like many of the collaborators on that project including Joseph Shabalala and Ray Phiri, formed a life-long friendship with Paul Simon. A great photograph hangs in Barney’s lounge of them playing together on his stoep in around 2012.

Graceland also brought in much money for the family (“briefcases,” Barney said), and gave Barney the opportunity to re-build his family home with a second storey home. Barney’s storoes of money and the music are touch and go. Barney went professional at the age of 7 in 1954. This was the age of the “Pennywhistle Jive” or the “Kwela Craze.” Barney was already very hip and earned through busking on the street corners of Johannesburg.

Born in Alexandra Township, near Sandton Johannesburg, in 1946, Barney had grown up in the pennywhistle hotspot on the globe. Alexandra was the home of many penny-whistle players. Ntemi Piliso who formed the African Jazz Pioneers, Willard Cele who appeared in a movie, ‘Big Voice’ Jack, who ended up on stage with Dave Matthew in USA, and his brother, who wrote hit songs, Elias Lerole. Spokes Mashiyane moved into Alexandra from his herd-boy origins and started the Alexandra Dead End Kids. Lemmy ’Special’ Mabaso had the Alexandra Junior Bright Boys and Barney Rachabane, the Alexandra Junior All Stars. Barney’s All Stars made their first hit in 1957 with an independent record company called Jive. The hit was named “Piccanini,” politically incorrect and also an attempt for international recognition. This it got through an Argentinian licence. Not much is known about the role Jive records played in exploiting South African music. It seems the label may have taken its name from the Jive music of South Africa. Jive grew to become the largest independent record company in 2000. Barney never saw any royalties.

Barney and Lemmy’s penywhistle comradery reached a turning point when Barney’s role as the pennywhistler in 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. At the age of 16 in 1962, Barney met Elizabeth. They were married and had their first born. Barney got lessons at Dorkay House to read music and became an alto saxophonist in the midst of a musical hub. Dorkay House 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.

Kippie was a direct musical senior to Barney and they shared the stage in 1963 with the Chris McGregor’s Castle Lager Big Band. The 19 year old Barney had his baptism of African Jazz, in an all fire saxophone section of Kippie Moeketsi, Dudu Pukwana, Mackay Davashe and Christopher “Mra” Nguckana.

This fire never subsided. By 1964 when Barney stood in for Kippie Moeketsi to live record with the Early Mabuza Quartet, he made another international impression with the producer lauding “his attack and swing.”

Barney managed to give his family ‘stability’. This was very rare for so-called jazz musicians of that era. Octavia Rachabane

By the 1980s Barney was known as “the most soulful saxophone player in the world.” 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 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.” The young students of the day, all the Bra’s; Lex bass player, Feya trumpet player, Lulu, drums and Zim saxophone, performed with the veterans, Bra Barney, Bra Pat and Bra Winston on a regular basis. This is how the baton is passed from one generation to the next. Some highlights of this era were recorded by Melt2000, on the album Darius Brubeck Live in New Orleans.

Leonard was a rising star on the UKZN jazz scene. His death was sudden and a shock to the Rachabane family. It was through Leonard’s band that Octavia, still at school, had her first break as a singer.

The puzzle around Leonards death was his unborn child. Records in South Africa showed that his girlfriend had given the child up for adoption after Leonards death. But where the child went they never knew until quite miraculously, one teenage violinist from a wonderful home in Australia followed his adoption records. This is David Webster and in 2014 he was reunited with his grandparents and of course his cousins, like born saxophonist Oscar Rachabane. Oscar grew up on the penny-whistle. There can be no doubt about that. The family is expecting his return from rehabilitation one of these days. Barney never understood what happened to Oscar. Was it the drink or the drugs? Both or neither. These are the downfalls on the path of the musician. Barney had to overcome drinking at some point in his career. Many of his colleagues never did.

Elizabeth and Octavia were planning their second visit to Australia when Elizabeth died suddenly on the 31st of July 2021. She was 73.

I had first met Barney in 2012 at the Grahamstown Jazz Festival. He was performing with Octavia and Oscar in one of the most exciting family bands I had seen. I got into their taxi after the show. And I journeyed with them for another 9 years.

August 1st Barney called me with the earth shattering news. “My wife,” he exclaimed over the phone. “My friend,” he studied. “Has died. We were together 57 years,” he said. That would be the last day I saw Barney. 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 103 days after his wife on 12.11.21. This was two days before what would have been “Nini,” his wife’s 74th birthday.

Upstairs in the Township is re-compiled and edited from an unfinished session around 2010. Barney produced, arranged, composed and performed. No other details are name. This album is being listened to through private viewing currently with a view to release. More information: struan@afribeat.com

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