By Staff Reporter

Undoubtedly one of the South Africa’s leading jazz drummers, Vusi Khumalo has been a force in the jazz scene for nearly three decades. From the tender age of five, Vusi Khumalo knew that he was born to be a musician. To the young lad, jazz was a passion rooted deeply inside his soul. Already at that age, Vusi listened to the top jazz musicians and entertainers of that era.

Amongst his peers, Vusi was known to carry a 45’ vinyl of Jimmy Smith’s Mojo to school. He would also venture out to the legendary saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi’s house just to hear him play his instrument, savouring the late saxophonist’s talent. And so began the musical journey of Vusi Khumalo…

Vusi is considered one of the top drummer/ composer/ arrangers in South Africa. He follows in the footsteps of 60s legendary jazz drummer Early Mabuza, to become one of the front leading drummers of his generation.

Over nearly three decades, Vusi boasts a respectable résumé that includes working with internationally-renowned artists such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya and Abdullah Ibrahim. He is also one of the original members of the band that recorded with Paul Simon on the seminal Grammy award-winning Graceland album. He has graced a number of best-selling albums locally and internationally. He has toured across the globe, and spent some years in the US sharing his talents from the east to the west coast.

Naturally gifted, an achiever and a perfectionist, Vusi has demonstrated himself to be a versatile musician accomplished in various styles of music. He has performed with South African musicians including Winston Mankunku, Bheki Mseleku, Barney Rachabane and Allen Kwela. Internationally he has worked with such legends as Chucho Valdes, Youssou N’Dour, Bob Baldwin, Donald Harrison and the late Carl Anderson.

In 2000, Vusi released his debut album Follow Your Dream. The album was nominated in 2000 for the Kora Awards in the Best Video category, as well as the South African Music Awards (SAMA) for Best Contemporary Jazz. Recorded in 1999 at the Real World Studios in London, the album featured Mark Anthony from Incognito and Cuban musicians from the band, Irakere. The album’s track “Dusk to Dawn” was selected as theme song for the popular South African television soapie Backstage.

He also found the band, Dondo, with Lawrence Matshiza. Their album “Changing Times” won the 2004 SAMA in the category “Contemporary Jazz”. The concept behind Dondo was to mentor talented young artists and help launch their careers in the music industry. One such talent whose career was launched is the late composer and pianist Moses “Taiwa” Molelekwa.

In 2011 Vusi released his riveting offering “Reasons for Seasons”. Receiving wide acclaim, the album received a 2011 Metro FM Awards nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz. It was also nominated for a 2012 SAMA in the category Best Jazz Album. The album, which has been quoted as being ‘sensational’, features international musicians Andy Narell, Bob Baldwin, and South Africans – Feya Faku, Barney Rachabane, among others. In true commitment to discovering new talent, Vusi also worked with young musicians emerging in the local jazz scene to create an album with a global sound rooted in local idiom.

Vusi was the drummer for the in-house band at the opening ceremony for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. He backed top international performers – John Legend, Angelique Kidjo, Hugh Masekela and Shakira, among others. In December of the same year, along side Chico Freeman, Andy Narell and other international musicians, Vusi featured at the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture in Dakar, Senegal, held from December 10 – 31, 2010.

Reuniting with the original Graceland musicians, Vusi also participated in the documentary film, “Under African Skies with Paul Simon”, which chronicles Paul’s return to South Africa 25 years after recording Graceland. The documentary was screened at the popular Sundance Film festival in 2011, as well as other festivals and has already won several awards.

In 2013, Vusi was invited by Berklee College of Music in Boston to participate in its prestigious cultural exchange programme. There he taught a course in rhythmical approach to drummer from an African perspective. This course was successful and allowed Vusi to share not only his musical expertise, but also his experience growing up as a musician in apartheid South Africa.

In 2016, he wrote the score and music for the award-winning documentary ‘Black Lives Matter’, by South African documentary filmmaker Joseph Oesi. The film was internationally acclaimed for its content about the exploitation of the South African mining industry. He was also the composer producer, musical director and wrote the score for the musical film ‘She Is King’ in 2017. The movie opened in cinemas nation-wide, followed by broadcasting on South Africa’s premier broadcasting agency DStv, as well as available on international streaming platform, Netflix.

In 2018, Vusi performed at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival with internationally-acclaimed steel pannist, Andy Narell. The festival is one of South Africa’s and the continent’s most prestigious jazz festivals, showcasing talent locally and internationally. 

Two years later in 2020, Vusi was part of Old Mutual’s series AMPD Icons, which featured a tribute on legendary South African  musician, Caiphus Semenya. The special tribute included interviews by artists who have worked along side Semenya, such as Vusi, who first met Semenya in the 1980s in Zambia, where they performed fundraiser events for the then banned African National Congress (ANC) and the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) – both liberation movements are now ruling parties. There was a special recording of Semenya’s song ‘Matswale’, produced by Congolese musician Tresor Riziki, on which Vusi performed. Other artists on the song included Kwesta, Amanda Black, Bongeziwe Mabanda, and the legendary Mahotella Queens. https://fb.watch/3xjeYw_0Dd/

Finally, with his company VK Productions, Vusi is working on a documentary film about the evolution of the South African music industry from early apartheid to date.

“Ever since I can remember, music has been an accompaniment to my life. It would be impossible for me to even try and conceptualise a world without music. If you have a natural aptitude and appreciation for it, then music simply draws you to it and connects.

“Music tells stories, breaks hearts, reduces us to tears, or seduces us into falling in love, over and over and over again. Music is a universal language. Music represents a basket of cultural origins. It is identity and belonging. It is history and invention. Music is remembering and forgetting.

“Music is symmetry, rebellion, genius, prodigy, mastery, virtuoso, dazzling, breath-taking, spell-

binding and extraordinary.”

“STRONG FAMILY VALUES HAVE GUIDED MY WORK AND INSPIRED ME TO STAY TRUE TO MY MUSIC “

As is the story of many black South Africans during apartheid, Vusi’s family was forcibly removed from their home in the township of George Goch, also known as Klipper Island, to Soweto. Despite the turmoil caused by the politics of the day, it was in Soweto where Vusi first started playing music. Interestingly, his first musical instrument was the bugle, which he played in his new neighbourhood’s marching band. He also became a snare drummer for the same band.

Vusi’s participation in the marching band gave him exposure to top musicians on the jazz scene. He came under the influence of musical greats such as Victor Ntoni, who started running formal classes for musicians keen to learn the technical aspects of music. Another was Nelson Magwaza, a renowned drummer at that time. And thus began his formal music education. From a curious youngster, to a self-taught musician, to an African legend, the road to success was arduous given the constraints imposed by the apartheid system, but driven by passion, commitment and faith, Vusi found his place in the world of jazz.

A journey of life

“I’m not a music expert. I’m a music lover, a discoverer, an explorer. Music for me is pure potentiality. I can engage with it. I can commune with it. Sometimes, if I’m open to it, it takes me by surprise, and I step out of myself. Music is a friend, a companion, a guide and a teacher. A challenge, a landscape, a palette, a texture, a shape. Music is a chord structure, harmony.”

Vusi’s musical journey has afforded him many opportunities from touring internationally, performing with renowned artists, to sharing his own creative talent with the world. Nonetheless, it is home where his heart lies.

The South African music industry still faces a number of challenges, and is not at a point yet

where it is optimising local talent to its full potential. Yet to Vusi, it is evident that the South African sound has universal appeal as demonstrated by the high and continued popularity of Paul Simon’s Graceland, not to mention the music of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and others.

Vusi believes that it is for all concerned in the industry to find ways to invest in identifying new talent and developing new and established talent for local and international markets. He will keep on doing his part in this by encouraging and mentoring young musicians, while continuing to create, discover and explore his talent and love for music.

The making of “Reasons for Seasons” was a long but rewarding experience. “I was invited to view the new recording studios, Pyramid Studios, built by Mr Ellies. The idea behind the studios was to provide space for young musicians to develop and have access to high quality equipment. This was a joint initiative with Yamaha. I was invited to conduct a workshop with the young musicians and have not looked back since.

“I had just completed ‘Changing Times’ with Dondo. It was a frustrating experience working with a record company and therefore not having control over the budget, which in music terms means little control over the creative process. The Pyramid Studios gave me that window of opportunity to record an album that was self-funded and over which I would have control. The making of ‘Reasons for Seasons’ would be more like the production of my first album ‘Follow Your Dream’. I didn’t want to be pressured to finish the album to meet the record company’s deadlines or be dictated to about who to use and what to do and still not have enough money to cover things I consider important, like sound check in studio.

“The first song I recorded on ‘Reasons for Seasons’ was ‘Mdumise’. It was at a time I felt like I was in an emotional and spiritual dark hole. So ‘Mdumise’, which funnily enough has a kwaito influence, did speak to me. The melody and lyrics moved me. So I decided to rearrange the song by slowing it down and craft it for a more mature ear.”

The Making of ‘Reasons for Seasons’

“I invited Sipho Nkosiyane to work on the tracks ‘Reasons for Seasons’ and ‘Lizzie’, on which he also sang the lead vocals, and ‘Love to Remember’. Initially I envisioned Will Downing performing the latter song. I was introduced to him by Bob Baldwin and met Will when he was in South Africa. Unfortunately he fell ill and was not able to partake in the album. Sipho was heaven sent however, as I ended up working well with him. Bob also was gracious enough to play on ‘Ukuphila’. The song has afrocentric vibes with modern harmonies, and lyrics that are inspirational about life. Bob did a stellar job on the song.

“I also approached RJ Benjamin who did his own interpretation of the song ‘Yakhal’Inkomo’. My dream was also to work with Winston Mankunku, sadly he passed away before I could fulfill this wish. I am proud though of the collaborations I have on the album including Vuyo Tshuma, Thabiso who engineered the recording, Rammona, Mpho, Oupa, Ramailla and Mzamo, among others.

“Though there were budgetary constraints, the artists who participated were generous with their talents and time. It is through them that ‘Reasons for Seasons’ became one of my proudest works. I am happy with the quality of the album. The album was launched on 29 July 2011 at the Yamaha theatre. Yamaha’s continued support of my work is a blessing. I am eternally grateful and look forward to the next album with a team as committed and talented as before.

“I love jazz. Jazz is about improvisation, melody and good harmony. I’ve always thought jazz is music that is well received by intellectuals, precisely because of its improvisational nature. It is music that pushes boundaries and insists that you take yourself to a higher plane when you listen to it. It takes someone with a good ear and keen interest to understand the versatility inherent in the music.

“Jazz also embodies diversity with its many different styles. There is contemporary, Latin, swing, bebop, rock, and acid jazz. Even in my own career I have experienced the diversity of jazz, having played with Cuban, Brazilian, American and African musicians. My music incorporates the different elements of styles that I’ve been involved in. I always try to capture all those elements and styles when I compose my music. It manifests as a blend of African rhythms with a global contemporary sound.”