Sax bomb almost blew his big break
For two months Bongani Radebe wallowed in a pit of self-doubt and worry, despite having been offered the chance of a lifetime – to record Nathi Mankayi’s multi-platinum selling album Buyelekhaya using only his saxophone.
“I never thought I was ready. I got depressed and doubted myself. I may have practised enough but I didn’t believe that I had what it took.
“I even asked the management to get Hugh Masekela to call me and say that I was worthy of the project. They didn’t, they told me that I was good enough,” Radebe reminisces.
He eventually shook off his self-esteem issues and charged forward to interpret the legendary album and the results have been nothing short of spectacular.
He breathes new life into popular songs such as Nomvula, Buyelekhaya, Imibuzo, Imizamo Yam and Noba Ngumama.
Radebe reminds me what Kirk Whalum said about instrumental music: “… it speaks to the soul, you follow the melody and don’t have to think what the words say and mean.”
To do justice to the music, Radebe says he spent a lot of time trying to understand Mankayi’s state of mind.
“I needed to translate those heartfelt stories well. You can tell that he sings about what he’s gone through. I talked with him a lot.”
And now he is stepping in the shoes of his heroes, US instrumentalists Kenny G and Whalum, who have released sax interpretations of some of the most popular music. He says the music is not jazz, probably Afro-fusion.
“I’m not a jazz artist, they are strict and clear with what they do. I adapt to many styles, even rock. I say give me a stage and I will give you my heart. I was destined for this,” he says.
It has been a tumultuous start for Radebe.
Orphaned at nine, the family’s last born of eight moved in with an aunt.
At 14 years of age, he lived alone, hiring back rooms in Daveyton. He studied the organ in Kwa Thema and then moved to the clarinet. He ended up at Unisa studying theory through the charity of benefactors.
He joined the Gauteng Music Academy under the baton of maestro Johnny Mekoa and worked with jazz musicians.
The bug had bitten and, to get ahead, Radebe confesses to stealing an alto sax from one of his classmates.
“I couldn’t afford an instrument with the money I earned from the academy. I couldn’t even save.”
He left the academy for some train surfing, busking on the Daveyton, Johannesburg and Pretoria lines. “I made good money.
“It was good money for me to go home with R400 or R700, up to R1000 some days. I also learnt a lot and grew. I knew how to handle crowds.”
He quit the trains after three years and offered private music classes, but that didn’t go too well because of travelling costs. He would end up walking tens of kilometres to his clients.
Money ran out and he was kicked out of the back room – last year. He moved around friend’s places until he got a small shack just for his bed, stove and instruments.
His life changed when he met musician Thami Mtshali, who was impressed with his skill at a recording and introduced him to Lance Stehr of Muthaland, who then brought him to record the album.
“I’m not the best on earth, I’m sure there are better players than me, but I’m humbled that they believed in me and my skill to grow. I pray that I become one of the country’s best exports.”