“It was just the music we grew up with,” he says. “First there was bubble-gum music - that Brenda Fassie era. Already the groove was in place. Dancing was just something we grew up with and I really, really loved it. Sometimes when I make music, I see choreography, pantsula dance, the whole depth I see with mature eyes now.”
His maturity led him to being one of the most revered improvisational acts. He is often listed as a jazz and even maskandi artist but even to the uncultured ear, it’s easy to tell he’s so much more. Xaba’s music is a part of the Dr Philip Tabane and Madala Kunene lineage. Even through all of that, Xaba has his own style that I can’t quite articulate.
Put simply, this artist does whatever he feels. His art is so led by feeling and not always intellectual thought, that he actually figured out his picking style through feeling. “We must constantly try to push ourselves,” he tells me. “I don’t perform, I prefer to play.”
He’s gesticulating with his lithe fingers as he talks and I notice how long his nails are. He pauses when I bring that up, then bursts out laughing. “All my nails are long except the pinky,” he explains. “I’ve been playing the acoustic guitar and the nylon I really struggled to find the sound in the thing when using plectrums.
“I was in the process of rehearsals - which is a time when I forget a lot of things, to brush my teeth, to cut my nails - and my nails just grew and I would play and get frustrated by the plectrum because the sound just wasn’t there. The technique was there but the sound wasn’t making sense to me. Then I just tried playing using my nails and I was like yooooooo!”
He’s smiling so widely, the gap in his pristine white teeth is prominent. “I was like yo, there isn’t a distance between me and the guitar anymore,” he exclaims. “It’s no longer Sibusile, finger, plectrum, guitar. It’s just Sibusile straight into the guitar. And ever since, I have been growing my nails.”
That revelation became a key component of both of the albums he’s released. Unlearning is an album that saw Xaba enlist Nduduzo Makhathini to mentor the artists involved in the project. That was released in 2017 and in the same year, Xaba’s critically acclaimed Open Letter To Adoniah was also released.
Like Makhathini, Xaba has often said his music is sent to him through dreams. He explains: “Let me start off by saying this thing is not new and it’s such a pity that as people, we’re so in the fast lane that we forget who we are. So when people bring up such things, we bring in these deep connotations.
“For example, aboGogo would dream up lottery numbers and those numbers would win,” he continues. “But once you slow down and deal with yourself, you realise that this is not the only life. You open another gate and natural things just start happening. Because people put us on pedestals as great musicians, when you talk about these things naturally and honestly, people turn it taboo.
“With me, I would sleep and dream about aboGogo in open green fields singing these chants. Then I’d wake up, pick up my guitar and play those melodies. They were very clear and the chords and harmonies would just come.”
On Open Letter to Adoniah, Xaba pays tribute to his mother. Fun fact - he named his daughter Adoniah. I ask him about the concept of an open letter being impersonal but he says that was not the case.
“For me, it was just a direct translation. It is a letter that is open for the world to read. Whether you look at it from the perspective of my child, this (album) is what I want her to know of her dad and what he was thinking. Or whether you look at it from the perspective of the Almighty.
“Check it out - in the eyes of God, we are all children and as a vessel of God, I work for a timeless lineage. And if you really want to get deep, we are all God’s children, from the animals to the flowers.”
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