When it comes to music, South Africa often likes to keep its greatest talent unheralded. Bheki Khoza, the guitarist, composer, arranger and music teacher should be a national treasure, but he is known only to a handful of music lovers. Khoza has one of the most distinctive sounds on the guitar, with lightning speed and unmatched musical intelligence. But he is not the first to have a prodigious talent, but suffer relative obscurity. The guitarist Madala Kunene and the pianist Tete Mbambisa should be household names, but they mostly play to small audiences.
A few years ago I watched him play at the Jazz Orbit in Braamfontein, and at The Chairman in Durban. Both performances were full of the kind of musical intelligence that comes from years of study, practice and passion. But there’s something else in the notes that pour out from his guitar. Like Philip Tabane, the founder of the band Malombo, and the inventor of a new sound that blends Jazz with Mbaqanga. Khoza’s playing stretches one’s aural sensibilities. Khoza rarely sings, but when he does, the influence of the church is unmistakable. Like Duke Ellington whose arrangements were drenched in the soul music of the church, Khoza’s vocal arrangements take one directly to the church choir.
It’s as if he’s found a way of creating a cornucopia that blends his native ene McClean, Larry Ridley, Kenny Barron, Kirk Lightsey, Cecil McBee, Charles Davis, Steve Davis, and our own Hugh Masekela, Wiston Mankunku Ngozi, Victor Ntoni, and Barney Rachabane. with Soul and Jazz. This is music at its most irresistible. Even when he plays a ballad, there’s an urgency to his attack that revitalizes even the most clichéd of the Jazz Standards.
Playing to an appreative audience at the Orbit, Khoza opened with the tune Qhwayilahle and then went on to play Remember You Don’t Have To Die, The Sacred Ones and Asambe . One of Khoza’s great influences is the now largely forgotten guitar genius, Allen Kwela, and Khoza stunned the audience with his rendition of Kwela’s Black Beauty.
No Khoza performance is complete without at least one Maskandi tune, and on this chilly night in Johannesburg, he warmed the Orbit up with the song, Dumazile. Accompanying Khoza on this performance was the bassist Mandla Zikalala, whose tiny frame does not quite prepare you for his big sound. The ever-inventive Denzil Weale sat at the Piano and the hugely promising Siphiwe Shiburi was on drums.
The key to understanding Khoza’s musical roots is to revisit the sound of the first Maskandi artist, Phuzushukela. If today it is common practice for Maskandi artists to thrown in their own refrains at the end of each tune, it was Phuzushukela who introduced this, together with a wholly original rap style singing accompanied by guitar.
Moses Bhengu and Katelimnyama were some of the early pioneers of Maskandi. Khoza says he once had all the recordings of , who were fierce rivals in their heyday. “Philip Tabane is forever be whispering in my ears too” says Khoza, who clearly draws inspiration from some of the most illustrious South African musicians.
If Khoza’s power is derived from his guitar, then his legacy is likely to come from his role as an arranger. When he won a scholarship and spent four years in the United States of America between 1991 and 1994, he studied piano. Let me explain, if you listen to South Africa’s most famous Jazz tune, Mannenberg, with Abdullah Ibrahim and Basil Coetzee, it is the arrangement that made this one of Jazz’s seminal performances.
“As an arranger, the piano is my most important tool. One can actually hear sound of a band from the piano. Around 1985 when I started to compose for a band I realized how difficult it was to pass information to a pianist using a guitar and it was then that I decided to fiddle with the piano for communication purposes. So when I got to America I took lessons on piano with classical teachers for technical reasons and it has come in handy when studying harmony, since every note is in front of you” explains Khoza.
Khoza adds that his earliest experience as an arranger was with the African Jazz Pioneers, a big band that also featured singers such as Dorothy Masuku, Thandi Klassen, Abigail Kubheka, Dolly Rathebe and Sophie Mgcina. He says that it was this experience that prepared him for his role as Musical Director on the Documentary Film, Sophiatown. His other film credits include the movies Drum, directed by Zola Maseko.
“It was my grasp of the sound that defined Sophiatown that allowed me to distill the musical identity for the film” What is noteworthy about the soundtrack is that Khoza called on the talent of many of the musicians who had played in Sophiatown before it was bulldozed to make way for Triomf.
If Khoza has internalized many of the lessons from South Africa’s best musicians, if you listen closely to his playing, there’s an unmistakable nod to the straight-ahead jazz associated with the United States. This reflects the gigs he played with musicians like Rene McClean, Larry Ridley, Kenny Barron, Kirk Lightsey, Cecil McBee, Charles Davis, Steve Davis, and our own Hugh Masekela, Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Victor Ntoni, and Barney Rachabane.
Those who are lucky enough to own a Bheki Khoza album, or to catch him at a Jazz Club, should treasure the experience because he brings to music one of the most unique talents. Little wonder he has brought pleasure to those who have watched him at storied venues like Kippies in Johannesburg, Blue Note in New York and The Schomburg Center in Harlem.
Like Jimi Hendrix who brought rock’n’roll into jazz, Bheki Khoza is quietly rewriting the sound of South African music. Perhaps it is the fate of left-handed guitar players to change everything in their wake.