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 – Mapula Octavia Rachabane. Their first born child was already out of school. 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.
Despite the difficulties of the period, Barney played regularly throughout the 60s and 70s with many bands in Cape Town and Johannesburg. A close collaborator throughout the 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 was not political. He put the music first. And regardless of the politics, South African musicians were all united by the financial challenges of their profession. This was clear in Botswana.
The restrictions were loosening up following the 1976 youth uprising in Soweto. And when Paul Simon’s Graceland recordings 1985-6 broke the cultural boycott, this started South Africa’s musical march to freedom. Simon composed the Graceland project around the music of mbaqanga, or what he referred to as “the reggae of South Africa.”
Graceland included a terrific cast of South African musicians Ladysmith Black Mambaso, Ray Phiri, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Barney Rachabane. And Paul Simon was brilliant. Barney, like Joseph Shabalala, formed a life-long friendship with Paul Simon. A great photograph hangs in Barney’s lounge of him and Paul playing pennywhistles together on his stoep in around 2012.
Graceland also brought in much money for the family (“briefcases,” as Barney remembered). Barney invested the money in re-building his family home. He was very proud of his family home. Because for the 6 months a year at a time he was on the road on all five continents, Elizabeth kept the home fires burning very well.
As Octavia recalled: “Barney managed to give his family ‘stability’. This was very rare for so-called jazz musicians of that era.”
Barney had grown up at a very young age. By the age of 7 in 1954 he was already earning through busking on the street corners of Johannesburg. He earned enough as a penny-whistler to give his Mom twenty pounds every weekend after he had paid the band. His Dad worked as a bus-driver and earned ten pounds a month.
Barney would never work as an employee for a day in his life but kept by music.
Born in Alexandra Township, near Sandton Johannesburg, on the 2nd of March 1946, Barney had grown up in the pennywhistle hotspot of the world during the borth of Pennywhistle Jive music and what became known internationally as the “Kwela Craze.”
Alexandra was the home of many penny-whistle players. Ntemi Piliso who formed the African Jazz Pioneers, Willard Cele who appeared in a movie and the famous Lerole brothers ‘Big Voice’ Jack and Elias were already playing. The upstarts of the era were Spokes Mashiyane who moved into Alexandra from his herd-boy origins and started the Alexandra Dead End Kids. Lemmy ’Special’ Mabaso and the Alexandra Junior Bright Boys.
Barney was very hip. He was the leader of the Alexandra Junior All Stars. Thy 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. It seems the record label Jive may have taken its name from the Pennywhistle Jive music of South Africa. In less than 50 years, Jive Records grew to become the largest independent record company in the world.
Barney never saw any royalties. He even asked me to make contact with Ralph Simon (Founder of Jive) which I did. Ralph said he had charities in India and could not engage with Barney’s request.
Barney and Lemmy’s penywhistle comradery reached a turning point when Barney was initially given the role as the pennywhistler in Kong Kong . Barney’s mum decided her son was too young for the musical as it was scheduled to go to London. The role was given to Lemmy Mabaso.
What may have been a disappointment for Barney turned into an appointment. Those years at home became the seminal moulding period in the beautiful future that he built. At the age of 16 in 1962, Barney met 14 year old Elizabeth. They were married and had their first born.
Barney took lessons at Dorkay House in reading music and switched over to playing alto saxophone. 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.
In 1963, a 19 year old Barney had his baptism of African Jazz, with Chris McGregor’s Castle Lager Big Band. The 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.”
Pianist Rashid Lanie describes: “Bra Barney was able to fuse elements of Bebop Jazz with Kwela and Mbaqanga like no other. His fearless approach to his improvisations and compositions were world class all the while fingering those iconic Barney Rachabane screaming cry-licks he was so well known for. And lest I forget, his sneaky humour too.”
Paul Simon called Barney “the most soulful saxophone player in the world.” Barney was at his best for the two solo albums he recorded in London produced by Hugh Masekela and on the Jive Afrika label in 1989.
Barney’s only son Leonard was studying saxophone at the UKZN jazz department directed by Darius Brubeck. Leonard was a rising star on the UKZN jazz scene. It was through Leonard’s band that Octavia, still at school, had her first break as a singer.
The early 90s was a golden period for jazz in Durban. Some of the young students of the day included Lex Futshane bass, Feya Faku trumpet, Lulu Gonstana drums and Zim Ngqawana saxophone. They performed frequently with the veterans, Bra Barney, Bra Pat Matshikiza and Winston Mankunku Ngozi at the Rainbow Restaurant in Pinetown. Just like Barney learnt so much on the bandstand with the greats of SA jazz, he loved to work with the next generation.
As veteran trumpeter Prince Lengoasa says, “It is the divinity and godliness in us that makes us care for others as we care for ourselves. UBUNTU in practice.”
Right through his career Barney ensured the musical baton kept being passed on, further and further into the future.
The death of his son Leonard, came as incredible shock to the Rachabane family. He was right at the start of a promising career. He had a girlfriend an unborn child. The child was given up for adoption, however no records in South Africa could trace him. It was a very trying time for the Rachabane family and only resolved seventeen years later when David Webster, an Australian teenager made contact with Octavia. He is the grandson. He was now searching for his family. David’s reunification in 2014 with his grandparents and family was a tremendous celebration. He was one of 7 Rachabane grandchildren.
The oldest grandchild, Oscar Rachabane grew up on the penny-whistle. He hit the Johannesburg jazz scene already as a teenager, but he like Leonard also went astray. Barney grew up very fast, so he wondered why Oscar was taking the initiative to kick-on with his career. Was it the drink or the drugs? Barney had witnessed all the downfalls of addiction. Barney saw how his colleague Dennis Mpale was overcome by alcohol and he toured Europe alongside the Moses Molelekwa band when they were using drugs. Barney himself drank at some point. And it was a great victory for him when he stopped.
I 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.
Octavia had burst onto the South African jazz scene whilst still studying music in Pretoria. She was lead singer in Louis Moholo’s Dedication Orchestra at the age of 19. Her sheer beauty, together with a real knowledge of this jazz music was invigorating.
Octavia’s musical dedication was always to her father. Over the last twenty years of his career, as they performed together at various venues around Johannesburg and travelled together for festivals and sessions, including a Graceland Reunion in 2016 in Scotland.
And Oscar played with such an infectious joy. And now he is making a comeback. He took a break from rehabilitation to perform at his grandad’s memorial, and as he blew alongside Khaya Mahlangu and Mthunzi Mvubhu, that typical Oscar confidence and belonging on the bandstand returned.
It all happened so quickly for the Rachabane family. Elizabeth and Octavia were planning their second visit to Australia when Elizabeth died suddenly on the 31st of July 2021. She was 73.
Barney called me that day. “My wife,” he exclaimed over the phone. “My friend,” he stuttered. “Has died.”
They had been together 57 years. I travelled immediately to the family home in Pimville. Barney said to me, “I’m next.” He was right. That was the last day I saw him. When I drove away, Barney sat on the stoep with his arm raised in power. The image he gave me was of the indestructible beat of Soweto, that he was and always will be. Barney had died 103 days after his wife and one day before what would have been her 74th birthday.
“I walk with God,” Barney described of his life-journey. And this was abundantly clear at the funeral service, where a Department of Sports Arts and Culture police escort led a wake including of some of the finest Johannesburg musicians of all generations right into Heroes Acre in WestPark ceremony where the great man was laid to rest among some of our other jazz heroes like Bra Hugh and Bra Vic.
Legacy was important to Barney. Today we have a generation of young lions that have learnt from the greats. In 2015 Barney played in the Mzansi Music Ensemble, an orchestra playing Victor Ntoni’s music with over 50 years age -difference between oldest and youngest performers. As the musical director of the show said, “The South African Alto is in great hands. The proverbial baton has been passed to Mthunzi and Moses and Nhlanhla.”
Some of Barney’s unfinished dreams include the completion of his biography by Octavia, the release of his last solo recording, Upstairs on the Township, and a book of solo’s. Khaya Mahlangu added at the memorial, the idea of a Barney Rachabane bursary for up-coming saxophonists. "Barney managed to give his family ‘stability’. This was very rare for so-called jazz musicians of that era." Octavia Rachabane
Barney Rachabane Selected Discography
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
1957:The Kwela Kids and the Alexandra Junior Stars were also released internationally by RCA records. At the age of 16 Barney had a career and a family. With no access to royalties on album sales he switched to the saxophone. And then his career took off through nearly six decades.
1963:Jazz – The African Sound by Chris McGregor's Castle Lager Big Band: Barney was part of the reed section of Kippie Moeketsi, Dudu Pukwana, Mackay Davashe and Christopher Columbus Ngcukana. Gallo records.
1964: Early Mabuza Quartet – featuring Pat Matshikiza (piano), Ernest Mothle (bass) and trumpeter Johnny Mekoa Two Barney Rachabane compositions, The Idea and Barney's Way appearedon Castle Lager Jazz Festival 1964 album.EMI
1966: Performed and recorded with the Jazz Disciples in Cape Town – Dennis Mpale, trumpet; Ronnie Beer tenor saxophone; TeteMbambisa, piano, Sammy Marits Bass and Max Dayimani drums .. Recordings available in IBH (Ian Bruce Huntley) archives.
1968-1983Performed with the Soul Giants with Dennis Mpale, Shakes Mgudlwa (piano), Gordon Mfandu (drums) and bassist Mongezi Velelo; The Count Wellington Judge Band with Nelson Magwaza, Dennis Mpale and Duke Makasi; Chris Schilders' Pacific Express, Abdullah Ibrahim's Natural Rhythm and The Rockets. He recorded with his band Barney Rachabane and the Sound Proofs on Teal records and a tribute to Zacks Nkosi, Our kind of jazz Volume One, released on Gallo records 1984.
1983: Collaborated with Darius Brubeck to release a jazz single, Tugela Rail and recorded with the Jazzanians, Darius Brubeck (Piano), Nelson Magwaza (Drums), Marc Duby (Bass) & Gabriel 'Mabi' Tobejane (Percussion).
1985-6 Recorded on Hugh Masekela's album “Waiting for the rain,” Recorded with Hugh Masekela “Live at the BBC” & Recorded on Paul Simon's Grammy Award winning Graceland album and on the Graceland Concert Live at Rufaro Stadium Harare
1987 Formed "Phambili" (Go Forward, Advancing) with Rashid Lanie (piano) Bra Vic Ntoni(Upright Bass), Vusi Khumalo(Drums), Lawrence Matshiza(Guitar) and featuring Estelle Kokot(Vocals)
1987 Formed "Conversations" with Bruce Cassidy (Trumpet) and featured a rotating line-up of musicians, including Bakithi Kumalo (Bass), Vusi Khumalo (Drums), Jimmy Dludlu (Guitar), Jimmy Mgwandi (Bass), John Davies (Trombone), Pete Sklair (Bass), Neil Etteridge (Drums), James Schofield (Guitar) and Rashid Lanie (guitar)
1988-89 Recorded with Richard Groove Holmes the album “African Encounter” and released two Solo albums Blow Barney Blows, produced by Hugh Masekela and released on Jive Afrika and Solo album Barneys Way released on Jive.
2002:Recorded with Darius Brubeck & Afro Cool Concept & African Tributes recorded Live in New Orleans with Darius Brubeck (piano), Victor Ntoni (bass) and Lulu Gontsana (drums), released on MELT2000 records.
2015-16: Live DVD filmed with the Mzansi Music Ensemble. Not yet released; Live performance filmed with the Sophiatown Heritage Ensemble at the launch of the Story of South African Jazz Volume One; Recorded live with Octavia Rachabane at the Orbit; Recorded with Scottish Band Bwani Junction and collaborated on SA / UK Tour
His final album was released posthumously
2021: Upstairs in the Township by Barney Rachabane Composed recorded and produced by Barney this album was recreated from found masters probably recorded around 2010. Barney left school at an early age to take up music. He formed and led the Alexandria Junior All Stars. There were also recordings made by Jive Records around 1957. Perhaps how Jive got its name?