Pre-task: Rachabane music royalty
Octavia is Sepedi speaking - North Sotho which is both her mother and father tongue. She grew up in Soweto, where she got to know all the languages, mixing with people speaking Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans and all South African languages. In Soweto they sometimes fuse the different words from different languages in a “ghetto-style” way of speaking.
Octavia's career has always followed in the path of her legendary father, Barney Rachabane. At the prime of his career in the 1980s, Barney was known as “the most soulful saxophone player in the world.” Octavia recalls watching one show in particular, “South Africa Live at the Market Theatre” with Gloria Bosman. That was the first time the idea of her being a musician struck her and to perform on stage with her dad.
Music was all around Octavia. Her elder brother was the great saxophonist, Leonard Rachabane. Leonard gave Octavia her first break, performing in his band at the age of seventeen. Octavia went on to study at Pretoria Technikon and has performed professionally with Louis Moholo’s historic ‘Back to the Roots’ concert with his Dedication Orchestra, alongside greats such as Glen Mafoko, Bheki Khoza and Khaya Mahlangu. She has also performed internationally in the Graceland revival concerts.
Barney Rachabane’s father was a Reverend, and both his parents played organ in the church. However, Barney was the first in his family to go professional as a musician. So music is a family tradition with the Rachabane’s, much loved, and involving three generations of Rachabane’s all playing music.
Barney Rachabane’s lesson in versatility
Barney Rachabane was born in Alexandra township in 1946. He is a self-taught and self-actualized musician in every way. He is an inxile, meaning he never went in for politics, and has been a professional musician since the age of 10. From the simple beginnings of starring in the pennywhistle bands, the Kwela Kids and the Alexandra Junior Stars and the Township Jazz & Variety series, his sound travelled all over the country. As a teenager he swopped to saxophone and performed with Chris McGregor’s Castle Lager Big Band, the Early Mabuza Quartet, the Jazz Disciples, The Soul Giants soul band, the Rockets and Hugh Masekela’s Technobush project.
In the 1980s Barney’s global breakthrough came with his two albums recorded in London, and then the big break recording on Paul Simon’s Grammy Award winning Graceland album. This was in the middle of Apartheid when many South African musicians were choosing to make their careers overseas. Barney never left his family or his home in Soweto, and whatever he earned abroad he brought back home to send his kids to school. As Octavia fondly recalled, “Barney managed to give his family ‘stability’. This was very rare for so-called jazz musicians of that era.” Somehow Barney cracked the music industry. But, how did he do it?
Barney said, “I think different. I didn’t go to school for anything. I organized my life somehow. It is a different thing. It is not like normal people who go to school and then they study an instrument, no. It is just impromptu, it just happened the way I wanted it to happen. And I enjoyed it. It feels nicer to teach yourself. If somebody is trying to teach you something, some teachers don’t even know. They have the education but they can’t even play. How are you going to teach if you can’t play?”
Here are three important lessons from Barney: 1. Listening to good music: Growing up in Alexandria township, Barney listened to the best jazz at homes of some of the top musicians, and also collected records. When he started earning, he bought his own vinyl’s and learnt from the turntable.
2. Learning to be alone: If you know South African music, you will know that many of our great musicians have succumbed to the obstacles of the industry, and fallen to early death through drink, drugs and depression. Barney has avoided this and survived through cultivating an inner strength. He had to be smart when there was no income. He had a corner shop and a curtain business. But mostly he had to learn to be alone with himself – he did this through meditation.
3. Versatility is the way to go: Although Barney grew up playing mbaqanga music, he ended up performing in all musical genres, jazz, soul and even rock. As a musician versatility is a key to sustaining your career.
As Barney’s youngest of 4 children, Octavia has also developed versatility. As she says, “Music is much broader than genre, it is people’s emotions, people’s experiences and lifestyles.” Although her music is truly African, it has a lot of influences. She is influenced by songs in the North Sotho language by singers such as Judith Sephuma. She is influenced by Jazz, R & B and poetry, particularly Jill Scott and of course the famous style of Miriam Makeba.
Now, answer the following exercise questions
1. As a child of the Rachabane dynasty – Octavia feels it was her destiny to be a musician? Can you describe the talents of your family line and what path have you taken to make music a career?
2. We have seen how one of the keys to Barney’s international success is versatility. What does versatility mean to you, and what are the different musical styles that you are exposed to? Now with your chosen instrument, how will you practice versatility?
3. An outstanding aspect of a great music composition is that it can be played in any musical genre. Take for example the composition ‘Summertime’ – it has been played in almost every genre. What is your favourite composition to play? Can you play it in multiple genres, such as a jazz version and then a reggae version?
4. In the Graceland collaboration Paul Simon said, “mbaqanga is the reggae of South Africa.” What he is saying is that mbaqanga is the musical emblem of South Africa. Do, you think mbaqanga music has the unique and defining musical identity that can showcase South Africa to the world? How would you describe that musical identity?
Re-invention by Octavia Rachabane
Post-task: Breaking Out
Octavia has begun the process of Re-invention, shifting out of her father’s shadow and into her own light. Her debut album entitled Break-Out is in preparation for release. So, what is Octavia breaking out from? She is breaking out from the trappings of a music industry where success is not always guaranteed.
Money or Heart?
The music industry is tough. There are many great musicians who have gone through a lot of hardships and some have never been able to be comfortable and financially stable. So, how do you make it while doing what you love?
As Octavia approaches the release of her debut album, she is being very cautious because she is learning from her dad. Barney released multiple solo and collaborative albums throughout the 70s and 80s. His pennywhistle albums from the 50s are still selling, whilst his contribution to Graceland assisted in that record going to number one in the world in 1986 – even peaking Michael Jackson. This is the downfall of the recording industry, it is an aspect of the music industry where exploitation of the artists for the benefit of the middle man is rife.
Yet, a successful attitude is to understand the playing field and not let it build up negativity or anger. Once you realise the pitfalls, you can arm yourself with patience to strive for a sustainable and long term success.
You see, explains Barney. “It is not about the money, it is about the heart. All of this can be accomplished through the heart.”
Never give up on your dream
The privilege of a lifetime is to be yourself. To be an individual. To make it on your own. To not have to follow certain trends, but to play your own music, or as Octavia says, “to do me.” But how can we be ourselves in an industry that seems to be more impressed with gimmicks than authenticity?
To be truly successful is to do what you love and sustain this. Some may think that to sustain a career and do what you love to do, that you will need money or the approval of others. But this is not the case.
All you need is your well organised inspiration, so you are ready when that opportunity arises and the breakthrough presents itself. Breakthrough’s may present themselves and it is best to be patient and cultivate that inner strength whilst waiting for the breakthrough.
However Octavia has noticed that in Soweto there are a lot of talented young people in Soweto that accept certain gigs or collaborations simply because they think this may have a good influence on their career. This is working for exposure. It usually causes more harm than good. As seasoned musicians say, “people die from exposure.” And that’s why the elders say if the money is not there – it is better to stay at home. You can always play to your family or your pets?
Playing your music for the sake of impressing other people in order to get an opportunity is known in the industry as compromise. The result of compromise is being restricted in what you can and can’t do.
The opposite of compromise is being true to yourself. When you are true to yourself, you can go with what you feel and what you want to do. And when you do it yourself, you get to grow as an individual.
Once you value your self-worth and respect your own achievements you will never take a bad gig. You would then be in a better position to build your career, like a builder builds a house. And when the opportunity arises – you will be ready.
Now answer the following Post-task questions:
1. Octavia says, “You just got to try and keep on pushing and just try until you get to where you want to be.” Where do you want to be? Can you describe what success in your career looks like to you?
2. One of the challenges for Octavia has been finding radio play? Do you think your music can make it onto radio and how would you plan to get your music onto radio, which station, which slot?
3. Maintaining your self-worth is one of the greatest challenges in the industry. You could go months without opportunities and without income. This may lead you to start hanging curtains like Barney had to do, or do deliveries just to put food on the table. So, how will you maintain your self-worth in these difficult times where you may need to leave your dream for a moment just to survive?
4. When you are true to yourself and produce music that is totally you – then nobody can take that away from you. And if they do try and take it away from you it will always come back to you. So, are there any musicians or artists in your life experience that you believe are completely true to themselves? What attracts you to them? And what similarities do you find between them and yourself?