Philip Tabane: The Indigenous Afro-Jazz Sounds Of Philip Tabane And His Malombo Jazzman

South African guitarist Tabane sought to blend blues and jazz with traditional African music, his motivation partly artistic, partly political


The Malombo music of Philip Tabane first appeared at Soweto’s Castle Lager Jazz Festival in 1964, beginning as a flute, guitar and drums trio. This recording, from 1969, is credited to Tabane and his Malombo Jazzman (singular), as he is accompanied just by the drummer and percussionist Gabriel “Sonnyboy” Thobejane. 

The term Malombo refers to the drum and dance rituals of traditional healers, and through his music Tabane saw a way of moving towards a different expression and perception, through the amalgamation of blues and jazz guitar with traditional elements of African music, at the same time resisting the dominance of Euro-American culture.

The musicians immediately demonstrate their rapport on Kathloganao, Thobejane’s African drums following Tabane’s guitar and reacting to what he plays – a rich variety of styles. Both Inhliziyo and Man Feeling have a strong blues orientation, double-tempo drumming creating urgency, whilst the latter at times is reminiscent of Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was The Night, although incorporating fast, occasionally distorted runs. The only vocal track is Ke Utlwile (I’ve Had Enough) which is apparently about Tabane’s niece, the voice making way for a gutsy piece of interplay.

Tsela is more strident, Tabane’s guitar trading fours with the drums, before the triptych of Babedi, Dithabeng and Mahlomola, three pieces on which they create layers and depth over a simple structure.

Tabane alternates between penny whistle (sometimes overblown, flute-like; always controlled) and guitar on these, but they are a feature for the dipala (thumb piano) of Thobejane, the two musicians weaving patterns around each other’s sounds, sometimes insistent, other times gentle, the use of bass strings and penny whistle giving a calming effect.

Tabane became a respected guitar virtuoso, in his homeland and abroad, spending time in the USA, appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival and playing with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. He died in 2018 at the age of 84. All credit to Canadian label We Are Busy Bodies for making this album (previously on Gallo) available again.

Kathloganao; Inhliziyo; Man Feeling; Ke Utlwile; Tsela; Babedi; Dithabeng; Mahlomola (42.53)
Tabane (g, penny whistle, d); Gabriel “Sonnyboy” Thobejane (d, pc, dipala). Johannesburg, 19 April 1969.
We Are Busy Bodies WABB 090