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Is there a more fascinating bassist’s journey than the one undertaken by Bakithi Kumalo? From a scrappy beginning on the streets of Soweto, South Africa, where he embraced music amid much personal and political strife, to meeting Paul Simon and coming to the U.S. to record Graceland — a musical and social landmark that also ranks as a desert-island bass disc, thanks to Bakithi’s ear-grabbing fretless forays. In the years since moving Stateside, in 1988, Kumalo expanded his Western influences by playing with Herbie Hancock, Cyndi Lauper, Randy Brecker, Mickey Hart, Gloria Estefan, Josh Groban, and Tedeschi Trucks Band — all while remaining as Simon’s recording and touring bassist, a stint that has now stretched to 35 years. That’s a lot of miles traveled and people met, and it’s the inspiration for Bakithi’s vibrant latest effort, What You Hear Is What You See [Ropeadope].

Bakithi explains, “Over the past few years, when I was on tour and we’d spend a few days in a city, I would go out and experience the local culture, the residents, the food, the shops. I’d also make it a point to find the local homeless people, to give them clothing, buy them a meal, and ask what their stories are. They’d say, ‘I had a house but it burned down,’ or, ‘My wife left me.’ I would let them know that I was once one of them, homeless, sleeping at friends’ places. I’d try to give them hope and tell them they can rebound, like I did. Then I’d go back to my hotel room and write music with those encounters in mind. Creating is much easier when there’s a story.”

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The advent of the COVID lockdown in 2020 afforded Kumalo the opportunity to listen to all of the material he had written and start recording it in his Bethlehem, Pennsylvania home studio. The linchpin was meeting saxophonist Max Gast in Philadelphia, when Bakithi went to sit in with a Gracleand cover band. “I told him about my idea for the record, and he was all in to collaborate. Max is an amazing musician, composer, and producer. He educated me on mixing and mastering, added his musical ideas, arrangements, and production, and most important, served as a second set of ears and musical foil.” Bakithi called on a cadre of friends for the album’s ten tracks — including drummers Antonio Sanchez, Poogie Bell, and James Rouse, guitarists Biodin Kuti (cousin of Fela and Femi Kuti), Oz Noy, and Omar Haddad, and Paul Simon percussionist Jamey Haddad — somehow retaining a live-in-the-studio sound, even though the musicians had to record remotely for the most part. “The key is I played a lot of organic percussion on the tracks to start, so when someone added their part, it sounded natural.”

The title-track opener establishes Kumalo’s writing style on the record: less traditional forms like verse–chorus–bridge, and more through-composition and creating and developing in the moment. Offers Bakithi, “This song is the soundtrack of me walking in the African savannah amid the brush and the wildlife, and the things I see and hear. Max helped me find the way to make the track sound open and let it breathe.” As for the spoken-word ode by Tshila, he notes, “I had her listen to the piece, and she came up with the poem about African leaders and emancipation.” On the bottom, Kumalo played his deep 6/8 groove on his Keisel 6-string, recording it the way all the basses on the album were tracked: direct to the board via the preamp on his Phil Jones Bass BP-800 head, with the EQ set flat. “The sound was so clean and pure we didn’t need a compressor, even in the mixing.”

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“Zululand Nation” continues the African soundscape but mixed with some Latin percussion and a blend of 6/8 and 4/4 meters, courtesy of Sanchez’s drums and Pablo Batista’s Ilubache Drum. “I was missing my people, my tribe,” admits Bakithi. “I never met my father, and I only learned about him when I met my sister and her family for the first time on a trip back to South Africa in 2012. He left me a small shield and an animal skin that she passed on to me, and I brought them into the studio while I was recording. The melody is based on a Zulu warriors’ chant from the 19th century.” Kumalo played his Kala U-Bass, with some harmonics overdubs via his Keisel 6-string. This is one of five tracks to feature Bakithi on his Roland Aerophone. He says, “My uncle started me out on saxophone as a little boy, but I didn’t hang with it because it was an instrument older people played. Then several years ago I was doing a clinic on Long Island, and they had an Aerophone. I tried it and took to it because of my saxophone background. It has a lot of other sounds besides sax, so it’s a cool, unique voice for my music.”  

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Speaking of eccentric instruments, Bakithi’s gimbri is the inspiration for “Desert Walk,” a funky, hypnotic voyage. “It’s the origin of bass, from Morocco in West Africa, sort of like the broomstick-and-washtub bass here in the U.S., but much older. It changed the game for me. I first played it while on tour with Paul in Europe; a friend from Paris got me one. It has three strings, one of which is a drone string, but a key component is the percussive style you play on the skin-covered body with your plucking hand. I learned a rhythm while watching a how-to-play-gimbri video on YouTube, and that was the inspiration for this groove.”

Kumalo with his Kiesel Signature 5-string and Phil Jones Bass Rig

Kumalo with his Kiesel Signature 5-string and Phil Jones Bass Rig

With his family once again in mind, Bakithi returns to his bass roots to play strikingly beautiful fretless (via his headless Keisel 4-string) on the lilting “Nomvula,” dedicated to his late sister, who passed from COVID in 2020. “I wrote the song not long after first meeting her in 2012, inspired by her warm personality, her laugh, the way she danced. I sent it to her, and she asked why I didn’t play some guitar on it, so suddenly she was my producer! I revived the song, and Max helped me bring it to life. I wanted to express my feelings of joy and loss, so it gets a little sad in the middle, but it ends happy. Somewhere my sister is smiling, and now she will live forever through this song.”

More joy is omnipresent in “Let’s Be One” and “Happy Village.” The former has a groove shift halfway through and Alyson Faith’s uplifting vocal and lyrics, with Kumalo on his Keisel 5-string. “It’s about connecting people,” he says. The latter finds Bakithi giving the bass chair to Biodun Kuti, who also provides guitar, vocals, and percussion. “Biodun played guitar on Paul’s most recent tour, and I had him come to my house to play on the track. He listened and said, ‘My friend, give me the bass.’ So I handed him my Keisel 6-string, and he played some other stuff, with his West African approach! So I’m just singing and playing Aerophone and marimba.”

The album’s first single, “Electric Flow,” is a catchy mashup of trap (a subgenre of hip-hop with Southern roots) and smooth jazz, in the form of a multi-bass tour de force featuring Kumalo’s Keisel 6-string and piccolo basses. “It’s a tribute to all of my U.S. bass influences — Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke, Abraham Laboriel, Nathan East, and many more. The title refers to when I call my friends in South Africa and they have to hang up because they’re losing their electricity. I wrote the piece to shed light on the problem, so to speak.” The finishing touch is freestyle rap/vocals by Dacia Gypsy, who heard the track and made the suggestion to Bakithi. “Nice Day,” which follows, is another radio-ready, bass-step-out track, with echoes of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You.”

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Closing out the record are two more atmospheric tracks: the Kenya-inspired free-form meditation “Long Story Short,” featuring Kenyan pianist Aaron Rimbui, Gast on soprano sax, and Kumalo on his NS Design upright and fretless Keisel; and “Peaceful Water,” a perfect end-of-journey piece inspired by watching rivers and creeks flow near Bakithi’s Bethlehem home. He laughs, “Everyone who played on it asked me where one is. I said, ‘I’m not sure, myself — just play what you feel! It’s in the key of C, which is a peaceful key.”

Going forward, Kumalo’s plate looks full. He has his music mentorship program with the Bethlehem school system and Lehigh University, clinics in various cities, sessions (including a recent record in L.A. with Vinnie Colaiuta on drums), and shows in support of What You Hear Is What You See on both coasts. But everyone from fans to insiders wonder about Paul Simon’s plans, given that what was supposed to be his final tour was interrupted by the pandemic. Allows Bakithi, “I don’t think he’s going to fully retire, but he’ll probably perform less. I’m sure he’ll record, too. The man is brilliant, and he has the energy for it. We were supposed to play in places we’ve never appeared before, like Australia and parts of Asia. We were working on some videos. We’ll see what happens when the pandemic is finally behind us. If he calls, I’ll be ready. Paul has mentored me and taught me so much. I’m very grateful and honored to call him my friend.” –BM

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Gear

Basses Keisel custom signature 6-string, 5-string, and fretless 4-string; Kala Signature California U-Bass and striped ebony acoustic-electric U-Bass; NS Design NXT upright bass

Strings La Bella RX-S5A stainless steel roundwounds (.040, .060, .080, .100, .118); La Bella Deep Talkin’ Bass flatwounds

Amps Phil Jones Bass BP800 head with CAB-67 cabinet, Suitcase Compact BG-400 combo with C4 extension cabinet

Effects Eventide H9 Max Effects pedal, DigiTech DigiDelay; Boss SY-1 synthesizer pedal

Other Roland Aerophone AE-10 digital wind instrument; Cordial cables; Phil Jones Bass Ear Box monitor and H850 headphones

Bakithi Kumalo, What You Hear Is What You See [2021]

Bakithi Kumalo, What You Hear Is What You See [2021]

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