Bakithi Kumalo Info
Bakithi Kumalo's musical career has been characterized by a series of serendipitous events, ranging from his debut gig as a precocious seven-year-old filling in for the bassist in his uncle's band to his enlistment into Paul Simon's group during the recording sessions of the pop star's landmark Graceland album in 1985.
Kumalo creates a singular electric fretless bass sound teeming with double stops that sound like human voices and the African grooves of his homeland, and has garnered him a stellar reputation as a sideman. In addition to touring with Simon, he's also recorded and/or toured with the likes of Gloria Estefan, Chaka Khan, Harry Belafonte, Gerald Albright, Miriam Makeba, Josh Groban and Chris Botti.
Kumalo has also been active as a solo artist, with two fine albums to his credit 1998's San' Bonan and 2000's In Front of My Eyes as well as two children's albums recorded with his wife, vocalist Robbi Hall Kumalo.
Kumalo's bass-playing history began in Soweto where he grew up surrounded by music. His mother sang in a church choir and his uncle, a saxophone player, was always at his house rehearsing his band. "Every weekend, everyone would be at my house singing and playing all day," Kumalo says. "Plus there were bands on every block of my neighborhood. So, music surrounded me. There was traditional African rhythmic music as well as a cappella vocal groups. I picked up the bass early and realized I could follow the groove of a tune with it. I could play the bass lines from acappella music, and I learned how to develop lines based on the left-hand work of accordion players in the township bands."
However, it was an 18-month road trip with his uncle's band to Zululand when he was 10 that helped to solidify his bass voice. The band gigged as well as played at schools and hospitals, but got stranded there. During that downtime, Kumalo had a dream where he saw someone playing, using his thumb in a particular way. That set him on the path of bass discovery.
Kumalo says it wasn't until later that he heard people like Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Bailey. "And, of course, there was Jaco Pastorius," he says. "I heard him, and I thought, 'hey, that's like me.'"
While Kumalo became a professional at an early age in his uncle's band, life in apartheid South Africa posed many challenges; so many, in fact, that Kumalo began to look for work outside the music field. However, a producer friend introduced him to Simon, whose music he was largely unfamiliar with. Despite his nervousness in meeting the American pop star in a studio setting, Kumalo says Simon immediately gravitated to his bass style.
Kumalo's work on Graceland opened the doors for him to pursue other avenues, including recent recordings with Herbie Hancock, Randy Brecker and Cyndi Lauper. Plus, he hooked up with former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who took the bassist on tour with him. "Mickey was great," Kumalo says. "There was no audition. He told me to pack up my bass and not to worry about learning the music because that would happen on the road. It was a great time."