Sax prodigy Oscar Rachabane's career pitches higher with debut album

Though he's only in his twenties, Oscar Rachabane already seems to be on the path to Jazz legend status, writes Tsepang Tutu Molefe

15 January 2017 - 02:00 By Tsepang Tutu Molefe
Oscar Rachabane playing in Mandla Mlangeni’s group, Tune and Recreation Committee, at The Crypt in Cape Town.
Oscar Rachabane playing in Mandla Mlangeni’s group, Tune and Recreation Committee, at The Crypt in Cape Town.

Imagine a child is born. There are no birth cries, just a bring-it-on wink at life. He hits the ground running, refuses to crawl but walks. He skips the nappy for a pair of jeans, bolting through the development milestones. The world watches in amazement.

Meet Oscar Rachabane, grandson of legendary saxophonist Barney Rachabane, who cut his teeth at Dorkay House alongside legends such as Kippie Moeketsie.

One of the gold stars on Barney 's CV is touring the world in the 1980s with Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Ray Phiri as part of Paul Simon's Graceland tour.    


Back to the future. At the Music Academy of Gauteng, where Oscar arrived in 2004 as a young teen, he would occasionally perform a strange ritual.

On any stupid day, when he felt like it, Rachabane purchased a jazz album disc, listened to it, then in full view of thestudents broke it into tiny pieces and shoved these into the saxophone bell. And proceeded to play the whole album himself.

Among the albums that fell victim to his kill-and-resurrect ceremony was the "bible" of jazz, A Love Supreme.

Rachabane started the art of blowing at a very early age. By the age of 14 he had turned professional and was busting his chops alongside bona fide musicians.

When he was 15 he became the youngest jazz artist to play at Kippies, the iconic jazz venue in Newtown, Johannesburg.

The new year brings with it a new and exciting milestone in his career: his debut album.

Amid growing recognition of Rachabane's artistry, the recently launched South African-Norwegian live music development project, Concerts SA, put him on his first national tour.

He was managed by fellow musician, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, and visited nine venues in Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

His first stop was Cape Town. When he rose to play at Greatmore Studios in Woodstock on a sunny Saturday afternoon, he was clad in black, topped with a red hat.

His black coat looked two sizes too big. The venue featured unstructured seating and bring-your-own dop. Kids on rollerblades occasionally moon-walked the floor: a space to match his musical personality.

Fine artist Ndikhumbule Ngqinambi's oil paintings, which hung on the walls, added a political and visual layer to the performance, depicting disturbing, stormy scenes under titles such as Transformation and Our Story.

Rachabane was flanked by Lilavan Gangen on drums and Shakeel Cullis holding down the bass chair. And when Rachabane left them to fill in the blanks, they did so in vibrant tonal colours while maintaining the vital rhythmic structures of the tunes.

His deft melding of musical influences, from Charlie Parker to Abdullah Ibrahim, were executed with panache and elegance.

As a student, he was never a part of any of our starter-pack bands. Oscar played with the teachers, that's how good he is

"As a student, he was never a part of any of our starter-pack bands. Oscar played with the teachers, that's how good he is," said a former fellow student as they shared a smoke between sets.

The medals on Rachabane's sleeve shine and glitter. He has jammed with big names such as Ravi Coltrane, Dave Koz and Wynton Marsalis. Locally, names like Bheki Khumalo and Hugh Masekela pop up.

At the tender age of 27, Rachabane already seems to be on the path to legend status.

When he replaced the sax with a flute in Woodstock, my companion said it looked cheap; what he did with it, though, was anything but. His rendition of Manenberg captured the spirit of the song.

 Throughout the performance his fingers worked it, barely visible in the sleeves of his oversized coat.

This is what Johnny Mekoa, the founder of the Music Academy of Gauteng, had to say about Rachabane: "He was with us for a whole two years, a very musical boy, humble and down to earth. When he plays, it's straight from the heart."

Rachabane is yet to reach the summit of his career. His life off the bandstand and overindulgence in the jazz lifestyle is a story best left for another day.

It is no coincidence that he speaks softly - the voice of a young boy steering a wire car. It is the little boy within him that made him.

Every time he spoke, a young woman seated behind me said, " Oh my God, he is so cute!"

When we conversed, I could sense the rich musical history from which his own art was conceived, and how the music academy became a springboard for his fertile imagination.

Rachabane's art goes beyond mere talent. The young man has a gift. When Oscar Rachabane blows his saxophone, silence considers defeat.

Sound becomes therapy, and music is meditation. There is a little giant of jazz in Pimville, Soweto.