Artist: Jabu Khanyile & Bayete
Album: Mmalo We
Label and year: Mango, 1993
After Bayete’s demise it wasn’t clear what trajectory Jabu Khanyile’s music was going to take. Khanyile had been involved in numerous bands but it was with Bayete that he had established himself. Their roots-centric African jazz drew on themes of work and the struggle for political and economic liberation, creating a menacing sound that resonated with the winds of change blowing through South Africa at that time.
With his new outfit, Khanyile sought to advance some of the ideas first suggested during his Bayete days, but did not shy away from delving into new sonic territory. While he kept the name Bayete, none of the original members remained. The songs veered away from the cerebral, scathing undertones of Khanyile’s previous efforts. Instead they sought to tap into the new sound that was emerging with artists like Angelique Kidjo, Baaba Maal and Salif Keita, who were shaping and changing mindsets towards the African continent in the rest of the world.
Mmalo We came at a moment when South Africa had to make difficult decisions about its future. Nelson Mandela had been released and negotiations were underway, but a politically-motivated war threatened to engulf townships in a thick smog of doom. It was a period of extreme uncertainty, yet also immense hope – for a future free from apartheid, a future which held promise.
Starting off with the title track, a dreamy if somewhat stereotypically ‘African’ swansong about a beautiful woman with dimples, the album cruises through different tempos and vibrations, consistently keeping a nascent, lilting groove driven by what sounds like programmed drum patterns. The album plays as though it were targeted at the mainstream market, and mainstream success it achieved – from none other than Chris Blackwell, who signed the album to the Island Records subsidiary Mango, a move that afforded Khanyile and Co. success on a global scale.
In hindsight, Mmalo We is a body of work steeped in the traditions and techniques of its time. It explores the aforementioned Bayete themes while veering towards a more global sound. Stylistically, everything is consolidated by Khanyile’s voice, gentle yet firm, which was heard in homes across Southern Africa and, as his profile grew, the world. Sadly, Jabu Khanyile & Bayete are no more. The band’s demise came not due to a breakup but rather to its founder’s untimely passing due to colon cancer in 2006.