How do you go about piecing together the history of a South Africa musical icon whose story wasn’t only left out of the local jazz narrative, but was almost entirely undiscovered? The answer it seems, is through four years of on-and-off interviews, a whole lot of financial loaning, and the quiet, burning passion that only a lover of jazz can possess.
Directed by Nhlanhla Masondo, Shwabada: a film on the music of Ndikho Xaba is perhaps one of the most important music documentaries to come out of the country in a long time. The film details the life and musical history of the exiled South African jazz musician through intimately framed interviews, sourced footage and images, and a delicate and closely considered narrative that traces uBaba Xaba’s ingress into the music world, his hasty exit of the country, early theatre days, and his musical rise in America, all the way to his current days spent with Nomusa Xaba, his wife, in Durban.
Shwabada takes its name from one of Xaba’s many tracks, and just happens to be the first track that Masondo heard before embarking on the journey of seeking out more on the rarely documented musician.
“I didn’t discover this story as a director,” says Masondo at the post screening Q&A in Johannesburg’s small Bioscope cinema. “I discovered it as a music fan and as a vinyl collector. I heard Baba’s music and thought ‘Wow, who is this?’ I have to find out more about him!”
Masondo soon reached the rarely clicked upon second and third search pages of Google before he realised that there was precious little information on the living legend. Unlike the Masekelas and the Makebas of the time, Xaba had somehow been completely left out of the pages of South Africa’s jazz and black avant-garde musical history. “I knew then that there was a story here,” explains Masondo, “and I felt compelled to find it.”
As a filmmaker, music fan, and documentarian, Masondo does all the right things. He champions the story of the musician that the rest of us failed to uncover, or even recognise, and he traces the life and career of that musician brilliantly.
The film opens on a striking note through the remarkably still landscapes of Kwazulu Natal (KZN), the very scenes that Xaba must have dreamed of so much during his days in exile across North America. From there we follow Xaba’s story into his theatre days with the cast of Sponono, his depressive episodes in the US, which gave way to so much of his signature heartfelt blues, his chance meeting with the artist and spoken word poet he would later marry, and of course, his return to KZN where he currently resides.
Like all music documentaries, the subject’s music is a constant throughout the film, but the way in which Masondo uses Xaba’s music, weaving together interviews, old footage and images across different times and spaces, is both evocative and shrewd. Songs spanning Xaba’s career are used biographically to signify time, emotion, and narrative, without dominating the documentary. You’ll find the tunes of Ndikho Xaba and the Natives staying with you long after the credits roll.
Early on in the film, we are introduced to the musician’s musical style by way of archival footage of Xaba in concert at the Chicago Cultural Centre in 1993. Here Xaba takes an instrument of his own making, a simple instrument that’s part bow, gourd and metal string, and elicits a sound that’s all frenetic hand work and wild reverberating percussion, nothing short of improvisational brilliance.
Save for a few more pieces of footage, including Xaba’s last ever concert, we see little else of the musician’s performance as shaky-handed conversations remind us of the Parkinson’s disease that’s left him unable to play.
“I didn’t want to pursue that story,” Masondo says when asked about the silence of Xaba’s illness. “Baba is human like the rest of us and we all get old, we all get things like Parkinson’s or cancer, and we all die.”
To Xaba’s friends and musical partners however, he is nothing short of a deity. Through interviews with musical greats such as Salim Washington, Madala Kunene, Sazi Dlamini and more, we come to know Xaba through the warm and impassioned sentiments of his peers.
“Some musicians prefer convention and form. Not Baba, he plays what comes to him” says one interviewee. “The sounds he produced and the stories he told through his music, they didn’t just please my ears, I felt it deep inside of me,” says another as he holds an old hand to his chest.
As the film draws to a close, you notice just how unexplored Xaba’s story really is. There are his political dealings and underground activities in America, his role as a music teacher in Tanzania, his utterly down and out days spent penniless in cold streets, and so many more narratives.
Masondo acknowledges this too. “I still don’t feel like it’s over. There’s so much more we can do, but it got to a point where after so many years of making the film, we thought we had better have something to show for it soon,” he says with a shy grin.
Certainly, Xaba has many more stories. But for now, let us celebrate this one. The one that Masondo and his team have so beautifully told through music, memory, visuals, and so much passion. I for one, am glad to know even a portion of Xaba’s narrative. More power to Xaba. And more power to Masondo and the other documentarians out there tirelessly dedicating their time to bring us the crucial pieces of South Africa’s musical history that have remained unacknowledged and unrecognised for so long.