“Tlale Makhebe is one of South Africa’s most remarkable talents. He has been featured in and produced more than 300 jazz and world music albums and is a much sought after teacher, musical director, session musician and performer. His name appears in most South African jazz and Afro pop recordings. The Soweto born and Swaziland raised percussionist says he is blessed to have made such a contribution that has touched the hearts of music fans in a positive way”
Composer, director, percussionist, arranger, teacher and producer Tlale Makhene describes himself as an ordinary fellow who lives an ordinary life. The father of two was born in Zone 6 Diepkloof, Soweto and raised in Swaziland. “The maternal side of my family was deeply involved in the struggle for freedom. After the 1976 Soweto uprisings, my parents decided to move us to eSwatini”, he told Jazz It Out. They no longer felt safe hence the decision to flee the township and the country.
They spent the first four years of their stay at the Swazi Kingdom in Big-Bend with one his grandfathers. In Mahamba is where they would spend the remainder of their stay. Tlale was just seven years old when they left Soweto and was very quick to adjust to the new surroundings which was filled with lots of love and enjoyed playing with children of his age. Unlike Diepkloof, he had to learn to take care of the livestock which is a task he thoroughly enjoyed. His love for drumming however began at the age of four, three years prior to the Swazi move.
His family may have played an indirect influence in grooming Tlale as a future percussionist. “My mother was an actress and singer. My father was also an actor who sang well”, he said. The young Tlale would arrange and mix different rhythms. Swaziland would expose him to more traditional music and dance. He also participated in several stage dramas at school which played an influence in his appreciation for the arts. At standard six, he considered quitting school to focus on being an artist. “My grandmother convinced me to continue with my school in order to prepare for the future that lied ahead”, he recalls.
In 1993, Makhene and his family relocated back to South Africa. It was the same year he enrolled at the prestigious Funda Centre in Soweto. “Music is not the only thing I learned at Funda. Pan Africanism was also thought”, he remembers. He met Chucho Valdéz, Jacky McLean, Nat Reeves, Salif Keita, James Newtown, Gamako Drummers and Adama Dramé while studying at Funda. Tlale applauds the institution for providing alternative ways of teaching which he is still implementing to this day as an artist. “Funda Centre is where my love for traditional music was reinforced”, he added.
After completing his studies, Tlale played with different theatre companies and formed a group called Djembe marimba band. In the late 90’s he was asked to accompany the popular choir Imilonji Kantu to Norway. Upon his return, he was asked to join the cast Nkosi The Healing Song. To his surprise, he met the giants of the music industry in Johannesburg. “I met musicians such as Themba Mkhize, Vusi Khumalo, Fana Zulu, Jabu Nkosi and McCoy Mrubata”, he remembers. His encounter with these musicians introduced the percussionist to more contemporary music and styles. At that time, he already had instruments such as congas and bongos.
In 2004 Tlale released his debut album “Ascension of the Enlightened” which was warmly received by jazz critics. It was produced by Afrika Mkhize. He worked with musicians such as Nhlanhla Magagula, Afrika Mkhize, Lucas Senyatso, Marcus Wyatt, Sydney Mavundla, Carten Dahl, Isaac ‘Mnca’ Mtshali, Jimmy Mngwadi, Shaluza Max Mntambo, Khaya Mahlangu, Carlo Mombelli, Siya Makuzeni and Lungi Dlamini. Working with these musicians was a huge confidence booster and is grateful they poured their heart in the project. He recalls that the production was also happy to assemble these musicians for the recording.
When “Ascension of the Enlightened” received a South African Music Award (SAMA) award nomination for Best Contemporary Album, he did not even bother to draft an acceptance speech before leaving his hotel room on the night of the SAMA’s. This was because his album was nominated in the same category with Hugh Masekela, Victor Ntoni, Paul Hanmer and Themba Mkhize. Tlale was astonished to hear that his debut album had won the tightly contested category. “This was something I did not expect. It came as a complete shock to me. It was one of my greatest moments”, he recalls that evening of the ceremony.
His second album “Swazi Gold” was released in 2017. Tlale used the album to show how grateful he is to the Swazi nation for embracing and treating him as one of their own. “They fed me, schooled me, cultured me, and did everything that you know of me artistically and a person. Through this album, I was saying thank you to eSwatini for grooming me into the musician and the person I am today”, he told Jazz It Out. Tlale believed that a nation without a language, culture and tradition is a lost nation.
In the recording of “Swazi Gold”, he worked with Nathi Shongwe from Ngudzeni, Velemseni Ndzimandze and Sakhile Mthethwa from Mbabane. Tlale also worked with Erik Paliani from Malawi and South African artists like Sabu Satcha, David Klaasen, Anne Masina, Jonny Vilakazi, Futhi Nhlapho, Vuyo Manyike, Carlo Jooste and Thando Matsebula. Despite the album failing to receive a nomination, he is happy with his tribute and honour to eSwatini. He still visits the country where he does performances and leads projects. Through those visits, he wants to send a message that he is still there and have the Swazi nation in his heart as well as assist the raw talent coming from the kingdom.
Tlale has performed at the popular MTN Bushfire Festival which is held in Swaziland every year. In 2010 he produced and directed the jazz festival for the Swazi Expo with artists such as McCoy Mrubata, Paul Hanmer, Simphiwe Dana, and Shannon Mowday. He has also performed at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and performed with Copenhagen Rhythmic Conservatory Big Band and taught rhythmic workshops as part of a cultural exchange programme. During the 46664 concerts, Tlale performed with Pharoah Sanders and Corrine Bailey Rae from the UK and Angelique Kidjo from Benin.
Last year, the highly acclaimed percussionist released his third album “SG 2.0” which is made up of remixes of “Swazi Gold” and some new tracks. “Stylistically, this album is lounge and soul”, he said. It features Ziyawa Ka Zitha who also produced the album, Juda Selitjane and Velemseni Ndzimandze. “I decided to do lounge and soul because I wanted to show the other side of me”, he added. Tlale wanted to show his versatility and move with the times before finding himself on the other side of evolution. His future plans are centered around recording music that he loves and building an arts academy.
He believes there is not much difference between drums and percussions but the latter has the liberty to choose different instruments while the music is going and this allows creativity and improvisation to create special moments and remarkable recordings. Tlale’s favourite musicians are Brook Benton, Robert Glasper, Giovanni Hidalgo, Mabi Thobejane, Madala Kunene, Hugh Magagula, Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya, Tito Puente, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Tony Martinez, Vusi Khumalo, Mgqashiyo Ndlovu, Phuzu’shukela, Igor Stravinsky, Silvestre Revueltas, Omar Sosa, Thandi Ntuli and Ziyawa Ka Zitha.
Tlale is grateful to have performed with artists like Keiko Matsui, Sibongile Khumalo, Hugh Masekela, Themba Mkhize, Judith Sephuma, Zamajobe, Caiphus Semenya, Letta Mbulu, Jonas Gwangwa, Musa Manzini, Quincy Jones, James Newtown and many more. He believes South African music is very rich with its own genres such as Afropop, Mbhaqanga, Maskandi, Kwaito, Amahubo and wedding songs. When not making music, Tlale watches movies, enjoys reading and does a lot of travelling. He also enjoys the company of family and friends.
You can find him on Facebook as Tlale Makhene. Follow him on Twitter @tlalegroove and @makhenetlale on Instagram. Connect with him on LinkedIn as Tlale Makhene and subscribe to his YouTube channel Tlale Makhene.