“Every time he heard his father playing jazz vinyl records, he would leave the house and visit friends.  He had no interest in jazz way back then. The sound of it did not appeal to the young Nhlanhla.  In 2003 while attending the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown – now called Makhanda, he was so surprised to see young musicians of his age playing jazz proficiently.  The festival exposed him to a new world he never knew existed” 

At the age of 15, he would leave the classroom to play piano at the school hall.  Even though he didn’t know how to play the instrument well, he would be figuring out hip-hop bass lines and simple melodies. His teacher would always catch him ‘in the act’ and take him to the principal’s office. He recorded his first album with a group called Soweto Percussion Ensemble as a percussionist and vocalist. Today he is one of the most recognized double bass players who works with so many musicians. 

37-year-old Nhlanhla Radebe is a Johannesburg based performer, session bassist, composer and arranger who is the first-born child to Aaron and Lindiwe Radebe.  His younger brother is Andile.  Nhlanhla’s parents grew up in Free State town of Frankfort before moving to the Golden City.  “My mother was a ballroom dancer.  She also sang in school choirs and at church”, he told Jazz It Out. His father attended music lessons at the famous Dorkay House, Johannesburg in his late teens and early twenties as an extramural activity.  His maternal uncle played double bass for a band in Frankfort.

Nhlanhla also sang in the primary school choir.  “I was in the school choir from Grade 4 until Grade 6”, he recalls.  Sports however was the least of his favourite extramural activities.  As participating in sports was compulsory, he would throw the javelin and the discus.  In high school he played a bit of basketball and later table tennis.  “Other than that, I was obsessed with Maths and Science”, he added.  His father who is an Information Technology (IT) Specialist must have predicted that his son would follow in his footsteps.  Little did he know he was raising a future musician.

Bassist Nhlanhla Radebe. Picture by Siphiwe Mhlambi

Like most teenagers, Nhlanhla listened to a lot of hip-hop in his teens.  On weekends he and his friends would go to Lee-Club in downtown Johannesburg to rap and listen to other local rappers and DJ’s.  The club would open on weekends and was always packed.  He listened to cassette tapes and CD’s of rappers like Nas, The Roots, De La Soul, A tribe called Quest, Gangster and many others.  “I was and still am a fan of early South African rappers like Amu, Selwyn, MC Fat Boy, Tumi who is popularly known as Stogie T these days, Mizchif and many others”, he said.

Convincing his parents that he wanted to study music was one of the toughest battles he was not going to win easily.  Sensing defeat, he considered studying IT but changed his mind as an act of rebellion.  “I even took a gap year because I didn’t want to study anything but music”, he told Jazz It Out.  At the end of the gap year his parents relented and said “okay you can go and study your music thing”. He was delighted his decision to stand his ground yielded the results that went in his favour. His science teacher at school had told him about Funda Community College in Soweto.

In 2002 he enrolled at the college where he was going to cross paths with individuals that were going to play a very influential role in his career.  Nhlanhla became very good friends and is still in regular contact with most of them, including those that are no longer active musicians.  His teacher Gugulethu Ngwenya taught him percussions and gave him his first paying gigs.  He also became friends with bassists Molefe Makanisi and Sakhile Nkosi. Other people that Nhlanhla met at Funda include drummer Bernice Boikanyo, percussionist Tlale Makhene and saxophonist Percy Mbonani.

Picture by Hymie Sokupha

Funda Community College encouraged the playing of African instruments.  The first instrument that Nhlanhla learned was the marimba but his preference switched to the djembe.  The latter just blew the young student away.  “I had never heard anything like it in my life”, he said.  By this time, him and his teacher Gugulethu Ngwenya had a solid relationship.  He joined the djembe classes and became one of Ngwenya’s most trusted students.  The teacher recruited him to join Soweto Percussion Ensemble where he played the second djembe alongside his teacher.  This saw Rabebe soloing side by side with Ngwenya in the ensemble.

Ngwenya taught his young student everything about the djembe (not just how play it but also how to manufacture one).  “He taught me everything from choosing the right djembe shell to preparing a goat skin, skinning a drum and tuning it”, he told Jazz It Out.  His teacher also taught him how to produce the correct tones on the instrument as well as playing and leading a drum ensemble.  Soon Nhlanhla was doing serious gigs and earning a living from playing indigenous African music. Their style of playing was similar to that of Amampondo but the difference was that his ensemble placed a strong emphasis on the West African djembe.  “We had songs where we played drums and bells like it is done in West Africa”, he added.

Before Ngwenya left the college, he recommended to the institution’s management that Radebe be employed as a teacher which was approved.  More gigs followed for Nhlanhla.  He had also developed an interest for the electric bass.  From the earnings he made from performances, Nhlanhla bought his first instrument which was the bass guitar. In 2003 Soweto Percussion Ensemble collaborated with renowned percussionist Thebe Lepere to record the album “Tales of Drums” under the Sheer Sound Records label. Nhlanhla recalls his excitement of being in a recording studio and paid an advance for this role in the album.

Picture by Siphiwe Mhlambi

Nhlanhla had been playing the electric bass for about a year when he attended the National Arts in Makhanda (then Grahamstown) for the first time in 2003 and came ‘face to face’ with the music his father always played at home but never shown an interest.  “I was amazed to see young people playing jazz so well at such a young age”, he recalls.  He also saw live performances by Feya Faku, Andile Yenana, Paul Hanmer, Marcus Wyatt, Carlo Mombelli and others for the first time.  “It was a world I never knew existed and I wanted to understand it and most importantly be part of”, he added.

Paku is another band he joined with some of the music students from Wits University.  One of the funniest experiences he had while playing for Paku was when they drove to Kempton Park and participated in a competition called Battle of the Bands.  “After about three bands arrived we realized that these bands played rock and heavy metal”, with a chuckle.  Despite being at the wrong place and the right time, their band which played contemporary African, pop, and world music made it past a few rounds.

After befriending members of Kwani-Experience, they asked him to be the band’s second choice when their permanent bassist was double booked.  One of those moments that gave Nhlanhla an exposure as a bass player came when the band asked him to perform with them at the Oppikopi festival.  “That was a great experience for me”, with fond memories.  What made it even more exciting for him was seeing other big acts on the same stage, especially slam poetry/rapper Saul Williams.  He made more appearances with Kwani-Experience.

Picture by Hymie Sokupha

In pursuit to master the double bass, Nhlanhla joined the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra (JYO) in 2008.  He was both a performer and a music tutor at JYO and soon performed with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Academy Orchestra and in 2010 he performed with the South African National Youth Orchestra.  “The reason I picked up the double bass was because of my interest in jazz music.  By this time, I was listening to jazz records more and the sound of this instrument drew me into it”, he told Jazz It Out.

Seeing bassist Herbie Tsoaeli playing alongside pianist Andile Yenana in their band The Voice got Nhlanhla thinking “I need to get my hand on that instrument”.  Nhlanhla’s interest in jazz music grew with the years, and in 2011 saw him studying Jazz & Popular Music at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), graduating in 2014.  TUT follows Berklee accredited curriculum and uses Berklee text books.  He believes going to TUT was a brilliant decision because it is one of the best jazz schools in the country.

Legendary trumpeter Feya Faku played a positive influence in Nhlanhla’s career.  The two met for the first time in 2003 at the National Arts Festival.  They met again in 2012 when Faku taught briefly at TUT.  After hearing Radebe play, Faku told the bassist that he liked the sound coming from his instrument.  He further encouraged Nhlanhla to consider moving back to Johannesburg because there was a shortage of double bass players after Jimmy Mgwandi moved to New York.

A much younger Nhlanhla Radebe

He has performed with artists such as Mpumi Dlamini, Feya Faku, Andile Yenana, Khaya Mahlangu, McCoy Mrubata, Paul Hanmer, Sydney Mavundla, Sisa Sopazi, Nduduzo Makhathini, Nomfundo Xaluva, Yonela Mnana, Talie Monin and Linda Sikhakhane to mention a few.  Nhlanhla continues to work as a sideman playing on local music venues and festivals.  He once taught learners at Tshwane School of Music in Eersterus but had to quit because of his extremely hectic schedule. “It was such a rewarding experience witnessing the different stages of students magical growth”, he said.

Nhlanhla is also a part time student studying towards a Bachelor of Arts Honours in Composition at Wits University.  As a sideman, he has appeared in several albums.  One of those is “Two Sides, One Mirror” by saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane which was produced by pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. “This was the first full length jazz album which I got to play on all the tracks”, he said.  He also recorded a number of songs in “Brasskap Sessions Volume 3” by saxophonist and flautist McCoy Mrubata.

“I recorded an EP with Georgetown, a bluegrass/alternative rock band I used to be part of”, continuing his list of achievements. He played percussions and electric bass on a few songs in “Combined Elements” which was the debut album by Mpumi Dlamini.  He recently recorded with Vox Chamber Choir, a Pretoria based choir conducted by Franco Prinsloo.  Lately he has been thinking about recording a solo album but is taking his time and not in a hurry.  When the time is right, he will go to the studio.

Nhlanhla firmly believes that jazz should be taught in public schools as a means of making it more popular than it is. He defines jazz as spontaneously improvised music that is based on a pre-existing harmonic form or structure. His favourite double bassists are Herbie Tsoaeli, Shane Cooper, Ray Brown, Christian McBride, Joe Sanders and Benjamin Jephta. His hobbies are reading, listening and watching a lot of personal development material.  His Facebook account is Nhlanhla Neville Radebe.  Follow him on Instagram @nhlanhla_nev_radebe