“She could have chosen music as a career because of the different instruments she played at school.  However, this woman from the east of Pretoria enrolled for a degree in International Relations.  Working in the cosmopolitan city of Johannesburg exposed her to live performances and she made friends with many jazz musicians.  It was after chatting to a drummer who told her he had no regrets about choosing his profession that she spent a few months pondering on what her move would be if she left her job”

The Afrikan Freedom Station is a place that always brings many good memories for this dynamic woman.  This includes two which will never be erased in her memory.  First is a live performance by Andile Yenana one night in the winter of 2013 where the pianist played for about 3 or 4 hours without a break. The second is the conversation she had with Ayanda Sikade who told her about his passion for playing drums, going to the extent of saying he did not see himself doing anything else in his lifetime aside for playing the instrument he first fell in love with at the age of 7.  The latter incident made her to ask herself serious questions about what she really wanted in life.

Bathini Kowane is a self-taught fashion designer who owns a fashion label called Bathini Designs that sells mostly ready-to-wear apparel and offer custom design clothing to those who require a more personal touch to their items. “That’s basically how my bread gets buttered”, she told Jazz It Out. She was born and raised in Mamelodi, East of Pretoria.  The designer and her late brother were raised by a single mother who went out her way to ensure that the children get the best education and opportunities to equip them for the future that lay ahead.  These opportunities included the musical lessons Bathini got exposed to at school.

She learnt how to read and write music while she was in primary school as it was a compulsory subject in their curriculum.  They were also taught how to play the recorder, which is something she saw as a blessing in disguise to get introduced to reading music and playing an instrument.  Bathini saw the recorder as a “right of passage” instrument. “It’s easier to learn how to read music when you do it with a recorder”, she said.  This young woman found herself fortunate to attend Deutsche Schule Pretoria on a scholarship from Grade 6 all the way to Matric. She also recalls “once I could fully read musical notation, I was ready for a more challenging instrument”.

Fashion designer and jazz purist Bathini Kowane. Picture by Tafadzwa Gumindoga.

“I had a keen interest in learning how to play the violin but private lessons were so expensive and even acquiring the instrument itself was something my mom would not be able to assist me with”, she remembers.  But this did not deter her from making that wish a reality.  When she was 15, Bathini heard about a music school for underpriviledged children that was run by a British couple at the Pretoria State Theatre (now called The South African State Theatre). “I signed up and was offered lessons for next to nothing”.  Because she could read music, she was quickly moved to the instrument classes where she fell in love and discovered the cello, an instrument she learnt to play.  Her mother made a payment arrangement with someone who was selling one for R1200.  She paid R100 each month for a year for Bathini to keep it.While in high school, she was mostly into soul and neo-soul.  Her favourite artists were Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and D’Angelo.  She didn’t know much about jazz at the time.  The music lessons she received confined her to a classical cellist listening mostly to Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Bach, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky.

One of the main reasons she chose the cello was inspired by watching a movie on the life of super talented cellist Jacqueline du Pré titled “Hilary and Jackie”. “She was a virtuoso cellist, a prodigy really, up until today, nobody comes close to how amazingly talented she was”, Bathini reckons.  Jacqueline recorded the ElgarConcerto for Cello in E Minor at the tender age of 20 and to date, it’s one of the best recordings of the concerto ever made. “I fell in love with her and how she commanded the instrument.  Her Elgar Concerto is by far the best I’ve ever heard”, she added.  Jacqueline had a very short-lived musical career and had to stop playing after battling multiple sclerosis dying at the age of 42.

Modelling one of her own designs. Picture by Tafadzwa Gumindoga.

When Bathini joined the project and looked over at the orchestra while they were rehearsing, she noticed that the violin had 3 sections (Violin I, II and III) which were each filled with 6-8 violinists and seemed rather “populated”. There was only one cellist in the orchestra and she worked her way to becoming the second one, ultimately becoming the only cellist in the orchestra after the one she first found dropped out.  At age 21, she joined a locally run music project called CAFCA run by Jesse and Moss Mogale in Mamelodi. She taught some theory and handled some of the string lessons for about 3 years pro bono on weekends while studying at the University of Pretoria.  “This is where I was introduced to jazz and fell in love with it.  Bra Moss Mogale liked rearranging music by the great giants of jazz for all of us to play”, she told Jazz It Out.  He introduced Bathini to Wes Montgomery’s “A Day in the Life” which completely transformed her life.

With all the intense musical training she was received at primary and high school, it is rather surprising to learn that by the she was working with Mogale at CAFCA as a teacher, Bathini was actually studying towards a degree in International Relations.  What stopped her from enrolling for a music qualification? “I did consider it, but my mom, like many parents back then thought it would be a better idea to enroll for a qualification that could allow me to get a job easier and stability that came with it”. She also had her own doubts about pursuing music as a career. “I realized I was more a consumer of the music that a performer”, she added.

After obtaining her degree, she worked in various places around Pretoria while doing an honours degree in African Politics and went to join the corporate world.  She eventually moved to Johannesburg in 2010, which had been a lifelong dream of hers since the live music scene there was so lively and vibrant.  The move to the ‘Golden City’ signaled the beginning of her big explorations.  She attended every gig and any gig that was being held in different places around Johannesburg.  The Cape International Jazz Festival also became an annual pilgrimage for her.  “I met a lot of local musicians while attending gigs and became a known face on the jazz scene”, while striking friendship with most of those she met.

A poster of a gig that turned to be her best experience ever.

By her own admission, Bathini finds it hard to pick one from the pool of amazing live performance she witnessed.  But there is one that stands out the most for her.  It was at the Afrikan Freedom Station on a very chilly evening, 8 June 2013.  It was scheduled to start at 8pm but there was no band in sight.  She and patrons decided to stay and not moan about the delay.  “Just before 11pm, Bra Steve Mokoena did his thing as usual, introducing the band, waxing mad lyrical about Andile Yenana.  One thing I love and appreciate about Bhuti Andile Yenana is his love for the music, his live performances always go beyond expectation. He played a 3-4 hour set without a break”.

One by one, the other musicians stopped playing until Yenana was playing by himself. “It was so beautiful.  He played to his heart’s content that night.  We were all in such a massive high from the music”, recalling that magical performance. To date, Bathini is yet to experience a similar or even better performance to that of the memorable evening at Afrikan Freedom Station.  She really misses the Afrocentric venue along with Steve Mokoena who created a home away from home for many patrons.  Even before the outbreak of Covid-19, there has been a major concern about jazz heads about the closure of iconic venues and clubs where some of the best musical memories are made.

Bathini constantly found herself in a situation where she would mingle with creatives in a form of musicians and sculptors who were doing what they loved while she waited to knock off from to also enjoy to see them playing.  She increasingly felt more at home in jazz events than at her workplace.  In 2014 she took a bold decision of quitting her job with the aim of doing something more creative. She took sewing and pattern-making lessons as a hobby, only to find that she had landed on something that would be a driving passion for her, and something she could support herself with.  But the transformation from corporate to design was more of a process than an event.

With Robert Glasper at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2017.

That whole process began at her favourite venue the Afrikan Freedom Station.  Her decision was influenced by a conversation she had with Steve Mokoena about his career path and how it had unfolded up until that point.  And one evening, she had a short conversation with drummer extraordinaire Ayanda Sikade about music in general.  “He took a minute to explain how he felt when he played and how he knew he just could not do anything else in this lifetime aside for playing drums”, with a vivid memory.  As she drove back to her place, Bathini thought: “There’s got to be more to life than this”.  She wanted to do something that made her feel how Ayanda felt when he played the drums.  The next couple of months were spent pondering on what her “next move” would be if she left her job.

Two months after that conversation with Ayanda, she lost her brother and only sibling to a stroke.  “As I was packing his stuff away in storage and clearing his house which we were planning to put us for rental, I came across business plan documents he’d been working on.  I realized that our days are numbered”, she told Jazz It Out.  She decided a day before her brother’s funeral that she was going to quit her job as soon as humanly possible.  “And the rest, as they say, is history”.  Her bold decision meant she was going to face an uncertain future which was very risky.  But she was determined to start a new life which she knew was not going to be easy in the beginning.

Having penetrated the jazz scene deeply as a supporter, she started getting requests from various musicians asking her to make unique items for them.  She is proud to have dressed more than a few of some of the local jazz musicians and have since become the go-to person for some of them when requiring clothes for performances and public appearances which is nothing short of a miracle.  “I have always wanted to merge what I do with jazz somehow, without having any idea what that would look like”, she said.  We asked her if she can spot a jazz head from a distance based purely on the way they are dressed.  “Absolutely not.  How I wish I could.  I’ve learnt to speak to people first and not judge from afar as one can miss on a lot.  I can spot a jazz head at a jazz event now that’s a no-brainer”, with a chuckle.

With one of her favourite jazz books. Picture by her son Simulabulele Kowane.

The list of musicians she has dressed includes Mbuso Khoza, Bokani Dyer, Nduduzo Makhathini, Andile Yenana, Salim Washington, Ndabo Zulu, Tumi Mogorosi, Gabisile Motuba, and Mthunzi Mvubu.  Bathini has also seen that the younger generation of jazz musicians want to look cool and really are interested in good appearance for their performances.  “For an example, Nduduzo likes the big baggy harem pants look which is very current with the times and what other young people are into”, speaking like a seasoned fashion designer and analyst.  Mthunzi Mvubu is into a more retro “out there” look inspired by the greats like Miles Davis with a modern twist.  Bokani Dyer just says “Do your thing” which puts a lot of pressure on her as a designer.  Mbuso Khoza would drop a message saying “I’m coming to Joburg in two days, hook me up sis’ wam”.

When asked if there is a correlation between jazz and fashion, Bathini took a deep sigh and said: “You know, to be honest…I barely think about that.  I think with me the connection is that I love jazz and as a result of attending so many gigs over the years, I got to meet and converse with so many of the musicians organically”. Those musicians ended being her customers.  So, the only correlation she can think of in her case is that she is a super friendly fashion designer who also happens to be a jazz head.  “That’s the hook, my love for the music and my openness with the musicians”, she added.  While designing the outfits, she plays a lot of jazz.  “I play it all the time while doing everything”.

As a person who comes across as genuine and sincere about what she does, Bathini knows that her business does not rely on commercials to prosper.  “Word of mouth is what my business was initially built on.  And even in the jazz community, it has been word of mouth that has allowed me to infiltrate as far as I have”, with a deep sense of appreciation.  She reiterated that she is just a fashion designer who loves jazz and musicians feel comfortable with her because she understands the music in a similar way that they do.  “I’m a scholar of this artistry and constantly looking for avenues to grow in my knowledge and understanding of the music, the different musicians that give it shape and form.  Nothing gives me more joy”, she emphasized. One of her all time favourite recordings is “Lift Every Voice” by Andrew Hill.

With Moonchild at North Sea Jazz Festival in 2017.

From the long list of her favourite musicians, one can see why she calls herself a jazz purist.  These artists are Andile Yenana, Nduduzo Makhathini, Suthukazi Arosi, Tutu Puoane & Ewout Pirreaux, Sisa Sopazi, Ayanda Sikade, Khaya Mahlangu, Siya Makuzeni, Zim Ngqawana, Moses Molelekwa, Bheki Mkhize, Zawadi Yamungu, Sisonke Xonti, Mandla Mlangeni, Zoë Modiga, Ndabo Zulu, Mbuso Khoza, Mthunzi Mvubu, Herbie Tsoaeli, Thandi Ntuli, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Sibusile Xaba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Afrika Mkhize, Thabang & Phillip Tabane, Tumi & Gabi Motuba, Steve Coleman, Steve Lehman, Vijay Lyer, Jason Moran, Walter Smith III, Ambrose Akinmusire, Nicole Mitchell, Avishai Cohen, Robert Glasper, Wynton Marsalis, Carmen Lundy, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Christian Scott, Craig Taborn, David Binney, Henry Theadgill, Myra Melford, Herbie Hancock, Jen Shyu, Jeremy Pelt, Joshua Redman, Keith Jarrett, Tyshawn Sorey, Roscoe Mitchell, Makaya McCraven, Matt Brewer, Misha Tsiganov, Andrew Hill, Thelonious Monk, Freddie Hubbard, Muhal Richard Abrams, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Anthony Braxton, and Art Blakey.

She also believes jazz is a lifestyle incorporating everything associated with the genre.  “Jazz means something different to everyone.  We make it what we want it to be based on the lifestyle we live.  Most jazz consumers are highly cultured people who are into arts and fine art in general with a great appreciation for theatre, art exhibitions, great wine and good food”, she elaborated. Bathini sees herself doing a second career in jazz industry, not sure what it will be yet, but definitely something in jazz.  Once the international travel ban is eased and the Covid-19 has been reduced from the deadly pandemic it currently is, she wants to attend more international jazz festivals.  Like the Facebook Page of her clothing brand which is Bathini Designs, follow it on Instagram @bathinidesigns, drop a WhatsApp message to +27 83 733 4291, email bathinidesigns@gmail.com and visit the website www.bathini.africa