Tefo Mahola is a cool, easy going and highly opinionated individual who loves going out, making friends and finding himself through interactions with people he gets to meet. This 27-year-old drummer, composer and pianist who hails from Gugulethu, Cape Town is such a marvel to watch mainly because of how he plays drums and cymbals which is out of the ordinary.  His music is a true translation of his character and nature, with each song being an extension to a specific trait.

“Water, trees and mountains are what I call home and I love experiencing new things.  I am a lover of music and I listen to all kinds of music from all walks of life”, he told Jazz It Out.  This is why his music is an amalgamation of jazz, hip hop, funk, jazz rock and neo-soul to create compositions of a truly original and compelling sound.  Just like most musicians, he creates his own sound which reflects his own identity, distinguishing himself from others.

Music was not really big from his mother’s side of the family compared to that of his father’s.  The primary schools Tefo attended did not offer extramural activities until he went to Observatory Primary School where he played his first instrument which was a piano.  He recalls there was someone who would come to his school to play piano while learners sang the national anthem.  Even though he was not a music teacher, the young and curious Tefo would ask him a lot of questions.  “I was persistent in asking him to show me how to play the piano and start regarded myself as a pianist”, with a chuckle.

Drummer Tefo Mahola. Picture by Siyabonga Mvandaba

It was when he went to Pinelands High School that he got exposed to more music and instruments.  “Our drum teacher Oliver Schenk asked me which other instrument I wanted to play, and I gravitated to the drums”, he said. The youngster got fascinated by Latin Jazz and Afro Cuban sound which was noticed by his drum teacher who gave him a lot of lessons on how to play different styles.  “I used to listen to a lot of mainstream music and drummers.  That was also the time I started checking out jazz”, he remembers.  He got exposed to drummers such as Aaron Spears, Eric Moore and Tony Royster.  His drum teacher played him the first drum solo by Max Roach and it sold him to the jazz realm.

Tefo started researching more about Roach, transcribing solos growing deeper into jazz.  “I then found so many more artists from there and it kept going”, he said.  By this time his love for arts was so evident.  He started playing with the wind band, jazz band, cabaret and smaller ensembles. When he told his mother that he wanted to pursue music as a career, she was not surprised as she saw how enticed by the arts he had become.  He enrolled for a BA in Jazz Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT) graduating in 2018.  The curriculum at UCT empowered Tefo to prepare to face the world as professional musician.

He has performed with artists such as McCoy Mrubata, Sisonke Xonti, Mark Fransman and many others. These artists always give Tefo something special about themselves including strong characteristics and traits over time.  Performing with such accomplished musicians has also taught him something about himself.  “I have seen how I react to different people and different situations”, he told Jazz It Out.  What always surprises him is how such artists who have achieved so much in their careers manage to remain so humble and instill confidence in young musicians like him.

Giving his best performance. Picture by Cian Geraghty

One of the festivals he has performed at is Oslo Jazz Festival as part of Init.  The quartet was made up of his homegirl Thembelihle Dunjana on piano, Ofentse Moshwetsi on alto saxophone, Shakeel Cullis on bass while he was on drums.  He also performed alongside guitarist Wandile Mbambeni at Rocking the Daisies.  Tefo firmly believes artists should not be ashamed to show their creativity side.  “One needs to be given an opportunity to be as creative as they possibly can”, he said.  His is concerned that the field of arts is experimenting a lot of challenges which prevent it from thriving as it should.

The lockdown that we as a country are subjected to did not prevent this brilliant drummer from releasing his debut album in 2020 which was titled “First Offering”.  He describes the experience as a bumpy rollercoaster ride full of fun, excitement and stress, but also a great experience and milestone.  One of the things that made this recording possible is that the band had been together for some time.  The recording features Ofentse Moshwetsi on alto sax and flute, Athi Ngcaba on trombone, Muneeb Hermans on trumpet, Thembelihle Dunjana on piano, Dylan Fine on guitar, Stephen de Souza and Sean Sansby while Tefo is on drums and vocals. 

Most of the tunes were old compositions of his with one or two new songs which made it a breeze to rehearse.  The songs reflect the musical journey he has travelled as an artist. By giving his debut album this title, he was saying there is so much in store and the world must notice this new recording artist.  Also, his first name Tefo translates to Offering in English.  The title track is an extremely important tune because it is at the very beginning of it all, a place where he is most vulnerable, weakest and purest to the eye and ear.  For a while, this song did not have a title and he aptly gave it the title just before the album got recorded.

His debut album released in 2020

“The Tear” is a song he wrote with the image of a tear and attempting to get emotions of prior, during and after a tear is shed, and the harmony suggests this and is accompanied by the melody.  In “Kea Leboha”, he thanks everyone that made things possible and all the support he received during the recording of this project which is a quite a humbling gesture. “Tau” is a song about himself realizing a need to migrate and finding his own life like most people do. It is more like that whole “nature course or natural selection” where one has to move to grow.  It took him less than an hour to compose “Rain in Solace”, reflecting on an emotional journey he had gone through.

Covid-19 has made it extremely impossible for the Capetonian to embark on a tour as part of promoting his debut albumbut is looking forward to visiting other parts of the country to show jazz enthusiasts what an incredible drummer he is.  Tefo’s favourite artists are Lee Morgan, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Brian Blade Fellowship, Yussef Dayes, Bheki Mseleku, Zim Ngqawana, Sisonke Xonti, Linda Sikhakhane, Moses Molelekwa and Tumi Mogorosi.  In his spare time, he does a lot of running and plays soccer.  He also enjoys video games.  Follow him on Instagram @tefotalkingdrum and is Tefo Mahola on Facebook.