Kabelo Mokhatla is one musician who believes that the only way to become a better person is through learning.  “I am intriguing and explorative”, he said.  The 22-year-old Tembisa born drummer, composer and arranger is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Music Degree (Jazz Percussion) at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.  Growing up, he listened to the music his parents played at home.  He was exposed to a variety of music from many genres which always brings about nostalgia of that childhood era.  His cousin Tseleng Mokhatla who plays flute is studying music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

It was at the Moses Taiwa Molelekwa Arts Foundation (MTMAF) in Tembisa where Kabelo started playing drums when he was a 16-year-old Grade 10 learner.  “I used to play percussions and violin.  Although I was not too fond of the idea of playing drums, it felt like home the minute I sat in that throne”, he told Jazz It Out.  But it took him a while to fully connect with the instrument.  Some of the people he worked with as a young musician told him how bad he sounded.  However, the founder of MTMAF, Jerry “Bra Monk” Molelekwa believed in the youngster.  “To this day, I’m still trying to uncover whatever it is that he saw in me”, he added.

By that time, he had already discovered Art Blakey.  For three months, he spent three hours practicing secretly without playing at gigs. His performance after the three-month break was so good to earn him a place as a member of MTMAF Band and convinced people around him that maybe he was meant to be a drummer.  He had to find a way to manage his studies, music, church, daily hobbies, which was necessary because that helped him get through in life.   His passion for drums earned him a nickname ‘Hlanyoza’ which translates to ‘The crazy one’.  

Kabelo Mokhatla

“I had to surrender to the moment of my craziness for drums because I had no control over it, eventually my classmates and teachers understood me”, recalling those years that shaped his life and influenced his career.  By the time Kabelo finished high school, his favourite musicians included Cannonball Adderley, Zim Ngqawana, Louis Moholo, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Andile Yenana, Abdullah Ibrahim, Shwi, Tutu Puoane, TKZee, Kendrick Lamar, Hugh Masekela, Jimmy Smith, Eminem and Lil Wayne.  No one was happier than his mother who was relieved to see her teenage son playing music which kept him off the Tembisa streets.

Despite seeing her son spending a lot of time at the MTMAF, his mother did not anticipate that he would pursue a career in music.  Some of his family members expected him to enroll for a degree in something more “suitable” and “realistic”.  He admits however that he would have loved to be a fighter pilot.  “Maybe one day I can try for a pilot’s license.  I feel I have other beautiful gifts that the universe has blessed me with, and hopefully, someday I’ll get to share them if the universe deems fit”, he explained.

Kabelo enrolled for a Bachelor of Arts in Music at UKZN, mixed with some English modules and Mathematics.  He found learning from lecturers who pushed him a huge inspiration.  “I’ve learned a lot from them, and I still carry out lessons they shared with me alongside the teachings I got from maestro Jerry ‘Bra Monk’ Molelekwa”, he told Jazz It Out.  Some of his closest friends at the Durban institution situated 600 kilometres away from his home town included pianists Sibusiso Shabalala and Philangezwi Nyawuza, trumpeter Eldene Bruiners and bassist Giyani Shangase whom he also got to perform with.  “I also had a father, mentor and friend in saxophonist and academic Salim Washington”, he said.

Has been a stix man since the age of 16. Picture by Standard Bank Youth Jazz Band

This go-getter has also performed at festivals such as The Northern Cape Cadence International Jazz Series, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival, Imbokodo Jazz Festival, Ekurhuleni Jazz Jamboree, and UKZN’s Jazz Jol.  He has played alongside the likes of Afrika Mkhize, Ernest Dawkins, Khaya Mahlangu, Bheki Khoza and Ingrid Jenson.  “Playing on the bandstand is and will always be a beautiful experience.  Playing at these festivals allowed me to play with excellent musicians, some of whom I have always looked up to”, with a sense of appreciation.

Playing with different jazz musicians has helped Kabelo discover his other side as a musician.  “When the spirit is very high, I get lost in the music.  When I am on stage, I feel like I am not in control.  I am more like a servant, because in that moment, I am not in control of myself or the music, and naturally my mind surrenders to the moment but my body on the other hand takes command to allow my inner self to continue painting different sounds in that moment”, he explained.  This coming from an artist who started as a singer before graduating to recorder player and after a while started playing percussions, violin, harmonica before choosing drums as his instrument.

His hardwork as a musician earned him the Hugh Masekela Heritage Scholarship in 2020 that took him to the Manhattan School of Music in New York, just over 13 000 kilometres from Tembisa.  The Masekela Scholarship together with ELMA Philanthropies and the Manhattan School of Music cover all his costs while studying in the US.  “I guess the combination of talent and hard work made it possible to get the scholarship”, he said.  Some of his best friends at the campus are pianists Zoe Molelekwa and Cameron Campbell, Opera singer Ongama Mhlontlo, trumpeter Henry Sherris, and trombonist Estes Cantarero-George.

Performing at the Manhattan School of Music. Picture by MSM

Every music lesson that Kabelo has learned at the Manhattan School of Music has been informative and empowering.  “Being in New York amongst the greats enables one to grow exponentially.  I am honoured to be in a place with such great jazz scene, perhaps the best jazz environment in the world”, he told Jazz It Out.  The young drummer has shared the bandstand with several musicians in the Big Apple and got to do duet gigs and worked under the mentorship of greats who for years has looked up to such as Dayna Stephens.  He admits that some of the gigs have challenged him to deal with his insecurities and is gaining confidence as he continues to play with musicians from different parts of the world.  “Cultural exchange continues to be an important part of my life, experiencing it on an international stage is insightful, and being surrounded by such greatness helps me grow musically, spiritually, and most importantly to learn more about myself”, he explained.

Being taught by renowned jazz drummer, educator, bandleader, and composer Kendrick Scott has exposed Kabelo to so many aspects and disciplines of playing drums.  “Kendrick is someone who I have always admired for years.  To be in his presence and receive such information from him still seems surreal”, with excitement.  At one gig Sibusiso Shabalala made Kabelo play a Gretchen Parlato version of the song “Weak”, which was originally composed by the 90’s rnb group. “Man, what an experience.  From then I started checking out his work and I was fascinated by how he played”, he said.

He sees Scott as his musical and spiritual sensei.  His mentor has challenged him in ways he never experienced before, and has made him form even a deeper connection with the music.  Some of the lessons Kabelo has received from Scott are about the power to “command and surrender” which he uses as his teaching mantra.  These are fascinating ways to paint in silences, choices versus limitation, and meditative practice to name a few.  Kabelo has made meditation practice and important part of his playing because when his spirit is down, or feels distant from the world, it helps him get through the hardships and negative energy that sometimes overwhelms him.

Goema (Live) – Bandless (ZAR)

Residing in a cosmopolitan city of New York does not make Kabelo homesick.  He always comes across his fellow brothers from South Africa at the park, school or their apartments.  They constantly remind themselves where they come from and the importance of preserving South African culture and its heritage.  When he hosts small gatherings with his friends in the US, they listen to kwaito tunes and always finds it funny to see them singing and dancing along to the music. “Home is always closer to me, and I feel it in my music”, he told Jazz It Out. His desire to learn more instruments has seen him playing the piano, chromatic harmonica, trombone and the upright bass.

Kabelo’s long list of favourite musicians is made up of Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi, Joshua Redman, Kendrick Scott, Kendrick Lamar, Brian Blade, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Thelonious Monk, Salim Washington, Philly Joe Jones, Richard Wagner, Afrika Mkhize, John Coltrane, Tumi Mogorosi, Alice Coltrane, Tutu Puoane, Siphiwe Shiburi, Themba Mkhize, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Phillip Tabane, Bheki Mseleku, Louis Moholo, Dayna Stephens, Ayanda Sikade, Kesivan Naidoo and Lulu Gontsana.  Besides playing as a sideman, Kabelo also enjoys performing his own compositions which are always well received by audiences.

Instead of finding a hobby, he always tries to expose himself to new information through reading and watching documentaries.  “Sometimes I spend time with my elders, friends, family, and educators to get some wisdom”, he said.  He is learning to play golf, a sport that teaches him patience and a different perspective towards life and music.  “I recently fell in love with master Mongezi Ncaphayi’s artwork and have been to his studio where he showed me his creation process”, he added.  His Facebook Account is Boy Kabelo Mokhatla.  Follow him @boy_mokhatla on Instagram.