Legendary saxophonist Barney Rachabane was born in Alexandra township on 2 March 1946.  He passed away on 14 of November 2021 aged 75.  Both his parents played organ at church.  In Alex (as the township is often called), he got to meet jazz artists such as Zacks Nkosi and Ntemi Piliso.  As a teenager, Nkosi and Piliso would invite him to play at weddings.  The saxophone was not his first instrument though.  He started with the pennywhistle before transitioning to the instrument that made him famous.

Rachabane featured in several recordings in the 60s and 70s.  His group Roots included Zack’s son Jabu and Sipho Gumede.  He recorded two solo albums, “Blow Barney Blow” in 1985 and “Barney’s Way” in 1989.  The husband to wife Elizabeth, who also passed away in 2021, was one of South African artists Paul Simon chose to work with in his 1980s “Graceland Project”.  The modest saxophonist was a father of four children, a son who passed away in 1999 and three daughters.  His youngest child, Octavia is a professional musician.  She shared her fond memories of her father in days leading to Father’s Day.

“I was born and raised in Pimville, Soweto”, she told Jazz It Out.  Octavia describes herself as a God fearing mom who loves beautiful things, aspiring for success, and living a peaceful life. Almost two years since her father’s passing, she still struggles to refer to him in the past tense.  “Barney was a great man, talented and focused.  He would practice his instrument from morning till late as if he worked a 9-5 job”, she remembers.  She has no hesitation that her father was an achiever.  “He also had a great sense of humour.  Everyone who knew him would testify that when he was around, there will be a good laugh”, she added.

Octavia Rachabane

As a father, Barney could be strict at times.  He wanted the best for his children and taught them to be independent from childhood.  “He always reminded us that this was his house, and he was the boss.  We needed to have our own places when we grew older”, with a chuckle.  She and her father had a very close relationship, which always gave her the impression that she was his favourite child.  Her mon told her that on cold winter nights, he insisted that his daughter slept next to the Welcome Dover stove to keep warm.  There is a big age gap between Octavia and her siblings.

She also enjoyed the benefits of being the last born in the family.  When she started school, Octavia was always scared to walk on her own.  “He would give me a lift in his Bettle.  When he was on the road performing, my mom would”, she said.  On school holidays, father and daughter would always travel together.  Even family and friends knew that the duo was inseparable.  What even brought them much closer was mutual love for Jazz, performing, travelling, and sushi.  They would perform together at times.  “My dad was a music genius.  I didn’t want to be left behind”, with fond memories.  

One of Octavia’s best memories was her first live performance with her father.  This was at the now defunct Bassline in Melville.  When she asked to perform, Barney was not sure if it was a great idea, because he had never seen her performing live.  After giving it a thought, he reluctantly agreed.  This is because time did not permit him to attend her recitals.  Octavia seized that moment.  “He could not believe it.  Apparently, he shed a tear, but I didn’t see him”, she said.  Their favourite song was “Take the A Train” by Duke Ellington which they performed together on numerous occasions.  “It was our signature song.  People went crazy every time they had us perform the tune”, with a smile.

Barney Rachabane and the 4 year old Octavia in 1984

Octavia is extremely proud that Barney always managed to strike a balance between his career and family.  Her father would come home late at night after a gig, eat the food that his wife had prepared for him, while telling stories of what happened at the gig.  This was before Octavia went to school.  She would wake up every time he arrived while her elder siblings slept as they had to get up early for school.  She is also happy with the relationship her parents had.  “His relationship with my mom was very tight.  At times when he travelled, he would invite my mom to join him on the tour”, she said.

Barney was a good storyteller.  When he was home after weeks of travelling, he always had funny stories to tell.  Despite the beautiful places he saw while performing throughout the globe, not even once did her father contemplate leaving South Africa.  His favourite place in the entire universe was his Soweto house.  Octavia was at primary school when her father travelled with Paul Simon.  Years later, father and daughter did a gig together in Glasgow.  “We performed at the Celtic Connections Festival and went for a recording in Helensburgh”, she remembers.  They did other gigs in Durban, Cape Town, Gqeberha and several other places.

Her father never discouraged her when she expressed a wish to study music.  Octavia enrolled for “light music” which was basically a Jazz programme at Pretoria Technikon, which has since been renamed Tshwane University of Technology.  Some of the people she has performed with were regular guests at her home when she was growing up.  These include Glen Mafoko, Bheki Khoza, Khaya Mahlangu and Zim Ngqawana.  She also got an opportunity to perform with Allen Kwela, Johnny Mekoa and Darius Brubeck.

Image of Barney Rachabane from his album titled “Blow Barney Blow”

The legendary saxophonist did not shy away from discussing the ugly side of the entertainment industry with his youngest daughter.  Octavia remembers that she and her dad would sit in their Soweto home, where she learnt about how he often struggled to get proper gigs, often unfairly paid. “He was just unpredictable and would start a conversation randomly”, she recalls.  Octavia also thanks her mom for being such a responsible and supportive parent.  When Barney was travelling, Elizabeth would take care of the kids.  “She singlehandedly raised all of us”, with a huge admiration.  Barney would always send money to his wife from wherever he was to support his family. 

She recalls how supportive and caring Paul Simon was to his band members and their families.  There was an unfortunate incident when members of Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) attacked several houses that were neighbours to the Rachabanes. Octavia and her mom were the only two people in their house and were very terrified. These attacks resulted in brutal murders.  When Simon was informed that the family of his saxophonist was in danger, he organized a temporary accommodation for Octavia and her mom.  Her mother also told her about similar incidents where she felt unsafe during the 1976 uprisings when Barney was on the road.

When fetching their father from the airport, they knew that he would bring presents for everyone.  “I was obsessed with dolls.  He would buy me a doll from every country he visited”, she remembers.  Her mom would receive the best shoes, jewellery, and beautiful leather coats for winter.  “His return was always a festivity”, she added.  Barney would also slaughter a sheep to thank the ancestors for arriving home safe after being away for some time plying his trade as a saxophonist.  Her father was always encouraged to know he had full support of his family in the career he had chosen.

Octavia and Barney performing at Kippies in 2002

Octavia is bitter that her late father is not celebrated enough.  “I have a huge problem with that because I believe my dad was truly a musical genius”, with a stern voice.  She thinks this country needs to honour its legends.  “Musicians such as my father put this country on the map, yet they don’t get the recognition they deserve”, she emphasized.  As a vocalist, she does not see a reason to be compared with her father.  Besides, there is still a lot to do before she gets to that stage.  Octavia is one of the directors at Music Free Learning, a non profit organization.

One of the things she misses the most about her father is his sense of humour. She remembers that her father was not big on Father’s Day and birthday celebrations.  In fact, they would always remind him when it was his birthday.  Octavia has this message for her father today: “Thank you for being such a great man.  I appreciate all the advice and opportunities you gave us, and I plan on making you proud. I will carry your legacy for the great grandchildren. I love you Papa”.  Her favourite musicians include Zonke, Jimmy Dludlu, Carmen McRae, Ledisi and Lalah Hathaway.