You know these artists who play and right at the end of the show you call out their names, more in a mumbling fashion with a break of sighs in between? Yeah! I guess you understand what I am talking about. Obakeng Mabitsela, also affectionately known as Obza by his peers, is in that category.
So, where did I meet this fine drummer? I attend the annual World Sound Concert organised by Soundbag every August. He featured as a drummer for UmBaqanga WeBlues, an amazing jazz ensemble heavily influenced by the likes of Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Zim Ngcawana just to mention a few.
The usual announcement of the next band was made and the clapping went on for a minute or two with a standing ovation. Well, I did not know UmBaqanga WeBlues then, so I just had to wait patiently for their sound. Fortunately, David Lephoto, CEO of Soundbag had assured me that I was in for a treat.
While I do not like comparing artists, I would like to depict Obakeng’s opening drumming session pretty much to what Max Roach and Art Blakey would do at a festival like Newport. But if you were to think of someone current, then think William Earl Kilson aka Billy. The first few bars definitely confirmed what David had said about the ensemble.
Obakeng has a strange way of playing solos. I remember a discussion with one of the veteran drummers Sibusiso Nyirongo in which he described how he loves a solo played in the ‘heat’ of a moment. I was completely lost and requested that he defines that moment. Traditionally, when a drummer takes up a solo, the rest of the band would either stop playing or lower the volume of their instruments. Sibusiso defined something I had not come across before. While in the heat of the moment, a drummer may go on a tangent and start playing in a different key while maintaining the tempo for the group. It is during such a moment that seasoned drummers like Obakeng and Sibusiso do all sorts of strange and ‘abnormal’ things to sound.
I guess I needed to wait until I could experience that moment and actually listen attentively. Obakeng delivered this moment beautifully. I was so amazed and frankly, for the first time, I discovered what Sibusiso was talking about. There is nothing about Obakeng’s appearance that prepares you for what he is capable of. He is just cool, calm and collected. If one expects one of those wild Rock ‘n Roll bashing of drums, I am sorry you would be at a wrong concert. Obakeng has this relaxed and totally unassuming style of playing drums; more towards mellow and calculative.
When I was giving my CEO Tshepo Maseko the status update, I was really excited and I told him that we had just added a drummer to our composers/artists database. The usual follow up started. Unfortunately, at the time there were no project concepts he matched, until recently.
Obakeng started playing drums at the age of 15 and his academic qualifications include National Certificate (N6) in Music Performance from Central Johannesburg College. He has already started exploring different areas of his career and these include the recording of an album with Alpha Prince titled Egoli. He also appears in Kevin Maduna’s Man down/Inzinkwnyezi which was composed by him and arranged by Nhlanhla Mahlangu. Its video clip can be found on YouTube.
When one comes across someone like Obakeng, one’s mind tends to race. You start thinking who else has he played with. This meant researching further about his career and guess what we found in his resume? Khaya Mahlangu, Kevin Maduna, The Love World Band, Umbaqanga We Blues, ESkay, Seriously Daniel and Alpha Prince. This is a range of the old legends and the new younger generation who are at the top of their game. Obakeng’s profession has taken him places and these include Pretoria, Johannesburg, Witbank, Kimberley and Bloemfontein. This is only the beginning and I am certain the rate at which he is developing and putting his career out, he is likely to be touring the world soon.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he has made the big leagues such as Standard Bank Joy of Jazz, Macufe and Go West Festival. He has also made the jazz joints like The Orbit, Winnie’s Restaurant and Nikki’s Restaurant. In so many ways, these festivals and clubs are a good yardstick for measuring a musician’s progress and recognition. In everything that he does, he still finds time to offer music lessons.
So, why did Obakeng make the It Has To Be Jazz® project review? Actually, it is not easy to pick one specific reason. It is a collection of small things that make up Obakeng. For starters, it is his unique style and drumming signature. And it is also his ability to perform as an ‘outsider’ inside a live ensemble but still maintains time for the members. That is a great talent.