This has been a greeting throughout the last thirty years of my life that has made my heart leap with joy every time I’ve heard it. It can only have come from Barney Rachabane. I’m not that deluded that I regard myself as his prime soulbrother (I mean this is the dude who stood next to Michael Brecker during the Paul Simon tour), but the warmth and love that flowed between us each time we bumped into one another after an extended absence, was always real and deep.
Barney. The smoky atmosphere of the now defunct Rumours club in Rockey street, Yeoville. Stan Jones and Art Kelly are steaming away, when this little guy enters with his saxophone case slung over his shoulder. Just this entry alone would transform the evening from being just another Sunday night at Rumours, to becoming THE Sunday night at Rumours. Stan calls Like Someone in Love, and Barney hits it in full stride. He states the ‘head’ with that mesmerizing tone of his. How does this tiny human frame get such a big damn warm sound? The phrasing of the melody is exquisite. Why wouldn’t it be? Barney was a supreme jazz Bebop alto master. The real deal. His first few choruses display ‘on point’ lines that wrap themselves perfectly around all the chromatic targets in the tune. But then that Rachabane transformation begins to occur.
For the rest of us mortals, those few choruses would be enough and we could now pass the baton on to the next soloist. But for Barney, these passages were merely part of his orientation. He changes gears and takes us outside of ourselves, outside of Rumours, and ultimately outside of time. The forest now enters his solo. Through a process of slurs, smears, flutters mixed with rapid staccato passages, he pushes deep into the unknown. The tune remains Like Someone in Love, and all the harmonic deadlines are still largely met, but the humanity, the “Barneyness” of it all has intensified.
Was that Colonel Hati from the Jungle Book trumpeting at the watering hole? What on earth was that creature that went scurrying by? We are out of the music now. We have left this world and our Starship Commander has a gleam in his eye as he pushes his voice into even more strange and previously unexplored places. Where Barney leads, it remains for us to follow. Eventually the dust settles and Barney takes a break.
He joins me at one of their tables and proceeds to give me the pros and cons of every single saxophone he has owned and played in his life. He seems to feel that this is necessary tonight, so I listen attentively, just happy to have this time together with an extraordinary creative soul. Yeah, he loved Bird, Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods and Cannonball Adderley. He even dug Paul Desmond. But while one could always hear their stylistic traits and mannerisms in his playing, Barney had that extra thing which can only come from someone born on this continent.
He had the ‘sound of Africa’ in his heart, and it was this extra gift that used to enthrall his listeners. It’s an overt display of the ‘Prana’ or life force that we all carry within ourselves. So time would pass, and then…… “Soulbrother #1”, and my happiness would once more fly off the charts when I realized we had both been booked to play with American jazz giants that had arrived on our shores. So it was when we did the Bob Minzer Sun City gigs. At rehearsals I became unashamedly like a mother hen to my buddy. I knew Barney’s essence. He wasn’t just another stock reading player like so many others. He had a craving to fly and soar in the moment and see where his soul was going to take him. “Barney, we’re in four sharps and that’s a g# not a g”. “Kevin these key signature things give me a headache”. “Okay, hand me your pad after rehearsal and I’ll fix it”. And so, that night, I wrote in all the accidentals that were covered by the key signature. When you deeply love someone, this is what you do. No ego, no big deal, just a need to make the music sound as beautiful and meaningful as possible.
At the gigs, Barney simply astonished Bob Minzer with his incredible ability to express himself fully. At the after party he likewise astonished Bob’s wife by embracing her with an unannounced bear hug followed by the words “If you love Bob, then I love you”. When I saw this, my only thought was “Well you didn’t see that coming, but you have now experienced the warmth of Africa”. Then…… “Soulbrother #1!!!!” Yes!!!!
We’re now sitting together once more, but this time it’s to back Pharaoh Sanders on his South African tour. Once more at the rehearsals Barney and I are in our happy zone while hammering all the written phrases into place. Pharaoh takes a few choruses on Coltrane’s Moment’s Notice. What a gorgeous tone he has with his well-conceived lines cutting through the changes with ease. Barney prods me in the side like a naughty schoolboy : “I thought this guy was a radical free player, but it turns out that you and I are the really weird ones in the band!”
Color, life force, humanity. The little dude with the biggest heart. So many random moments are now streaming by as I review the imprint he has left on all of us. My precious brother you have always been the height of hipness to me. We bounced off each other in the most unexpected situations for the past thirty years or so. You’ve left us, but we shall always carry you with us. You used the word “actually” a lot, and I can still hear you saying it. Fly free now. We’ve all been so blessed to be on this planet at the same time as you, and you will always be my “Soulbrother #1”. You filled me up then, and you fill me up now. Really. “Actually”.
Video recorded in 2018 at the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre, Sophiatown, as part of the project South African Jazz Cultures and the Archive. This Sophiatown recording was facilitated by funding from Nduduzo Makhathini. Sound recorded by Jonathan Eato. Special thanks to Tricia Sibbons and Mandla Mlangeni.