Bakithi Kumalo: Grace Note

Paul Simon’s bassist Bakithi Kumalo has been blowing our minds for decades with his unique playing. Mike Brooks meets the great man

Words: Mike Brooks  Images: Courtesy of Aguilar

Wind the clock back 30 years and for all the standout albums that were released in 1986, one particular recording defined its creator, announced a new age of African music in the West and thrust Mr Bakithi Kumalo into the spotlight. Of course, we’re referring to Paul Simon’s Graceland. His contribution to the album and subsequent tour meant there was a new bassist on the scene that everyone was talking about, with a reputation that has grown over the past three decades and continues to grow.

However, South Africa-born Kumalo paid his dues before Simon plucked him from obscurity. “Music was always there in the background,” he tells us. “Sometimes I would hear melodies without hearing any music because there was so much traditional music. It was a bunch of information and I was paying attention, listening to the vocals and I would play what the vocal was doing, playing melodies. My uncle had a band and they would practise at home: when I was 10 years old, I started to go to the garage and the houses where they practised, trying to get to know the local musicians. As time went on, I was invited to play as an acoustic guitar player, then the bass player left. I was already picking out bass-lines and the rhythm, that was all there in my head. James Jamerson was already an influence on me. Man, you can just play bass and drums and get the whole crowd dancing. So I moved to bass and that’s when things started to happen: I loved the sound of the instrument because it was so big. I kept practising and ran away from home. Running around with other musicians, you learn all kinds of stuff.”

With support from his mother, Kumalo set forth on his road to bass fulfilment – and then life threw him something of a curveball, as he explains. “My mother bought me my fretless bass in 1972, a Washburn B40, which cost $100 but it took me to the level where I needed to go to replicate vocal melodies. The fretless was like another voice. I never owned a fretted bass, I went straight in on fretless and I promised my mother that I would stay with bass guitar for the rest of my life. I was so focused that this was what I wanted to do. I was working at the garage, running around as a mechanic, because my mother was sick and I didn’t have enough money to take care of her. Then I got a call from one of the guys responsible for sourcing musicians in South Africa: he was a producer, and if you go past this guy, you are good. I had played on a track that was recorded by the band that were used to record ‘Boy In The Bubble’ so there was a connection already, and he helped Paul Simon to put the Graceland thing together.”

Once Graceland landed, its opening salvo, the classic ‘You Can Call Me Al’ was on rotation on MTV and racing up the charts around the globe. The bass solo is a nightmare to replicate exactly, and for good reason, as Kumalo explains: “Paul said come up with something, so I did, the first half of what you hear. He and the engineer then turned the tapes and applied some reversed reverb – which is the original riff played backwards. After Graceland became a monster, a lot of name bass players came to me, saying ‘Man, what the hell did you do there?’ I let everyone know that I was here!”

Kumalo’s talent was no longer a secret, especially to a certain fretless bass legend. “One of my friends told me that when Jaco Pastorius first heard Graceland, he said ‘Who is that cat?’ He heard the fretless but our playing styles were quite different. I even got a call from Joe Zawinul, who was putting Syndicate together after Victor Bailey had left Weather Report: he liked what I had done with Paul.”

Working with Paul Simon for over 30 years is no mean feat, as he is a man with a reputation for knowing exactly what he wants from a musician. “He starts by telling you what he wants,” explains Kumalo, “and then you get a picture. He will give you the idea, he’s telling the story, and the instruments have to connect. Then you take the idea and try to find a sound that works for it. I pick and choose different basses depending on the song. I use a Pigtronix Looper because if something works, I
can record it and then look for some
different things.”

He adds, “You turn up to rehearsals with Paul and every day is a different day. The thing you have to understand is that this is a job. You’re here to deliver, so you have to have an open mind. I play the songs just as I played them on the album and he’ll say ‘Man, you’ve been playing like this for a long time, do you have any other ideas?’, and then he opens the gate for me so I can start to approach the songs differently. Every show is different. For me it’s not just about playing, it’s about understanding the acoustics of a room. In some rooms, the bass stays in the air for a long time and creates a lot of problems.”

For Kumalo, the learning process when it comes to gear never stops, as his list of endorsements – which also includes Aguilar, Dunlop, Elrick, NS Design and Kala – indicates. “I’ve played with Herbie Hancock and Randy Brecker and I never stop learning. I don’t ever have a plan. I feel like an artist with a blank canvas: you’re putting the colours and shades together, the studio makes you create. I grew up in the studio and that’s why I prefer being in the studio to playing live. I don’t want to lose what I’ve created with my hands and my playing, that’s my voice. My thing is to listen to the electronics, the preamps and the pickups, to hear differences. I prefer the preamp in the bass to do the work rather than the amplifier, which is why I’m sticking with Aguilar: I use their DB751 amp, a great, simple amp, GS410 cabinets and their onboard preamps. I’m also working with NS Design to come up with a bass with a fixed floating bridge, one volume control and a switch that selects one of two tones, so I have a slap tone and a fingerstyle tone that will be similar to the fretless tone I use. I’m using them on these shows, along with my Kala U-Bass. I’m learning about preamp and pickup technology so I can take it to another level.”

He continues: “I don’t listen to other bass players because I want to be open-minded. I don’t want to be influenced by other things that I may have heard. Likewise, I try to stay away from the instruments that everyone else plays because then you start to sound like everybody else, although I admire players like Chris Squire, who had his own unique voice on the instrument. I really appreciate everybody and I enjoy their work, I read and check out players’ websites to keep up with who is doing whatever, but I don’t go to bass players’ gigs.”

With his ninth solo album, After All These Years, about to be released, Kumalo shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, which is great news for us in the bass community. He has a message for lovers of low frequencies: “I’ve been waiting to say thank you to all the people who have supported and appreciated my work for all these years – and my new album is a way of saying that.” It’s been our pleasure. 


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