Paul Simon’s groove keeper for three decades talks gear, paying dues in Soweto & practicing on a cardboard bass.
Bakithi Kumalo is the man behind the memorable bass lines on Paul Simon’s most successful studio album, Graceland. This was a turning point for the South African bassist, essentially launching his international career, and for Paul Simon whose record won a Grammy for best Album of the Year in 1987. Bakithi has continued to record and tour with Simon, having recently completed the latest leg of Simon’s Stranger to Stranger tour.
When not with Simon, Kumalo is in constant demand as a session player and performing artist, laying grooves for many recording artists that include Gloria Estefan, Herbie Hancock, Chaka Khan, Harry Belafonte, Cyndi Lauper and the Tedeschi /Trucks Band. He has also produced four solo albums.
From poverty to celebrity, Bakithi’s tale is a reminder of what many of us bass players take for granted, and how hard work can prevail over hard times. He’s also an example of a gracious soul who believes deeply in giving back and sharing his joy of music and talent with others.
The HUB: Let’s talk a little bit about your background.
BK: I was born in South Africa in a township called Soweto, which is just a little bit outside of Johannesburg city. That’s where my music and everything started. I’m sure you know the struggle that we went through in South Africa with Nelson Mandela being in prison. As a kid, I was just confused, not understanding what was going on. But my main focus was music. No matter what happened, that’s what I wanted to do.
And that’s exactly what I did. Thanks to my uncle who was my biggest influence. He played saxophone at home all the time, every day. I looked up to him. I wanted to be like him when I got older. When I was 7 years old, I started to really pay attention and watch his bass player going crazy with the bass. That sound was unbelievable. I couldn’t describe it as a kid, but it was an amazing thing.
I showed interest in learning, and my uncle’s bass player helped me to navigate everything. He said, “If you want to learn these things, you’ve got to use your memory.” So, I started to apply myself and go out around the township to visit other bands playing.
By the age of 12, I was being invited to the studio to record with traditional musicians. That’s when I realized this was exactly what I wanted to do.
The HUB: Did you play any other instruments besides the bass at that time?
BK: It’s funny. After I learned the bass from my uncle, the first band that I joined already had a bass player, but they didn’t have a guitar player. So, I said, “Yeah, I can play the guitar,” but when I was playing the guitar I was playing the guitar just like a bass. Later the bass player quit the band. When he quit, I told them, “I want to play the bass.” They let me do that, and I just stayed with the bass and grew from there.
The HUB: Were you playing strictly by ear or learning to read music too?
BK: No reading, even still today. I can read, but I get very pressured. I get locked up. I have a great ear and can hear something and play. I’ve been playing by ear for many years. Even when we did the Graceland tour, there was no reading. It was just playing by ear.
The HUB: Did you have any instruction from other bass players?
BK: Yes. There were a couple of bass players in the Township that I’d visit sometimes. But before they would play for you or teach you anything, you had to buy them a pack of cigarettes and then maybe alcohol or something. I’d buy the guy some beers and then he’d sit down and break it down for me. But he couldn’t explain the chords or the scales and everything. He’d just play the groove and say, “Now you have to listen. You have to listen.”
But what’s nice about the township was all the kinds of music that was there: gospel, soul, etc. hey used to call 12-bar blues, play Count Basie, Duke Ellington, but in a South African traditional way. I would listen to everything and just learn.
Also, there was a lot of a cappella gospel music from different traditional cultures. Every weekend they’d pass by our street, singing all kinds of stuff and playing the drums. I absorbed all that at an early age. There was no school, except to listen to all that music out there.
The HUB: Who were your influences on bass?
BK: Motown was always on the radio in South Africa. They would play Temptations, Four Tops, and I would sit close to the radio and listen to bass player James Jamerson. He was amazing. He played a lot of stuff, but he never lost the groove. I would listen to him and then later to other musicians like Stanley Clarke, Ron Carter and Marcus Miller.
I really paid attention. I kept listening and trying to copy the styles until I joined a group in 1982 that was going to Zululand for some festival about 10 hours away from home. This was my first time leaving home. We jumped on a bandwagon, but by the time we got to Zululand, the car broke down and we were stranded. I couldn’t come home. I had no phone. I couldn’t write. My mother didn’t know where I was.
I didn't have money to come home. It was a struggle. We didn't make any money and things got bad. I hung out with the local people. They would feed me and we’d play traditional music and I would just stay with them.
The HUB: How old were you at that time?
BK: At that time I was 15. I spent 16 months in Zululand before I finally found somebody who was going to Johannesburg and I got a ride. When I got home, my mother didn't recognize me. She thought I was dead. She said, "No, you’re not my son," and had a big problem with that. My other family members came in and were like, "Yeah, he is your son. He just looks bad 'cause he's been gone for a while."
But my mother told me, "No, no more music. You got to find a job." That's when things got tough and I said, "I can't. I've struggled for this. It's what I want to do.”
Funny thing, when we were in Zululand I had a dream that there was a man playing the bass. There was no head. I just saw the hands playing the bass. I was playing with a pick and then also using my thumb, but when I saw the man in my dream, he was playing with his fingers.
I started to change things around and practice everything with my fingers. That took me a while, but once I got it, it made everything so easy and the tone changed. The tone was not very good when I was playing with my thumb, but by the time I moved onto fingers, it was getting better.
That's after Zululand. So now I was starting to get sessions, studio work and then also some people hired me to play gigs with them. I did it for a while, and then I took another trip to go to Zimbabwe for eight months with another band. We were playing some serious stuff like Kool & the Gang; Earth, Wind & Fire; George Benson, and bands that I chose. I grew from that.
And while I was in Zimbabwe, I got to learn traditional music from Zimbabwe and hang with the Zimbabwe musicians. They taught me for that eight months. I was very lucky. After that I went back to Johannesburg. In 1985, about three years later, I got a call from Paul.
The HUB: When you came back to Johannesburg and, before that call, were you able to make a living playing bass professionally?
BK: Yes, I was making a living doing a lot of sessions. By then I could play different styles: pop, jazz, jazz fusion, even play Chick Corea stuff like Spain. I was now really growing into it. I could take a Jaco song and play exactly the same thing at the age of 25.
The HUB: What bass were you playing at that time?
BK: At that time, I was playing different basses because, when you join a band, they already have the instruments. Sometimes it's in bad shape, but you have no choice because you don't have an instrument. I played a Music Man and sometimes a Fender or a Gibson, just all kinds of basses. When you leave the rehearsal, you cannot take the bass with you. It belongs to the owner. So, you go home and just come back the next day.
The HUB: That’s curious—the band or the leader of the band owns the equipment, so that's where the bass stays. How did you practice at home?
BK: It wasn’t even the leader. Some guy has money and he buys instruments because he loves music. He can't sing. He can't play. Nothing. But he will buy the instrument so he has music on weekends. He brings his girlfriend or his wife, and then we play for him. But after that, he keeps the instrument.
At home, I would sometimes take a piece of cardboard and cut it like a bass and draw the frets and strings. This way I could practice what I'd been playing so that when I got back at least I still have the memory of what we were playing.
I told my mother I needed to have my own instrument. But the only bass that was available was a fretless. It was the cheapest bass, for like $100. I bought the Washburn B20 fretless bass. And it was a struggle to learn it. [laughs]
Every time I played the thing, I would hold the E and the others would say, “something's wrong.” But they couldn't understand what was wrong. They were not familiar with that kind of fretless tone. Also, they wanted to see the lines. If there are no lines, they’d say it's not a good bass. It's a jazz bass and everything.
I had to really spend time with the fretless. I would look into Jaco's stuff and then see how he approached the fretless to get that sound. I started to play traditional music again with the fretless and find a voice, and I’d hang out with the accordion player so I could learn the left hand of accordion.
The HUB: You mean to comp the bass part—to be able to read what he's playing on the bass?
BK: Yes, partly that, and then it's because of the sound of the accordion. The left-hand notes of the accordion are almost like a fretless. For me, to get a good fretless tone, I needed to hang out with the accordion player and listen to his left hand and try to duplicate that. What I did on "The Boy in the Bubble" is an example of the fretless working with the left hand of the accordion. It's more like a wind instrument, like a trombone or euphonium. I learned that in the meantime. I also tried to copy some Jaco stuff, whatever was out there.
And from there I started to develop this sound. That's before Graceland. A year later I get a call, which is 1985, to say Paul is looking for musicians. I took my fretless to the studio. Without a case [laughs]. You know, my greasy hands too, because I was working as a mechanic while I was playing the bass. Weekends I played the bass, but during the week I was working to help my mother who was getting sick.
Paul loved a lot of what I did. He loved the sound of the fretless and made me believe in it. When he told me that we were going to finish the tracks in New York, I couldn't sleep for a week. I couldn’t believe I was going to America. I was scared and confused until I got on that jet. Then I said, "My life is changing."
Things started to change when I got on that jet to New York. It was a whole different thing. I was so confused. I didn't expect this city to be so big. But then another thing, too. In my mind, I was thinking America was New York, not other places [laughter]. I didn't know about any other place than New York. It was like, oh, yeah, you want to go to America, New York is America.
BK: I'm still trying to understand it. What I like most is their upright bass. They have an amazing upright bass. But the electric bass, I'm still trying to figure out the sound. I've got different basses. Some of the basses you have to believe what they're giving you and just go with it, but I have my sound. Fretless-wise I'm still struggling to get a fretless that's going to be close to what I did on Graceland.
The HUB: Are you playing 5-string mostly or four or six?
BK: I play all of them, it just depends. If I play with a fusion band where I have to play narratives and solos, that's when I play 6-string. I like the 5-string for the low B when I play groove, and the 4-string if I do a lot of slapping. It's better to have a 4-string to slap because it's not too many strings [laughter].
When I do sessions, if I have six or seven songs on the record or the CD, I want every track to be different, to have a different tone. I use different basses. When I play with Paul on tour, I bring 10 basses on stage and I play this one or that one, depending on the song.
The HUB: What if you could only take one bass to the gig?
BK: That's a tough question. I mean they are all my favorites. But, yeah, at the end of the day it's not the bass, it's the hands. When I got that fretless bass, it was simple and passive, nothing fancy. But it's how you put your right hand on the body or how you rest your hand between the pickups to get that tone, or how you grip. If I make that sound, I can get any bass to sound like it’s my thing.
The HUB: How about bass amps? I know you're an endorser of Phil Jones bass amps.
BK: Yes. Phil Jones's stuff gave me a different sound. It's very interesting because it doesn't take away from what the bass is offering. You hear exactly what the bass is giving.
Some amps you have to dial the knobs and try to get a sound because they're giving what the speaker is giving. But Phil Jones is dry. The speaker is dry. You just add whatever you want to do on your bass. It's really unbelievable. Of course, he's also a great bass player. So, that's what I'm playing.
The HUB: That's a compact amp and easy to carry.
BK: Right, they’re very light for a grown man like me [laughs]. I don't want to be carrying big stuff to go to small gigs. And they record very well. Phil Jones has one of these monitors called the EAR Box that sits next to your ear instead of depending on the amp, which is behind you hitting your legs with the sound passing by.
This EAR Box is exactly what you hear from the bass, which is amazing. I've never seen anything like that until now. Just a great product. Actually, for this last 6-week tour that I just finished with Paul, that's what I've been using and I'm loving it. We go back next year again and I'll be using it as well.
The HUB: Let's talk about your current work. What's happening?
BK: There's no time off. I'm trying to stay active. I've been busy in Long Island working with a bunch of teenagers. I have 14 kids and 14 or 16 songs to show these kids how I work. We get the songs, and I teach them how to listen to and learn the song, and then work together as a band and help one another. After that we perform the songs and go out and do a couple of dates.
When your parents buy you an instrument, your job is to learn songs and then go and take care of your music lesson. When you perform, you earn a little bit of money so you can pay for your own music lesson or apply for a scholarship. But you have to do it. You can't have an instrument just sitting at home that you’re not even playing and instead you're playing Nintendo games. That's not good.
These kids were kind enough to cancel their summer stuff and stay with me for about three months to work on these songs. These kids are unbelievable. If you go to East End Arts, or if you go to my website, you’ll see the stuff that I've been working on with these kids.
And then, in between, people send me audio files at home. I can do sessions at home and record different instruments. I play percussion. I play guitar at home. I can just do stuff for them. And then also there's a band called South African All Stars. We have a couple of dates coming up. And then I sometimes just show up by myself and talk about my life. I'm that guy who played on Graceland and here's my story growing up in South Africa.
The HUB: Are there any artists that you would like to play with that you haven't yet?
BK: I would love to play with George Benson, Stevie Wonder...but the thing I'm most interested in is being in the house band on one of those TV shows. That's my dream, because that way I'm not traveling. I'm home every day. I’d be able to take care of my daughters. That's what I'd be happy to do.
The HUB: What advice would you give to a young bass player?
BK: My advice is to stay focused and do the right thing. When you play, make sure that you practice and you show up on time at the gigs, and just respect the business. At the end of the day, it's not about playing a bunch of notes. It's about understanding the business, understanding your life, being part of the union so you can help.
But most important is to pray. I did a lot of praying to get out of the mess, survive and stay away from problems so that I could have another day. This is a gift I was given to give back. I always take this gift and then give it to the ears that are listening to me and make sure that they go home happy.
It's just unbelievable. Everywhere I go people see me like, “wow, you're the guy.” One man told me once, "I was not a musician, but when I heard the record Graceland, I had to find a bass and learn to play it.”
That's important. I'm playing to enjoy my playing. When I finish a show, I want people to sing and remember my bass lines. I'm not the kind of bass player to be hectic and by the end of the session you're like, “what the hell did he play? He plays too many notes.”
Find a direction and then stay with it. You can't play ping pong, which is the same thing I tell my kids. Find what works for you and stay with it. Because you can be distracted easily. Stay focused on what's right for you and then take it to another level. Do the right thing and just keep practicing.