A conversation with Bakithi Kumalo at Allentown Art Museum
Plan your “Third Thursday Arts Destination” at 6 p.m. Sept. 21, Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley, when Bakithi Kumalo, renowned international musician, composer and educator, presents a program of music and conversation.
Kumalo, a Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa native who played a key role on Paul Simon’s landmark 1985 “Graceland” album and tours with the legendary singer-songwriter, will present a conversation with Tahya at the Art Museum.
During the 60-minute program, Kumalo will share original compositions, traditional South African songs sung in Zulu (one of South Africa’s 11 official languages), introduce the audience to the South African mbaqanga rhythm, discuss South African culture, and the history and evolution of the “Graceland” album. The program will conclude with a question and answer session. Admission to the Art Museum is free, starting at 4 p.m., for “Third Thursday.”
Kumalo, who has become a Lehigh Valley resident, performed Sept. 10 with his Four Peace Band at Godfrey Daniels and Sept. 14 with his trio at the Hotel Bethlehem.
“My kids go to school here,” Kumalo says. One of his daughters attends Kutztown University. Another daughter studies at Westminster College. “I came from a place where I never really think about college.”
Paul Simon’s search for world music led him to Kumalo, a friend of Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, and President of South Africa 1994-99, for whom he performed many times.
Kumalo has been touring and recording with Paul Simon for more than 30 years and continues to tour and record with Simon while maintaining an active solo recording and performance schedule.
Kumalo’s solo albums include “This Is Me,” 2005; “Transmigration,” 2006; “Change,” 2009, and “After All These Years,” 2016.
Kumalo’s contribution to the “Graceland” album, perhaps most memorably the bass line for “You Can Call Me Al,” made him an in-demand session and touring musician for Gloria Estefan, Josh Groban, Herbie Hancock, Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, Grover Washington Jr., Laurie Anderson, Angelique Kidjo, Jon Secada, Hugh Masekela, Chaka Khan, Mickey Hart, Joan Baez, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Diana Ross, Kathleen Battle, Herbie Hancock, Randy Brecker and Cyndi Lauper.
Says Kumalo, “People mostly know me as Paul Simon’s bass player and now I want to share my music and the culture of South Africa with everyone, along with celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela.”
In recognition of the centenary birth of Mandela, Kumalo is presenting college, high school and community arts education programs about growing up in South Africa during Apartheid.
“I’m doing a music mentorship in Long Island.
“I just try to get involved as much as I can, to show the young people to get involved in this beautiful world. The sky’s the limit. And just go for it.
“I surprise a lot of people,” Kumalo continues. “I’m here. For me, it’s about the life. It’s about family.”
Kumalo says the Lehigh Valley is particularly conducive. “It’s more like families. It’s relaxed. Go to church and be with the people. That’s what I like about the area. It’s such a beautiful place.
“My life is about learning and seeing all parts of the world. I am enjoying what’s Pennsylvania giving.
“The thing about this music life. I have three bands,” Kumalo says.
There’s the Four Peace Band, which performed at Godfrey’s: Kumalo, bass; Morris Goldberg, saxophone; David Bravo, piano, and Maciek Schejbal, drums.
There’s a trio and a nine-piece Tribute to Paul Simon Band.
At Godfrey’s, Kumalo introduced the concert: “You know, we don’t have songs. So, we’ll find out what we’re going to do.”
What the Four Peace Band does, as one concert-goer so aptly put it, is “joyful.” Kumalo’s bass playing is so invigorating, it sent chills up and down my spine.
Maciek Schejbal’s brushes on the drums built to a ravishing sax solo by Morris Goldberg.
The next selection featured Goldberg on the penny whistle (that’s him on “You Can Call Me Al”). After that one, Goldberg played two penny whistles simultaneously as Kumalo did some scat-singing.
“Celebration,” written by Kumalo for Mandela, became a sing-along.
Guest vocalist Diana Wright sang a soulful “At Last,” made famous by Etta James.
Other compositions included those written by Goldberg and Bravo. An instrumental version of “You Can Call Me Al” got a few people on their feet to dance.
Of the Godfrey concert, Kumalo recalls, “I always love playing that place. It’s just wonderful.”
At the Hotel Bethlehem, Kumalo, Schejbal and Bravo played a dreamy set of jazz improvisation.
“I want to be here and I want to contribute,” says Kumalo of his time in the Valley.
“Third Thursday” information: http://www.allentownartmuseum.org/event/09-21-17/third-thursday-september