The musician and activist Julian Bahula, who has died aged 85, was the first player to introduce indigenous African drums to South African jazz, an innovation that was crucial to the music of the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s.
The South African musician and political activist Julian Bahula died, aged 85, on 1 October 2023, after a short battle with cancer. Julian was born in Eersterust, Pretoria in 1938, his family later forcibly removed to Mamelodi township. A founding member of the Malombo Jazz Ensemble, with guitarists Philip Tabane, Lucky Ranku and flautist Abbey Cindi in the 1960s, he established himself as a powerful and energetic drummer, using traditional malombo drums.
“We came with a different thing that sounds traditional and turned into a jazz thing,” he was later to say. “Our sound was more raw… Most musicians, they were copying American jazz music… We wanted to come with something original from Africa, based in what our forefathers were doing.” Reissues of the Malombo Jazz Makers albums were reviewed in Jazz Journal in July 2023.
In political exile in the UK from 1973, he was a tireless activist for the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the African National Congress, gigging at rallies and benefits with his group Jabula. In 1983, working with Mike Terry of the AAM, Bahula organised the first large-scale concert to publicise the fate of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners of apartheid.
Timed to celebrate Mandela’s 65th birthday and funded by the Arts Council, Hackney council, the Musicians’ Union and the GLC, the Festival of African Sounds took place at Alexandra Palace in north London on 17 July, and featured performances from Hugh Masekela, Osibisa and Bahula’s group Jazz Afrika, among others.
The concert was the first event to bring Mandela’s imprisonment to wider public consciousness, and it was here that Jerry Dammers heard Jazz Afrika play their song Mandela, inspiring him to write the Specials’ protest song with its refrain “Free Nelson Mandela”, which became an international hit the following year.
Bahula was born in Eersterust, a township east of Pretoria where black South Africans could then own the freehold on property. Following the Group Areas Act, under which black residents had their homes expropriated, in the late 1950s Bahula’s family were forcibly relocated to the township of Mamelodi.
There, Bahula began to play trap drums in a jazz group called the Crotchets, but then formed a trio, the Malombo Jazzmen, with the guitarist Philip Tabane and the flautist Abbey Cindi. At first he continued to use a western drum kit, but Tabane’s music required a different sound, so he replaced his kit with Pedi malopo drums, traditionally used in healing rituals.
In 1964 they entered the second Castle Lager Jazz festival in Johannesburg. The appearance of the Malombo Jazzmen, with their indigenous African rhythms and instruments, caused a huge stir at the time of Hendrik Verwoerd’s “grand apartheid”. The Malombos shared first prize with another drummer, Early Mabuza, and Bahula featured on the cover of the subsequent album, Castle Lager Jazz Festival 1964. It was a bestseller, though the band never saw a penny in royalties.
Soon afterwards, Tabane left to found his own group; Bahula and Cindi enlisted the guitarist Lucas “Lucky” Ranku, and continued as the Malombo Jazz Makers. They performed widely and recorded three acclaimed albums for South Africa’s premier record label, Gallo (once again, they saw no royalties).
Managed by the ANC activist and photographer Peter Magubane, the group also began to work in the underground anti-apartheid struggle; as early as 1966 Bahula was smuggling documents to exiled ANC cadres in Botswana inside his drums. In the early 70s they struck up a close relationship with Steve Biko and other leading figures in the South African Students’ Organisation, accompanying Biko and Strini Moodley’s radical Theatre Council of Natal on a clandestine theatre and poetry tour entitled Into the Heart of Negritude.
They also broke apartheid laws by performing secretly with the white psychedelic rock group Freedom’s Children in segregated venues (the set would be performed in darkness, with the Malombos’ hands and faces painted with fluorescent paint), and at David Marks’s Free Peoples concerts, which featured racially mixed bills and audiences. As a result, the police continually pursued them and the special branch raided their gigs and homes.
Bahula fled to London in 1973, with Ranku closely following him, and founded the band Jabula, featuring Ranku on guitar. The group included members of the British-Caribbean group Cymande and made two albums with Caroline records, Jabula (1975), and Thunder Into Our Hearts (1976), both featuring saxophonist Dudu Pukwana. Bahula then started his own label and promotions company, Tsafrika.
With his wife Liza (nee Breen), whom he had met at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, and in 1978 married, he promoted a regular African music night from the mid-70s at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, booking artists from all over the continent including Masekela, Manu Dibango, Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba. He continued to raise money and spread awareness of the anti-apartheid struggle with Jabula, often playing without pay at speeches, parties, fundraising events and protests.
Run on a shoestring, Tsafrika had largely been supported by grants from the GLC; when that body was abolished by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1987, it became impossible to sustain. The 100 Club sessions dried up, and Jabula and Jazz Afrika disbanded. Bahula remained involved with the ANC and AAM and continued to play drums, including a track on Stevie Wonder’s 1987 album Characters.
When apartheid fell and Bahula was finally able to return to South Africa, he successfully sued his former record labels for lost royalties on behalf of the Malombos, regaining control of the group’s publishing rights. A serious car accident in South Africa in the mid-90s left him with severe head injuries, and after a long convalescence he and Liza moved out of London to the Wiltshire town of Westbury.
In 2012 he was awarded the gold category of the Order of Ikhamanga, South Africa’s highest honour for artistic and cultural work. After Liza’s death in 2016, Bahula moved back to London, and in 2018 he married Pinky Miles. After becoming seriously ill earlier this year, he returned to South Africa.
His daughter, Nancy, from a previous relationship, predeceased him. He is survived by Pinky, and by three grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.