After his debut, Tefo Mahola hungers for more

Words by Atiyyah Khan
Photographs by Lauren Herrmann

The Cape Town drummer’s distinctive, expressive style has earned him the nickname Talking Drum — and this debut album is only the beginning for the rising star.

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Tefo Mahola’s drum kit is spread across his bedroom. It takes up more than half the space, with his bed tucked away to one side. The room is filled with various instruments: smaller African drums, a keyboard, speakers and a sound system. Video game controllers lie nearby. On a Tuesday morning, an incense stick cleanses the space while the sound of Donald Byrd’s trumpet drifts in the background. We are in Gugulethu, in the semi-detached back room of the house where Mahola grew up.

In person, Mahola gives off a cool, easy-going energy. If you’ve had your ear to the ground over the past few years, there’s a good chance you would have encountered Mahola playing somewhere in Cape Town. The 26-year-old drummer, pianist, poet, composer and arranger has put in hard work playing across the city’s music scene. He is part of the younger generation now carrying the torch for the jazz community.

In a short time, Mahola has developed his expressive style. The musician — who has earned the nickname “Talking Drum” for his style — quietly released his debut album, the aptly titled First Offering, in July last year.

A familial influence

Mahola credits his uncle Nkoebe Phillip Ramosoeu — who died two years ago — as being his chief musical influence while growing up. His uncle was a lover of jazz, soul and funk and found a keen student in Mahola.

“He had a stack of LPs and always had the latest sound system. He was always playing these jams and telling me, ‘Listen to this. This is the music, not this stuff you kids are listening to now’,” he recalls.

While Mahola started experimenting with piano in primary school, he explains that “it wasn’t actually really playing. I was just chasing the guy around who used to come there to play the national anthem and school songs during assembly. And I was just persistent in asking him to show me a few things on the piano.”

His primary school had limited resources for extramural activities, so Mahola only picked up music in high school, starting with piano, which influenced the way he later composed. Soon enough, though, he “levitated to the drums”, saying it was love at first sight.

Mahola became truly interested in jazz after hearing Max Roach’s music. He was introduced to it by his drum teacher at the time, percussionist Oliver Schenk. “His playing just sold it for me. Like his soloing and how melodic it was,” Mahola says. “I mostly checked out his solos and how effortlessly he made the drums seem. I wanted to technically be able to play effortlessly. And I’m still on my way there.” Towards the end of high school, he decided to pursue music as a career — supported in this decision by his mother.

While doing a BA in jazz studies at the University of the Western Cape, Mahola made the difficult decision to quit after earning his degree but before completing a final year, which would qualify him to teach. The heaviness of academia weighed down on him and stood in the way of his real love: playing music. Rain in Solace, which appears on his debut album, was one of the earliest songs he composed. It captures the depression he experienced during his studies and signifies the choice he made to dedicate his future to music.

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First steps

As the album title suggests, First Offering is an introduction to Mahola’s ideas. It includes compositions dating back to 2015. “This album was really just the first step forward into something … These are songs that I feel best envisage this first version of myself that I’m wanting to give out to the people [right now]. It got to a point where I felt I really wanted to release this music, otherwise it’s going to get old. So, this is the first time where I felt this is enough.”

First Offering is a wonderful first release. The spirit of groove drives a big part of the sound. Each composition roughly riffs on a theme that continues in the following song. Before the Tear segues into The Tear. The moods change between tracks, giving us a sense of where Mahola’s head is at.

Alongside instrumentation, poetry has always influenced Mahola’s writing process. For early performances, he incorporated poetry and piano, but now he has stripped the music down to highlight the drums.

“Most of my songs have lyrics,” he says, “but for the album, I wanted people to listen to the instruments and the sound first, versus song and lyrics.” On some tracks, Mahola sings or vocalises short bursts of poetic language.

“Black Man. Darkie. Pain. Can you relate?” are the only words in Black Man, the 10th song on the album. On an extended live version of it via Bandcamp, he says the song was inspired by “everything going on with BLM (Black Lives Matter), George Floyd, South African affairs and the abduction of children and women, and just crimes happening due to racism”.

The process

Mahola assembled the band and recorded the album early in March last year. It features Mahola on drums and vocals, and the rest of the band includes Sean Sanby and Steve de Souza on bass, Dylan Fine on guitar, Athi Ngcaba on trombone, Ofentse Moshwetsi on flute and alto saxophone, Muneeb Hermans on trumpet and Thembelihle Dunjana on piano. Many of these band members have also released debut albums in the past year.

This crew of 20-somethings either studied together or played in bands with each other over much of the past six years, which made the recording process smoother. “I had lined up a few gigs before the recording, so we had a jam session where we could play and really go in. We got to reimagine the songs before actually recording them, so we were really ready.”

Mahola thoroughly enjoyed recording, creating the album at Concept Records – a small independent studio in Sybrand Park, Athlone, run by a crew of young engineers. Two weeks later, however, the Covid-19 lockdown was put in place, which made finalising the album tedious. The pandemic forced them to send files and notes back and forth for mixing and mastering. First Offering was then released digitally.

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Like so many artists who released albums during the first wave of the pandemic, promotion was nearly impossible beyond online performances. Since then, his performances have mostly been online, with a few physical gigs. “It wasn’t possible to have a big launch, but we were able to create the music and get it out there to the people, so I’m just very grateful for that,” he says.

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Lighting the way

In his short career, Mahola has shared the stage with some contemporary greats and has worked with a diverse range of musicians including McCoy Mrubata, Stiff Pap and Iphupho l’ka Biko.

Multi-instrumentalist Darren English says, “Tefo is my favourite drummer in South Africa at the moment. I love playing with him, because his heart is open to the music all the time.”

Guitarist Reza Khota, who has also played regularly with him, shares English’s sentiments. “Tefo is one of my favourite young SA drummers emerging in the musical world at the moment. Quite simply, you can feel when someone is in it and playing music for all the best reasons. This combined with unbridled joy and the presence of mind/spirit that is brought to every moment of music-making is what makes a great musician. Tefo has these qualities and brings his own musical flair to the gig.”

Part of Mahola’s great skill is his keen sense for improvisation. “I am an improviser. I don’t really like to read music much, even though I can … The way I approach it is I look. And I listen … And then you give. It’s a give and take. You give the light, and you are passing energy around.”

Saxophonist Sisonke Xonti, who played with Mahola in November, notes that it is Mahola’s particular style that makes him stand out, saying, “It was so amazing to play with him because I really wanted to play with more Black musicians from Cape Town, especially from the township. And he just blew me away! What really stands out for me is his personal style of playing. Not many musicians are able to have their unique style of playing, but he does. Playing with him is incredible, and he’s always keeping you on your toes.”

Moving forward, Mahola is interested in continuing to explore new sounds, especially experimental hip-hop. He prefers not to be boxed in by jazz. The young artist listens to all kinds of music including kwaito, hip-hop and house, but deeply loves the sound of Lee Morgan, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey and Louis Moholo-Moholo.

“Now that the album is out, I feel like I’m happy I’ve put something out,” he says. “I now know what it feels like to give something to the world and say, ‘Yes, this is me. Here we go!’ I’m very excited to release more. I’m hungry!”

First Offering is available on Bandcamp and Spotify.

You can listen to Atiyyah Khan’s extended radio interview with Tefo Mahola here.

This article was first published by New Frame.

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