Bakithi Kumalo's musical career has been characterized by a series of serendipitous events, ranging from his debut gig as a precocious seven-year-old filling in for the bassist in his uncle's band to his enlistment into Paul Simon's group during the recording sessions of the pop star's landmark Graceland album in 1985.
Kumalo creates a singular electric fretless bass sound teeming with double stops that sound like human voices and the African grooves of his homeland, which has garnered him a stellar reputation as a sideman. In addition to touring with Simon, he's also recorded and/or toured with Gloria Estefan, Derrick Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Chico Ceasar, Laurie Anderson, Gerald Albright, Miriam Makeba, Randy Brecker, Grover Washington Jr., Bob James, Angelique Kidjo, Jon Secada, Josh Groban and Chris Botti.
Kumalo's bass-playing history began in Soweto where he grew up surrounded by music. His mother sang in a church choir and his uncle, a saxophone player, was always at his house rehearsing his band. "Every weekend, everyone would be at my house singing and playing all day," Kumalo says. "Plus there were bands on every block of my neighborhood. So, music surrounded me. There was traditional African rhythmic music as well as a cappella vocal groups. I picked up the bass early and realized I could follow the groove of a tune with it. I could play the bass lines from a cappella music, and I learned how to develop lines based on the left-hand work of accordion players in the township bands."
While Kumalo became a professional at an early age in his uncle's band, life in apartheid South Africa posed many challenges; so many, in fact, that Kumalo began to look for work outside the music field. However, a producer friend introduced him to Simon, whose music he was largely unfamiliar with. Despite his nervousness in meeting the American pop star in a studio setting, Kumalo says Simon immediately gravitated to his bass style. Kumalo's work on Graceland opened the doors for him to pursue other avenues, including recordings with Herbie Hancock, Randy Brecker and Cyndi Lauper.