Bass Players to Know: Bakithi Kumalo

Bakithi Kumalo

Of all the great moments in bass history, one of my favorites is the short and sweet solo on the Paul Simon tune, “You Can Call Me Al.” If you’re unfamiliar with this musical snippet (or the entirety of the Graceland record), it’s high time to give it a listen.

With a career as diverse as his musical heritage, Bakithi Kumalo is definitely a bass player to know.

So who is this Bakithi Kumalo?

A native of South Africa, Bakithi Kumalo injects traditional African rhythms and melodies into American music. Growing up in a musical family near Johannesburg, Bakithi began playing bass after learning a few basics from the bass player in his uncle’s band. After playing in local groups and doing session work, he got a call to jam in the studio in 1985 when Paul Simon traveled to South Africa in search of traditional African music. The musicians collaborated, Paul began writing songs, and that was the beginning of Graceland. Simon made plans to finish the record and decided to bring the musicians to New York, giving Bakithi the opportunity to travel to the United States. Bakithi then joined Paul Simon on tour to support the record and later decided to settle in New York.

Following the work on Graceland, Bakithi began recording and touring with a diverse roster of artists hailing from all styles. You can hear him laying down the low end for Joan Baez, Cyndi Lauper, Herbie Hancock, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Randy Brecker, Grover Washington Jr., Mickey Hart and on a handful of solo records. These days, Bakithi can still be seen on tour with Paul Simon, no doubt playing the classic bass lines on a custom fretless or on his signature Kala U-Bass.

Let’s Talk Style

Growing up amidst traditional African music and listening to popular American music on the radio, Bakithi fuses these elements with intuitive rhythmic and harmonic complexity. He exudes worldliness with his playing, seamlessly jumping from African rhythms to Latin feels, bossa nova grooves, odd time signatures, and American pop, jazz, and soul. A master of dead notes, much of his work on the Graceland record reflects a bouncy, lighthearted feel, accentuated by octave “hiccups,” anticipated downbeats, triplets, and double stops. His slap chops are pretty stellar, providing a friendly aggressiveness to his attack and license to use both hands for extra rhythmic variation and percussive hits. Take a listen to any of his solo records and you’ll hear how he integrates other rhythmic techniques, long string slides, and percussion.

When it comes to tone, there’s no denying the animated, slightly Jaco-ized sound of Bakithi playing a fretless bass. His high melodies speak brightly, accentuated by the zing of a harmonic or a quick sliding chord line. Both his bass lines and solos typically feature inverted broken arpeggios, quick pentatonic lines, and counter melodies. His roots in African music are obvious in many situations, though he does an amazing job playing to the song as he backs up popular artists.

Where Can I Hear His Playing?

“Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes” Paul Simon (Graceland)

Paul Simon: GracelandAside from the magic of listening to this song, from the a cappella introduction to the undeniably danceable feel and shining horn lines, “Diamonds…” features three characteristic elements on Bakithi’s style: a low and rhythmic bass line, chords sliding to the higher registers only to be punctuated by an intricate melodic line, and a funky slap groove (all played on fretless bass).

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Into the Sun” by Randy Brecker (Into The Sun)

Randy Brecker: Into the SunSpeaking to the jazzier side of things, this song is full of contrast; the form flows from a mellow and atmospheric introduction, to a driving Latin feel, and then settles into a heavy groove. Check out the cool melodic line accenting the end of the introduction and then reoccuring throughout the song. The “groove” section also features that characteristic bass layering, with high chords and slides sandwiched between the phrases of the lower bass line.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Takumba” by Bakithi Kumalo (This Is Me)

Bakithi Kumalo: This Is MeBeginning with a super funky breathing rhythm, this tune also features a slick slap groove, chordal harmonies, high melodic lines, and instrumental layering. The parts and instrumentation fit together like a musical puzzle, colored with horn accents, shouting vocals, and percussion. A breakdown section of spiraling harmonics ushers in a solo with hints of jazzy dissonance.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Bakithi Kumalo? Please share with us in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. Corey

    I had the pleasure of meeting him and getting to jam with him at a clinic in Hollywood. Incredible player, even better person.

  2. Another great “who you should know” article. I’m learning as fast as I can, keep them coming!

  3. Hearing Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes a while back made me pick up my fretless which had collected dust since getting it last year.

  4. Bob DeRosa

    On Randy Brecker’s web site, Will Lee is listed as the only bass player on “Into the Sun.” Who’s confused?

  5. Simon Calverley

    Just one of the great bass players. His lines and tone either serve the song or make the song. Graceland is one of the great albums – Bakihti’s (mainly) fretless lines are what elevates it from very good to one of those albums that changed music (IMHO).