Bakithi Kumalo, the bassist for Paul Simon’s “Graceland” masterpiece, has worked with music legends including Mickey Hart (formerly of the Grateful Dead), Alicia Keys, John Legend, Diana Ross, opera singer Kathleen Battle and Herbie Hancock. He has produced five albums as a solo artist and has recorded three award-winning children’s albums with his wife, Robbi.
Though Kumalo still considers himself a student of music, the former Setauket resident recently switched roles and is teaching.
Kumalo, 60, is the artist-in-residence for the East End Arts’ Music Masters Mentorship Program in Riverhead. The program, in its sixth year, offers Long Island high school students the opportunity to work with top performers and composers who have made their names in music, be it rock, classical, jazz, R&B or other genres. This year, 14 students are participating in the six-week, tuition-free program, learning rehearsal and performance skills, recording, marketing, composition and songwriting.
The students practice with Kumalo for three hours on Monday evenings at East End Arts. They were chosen after filling out online applications and submitting a performance video. The program culminates in a Feb. 11 performance at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
What’s it like being in the teacher’s shoes?
“I jumped on the opportunity when I was asked,” said Kumalo, who grew up in South Africa, has no formal music training and learned to play by ear. He has played at Long Island Winterfest — a four-week music, art and wine festival on the East End — and was familiar to the staff at East End Arts. “I had been wanting to do something like this. I watched their audition videos; some of these kids are amazing. I was nervous.”
Kumalo, who now lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, asked fellow South African musician David Bravo, a pianist who lives in Plainview and has played with him all over the globe, to assist him by playing the piano and helping with the students.
“We were asking each other, what are we going to do?” said Bravo, 53. “We didn’t know what to expect. Neither of us have done this type of thing, but it’s been a great experience.”
For Kumalo, the experience is mostly about sharing, with Bravo and particularly the students. He said he remembers what it was like when he couldn’t read music and had to do his best to compensate. “If there’s one thing I want to teach, it is for them to take chances, to have courage.”
Discipline, which he said brings success, respect and teamwork, is also important. “They have to listen and hear the other person’s part,” Kumalo said. “They have to learn to play together, to work as a team. Teamwork will help them in whatever they decide to do eventually. Say the bass is struggling, maybe the drummer can help.”
The students are adept at reading music and impressed Kumalo by learning eight songs on their first day of classes. So he is emphasizing playing by ear, connecting with the music.
Diane Giardi, education director for East End Arts, said Kumalo is a good fit for the students. “He gives them the freedom to play as they feel the music,” she said. “It is OK for one instrument to break off into a solo or riff. The piece becomes unique . . . takes on its own energy. The students move in and out of the number, playing with and off each other. They are lit up in that room. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.”
The students give their teacher an A.
Nikita Sipiagin, 16, of Aquebogue, plays alto saxophone and is a sophomore at Riverhead High School. He said he heard Kumalo’s music and was interested in studying with him.
“A really big moment during this program was playing jazz standards with the other kids and playing as a group,” Sipiagin said.
Ben Cummings, who plays guitar and bass in the program and bass and guitar in the jazz band at Ward Melville High School, in addition to cello for the orchestra, said working with Kumalo has been a casual, relaxed experience.
“Instead of learning how to play a song that somebody else wants us to learn, we learn how to improve our own playing in a group and in our own choice of music,” said Cummings, 17, of East Setauket, a junior who records his own solo music and is in Sympil, a jazz fusion band. “I could actually talk to him and work with him. It wasn’t like having a formal teacher, but it was still educational.”
Maddy Seitles, 16, a Paul Simon fan and a junior at Westhampton Beach High School, has been singing as long as she can remember. She has performed at Amateur Night at the Apollo, at halftime during a Knicks game and on Kidz Bop CDs, compilations of popular music sung by children. She said she has enjoyed the challenge of performing at a high level like everyone else.
“It’s nice to be in a room with such talented musicians,” said Seitles, of East Moriches. “Bakithi is amazing; he’s bringing us together. Just to be in the room with someone like him has done so much.”
Through the Music Masters Mentorship Program, students have also performed at the Suffolk Theatre with The Rascals and worked as assistants for other East End Arts programs, like the East End Arts Student Orchestra. Kumalo said he would like to include them in local gigs.
“The goal of the program is to give them the opportunity to perform and study at a higher level than they would typically have,” said Patricia Snyder, executive director of the arts council. “We want them to gain confidence in what they’re doing. We hope to inspire them.”
An uncle’s guidance
Kumalo said music was the only thing that saved him and that in Soweto it was a welcome way of life.
“Nelson Mandela was in prison — it was chaotic, a scary time,” Kumalo recalled. His mother sang at church, and though he never knew his father, a guitarist and organist who Kumalo said died years ago, his uncle was a saxophonist and his band practiced at Kumalo’s home. He was just 7 years old when his uncle started teaching him to play saxophone, though Kumalo said he was drawn to the booming sound of the bass. When his uncle and band members would leave the house, he would pick up the bass. The band’s bassist began to share what he knew, teaching Kumalo the strings and how to hold the bass.
As a youngster, Kumalo started listening to township bands practicing in garages, and asked to join in. “I would sometimes walk a long, long way to join in with a band,” he said. “I kept my mind on music. I didn’t want to lose focus.”
By 14, he was on the road playing with his uncle’s band. Two years later he was getting calls to play in recording sessions. It wasn’t until Kumalo was 22 that he got his own bass. He begged his mother, promising to play the bass for the rest of his life. He has kept his word.
“I was born to do this,” said Kumalo, whose latest album is “After All These Years.”
Kumalo said he didn’t learn to read music until he came to the United States in the 1980s, and primarily taught himself.
“My wife was pressuring me: ‘You have to read music to feed the family; this is not South Africa,’ ” Kumalo said.
But the sheet music wasn’t his only obstacle. Kumalo had no schooling past the age of 4. He credits his wife, whom he met in the United States, with helping him learn to read in general. A producer friend introduced Kumalo to Simon in 1985. The singer-songwriter liked what he heard, and that was the beginning of their musical collaboration.
Kumalo said music is therapy and that as a result he’s never sad. The family’s musical genes extend to his daughters — Mbali, 21, and Didi, 18, both play several instruments — and he hopes to do more to help musicians in South Africa.
“These kids, wow, they have taught me a lot,” said Kumalo, adding that the Music Masters experience has inspired him to explore a music program for students in South Africa. “I want to make sure everybody gets a chance.”
A Kumalo opportunity for adults
“What more can we do?”
That is what officials at East End Arts asked themselves after they booked Bakithi Kumalo as the artist-in-residence for the Music Masters Mentorship Program. The answer was not far behind: Offer a workshop and jam session with the renowned bass player.
“Because it’s Bakithi, it’s definitely something local musicians would be interested in,” said Stephanie Israel, marketing and public relations director at East End Arts, recalling the decision to offer adults access to Kumalo when he returned to Long Island to instruct high schoolers.
As with the Music Masters program, participation was free and space was limited. On Jan. 25, 14 musicians were invited to East End Arts for a three-hour workshop with Kumalo. The session was a unique opportunity to learn from and jam with one of the great musicians of our time, Israel said, and it did not disappoint.
Musicians brought their instruments, and Kumalo invited participants to introduce themselves and work one-on-one with him, which resulted in the group joining in on an improvisational jam. Kumalo played his bass and the drums during the impromptu sets, and David Bravo — a fellow South African and musician who is helping Kumalo teach the students in the Music Masters program — provided additional feedback and joined in on piano and drums.
The workshop continued with a question-and-answer session, and Kumalo promised to return to East End Arts for similar workshops, Israel said. Attendees also left with one of the musician’s CDs.
On Feb. 4, the arts council held a free screening of “Under African Skies,” the 2012 documentary on the making of Paul Simon’s acclaimed “Graceland” album, on which Kumalo played bass. The film “chronicles Simon’s return to South Africa to explore the journey of his Grammy-award winning Graceland album, including the political backlash he received for allegedly breaking the U.N. cultural boycott of South Africa designed to end the Apartheid regime,” according to the jacket of the documentary. The album was recorded from October 1985 to June 1986.
Kumalo participated in a question-and-answer session after the screening, which was at Peconic Landing in Greenport.
— TRACY M. BROWN
The students will perform a concert with Bakithi Kumalo. David Bravo will provide piano accompaniment.
Music Masters Mentorship Program Final Concert
Feb. 11, 7-9 p.m.
Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center
76 Main St., Westhampton Beach