Building baselines and basslines: the Vuyani Wakaba story

“Go wherever the wind blows…” is a story many musicians can relate to, as going on the road and being nomadic is all part of the journey for many. The “city of wind”, a common alias for Chicago Illinois – due to its ever forceful chilly breeze – befittingly became home to Vuyani Wakaba and his family.

This well-travelled bass guitarist, who considers himself an instrumentalist, has always had a penchant for picking up bass lines. Vuyani gave Lavatory Records an exclusive interview, which is another ground breaking feature for us. This is a testimony that there is a slice for everyone in this big pie – that is called the entertainment industry. Even as a sideman, with a relatively laidback role, you are still an independent contractor who is an important cog in the works. Support functions are an integral role in the whole “symphony” despite the spotlight being mainly on the vocalist (as the modern day conductor).

Vuyani tells us of how he can see building structures by day and hear musical structures by night. The bass sets the tone and rhythm, before adding other musical pieces and instruments – in the same way a building needs the foundation structures, before adding the material drapes over the base structure.

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LR: Please break it down to us and all those who don’t know you who Vuyani Wakaba is?

Vuyani: This is a question that I’m still trying to answer after all these years! I guess I see myself as a son to my parents, a brother to my siblings, a husband to my wife and a father to our son. I am also an uncle and a friend.

In terms of who I am professionally, by day, I am a Civil Engineering Tech that works in the structural engineering field. By night, I am a professional musician that plays the electric and acoustic bass. In addition, I am a writer whose focus is music and musicians. I also am a music equipment endorser.  Lastly, I’m a very bad golfer who loves the sport nonetheless.

 LR: When and how did your musical journey begin?

Vuyani: When I was much younger, about 12 years old or so, I started playing the trombone in school when we lived in the state of Michigan. Unfortunately, although I enjoyed it, I wasn’t very good at all. I also did not know how to practice because I did not have any role models to learn this crucial skill from. So, I played it off and on – and even managed to be featured on a televised showcase on SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation). The last time I regularly played my trombone, which I still have by the way, was when I was in college – almost 30 years ago now.

As a teen, I listened to all kinds of music – Jazz, Gospel, R&B, Funk, Blues and Pop. Although my friends could hear and remember song lyrics, all I could remember were the basslines. At the time, I didn’t know that the basslines were bass parts. Of course it didn’t help that I don’t sing, so learning lyrics would have been very difficult anyway.

It’s not until I was 27 that I got introduced to the bass guitar. At that time, I was living in the state of Washington. It happened almost through divine intervention. I clearly remember one morning, I was getting ready for work and some band was playing on MTV. I casually said to myself, I should check out the bass guitar sometime. At the time, I worked as an IT manager for a non-profit organisation that used its restaurant to offer job skills training to the poor.

When I got to work that morning, Ron Chastain, a cook in the non-profit restaurant approached me.  He asked me to loan him $25 so he can get his bass out of the pawn shop. The plan was for me to keep the bass until he paid me back the $25 I loaned him. I jumped at the chance!

That bass was a short scale Memphis, not worth much, but it was all I needed to get a good idea as to whether I wanted to get my own or not. I ended up keeping and playing that bass for about a month. When Ron picked up his bass from me, I’d already made up my mind to buy my own.

Once I bought my first bass, a 1975 U.S.A. Fender Precision, I played it as often as I could. I realised that I needed to get a teacher to show me how to tune it, and how to play a few songs. Unfortunately, every player I approached for lessons was not interested, even though I was willing to pay.  Eventually, I met a great bass player named Chuck Williams who taught me the major and minor scales, as well as how to tune my bass. With that, I was off and running! In no time, I was learning the bass parts to “Got to Give the People” by the O’Jays.

Within two months of owning my first bass, I was offered a gig with a local blues band, Jimmy Fox & the Blue Notes. When I got to my first gig, I only knew one blues bassline and I had to make that last all night! I was totally surprised when they asked me to join the band at the end of that first night. Best of all, I got paid $20, which would go towards the eventual purchase of my first bass amp. Don’t worry, I’ve since wised up to the fact that $20 was not a fair amount to be paid. I figured that out after one gig.

LR: What was so appealing about the bass guitar to you over the other kinds of guitars and instruments?

Vuyani: I feel very lucky that I didn’t have to go through a lot of instruments to find that the bass is for me. From the onset, the bass sounded like my voice, you know, what you hear in your head when you hear music. Hopefully this doesn’t just happen to me only. The sound and feeling of the notes I hear when I play the bass, make me feel like there is no better sound in the world!

Although electric and acoustic guitars are great, they just do not have the same pull for me as the bass. In fact, I’ve had a guitar in my studio for several years, and have yet to learn how to play it. I’m not proud of this… all my time is spent practicing on the bass. Now, one of my brothers is a budding guitarist in Johannesburg. He feels like the electric and acoustic guitars speak to him in the same way that the bass speaks to me.

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LR: As a South African native, did you ever try your hand in the local music industry? If so, what’s the difference between the SA and US music industry?

Vuyani: Unfortunately I did not get a chance to play music that is indigenous to South Africa in the few years I lived there. I really wish I had the opportunity to do that. I feel so strongly about that, I always ask guys like my friend Bakithi Kumalo, who plays bass for Paul Simon, to teach me some of the South African grooves. I sometimes play along with music from my friend, South African bassist Concord Nkabinde. South African songs have a very strong, yet unique feel that I’m just not getting when I try to play them.

I can’t really say much about the South African music industry because I’ve never worked in it. From all I see from where I live in Chicago, the South African music industry is very vibrant. It looks like it is filled with an amazing amount of talent. I hope that the industry and the audiences support indigenous music because it is what will make South African artists stand out on the world stage.  This music should be protected and treasured.

LR: Many classical music scholars state that Jazz music is becoming a “forgotten genre”. Do you think that Jazz music has been displaced and can it ever be replaced?

Vuyani: I think that Jazz, like other cultural institutions, exists in a cycle.  At this time, it is experiencing a loss of listeners. Hopefully someone will come along and be the champion that Jazz needs. Dizzy Gillespie was that champion for jazz many years ago. He and his peers managed to get jazz into college & university programmes. As a result, television and film started using Jazz in their sound tracks, people began attending jazz performances and musicians gravitated to Jazz again.  Hopefully Jazz is experiencing a temporary lull, and will eventually be rejuvenated again.

I don’t think Jazz can be replaced. Jazz, by definition, is improvised. It encompasses a very wide variety of improvised styles. As a result, I think any new music that is improvised will likely be put under the umbrella of Jazz, especially if it swings!

A little known fact is that when Hip Hop artists need musicians to play on their records, they often reach out to Jazz musicians because they are uniquely equiped to play virtually anything that is asked of them. I believe there will always be players who are committed to playing jazz. These Jazz zealots will keep the jazz flame alive even if it means they can only play in their bedrooms and basements.

LR: What are your thoughts on computer software (as well as hardware), becoming the “new musical instrument”?

Vuyani: I’m pretty open minded and progressive when it comes to software and hardware being used as instruments. I believe if someone likes the sounds they create on a computer, they should, by all means, continue to generate those sounds. In my opinion, we are still in the very early stages of computer technology as it relates to how it is used in music. Of course, this is in comparison to the timeline of other instruments such as the violin, piano and guitar. Huge strides are being made every year, but I still see even bigger changes in the next few decades.

I do wish, though, that DJ’s and beat makers would invest some time in learning music theory. I believe that it would help them take what they do to yet another level. By the same token, I also think that instrumentalists should take time to learn and understand the role of the beat makers. In a way, that’s starting to happen. Software platforms like Logic, Pro Tools, Cubase, Studio One, etc. allow musicians to use loops to create drum tracks, horn tracks, etc. So in a way, we are gravitating towards each other.

 LR: You consider yourself a “sideman” and an instrumentalist rather than a front-man. Was this by choice or “universal design”?

Vuyani: The bass traditionally plays a supportive role in music. Also, since the electric bass is still a young instrument at around 65 years old, it still has a long way to go to establish itself as a lead instrument in the minds of most music listeners. Fortunately, there are bass players who are changing people’s perception of the bass by playing it as a lead instrument.  These players include Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, my friend Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, the late Wayman Tisdale, my friend Concord Nkabinde, Musa Manzini, the late Sipho Gumede, and many more.

Most of what I do as a bass player is to work as a sideman. I’m usually playing a supportive role behind a vocalist, a sax player, guitar player or keyboard player. The role of sideman is not one that is less or greater than that of the front-man, it is just a different role. Most seasoned front-men know this and they treat the sidemen in their bands with respect. Sidemen generally share a mutual respect for each other and for the front-man as well.

I enjoy being a sideman. This role allows me to focus on the music and what is being played around me. From time to time, I also work as a band leader. This role requires that I not only focus on the music, but on establishing a supportive environment for the players who are playing with me. I also am responsible for the logistics; communication between band members, promoters, and the audience. At best, the role of a leader is to constantly make adjustments that will keep everyone happy. At worst, this role can morph into a babysitting job.

LR: What have been the highlights of your music career?

Vuyani: I would say that recording at Delmark Records in Chicago was one of my highlights. This studio is where some legendary jazz and blues records were recorded. During my week of recording sessions there, I learned that some of the microphones were once used at the legendary Chess Records in Chicago. Chess Records is where legends like Muddy Waters, Etta James, Motown studio musicians, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, and many more have recorded.

I also would mention that I have been invited on many occations to play at a bass players’ showcase in Nashville, Tennessee. This event is held during Summer Namm (National Association of Music Manufacturers) and is called Roy Vogt’s Thunder Row Annual Bass Invitational, and it features some of the best bass players in the United States.

I am currently a staff writer for Bass Musician Magazine. This is a position that has allowed me to interview many bass legends and friends. I also have reviewed the new Marcus Miller by Sire Guitars bass guitar for both Bass Musician Magazine and Bass Frontiers Magazine.

I also was invited to be a staff member at Grammy Award winning bassist, Victor Wooten’s Bass/Nature Camp in Nashville, Tennessee. This is a series of music camps that caters to all instruments. The instructors that rotate in and out are some of the world’s best players in their field.

I’ve also played at many of Chicago’s festivals and venues. In addition to that, I’ve performed on WGN TV, a nationwide television network, as well as on FOX TV in Chicago.

I was asked to perform with former Cheap Trick drummer Bun E Carlos at a music industry showcase held at Chicago’s Fort Knox Studios. This show was challenging because it required me to play rock music, which I don’t usually play. Thanks to diligent preparation, the show was spectacularly successful.

I have been involved in testing prototype amplifiers and speakers for DNA Amplification, a company owned by the founder of Eden Electronics. I now play and endorse TecAmp bass amplifiers and speakers.

I do product demonstrations for Essential Sound Products at the Summer and Winter Namm shows in Anaheim, California and in Nashville, Tennessee.

Vuyani Wakaba & Friends

LR: Tell us more about your day-to-day life away from music?

Vuyani: I can’t seem to stay still, I’m always busy! By day, I work on the design side of the commercial construction industry. We design and manufacture steel trusses and steel deck. The types of projects we work on include sky scrapers, stadiums, churches, schools, warehouses, retail and office buildings, etc. Most of my work is in the office, so I rarely have to put on my hard hat and go out to the jobsites. Our projects are all over Chicago, western Indiana and Illinois.

I also am married to the most awesome wife in the world… I’m pretty sure I’m right about this. We have a pretty great kid (we know because he tells us) who’s graduating from college in a couple of weeks. We also have a great dog and a chatty parrot. We all live in a house that seems to need constant maintenance in the form of yard work, various projects, etc.

LR: Do you think the direction the music industry is going, especially with the internet changing the dynamics of the game, has been good or bad for musicians like you?

Vuyani: For the most part, the changes brought by the internet have been good. They’ve forced us musicians to take control of how we market ourselves. We now have full control of our image, which can be a bad thing if one is not careful. Our ability to reach a worldwide audience is unprecedented. For example, my personal Facebook page has the maximum of 5,000 followers. At any moment of the day, I can post a message on my Facebook page that will be seen all over the world.

The unfortunate thing is that everyone has the same access to the internet, for the most part. That means that musicians who produce poor quality work can have as much visibility as those who create high quality work. The challenge is for musicians to figure out how to get noticed in a sea of artists whose work is on the internet.

In my opinion, the real Holy Grail for musicians is figuring effective marketing and distribution. Portals like iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby, etc. have helped somewhat. The drawback to these services is that there is an overwhelming volume of songs listeners have to choose from. Also, audiences no longer buy full length CDs. They simply download the track or tracks they want. This means that they miss out on getting the liner notes; they don’t hear the entire CD as it was envisioned by the artist. They also don’t often get to enjoy the cover art of the CD or vinyl record.

LR: If any, what changes would you like to see in the music industry?

Vuyani: I would like to get the pie in the sky in the form of fair pay for live performers. It seems pretty universal that live peformers often have a tough time, especially in smaller venues, getting paid fairly. In some cases, the pay scale has not changed in three decades or more. In Chicago, most live performances require that you play three 45 minute sets with two 15 minute breaks. However, most musicians spend many, many hours preparing the music for such performances.

In many cases, musicians are expected to do all the advertising, which, in my opinion, is not reasonable. Worst of all, musicians are often not given guaranteed payment; instead, they are offered a portion of the proceeds of the door (cover charge or entry fee). In extreme instances, musicians are asked to pay a fee to play certain venues in an abhorrent practice commonly known as “pay to play”.  The promise of this terrible scheme is exposure for the musicians.

For recording musicians, I would like to find an easily duplicatable way for them to sell their music and keep the lion’s share of the proceeds. After all, they created the work they are selling. As it is, musicians have a hard time raising funds to pay for new recording projects. This is because their music is either being pirated or is not being bought, even though it is of a high quality. Think of it this way, buying a CD allows the musician to raise enough money to keep making more CDs.

During the period when the major record labels controlled access to the market, they took an unfairly large portion of the proceeds from the sale of music. I think that there is room for a much fairer deal to be negotiated between the labels and the musicians where everyone wins.

Lastly, I wish streaming services like Pandora, Spotify etc, paid a fair amount for each time a song is played on their service. Right now the split is grossly unfair. As a result, I often recommend that artists not use those services. Sure these services offer “exposure”, but musicians can’t pay their bills with “exposure”.

LR: Lavatory Records is a solutions driven organisation for artists and not a “record label” per say. Do you think there’s potential for such a business to thrive in the current music economy, particularly in regards to management solutions and revenue streaming for artists?

Vuyani: Absolutely! There are a lot of value added benefits to such a model. Sometimes, an artist may not have the natural gift of self-marketing and Lavatory Records could be the solution to such an artist’s problem. I believe that Lavatory Records is well positioned to capitalise on the current climate. Artists are looking for a partner that will help them reach out to a wider audience, offer fair revenue sharing as well as effective management. Artists have been looking for these services even during the time when the major labels were at their pinnacle. I believe that opportunity lies in the cracks of any industry. Where there is an unmet need in the music industry, Lavatory Records should strive to be there with viable solutions.

LR: Do you have any special mentions that you want to shout out?   

Vuyani: Yes, I do – thank you for asking. I’d like to thank you and the entire Lavatory Records team for choosing to interview me. I’m truly honoured and humbled to be interviewed by a South African record label. This is a first for me and I will remember it for a very long time.

I also would like to thank the companies with whom I enjoy an endorsement relationship. Without these companies’ products, I would not be able to do what I do as easily or as well. In short, the products from these companies make me sound good. A special thank you goes out to DR Strings, Essential Sound Products, TecAmp, Sire Guitars, Gruv Gear, Centrance, Guardian Pro Cables, iGig gig bags, HJC Customs, Gallien-Krueger, and Mogami.

I would like to thank my good friend and Paul Simon’s bassist: Bakithi Kumalo, for consistently proving that South Africans can succeed in the American music scene. I want to thank my close friend, bassist Gros Ngolle Pokossi for pushing me to be even better than I am as a musician. My gratitude goes out to my close friend, Atlanta bassist Albert Hobson for the years of friendship and encouragement. Lastly I want to thank my wife for putting up with my crazy schedule and all of my many basses lying all around the house.

I wish Lavatory Records and its artists continued success!  Thank you!

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We would like to thank Mr Vuyani Wakaba for taking time out of his busy schedule for this insightful interview. We hope it’s as informative and enlightening to all music lovers as it’s been for Lavatory Records. To say the least, we are in awe! Keep up with Vuyani on Twitter: @vuyani, Facebook and check into his website for updates.

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