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Sipho Gumede Dies

South African bassist Sipho Gumede died on Monday, July 26, at the Parklands Hospital in Durban, South Africa, reportedly of lung cancer. He was 52 years.

Gumede is pictured with his band Sakhile in the July/August 2004 issue of JazzTimes in the opening spread of Gwen Ansell’s feature “Soweto Blues: Jazz Under Apartheid.” American jazz fans will know his work from two releases Heads Up: Smooth Africa (he co-wrote “Gumba in Durban” and “When Days Are Dark, Friends Are Few.”) and Africa Straight Ahead. A video for “When Days Are Dark, Friends Are Few” can be seen here.

Gumede was a pioneering force in South African music, from jazz to township jive and everything in between. Gumede has worked with Timmy Thomas, Kippie Moeketsi, Margaret Singana, Dollar Brand, Winston Mankunku, Harare and Sipho Hotstix Mabuse, Juluka, Stimela, Harry Belafonte, Brenda Fassie, P.J. Powers, Hugh Masekela, Letta Mbulu, Louis Mhlanga, Mango Groove, Leslie Ray Dowling, Vicky Sampson, Andy Narell, the Sheer All-Stars and many more.

The bassist’s illness was discovered only late last week. Upon returning from Swaziland two weekends ago, Gumede was suffering from serious stomach pains. A visit to the clinic last Monday saw him leaving with medication that only made him feel worse. He soon headed back to hospital where it was discovered that he had internal bleeding. When friends from the Sheer Sound record label went to visit the bassist they reported that he looked well on the road to recovery, and the sudden announcement of his passing was a shock to his family, friends and fans.

Sipho Gumede was born in Cato Manor, Durban. He grew up playing pennywhistle and a homemade guitar made with a five-gallon tin, wood and fish gut. At 12 Gumede went to stay on a farm and was exposed to many different kinds of music, such as various African vocal traditions as well as weddings and funeral songs. After school each day, he would pass the time watching cattle while practicing on a borrowed guitar.

Gumede returned to Umlazi at the age of 16 and met the late jazz guitarist Cyril Magubane who introduced him to the music of Wes Montgomery and the world of jazz. He also met Dick Khoza and, switching from guitar to bass, landed his first professional job as a member of the Jazz Revelers. In 1970 Gumede headed for Johannesburg, where he met the great musicians of the time and performed a lot with Khoza at the Pelican Nightclub, a great musical laboratory in the 1970s.

After hearing the music of Stanley Clarke, Airto Moreira, Flora Purim and Chick Corea, he left his job with Gibson Kente to concentrate on practicing and perfecting his technique. He later teamed up with Bheki Mseleku, forming a dynamic and creative partnership that led to the formation of Spirits Rejoice, a jazz-fusion group. Then in 1982, Sipho together with Khaya Mhlangu, decided to explore fusion coupled with the African sounds he had grown up with, and so Sakhile was born.

Originally Published