The first time I realised the amazing power of HHP (Hip Hop Pantsula) or Jabba, as Jabulani Tsambo was commonly known, was when he performed at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in 2007.
He was scheduled to perform at the Bassline stage, which is geared at a younger audience and which was upstairs at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, a space normally reserved for formal dinners and presentations.
However, it soon became clear to the organisers that the space was too small and that there was going to be the possibility of a stampede. They then decided that he should perform at the outside Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee stage which could accommodate more people.
The only time for this performance was after all the other acts had performed. The result was that several thousand people waited outside for HHP’s performance which is still one of my highlights at the jazz festival – and now is not the time for the debate about whether it is still a jazz festival.
A year later, I was chairperson of ESP Afrika, the company arranging the jazz festival, as well as the One City Events Company, which organised the Cape Town Festival, a completely different event which culminated in a huge musical festival on Human Rights Day, 21 March.
Our headline act at the Cape Town Festival that year was supposed to be the Angolan artist, Anselmo Ralph, who missed his flight on the day and we had to find a substitute in a hurry.
Somebody mentioned that HHP was in town and we reached out to him. He agreed immediately to perform at a much lower rate than normal, because this was a community-driven event, brought a band made up of Americans and South Africans and gave a wonderful performance.
It was clear that he loved performing and that it was something that brought him much joy. He also enjoyed the interaction with many members of the audience.
The news of his passing on Wednesday this week – which was flashed onto the television screens in the middle of new Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s maiden Medium-Term Budget Speech – came as a shock to many who only ever saw the entertainer on stage.
There was immediate speculation – which could be seen to be insensitive to the family – that he died as a result of depression. He was 38.
Tsambo kept his battle with depression very private, only speaking about it in a television interview last year.
The lesson here is that there is no stereotype that can be pinned on people who suffer from depression. They don’t walk around with long faces. In fact, quite often, they can appear to be more cheerful than most.
Whatever the cause of his death, South Africa’s music industry has lost a giant, someone who was prepared to push the boundaries of music with his experimentation, which was essentially a mixture of hip hop and rap music sang in English and Setswana.
May his soul rest in peace.