Vuyani Wakaba discovered early in life he had the ability to hear and remember bass lines. While growing up in Soweto, South Africa, he picked out bass lines in popular songs while his friends focused on lyrics.
Vuyani was 27 years old and living in Walla Walla, Washington before he considered playing the bass guitar. A co-worker needed help retrieving a pawned bass guitar and their arrangement allowed Vuyani to play that guitar as often as possible until his friend repaid him. The experience left him wanting his own bass.
After an exhaustive research, he found a used 1975 American Fender Precision. Vuyani remembers: ”Once I got my Fender Precision, I toted it around from musician to musician looking for lessons on how to play. Eventually rock bassist Chuck Williams taught me the major scale and one blues bass line for five dollars. It’s the best five dollar investment I ever made! With that knowledge, I learned The O’Jays song Got To Give The People”.
By the time Jimmy Fox & The Blue Notes hired Vuyani to play swing/blues, he had been playing his bass for three months. That first night paid $6.66. When Jimmy Fox called again, Vuyani said “Absolutely!” The next job paid $20! Subsequent jobs consistently paid scale wages. Vuyani stayed with the band for eight months before leaving to play with various local bands.
Those formative years coincided with the days of Walla Walla’s infamous Red Apple Restaurant. Many outstanding musicians played its stage, including bassists Kim Clarke (who worked with Joe Henderson, Defunkt, etc.), Jimmy Cliff (with Richard Marx), Albert Hobson (with Kenny G), and keyboard players Sharon Wells, Gordy Butler, Kenny Day, and Eric Vaughn (toured with Joe Henderson and recorded with Kool & The Gang).Audiences there were brutal in their dislike of music or musicianship. On the flip side, if they liked what musicians were doing, they were just as vocal aobut it.
Vuyani recalls, “The place was a serious dive! It was so bad I’d tell my out-of-town friends that if you come to the Red and mistakenly drop a $100 in the bathroom, man, you’re just out of luck! It was that nasty. We loved it nonetheless.”
In that time Vuyani learned the fundamentals, but also found he wanted to know more bass playing techniques and music theory. His desire to play more creatively grew, so Vuyani attended every available jam session. Soon he developed enough to play with the best musicians in the area, thanks to lots of practice and the education gleaned from each bass player coming through town.
The first to open Vuyani’s mind to the possibilities of infusing jazz into his musical vocabulary was San Francisco area freelance/session bassist Victor Little. Vuyani remembers, “Victor was gracious enough to let me hang with him after his gig till 5am the next morning. He was unloading all this knowledge about scales, arpeggios, modes, everything. It was over my head at the time, but some of it stuck and I was able to piece together what he meant as I grew musically.
Another pivotal influence was Albert Hobson, now Vuyani’s musical mentor and good friend. At their first meeting, Albert said to me ‘Vuyani, I think we’re going to be friends for a very long time.’ Our friendship and mutual respect was strong right away. He was the first musician who really cared what Vuyani was doing to learn the musician’s craft. “Albert would tell me not to worry about learning how to slap or thump, but to focus on my chord theory and reading. I still rely on his wisdom and advice.
Vuyani Wakaba is the bassist for the Chicago blues legend and Delmark recording artist Eddie C. Campbell. In addition, Vuyani is the leader of the fusion band Vuyani Wakaba & Friends, and is the bassist for the jazz trio 5 Aftr 5. Occasionally, Vuyani gets called as a freelance bassist around Chicago and on the west coast of the United States.