Bakithi Kumalo was working as a mechanic when he got the call.
“Hey, listen, there’s a guy by the name of Paul Simon from America. He’s looking for you,” his boss said, holding the phone.
“Oh my God, what did I do?” Kumalo responded, shaking, dropping the tool he was holding.
“No, they’re looking for you to come to the studio and record,” his boss continued, cracking a smile as he sang the lyrics to a popular song Kumalo didn’t know — by a man he had never heard of.
They were in the heart of Johannesburg, South Africa, not far from Kumalo’s home in the nearby township — where he grew up in the midst of apartheid, with 17 people to one house, where “struggle,” he says, was the norm.
For him, music was an emotional escape. But when a demo he recorded fell into the right hands, he had no idea it would be a physical escape, too.
“I had a bass without a case, my hands were greasy and I looked terrible. My sneakers, toes outside, my pants ripped. And I go to the studio,” Kumalo recalled during a telephone interview. “Man, when I got to the studio, there were a lot of people and I meet Paul and he’s nice, and he says he likes my playing. And then, when you see an opportunity, you don’t wait too long. Because when you wait too long, you might miss it.
“So right away, I just said, ‘This is it. This is it. So I just gotta be humble and stop being nervous, and just grow to this. No pressure.’”
It is a philosophy the Grammy Award-winning bassist repeated to himself during the “Graceland” tour with Paul Simon and his move to the United States three decades ago, the start of a career that would bring him to venues around the world, performing alongside the biggest names in the industry.
On Saturday, August 11, he will round up an international crew of musicians for a “Nations United” concert at the Southampton Arts Center — from Uruguay and Venezuela to Puerto Rico and the mainland United States, he said.
“We’re trying to connect all people from all these continents, because there’s so much problems and so much struggle, but here, everybody’s coming together to contribute and make a place where we meet,” he said. “I’m doing this to connect us, to connect us as people and contribute, because this is what it’s all about, you know?
“You come to this country to do the best you can,” he continued. “I been here for 30 years and I’m loving it, and I understand. You can’t just come here and not contribute.”
It is a reminder he repeats to himself regularly, he said, as well as to stay consistent, grow and learn. When he was a child, it was also to stay safe.
“Where I grow up, you go out and you don’t know if you’re gonna make it back home,” he said. “When I was a kid? Oh my God. Listen, it was never easy. It was never easy. But for me, I took that and make it as a positive thing. Like, ‘Hey, look. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but the struggle teaches you to be strong. You don’t give up.’ It’s all about how you use your brain, and get things done that way.”
Kumalo used his mind to focus on music, first by spending all of his free time at the local music store, playing a used fretless before returning to the township to “practice.”
“I used to play a piece of cardboard because I wanted to remember the stuff I played,” he said with a laugh. “So what I would do, I would get a big piece of cardboard and draw a bass, and then cut it like a bass, and then when I get home, I would be playing the piece of cardboard until I get the real bass. You take nothing, and make something out of nothing.”
He would get his first bass at age 22, setting him up for what would become his life in the United States. He flew into New York in 1985, where he stayed in a hotel for the first time, leading up to the “Graceland” tour.
“In the township, sometimes you sleep outside and wait for the rain to take a shower and wash your face,” he said. “Now I had a hotel room with a television? I mean, I was confused. I couldn’t sleep that night because I was thinking, ‘What?! Is this the right life or what?’ And then it just got better and better.
“But first, man, it was so terrifying,” he continued. “It was like being in the movies without the script. I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is the city you see in movies.’ I said, ‘This is gonna be a journey, a school. I’m learning,’ and I’m still learning at this age. The instrument, this music — this was something that I was born to do.”
The ride has been “long and amazing,” he said, and he isn’t done yet.
“All the practice and getting out of the struggle really got me prepared to get to this point, where I’m at right now. If I didn’t figure this out, I would be just like the rest back home,” he said. “But I just made it happen for myself, and now, 30 years later, I just completed the circle. Now, I’m going on this world tour, the final tour, with Paul — where I started. And to end this now, it’s the best thing on the planet.”
Bakithi Kumalo and Friends will play a “Nations United” concert on Saturday, August 11, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Southampton Arts Center, located at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton. Admission is free. For more information, please call (631) 283-0967 or visit southamptonartscenter.org.