For as long as he can remember, Bakithi Kumalo recalled during a recent interview, music has been the center of his life. The 60-year-old South Africa native, who grew up in a family of musicians and is a longtime bassist for Paul Simon, has made a living doing what he loves.
Now he’s sharing his passion with the 16 student musicians enrolled in East End Art’s Music Masters Mentorship Program, helping them hone their techniques for a free concert next month at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
“I’m so honored to come and work with these kids,” said Kumalo, whose concert will feature songs by Simon, whom he’s played alongside for the past three decades.
Now in its sixth year, the Music Masters Mentorship Program is an intensive six-week workshop geared toward teenage musicians with an interest in bass, keyboard, drums, saxophone and trumpet.
“A beautiful thing happens when you put young student musicians with professional musicians,” said Pat Snyder, executive director of East End Arts. Kumalo is also the Riverhead organization’s newest artist-in-residence. “The kids are able to reach a level of study that’s way above what they are able to reach in their public school.”
Growing up in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, Kumalo began playing bass at age seven, drawing inspiration from the myriad sounds that surrounded him: music from his local church, street performances and traditional South African bands. By the time he was 14, he was receiving requests to record music with some of the aforementioned groups. He also began playing at nearby schools and hospitals.
“For me, it wasn’t really about money,” Kumalo said. He just liked making other people dance.
At 16, Kumalo, said, he “ran away” from home to join a band in the South African municipality of Zululand. He spent nearly 18 months there, practicing and learning new techniques.
When he returned home, his mother told him to get a job. When he told her he wanted to pursue a career in music, he said, “She was very kind. She said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, then go for it.’ ”
In 1985, Simon paid a visit to Soweto while searching for South African musicians to play on his new album “Graceland.” Kumalo had never heard of Simon, but the singer-songwriter had heard of him and asked him to play bass full-time.
When he discovered he would need to travel to the U.S. to finish recording “Graceland,” an eclectic album featuring a variety of musical styles, Kumalo was excited but nervous.
“I could not believe it,” he said, adding that he was unable to sleep in the days preceding the trip because he was afraid he would miss his first-ever flight. Nonetheless, he made it — and having the ability to work on “Graceland,” he said, has made his dreams come true.
In fact, one of the album’s most famous songs, “You Can Call Me Al,” features an unusual bass solo by Kumalo in which the second part is actually a backward recording of the first half.
“Then it became a signature bass,” he said.
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of “Graceland” debut, so it’s fitting that Kumalo, who now lives in Pennsylvania, is teaching Music Masters Mentorship Program participants how to play songs from the record.
“When we heard about Bakithi, we were really excited because we really like his music,” said Rowan Brown-DeVirgilio of Middle Island, 17, who is enrolled in the workshop with his brothers, Tristan, 15, and Gage, 14. “I’m sure he has a lot to teach us and we’re ready to learn.”
Emily Blumenthal, a 17-year-old singer from Westhampton Beach, described Kumalo as “gold.”
“It’s an honor to even be in the same room as him,” she said.
Kumalo is similarly eager to teach the children, who range in age from 14 to 18, how to work together — and to offer them tips about how to succeed in the music industry.
“It’s a big challenge, but at the same time it’s a good challenge,” he said.
While Kumalo is on Long Island, he also hopes to host a release party for his own album, “After All These Years,” which he described as a reflection of his working relationship with Simon. Record proceeds will benefit the needy in South Africa and the U.S.
“It’s not just about me having a nice CD going to perform, it’s about giving,” he said. “After all of these years, it is my thank you to fans and friends and everybody who helped me to do this.”
For now, however, Kumalo is focusing on putting on a great show next month with his student musicians and pianist David Bravo.
“We want to put on a nice concert that’s going to be really amazing — because these kids, they can play,” Kumalo said. “This is such a great program and I hope [EEA] continues and gets all of the kids to come and join this program and learn.
“If you play music, this is the place to be.”