Thanks to Matt Temple for this!
In the year 2000 I stopped my beat-up old car to help two guys who were carrying marimbas and gave them a lift up to Melville. On the way we got to chatting, discovered we were all musos, and I decided to come and jam with them while they busked, which I did, a few nights later.
This pair used to come all the way in from Orange Farm township in the Vaal, almost 40km out of Joburg, to busk until midnight outside Melville’s clubs and restaurants, then take a taxi or train home again. So whatever they earned, which was often a pittance, had to cover considerable transport costs – one of apartheid’s architectural legacies, which will take generations to change.
I kept playing with these two guys on the streets, for a couple of years, through winter and summer, on my djembe, cos it was quite something to experience. We were all from Zim, so we had something in common. It wasn’t the first time I had played with so-called black musicians, having played djembe with a maskande outfit called Abafana Bakwa Zulu a couple of years previous to this, but busking was new to me.
Busking is quite a cool way to get really fit on your instrument, and tight as a band. It’s kind of halfway between practicing and performing … sometimes you have an audience, and you have to step it up, and sometimes you don’t, and you can experiment with new songs and licks. If a crowd gathers you can hit on a song for like, 10 or 15 minutes, as long as they are getting into it, which can create some pretty deep calluses if you happen to be a drummer.
In winter, it got so cold that I used to play with a T-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, jersey and leather biker jacket on, plus a hat, even though I was drumming full-tilt. The crap thing about playing a djembe drum outside in the cold is that your hands are moving, creating wind, so even though they are hitting the goatskin hard, on the way up and down they are cooling off, and never really warm up.
Time passed and our little group, which we called Chapungu – meaning ‘whirlwind’ in Shona – apparently it has other, mystical connotations – became fairly good. The dudes found a place to store their instruments, or they would store them at my place, making getting to and from our favourite busking place on the corner of 7th and 4th in Melville much easier. We started getting better tips – we even got a R200 note from a tourist once – and we made a free one-day recording dubbed Sons of the Sun with a guy called Adrian Ziller, bless his heart. My friends helped to design the album cover and print it.
I started visiting the dudes in Orange Farm, which was a full-on jol. Many so-called whites think townships are miserable places, full of suffering and hardship. I’m sure they can be, especially at night in winter, or when the wind howls through Orange Farm, whipping up the dust.
But on my visits, I found a tangible sense of community; neighbours would wander in while we played and get into the vibe. Gangs of kids and dogs would pass by; fences were few and far between. I was uplifted by the music, which was, I guess, our common language, and started playing at events with the dudes, at schools, cultural gatherings, sports meetings, weddings.
There were quite a few kids who used to come and play with the adults; generally the girls would dance and the boys would drum or play on the marimbas, which were all handmade. We started making uniforms for them, with cloth supplied by my friends, or gathered from here and there in the township. The singer’s partner was carving out dance routines for the girls. Things were gathering momentum.
There was a couple in Joburg who were also keen to help our band; they had access to a trust fund, and donated some money which was used to buy tools, which were to be used for making marimbas. We also tried making drums, but it’s not an easy thing to make a good drum.
This couple took us on a trip to visit the Khomani San, who had been granted land by the SA government – but not the means to make a living from it. This couple, they were trying to set things up for some of the Bushmen, a camp which tourists could sleep at, a place to grow indigenous plants, that kind of thing. We met Dawid Kruiper, who was quite famous for his role in getting the land, and a couple of San sangomas. We slept in the camp, which was full of large, black scorpions, and read Tarot cards on the roof of the Landrover, while high on Sceletium, which gives you loads of energy, a natural speed. We dropped our pants and gave brown-eye to the bottle store. It was quite a trip.
Then the couple organised a group of musicians and performers to go on a country-wide tour to advertise a new MTN product. It was called the Multi-Talented Nomad tour, but I didn’t go on it, cos I was working full-time and couldn’t get two weeks’ leave. The guys went on the tour, made a couple of thousand bucks, and decided to go and visit the same Bushmen again, but this return trip didn’t go too well. They apparently shagged some of the Bushmen prostitutes and at least one of them caught AIDS. The singer, a short, fiery character with only one eye – died a few years later. He didn’t make it to the era of ARVs, when having AIDS is no longer a death sentence.
Things had started falling apart even before he died. As soon as we got funding, he and the bassist started arguing about who owned what, and the tools bought with the funding were kept at the singer’s place, and the whole positive vibe started crumbling.
Sometimes they would bitch at me about each other and I just hated being the middle. Fuck that. I really didn’t want to take sides. I was trying to help, not because I thought I should, but because I had just ended up getting involved in the music with these guys and I often had the means to help – the access to transport, to money, to the media. It was unavoidable, but sometimes it had unforeseen consequences.
Eventually, Chapungu broke up, and shortly afterward I was invited to take part in a musical play at the Aardklop festival in Potchefstroom, with the bassist and a group of performers from Orange Farm. We had a teacher who had toured Germany and he knocked our performance into shape, around the idea of a Magic Marimba Tree, from which music came, and provided nourishment to a parched land. I was the white priest, and wore a dog-collar for the role.
When we drove down to Potch I was the only so-called white in the cast of about 14 people. We played on the fringe of the festival and did workshops in the townships. I ate and slept in a room full of blacks, who seldom spoke English … my fault for not knowing Zulu, I guess. The best part was between gigs, as we jammed all day at the backpackers we were staying in, often with outsiders from the festival, who heard us and joined in.
Our mentor came to watch our final performance, hated it, and crapped all over us. We were totally dispirited. Then he wanted to ride back to Joburg in my car, not the overloaded minibus the rest of the crew were to travel in. I split before he could get in, pissed off with his attitude. We had tried our hardest to do a good show. Then we couldn’t get our money out of him. We only got paid after I threatened to put a debt collector on his ass.
The most vivid memory from the whole show, which went on for about a week, was when a beautiful young woman in the cast, who I had been eyeing from the start, stood behind me on the stage and softly put her hands on my shoulders, during the encore. Nothing more happened, but it was an intimate acknowledgment. I see you.
After Aardklop, some of the performers started congregating round the bassist’s place, practicing on the marimbas, and continuing with coaching kids, who would come in after school to play. They were also playing at a nearby school, the kids were winning prizes for their performances, it was all very organic and grassroots. I set up a website for the group. We started playing gigs at cultural events like the Green Africa Party, and then got onto the books of booking agencies, and began playing at corporate events like year-end parties. We made business cards, bought bright uniforms, and started playing quite regularly. This was before the recession, which killed the golden goose of regular corporate gigs, for us and loads of other musicians, including my drum teacher.
I was still doing a day-job, and was asked to write a piece on jazz experimental maestro Zim Ngqawana by the Daily Sun. I met his agent at the Zimology Institute, which he had set up for his jazz students, ironically right next to Orange Farm township. I got to know his agent better, and she helped us to set up an NGO for the musical training of the township kids. After some applications – again, with the help of a friend – we obtained funding, enough to provide the adults with salaries for a couple of years, and to buy some better musical instruments.
This era was our peak. Both the kids and the adults were getting lots of gigs. The kids took part in the FNB Dance Festival a couple of times and won prizes at the National Marimba Competition. They appeared on TV shows and in newspapers; soon we had an entire album of photos and clippings.
The adult group was traveling all over Gauteng and beyond, playing at weddings and parties and openings. A really good (so-called white) guitarist joined the crew, adding an extra car and skilled licks. I evolved a new style of playing the drums, with the djembe where the snare usually stands, and the snare off to the left. I could switch fast between snare and djembe, and play hi-hat and bass foot with both.
We had a huge repertoire of songs, way over 50 songs; some were covers, but many were originals, which had evolved over years of playing. We were playing gospel songs, African jazz, traditional African songs, including some Chimurenga stuff (Zim protest music) and some more bluesy and reggae stuff.
We got a trailer to put the marimbas in; slept over in posh places and demanded, and got, proper meals and treatment from clients, via the contracts with our agencies. Achimota also brought out a CD, recorded free of charge by Brendan Jury, called Ukuxolelana (Forgiveness).
But, after a time, cracks began to show. A key member of the group left to pursue his own musical career. His replacement had less energy and the group, already low on vibrancy, started losing impetus. The recession provided less jobs … the funding for the NGO dried up. The problem of getting to practices, when the guys were 40km out of town, was a thorn in our flesh from the start, but it didn’t matter when we were all into the whole thing – we basically practiced when we played at gigs. Now it was just this massive divide. We weren’t learning new songs, and things were getting stale.
I started standing back, trying to get the other members of the band involved in setting up gigs, obtaining funding, running things themselves. But no-one seemed willing, or able, to keep the ball rolling. I became tired of putting in time and effort, to make things happen: organising gigs, drawing money, sorting paperwork, dealing with clients, auditors and agents.
There were two final straws which made me pull out after twelve years of playing with my marimba mates. On both occasions, we were booked to play for corporate clients, and the guys didn’t pitch on time. I was left carrying the can, got crapped out by the agent and client both times, and, on the last gig, we lost our one remaining agent in the process. That was it.
I had so many experiences with these guys. We travelled thousands of kilometres together, listening to reggae and world music, dreaming of the day when Mugabe would finally die and we could visit Zim to dance on his grave. We often slept in the same room en route to gigs, and I even shared the same bed with them a couple of times.
We played to ecstatic, wildly dancing audiences, and totally bored executives, who would have likely preferred wallflowers to our presence… the catering staff at events was usually our best audience! We fixed broken trailers, cars, instruments, egos and homes together. We busked in Newtown for the whole of the Fifa World Cup. I even did sweat lodges and took psychedelics with some of the dudes.
But there was always that line, that divide, between black and white, between middle-class and poor, between living in town and living in township. It was crossed at times, but it always returned. I count myself lucky that I caught a glimpse of a totally different type of lifestyle and culture to that of white urban Johannesburg.
The door to Orange Farm is still slightly open. I still see the bassist now and then; he is teaching marimbas at a school in Joburg, and is now playing with his uncle, from Zim, who taught him how to play. That sounds innarestin. Me and the guitarist are going to go check it out one of these days. Because there is something utterly organic and magical about playing marimba music. No getting round that.
There were times when I grew frustrated, because things didn’t pan out the way I hoped they would, but overall I don’t regret the experience. Things are born and then they die. I read, in an article on South African NGOs, that you never know what effect you are going to have when you set up structures in poor communities. You have an idea of things going one way; they end up going in another. There might be one or two kids who become brilliant performers after having played with Achimota or Chapungu, or perhaps it changed their lives in some other way, a way which I couldn’t possibly have predicted. That would be enough. For me, my life and music were sure as hell enriched.
Having reread what I just wrote, I realise how much my friends and partners helped me, every step along the way with this crazy adventure, and if they ever read this, thanks a ton guys. We couldn’t have done it without you. At base, at heart, people want to help each other; often, they just don’t know how, but there channels, if you look, or if they find you. This whole dog-eat-dog system that’s been forced down our throats, it’s a load of balls. A lot of us are learning to see past that now. I hope it keeps spreading.
“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience… Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”
Watch this documentary:
The rhythm of outrage…
“What do a park in Istanbul, a baby in Sarajevo, a security chief in Sofia, a TV station in Athens and bus tickets in Sao Paulo have in common? However random the sequence may seem at first, a common theme runs through and connects all of them. Each reveals, in its own particular way, the deepening crisis of representative democracy at the heart of the modern nation state. And each has, as a result, given rise to popular protests that have in turn sparked nationwide demonstrations, occupations and confrontations between the people and the state.” Read more HERE.
The truth is that I can’t put down my pen: I think I’m going to have the Nausea and I feel as though I’m delaying it while writing. So I write whatever comes into my mind. Madeleine, who wants to please me, calls to me from the distance, holding up a record:
“Your record, Monsieur Antoine, the one you like, do you want to hear it for the last time?”
I said that out of politeness, but I don’t feel too well disposed to listen to jazz. Still, I’m going to pay attention because, as Madeleine says, I’m hearing it for the last time: it is very old, even too old for the provinces; I will look for it in vain in Paris. Madeleine goes and sets it on the gramophone, it is going to spin; in the grooves, the steel needle is going to start jumping and grinding and when the grooves will have spiralled it into the centre of the disc it will be finished and the hoarse voice singing “Some of these days” will be silent forever.
It begins. To think that there are idiots who get consolation from the fine arts. Like my Aunt Bigeois:
“Chopin’s Preludes were such a help to me when your poor uncle died.” And the concert halls overflow with humiliated, outraged people who close their eyes and try to turn their pale faces into receiving antennas. They imagine that the sounds flow into them, sweet, nourishing, and that their sufferings become music, like Werther; they think that beauty is compassionate to them. Mugs. I’d like them to tell me whether they find this music compassionate. A while ago I was certainly far from swimming in beatitudes. On the surface I was counting my money, mechanically. Underneath stagnated all those unpleasant thoughts which took the form of unformulated questions, mute astonishments and which leave me neither day nor night. Thoughts of Anny, of my wasted life. And then, still further down, Nausea, timid as dawn. But there was no music then, I was morose and calm.
All the things around me were made of the same material as I, a sort of messy suffering. The world was so ugly, outside of me, these dirty glasses on the table were so ugly, and the brown stains on the mirror and Madeleine’s apron and the friendly look of the gross lover of the patronne, the very existence of the world so ugly that I felt comfortable, at home.
Now there is this song on the saxophone. And I am ashamed. A glorious little suffering has just been born, an exemplary suffering. Four notes on the saxophone. They come and go, they seem to say: You must be like us, suffer in rhythm. All right! Naturally, I’d like to suffer that way, in rhythm, without complacence, without self-pity, with an arid purity. But is it my fault if the beer at the bottom of my glass is warm, if there are brown stains on the mirror, if I am not wanted, if the sincerest of my sufferings drags and weighs, with too much flesh and the skin too wide at the same time, like a sea elephant, with bulging eyes, damp and touching and yet so ugly? No, they certainly can’t tell me it’s compassionate—this little jewelled pain which spins around above the record and dazzles me. Not even ironic: it spins gaily, completely self-absorbed; like a scythe it has cut through the drab intimacy of the world and now it spins and all of us, Madeleine, the thick-set man, the patronne, myself, the tables, benches, the stained mirror, the glasses, all of us abandon ourselves to existence, because we were among ourselves, only among ourselves, it has taken us unawares, in the disorder, the day to day drift: I am ashamed for myself and for what exists in front of it.
It does not exist. It is even an annoyance; if I were to get up and rip this record from the table which holds it, if I were to break it in two, I wouldn’t reach it. It is beyond—always beyond something, a voice, a violin note. Through layers and layers of existence, it veils itself, thin and firm, and when you want to seize it, you find only existants, you butt against existants devoid of sense. It is behind them: I don’t even hear it, I hear sounds, vibrations in the air which unveil it. It does not exist because it has nothing superfluous: it is all the rest which in relation to it is superfluous. It is.
And I, too, wanted to be. That is all I wanted; this is the last word. At the bottom of all these attempts which seemed without bonds, I find the same desire again: to drive existence out of me, to rid the passing moments of their fat, to twist them, dry them, purify myself, harden myself, to give back at last the sharp, precise sound of a saxophone note. That could even make an apologue: there was a poor man who got in the wrong world. He existed, like other people, in a world of public parks, bistros, commercial cities and he wanted to persuade himself that he was living somewhere else, behind the canvas of paintings, with the doges of Tintoretto, with Gozzoli’s Florentines, behind the pages of books, with Fabrizio del Dongo and Julien Sorel, behind the phonograph records, with the long dry laments of jazz. And then, after making a complete fool of himself, he understood, he opened his eyes, he saw that it was a misdeal: he was in a bistro, just in front of a glass of warm beer. He stayed overwhelmed on the bench; he thought: I am a fool. And at that very moment, on the other side of existence, in this other world which you can see in the distance, but without ever approaching it, a little melody began to sing and dance: “You must be like me; you must suffer in rhythm.”
The voice sings:
Some of these days
You’ll miss me, honey
Someone must have scratched the record at that spot because it makes an odd noise. And there is something that clutches the heart: the melody is absolutely untouched by this tiny coughing of the needle on the record. It is so far—so far behind. I understand that too: the disc is scratched and is wearing out, perhaps the singer is dead; I’m going to leave, I’m going to take my train. But behind the existence which falls from one present to the other, without a past, without a future, behind these sounds which decompose from day to day, peel off and slip towards death, the melody stays the same, young and firm, like a pitiless witness.
The voice is silent. The disc scrapes a little, then stops. Delivered from a troublesome dream, the cafe ruminates, chews the cud over the pleasure of existing. The patronne’s face is flushed, she slaps the fat white cheeks of her new friend, but without succeeding in colouring them. Cheeks of a corpse. I stagnate, fall half-asleep. In fifteen minutes I will be on the train, but I don’t think about it. I think about a clean-shaven American with thick black eyebrows, suffocating with the heat, on the twenty-first floor of a New York skyscraper. The sky burns above New York, the blue of the sky is inflamed, enormous yellow flames come and lick the roofs; the Brooklyn children are going to put on bathing drawers and play under the water of a fire-hose. The dark room on the twenty-first floor cooks under a high pressure. The American with the black eyebrows sighs, gasps and the sweat rolls down his cheeks. He is sitting, in shirtsleeves, in front of his piano; he has a taste of smoke in his mouth and, vaguely, a ghost of a tune in his head. “Some of these days.” Continue reading