Tuesday, November 29, 2016

East Cape and Across the Karoo Desert

Roads greatly improved, I have an easy, relaxed drive down the coast to Kenton-On-The-Sea. It's a little resort and retirement town, just off season. But who can resist playing a venue called the Goat Shed? My publicist, Warren Gibson, lives nearby with his family- so we also take the opportunity to visit, discuss strategy, and socialize. Plug Music rocks. Warren has done a great job and it's been a pleasure to work with him. We're already talking about the next Tour. Now, when a sudden rainstorm knocks out the power, I set up to do the Goat Shed show by candle light– without mics. I'm an old street singer, I like doing shows this way!

Down the widening highways to Port Elizabeth. A larger, coastal city. I'm to do the afternoon drive show on the big pop rock station- an event that's been set up weeks in advance. This could really help to put bums in seats for my evening show at the Music Kitchen. As I enter the studio, my heart sinks– I hear "American Pie" on the monitor– and the opening question is "what can you tell us about that song?"

In a remarkable display of nerve and silver tonguing, I actually twisted this interview into a beautiful thing, played guitar on the radio, promoted my Narrow House album, talked up the evening show- and answered the American Pie question. Damn! Sometimes I'm good!

A great show at the Music Kitchen. I'll be back! A really interesting indoor/outdoor room with a bonfire in the back. Nice people who bought lots of cds!

The Coast behind me, I'm looking forward to heading out across the Karoo Desert. Some big distances out here. Relaxed. Beautiful. I've got bottles of water and a full tank of gas. How fast does this little car go? We'll find out. There's almost no one out here. The road. And sometimes little ruins out in the distance. Who lived here? When? Why? How? Mid summer now, and it's getting warm.

I'm headed for what's been described to me as a "small drinking town with a farming problem." Nieu-Bethesda. I'm feeling relaxed, driving under big skies, my Africa relaxing with me now. There are ranches out here in the big spaces, or farms, estates. I'm not sure what they are called, but they are far apart, and seem far from wealthy. A hard life, I'd think. But I've met characters like this before in the American south-west. It takes a special sort, to make a life in an area like this one. Beautiful. Silent. Deadly. The freedom of isolation. The madness of it all. Over my six hours of driving, I see almost no one. This road is mine for a fleeting time, and I'm comforted by the feeling that I am probably as free and as mad as anybody else under these skies.

This is not one of the largest venues on my schedule, but I'm immediately glad I came. The town has evolved to be a little arts community with galleries, guest houses, a few restaurants, and a micro brewery. There are children riding an old horse down the main street. Pre-holiday. By next week every room will be filled, cars parked up and down. The cash injection needed to carry this place until the next holiday. I love these little arts towns in the off-season. I love the people who somehow wind up living in places like this, nurturing the old buildings, fostering warm little communities of odd souls.

It's a fun, local filled show in this barn-like bar. Outside, post-show, a strange, star filled sky. I sit on my porch and watch it for a while. Dead still. Dead quiet, but for the peeps of the little lizards.

In the morning, I stop over at the Owl House. Just steps from my guest house. Owl House is the main tourist attraction in this far flung little spot. A strange sculpture garden created by a strange woman many years ago. Powerful. My broken camera didn't capture it as I might of hoped. Or I didn't use my broken camera as skillfully as I might of wished. Stark, desert art by a woman I might or might not of liked. But flesh and bone art. Of this place. I would not of missed it for the little landscape galleries.

Soon I'm blasting down the naked highways, now heating up. Heading for the Showroom Theatre in Prince Albert. This is one of the most splendid small theatres in South Africa, and I'm very much looking forward to it. An amazing, art deco theatre, with a world class presentation stage.

I'm up early and away. I've got an afternoon theatre show in Tulbagh, some distance across the desert. How fast can this little Chevy go? I'm not going to tell you here!

Tulbagh. Saronsberg Theatre. This place is beyond the desert. It's green. It's fruit trees and wine estates. It's a historic, not so sleepy town, less than two hours from Cape Town.

Mr. Cat and the Jackal, a popular Cape Town band performed here last night. They are still doing breakfast on the balcony as I arrive to load in for my show. Persuaded that a little breakfast beer might be nice, I join the young animals for conversation. A musician social. Owner Chris Grobler joins us, and it's a pleasant hour spent before I need to set up.

A number of people around South Africa have worked hard to arrange this introduction. Selfishly, they operated on the expectation that these artists would click and create some fabulous music. Doc MacLean, meet Albert Frost. I guess you've got guitars in the car, Albert?

Damn straight! I've been checking Albert out on YouTube for months. Long enough to convince me not to play Sugarman for an encore. Long enough to know that this guy is a special kind of player. But I haven't had this much fun in years. Historic. This is very cool.

I feel like I've known Albert and Chris for years. We spend the next day hanging out, driving around, playing records. I'm blessed. I think it's pretty safe to say we'll be doing this again. And again.

It was a beautiful day, spent with great friends. Albert and I are booked to play a theatre together in about a week or ten days. I'm looking forward to that. We haven't rehearsed, but we've got a much better idea now about how cool it's going to be! Meanwhile, I've pointed the little white car towards the Garden Coast. In a couple more days I'll roll into Cape Town.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Many Roads: Highway 61 Visited, Not Re-visited

Many roads. That much is certain. What is it now? The first few thousand kilometres of African highway. Theatres, clubs, juke joints, cows, goats, sheep, taxis, pot holes, speed bumps as big as my car, the horizon always teasing. These roads are posted fast. Slightly less hectic now. Less populated than the north-east, capital district. The open countryside is more relaxed. Fewer barb wire fences. Fewer people walking the roadside. A man in rags, barefoot, makes me drive around him. I've seen two bodies on the roadside in less than a week. Some of these people have arrived from other lands. Walking. They are tired. Or sometimes, high. They don't seem to understand the speed of the road. Or maybe they are beyond caring, beyond worrying about such simple things. Sometimes they run. Maybe they freeze in the headlights at night. I don't know. Maybe they just don't think. Don't think about the speed. Too tired for that. I wonder if there is, at some level, a disconnect from the power, the strain, the danger of the road. These two worlds. Symbiotic. Close. But far apart.

Some walk beside the highway. Some run. Some are going to work somewhere in the pre-dawn light. Others are just going. Going on from somewhere with nothing to some other place with nothing. Africa is nothing, if not busy. It's walking and picking stuff up. It's trying to flag a ride. It's about not having and having. To have and have not. It's a first world and a third world standing shoulder to shoulder, face to face. Here, under barbed wire and palms. Under Zulu skies, things are complicated. I'm in the first world with my blues tour. My worries are different worries. Much different. The shanty towns built next to the highway. The trash poured out into the ditch. The home-made speed bumps. The traffic lights that don't work because some squatters have figured out how to steal the power. Dark at night. One doesn't stop for red lights. You open the gate to the electric fence, and quickly drive inside.

But now my Google is messing up again. I'm driving around and around Bloemfontein. I'm talking on the phone to a guy who is giving me instructions I can't seem to grasp. This is a first world problem. Maybe it's my accent. Maybe it's his accent. Clearly there is a communications failure going on here. Planets may be in the wrong places. Who knows? Two hours later, I find the place. It's not in Bloem. It's near Bloem. On a highway near another highway. Easy if you know where it is! The Aasvoel Klub turns out to be quite cool...

Hein built this place. An authentic, African juke joint. Nothing is wasted here! It looks great in the daytime. It looks wild at night. It is wild at night. A great gig, and a good crowd in spite of it being a Monday show.

Big drive day. I'm taking some smaller roads east, and then south into Kwa Zulu Natal...

Caladdi, at Lidgetton, in the midlands of KZN.

Nova-May Challinor runs a picturesque resort in the KZN midlands.

Down to Eshowe, in the heart of Zululand. In fact, I play The House at Zululand. Outside, I admire their giant, purple-blue lillies. I wonder if they would grow in my Canadian garden? It is an interesting drive into Eshowe from the big road. Cane being harvested by hand just beyond the ditches. A twisted, narrow highway up into the hills. Small houses and farms cut into, and clinging to the slopes. The clouds hanging overhead. I wanted to drive a series of back roads, but the folks in the midlands talked me out of it. I still don't have a spare tire. "If you break down out there, you'll lose everything," I'm told. I don't know if that's true. But I've got a car full of gear, and I don't plan on finding out. I make the highway drive through Durban, backtracking the next morning.

The Indian Ocean. Mine for the first time. Like an old pirate, I anchor my land ship in a parking lot, pace down through the sand, across the roaring wind, to dip my foot in this warm water. It's a different ocean from the others I have experienced. How could you leave an ocean like this one? I'm on the KZN South Coast. The venue I was to play has lost it's presentation licence and had to close suddenly, so some local musicians have scrambled to set up a replacement show for me. I'm here hours early, so I snooze in my car and listen to the murmur of the waves.

A pleasant evening with local singer-songwriter John Skuy. Sugar cane, pineapples, the soft crash of the ocean. Red wine in buckets. Very nice.

And now: Highway 61. An African Highway 61. Not so different than the old 61 road I used to ride south out of Memphis in the early 1970s. Well, maybe this road is rougher than that one was. Tougher. This one I'm riding from Ramsgate to Port St. Johns. It crawls, it stops, it waits, it passes, reckless and wild. It's a blues highway from KwaZulu-Natal to the Eastern Cape. It's my route to the Wild Coast. Cattle crowd the highway. Goats. One of the taxi-vans flies past, gets smashed at the top of a hill, and plunges off the steep bank.

It's market day in the little villages, and the streets throng with people. Speakers blasting, walking into traffic, riding in open bakkies. Pot holes. Too fast. Too slow. There's not much shoulder next to the pavement. If you drop a wheel off the crumbled blacktop you could roll your car. I almost do that. I'm ok. I'm ok. Now I'll hug that centre line like everyone else. I'll take whatever road is available and use it for my own. It all could of ended here, quickly, at the twist of a wheel. A little bit of luck, and a little bit of skill. Sooner or later you run out of one or the other.

Little houses everywhere. Corrugated tin roofs. Rocks on top to hold them down. More goats, lying in the road. People walking. Walking everywhere. Talking on cell phones. Sitting by the wayside, in small groups, drinking. It's Saturday. Speed bump. Speed bump. Speed bump. If you hit one of these above a certain speed you will destroy your car. Gouges in the road serve as rumble strips. Tame this highway? I don't think so. Climbing, climbing, climbing. Twisting. Every hill a mass of neatly cut terraces. How could these frail houses cling to these steep slopes? These villages are not on my maps. The occasional town is. This gives me hope. I'm still on 61. I'm not lost in this land of no signs.

Highway 61. Trying to flag a ride. That could of been Robert Johnson, standing at the crossroads back there, or up ahead of me. Arms outstretched, fingers open. And the whole world seems to be walking, as if flagging a ride were only a dream. Inexplicably, two men in fitted, black suits stride purposefully along the broken shoulder. Walking. The world is mostly walking. Dressed neat. Balancing bags on heads. Babies on backs. Trying to flag a ride. Trying to sell me fruit, water, pop at every slow corner of the road.

The sugar cane fields come and go. Teams of people are working these by hand. The road twists. I am alone. I'm not alone, but I feel alone. A white man in a sea of black faces. I could be drowning in this sea, or I could be swimming. I have no idea. I do know that I have entered into a type of relationship with the world that I have never experienced before. Not in this way. I am first world, a white beacon recklessly moving through this land of broken roads alone, without a spare tire. In a breakdown, my privileged world could disappear in a hundred directions: into the corrugated homes, mud brick structures, behind the burning rubbish, into wanting hands. Or not. Today these hands are waving at me, and teaching me. I'm not sure exactly what. But they remind me that there are many things I don't know or understand in this world. Yet. But these are lessons, gathering in my mind as I navigate new roads, and new places of the heart.

Highway 61. It brings me back now to the comforting roar of the Indian Ocean. Here, behind locked gates, I'll play a show tonight. This is good. The location, that is. The Wild Coast. They grow dope here. That's the root economy. Dope and beaches. It's a young, mixed race crowd of travellers and backpackers. They're in the mood to party and– indeed– after my show, the party continues all night. It reminds me of Tofino, on Vancouver Island. From my bed, I can see the moon sliding across the ocean. I fall asleep with the booming of Jimmy Cliff in the distance.

I take my down day here, and go for a long run on the coastal trail. Ok, I walked quite a bit, too. And then swam in some tidal pools. You can get sucked out to sea, or eaten by sharks along this coast. The great, warm, welcoming roar of the water has persuaded many to such fate. The shore pools were everything I needed. I bet you could also disappear in these hills, if you ran into the wrong company. I didn't run into anybody at all, and had a good long trail expedition. Without a brimmed hat, my face took more sun than I would have wished for. You'll see me red-faced for the next couple of days!

This ass came into the bar and ate my breakfast toast. I didn't want the wheat bread, anyway. Even the cats beg on the Wild Coast. This one followed me for two days, and got nothing. I'm not really sure what it wanted. Beer? Do cats drink beer? Maybe this one did advance work for the donkey. Never mind.

I rode 61 Highway out, and much of the way to East London. A bigger town, a bigger venue. And one of the most interesting radio interviews I have ever given took place before the show. A freewheeling, but well thought out series of questions about music, politics, race and culture. I was challenged, and thrilled to meet these questions and the woman behind them at Coast Radio. This is the kind of discussion I'd like to have more often. These are the kinds of ideas that float in my green rooms, my car, my study. Now, I'm thinking about participating in the walk from Cape Town to Cairo next year... Reminded once more of how ordinary people like ourselves can change the world.