Africa! After months of preparation, I'm shuffled through the Customs line. "How long are you going to stay?" STAMP! "Welcome to South Africa!" I walk down another hallway called "Nothing to Declare." My giant bag is waiting. I'm glad my guitars were not sitting, visible in that area. There doesn't seem to be anybody around to supervise the baggage. Out another door, and I'm in the hustle of the terminal.
Crowds of men in suits, in vests. "Taxi! Taxi! Ride to hotel, Sir?"
It's not the wrong side of the road, it's just the opposite side to which i'm used to driving. The car rental exits directly onto the expressway, so there's no pissing around to get used to this. My Heathrow depleted phone/GPS dies within five minutes. And my expensive paper maps of South Africa give no Johannesburg information beyond the largest of roads. And it's raining.
People are walking along the highway, across the highway. Cars are driving on the shoulders, crossing the median. Little minivan taxis are everywhere. Weaving, bobbing, stopping, starting, honking: guys hanging out of the windows yelling, music beating and booming. Groups of people are sitting under bridges. Trucks barely moving: spilling blue smoke in dense clouds, leaning on strange angles. Overloaded. Carrying what? Breakdowns in the ditches. Earnest men in dirty clothes and baseball hats grouped around open hoods. Police everywhere. I don't know what you have to do, or who you have to be, to get stopped out here. This road is posted 120 and the lux cars in the fast lane are flashing, pushing, wanting to do much better than that. And they are.
There's no USB plug in my rented car, so I can't charge up, phone anybody, or re-boot my Google Maps. Well, now I'm on a mystery tour of Johannesburg and- as I quickly confirm- it's a big place! Eventually I get focused on remembering where on the Big Map my destination was near. Charlie and Wim's pace. Friends. Blues people. A secure spot I can sit and figure out what's what, have a beer, and recover from 35 hours of travel. Ending up in a busy market in Krugersdorf, I find a little Pakistani cell phone repair shop. Quickly, I buy an adaptor so I can power up my phone via my car's cigar lighter outlet.
Hustlers and street vendors swarm my car at every stop light. Twenty minutes later I've got a charge up and the txts are coming in. My pals have been wondering where I was. Pulling off the road to be txt safe, I hit a pot hole and destroy two tires and a mag wheel. Hey, welcome to my Tour: under Zulu skies I'm nearby a squatter's camp. In front of the tin shacks I'm changing out the front wheel. Quickly. Me and my guitars on the side of the road. The good thing about this, I guess, is that South Africa can use the money. I'm thinking that by the time I pay for these repairs, I'll be making nothing on all these shows. At least the rear tire is holding air, in spite of it's sidewall being gashed open. Meanwhile, my credit cards are all maxed, and I've only got about 200 rand, about twenty dollars, in my pocket to carry me until my first show. Thank goodness the car came with a full tank of gas.
Yes, I've arrived. Purple trees shimmer in the distance, and the birds are singing strange songs. Maybe not as strange as the ones I'll soon be singing. I'm heavily booked. I hope they like me here. A little SUV pulls up behind me. It's Charlie and Wim: come to fetch me home, only about ten minutes away. This Tour, more than any other I have ever done, is destined to be about the goodness of friends.
The core of the Charlie King Blues Band. Drummer Wim. Singer Charlie. They've got a cool little compound just beyond the big city- a place I'll gratefully use as base for my first few days of the Tour.
After a day's rest on the farm, my first stop is Jean Village Music in Centurian. It's part of the Paul Bothna Music chain which has sponsored the audio production of this Tour. I'm visiting Jean Village to pick up the PA system I'll be carrying for the duration of my shows. The store is pretty nice. The place reminded me very much of Canada's Long & McQuade: another old, family run business. Happy folks working there. Great selection of stock. Nice layout. There weren't any kids in there shredding, but then the holidays hadn't started yet, either. I pick up a little Allen and Heath board, a couple of 15 inch powered speakers, a wedge, stands and cables for everything– and I'm show ready. The speakers, stands and banners fill the entire backseat of my little white Chevy, so now I'm going to have to load this stuff in and out a couple of times a day. Builds character, and I won't need a gym.
My next stop is my first show, up in Pretoria. Not just any show, but the Tour launch: a reception at the Canadian High Commission's Maple Leaf Club. I hope all this gear works. I hope I can set it up easily and quickly. I hope I can get up to the Embassy without getting lost or car-jacked! Of course, I can, but I don't know this yet.
Pretoria's a pretty town, even in rush hour. And those purple trees are everywhere. I find the Embassy fairly easily, and my set up goes well and quickly. My sound check takes all of two minutes. As it happens, the reception is a fabulous event. Between myself, my publicist- Warren "Dog" Gibson- and the Embassy staff, we've got a top flight guest list, and the event is golden. Jack Black Beer, run by a Canadian couple out of Cape Town, dominates the bar. The Embassy is sold on it! So am I! Networking at it's finest! After my set, I meet the ambassadors to several nations, writers, music fans, musicians and ex-pats. Madam High Commissioner, Sanda McCardell is wonderful. My South African friends are very impressed. She is very good at what she does. "You've got a great government," they chorus. And I can't help but thinking that they are largely right.
But with 38 signed contracts accompanying my application, a proven marketing plan, a publicist, a new cd release, the largest tour of South Africa any North American has ever done... Canada Council for the Arts declined to provide me with any support for this Tour. A "jury of my peers" concluded that there were other tours more worthy. What– me, bitter? No just surprised. No, not surprised at all. It's very Canadian. Ok, I was disappointed, and I hadn't asked for much.
Meanwhile, as always, this Tour is totally independent. It runs on blood and guts, not pension money, holiday money, or grants. If it doesn't go well, I could lose everything. My gear needs maintenance. My shoes are old. It wouldn't take much to push me off the edge of the earth.
Tim Parr, one of South Africa's best known singer -songwriter storytellers, a fine blues and roots guitarist, a guy who has had hit records. I was pleased to meet him at one of my Johannesburg shows. Maybe we'll get to play together before this Tour is done!
The South African release of Narrow House. I had a special, South African version manufactured in South Africa. I think it's a good idea to network and support the local economy. It took me a little while to find the company, but this Cape Town firm, One Stop CD, did a nice job for me and delivered the product on time. Very lekker! The biltongs are, too! Not at all like cod tongues.
Cliff Central Radio. Big South African drive show. Shock jocks. Very American, but very South African. I play on-air. We talk. Tickets start selling to my shows across the country. I now know for sure that Plug Music and Warren Gibson are doing a great job for me. He's going to keep me busy with phoners, print interviews, and in-studio radio and television shows for the remainder of my tour.
Radio Eden. Cool, midtown Johannesburg music radio. I do the morning show with host Janet Sedgewick. Johannesburg last night in a storm: power flickering. Traffic lights down. I learned that you don't stop for red lights at night anyway. Or stop signs. Unless there are police there. I learned that there is a learning curve to survival here. How to bribe a cop. How much to offer, how to offer it, and when. Don't do that around Cape Town. Now, concerts around Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bronkhorstspruit, Nelspruit, Cullinan, Lyndenburg...
Andre runs The Cockpit Brewhouse, Cullinan. Knows his brews and his blues. South Africa has plenty of both. Hops are expensive in Africa, so none of those crazy, IPAs around here. But plenty of good beer, and plenty of local micros competing. Diamond mines here. Folks on holiday from Pretoria and Johannesburg. A nice crowd. A nice day out with some local musicians sitting in for a few tunes.
It's been a great first week on African soil. My time in the Gauteng province has been filled with amazing shows in amazing venues. Around the edges I've appeared on three of the region's most watched/ listened drive shows. I've been up with the roosters to appear on Cliff Radio, Radio Eden, and this morning, Groot TV/FM.
Photo op with Groot morning host Johrne van Huyssteen.
Sinkshack. Bronkhorstspruit. My compound is made of corrugated metal. It's a long series of buildings facing a brick courtyard. Palm trees fill the areas between, and over the shacks. It's a compound that makes Clarksdale, Mississippi's Shack-Up look like suburban architecture. I've got a ceiling fan. There's heat, there's thunder overhead. I've got no wifi. I could use all my data on my phone pretty quickly. I've got some red wine. I play guitar in the shade. I nap. One week in. I played one of the largest television shows in Africa this morning. Now, I've snuck out of Pretoria on the backroads. "Hey, I saw you on TV!"
One of the many unexplained things I will find in South Africa. A series of clocks behind the bar. London, Paris, Bronkhorstspruit... Newfoundland, Canada. Go figure. I'm still jet lagged. I think. After all these months on the road I have a hard time deciding what time it is. Gotta follow the clock you are with. They don't mess with the clocks here, either. Moving the clock forward and back is a first world problem.
The rain on the metal roof is deafening during my show. Hot/cool neon is everywhere. The staff run around with little pots to catch the leaky roof water. The board snaps, crackles, pops, goes down. It's ok. This is Africa. I can play without the PA. And there is a spare board, somewhere.
Before heading out, I go for a run around town. I'm getting braver. I trot by the busy blocks of street market and vendors. There are home made, steel boxes serving as barber shops. "Haircut! Haircut!" The anxious barber smoking in the shadow of his one kitchen chair shop. I buy fuel. I tip too much. I know this because of the way the man smiles and looks at the money. You tip for everything here. Even services you don't need or want. There's always someone appearing to help you park your car, watch it, and unpark it again. These people make up these jobs. All you need is a safety vest to look official. How poor are the parking guards? They watch my car for two rand- about twenty cents. At four of five rand they are very happy. "Don't pay them too much," I'm advised, "they'll get greedy." To have and have not. I've got a pocket full of change, and I may need all of it to get across this strange land.
I'm up early, determined to do an eight hour detour through Kruger on route to my evening show. I'm "on safari" with my little car. It's completely filled with gear– all but the driver's seat. And I no longer have a spare tire. I have a broken wheel in the trunk. No Rover. No Tilley hat. Note to self: get the tire and wheel replaced as soon as possible. Yeah, a little reckless. But here I go.
I'm lost, my Google map blue dot floating in dribs and drabs. I'm pretty sure I'm heading in the right direction, but not on the larger road I had planned. Around a corner and there are police and soldiers everywhere. Trucks, cars, yellow tape. Guys with rifles. Two bodies lie on the road. Several other men are pressed together like cordwood, face down on the pavement, their hands fastened behind their backs. "Move! Move! Move!" I'm hastened through the scene, beyond the next yellow tape, and then it's gone behind me. I have no idea what was going on. Some kind of take down. What? Why? Who knows? Close on the National Park boundary security is high.
Under gloomy skies, the air is tense at the little entry point I arrive at. Soldiers search my car. I need to show my passport. They take it away. Bring it back. I pay a bunch of rand, and they wave me through. I pull over and figure out where I am on the map. The speed limits are very, very, slow. How many hours will it take me to drive through here? I set out on these empty little roads. Either I'll make it on time, or I won't. The math looks tight, but I wouldn't miss this landscape. It's my tourist moment.
To my surprise, most of the high drama animals are visible on the roadside. Yes, I was quite lucky. Rhinos, giraffes, elephants, buffalo, various deer species. Worth the price of admission. And I make it to my show on time.
South African roads are full of surprises. This truck sign is normal in South Africa, but provided me with endless amusement and commentary. In America, the sign would probably read "wide load."
Nelspruit. And now, down into Free State...
Louis runs the bar. The music end of it anyway!
Mojo's bar in Welkom, Free State, South Africa. When I walked in here, Fury Lewis was blasting on the sound system. I've left the north-eastern region and am now pushing south. Bigger distances between shows, but the pace on the national highways is fast. Last night I heard lions roaring. Tonight in Welkom, there are dogs barking. Tomorrow, I'll run these palm lined streets before heading into Bloemfontein to play the Vulture Club, the Aasvole Klub. By mid-week the Tour will reach KwaZulu-Natal, ever closer to the Zulu King...