Saturday, December 10, 2016

Cape Town: The Left Coast of South Africa

Many roads lead to Cape Town. I'm heading toward the more southerly part of the region, so I've decided to come in on the coastal road instead of the expressways. My Canadian friends might mistake this for a picture of blowing snow: these hot, white sands drifting over the highway. School's out. By 8:30 in the morning these beaches are crowded. It's the holiday season. Summer is doing it's best. By noon the sun will have beat back all but the foreign tourists.

Bill Knight is a storied, South African singer-songwriter. North Americans will know what I mean when I say he reminds me somewhat of Tony Bird. There's not much room for pretenders here in South Africa. People have been through a lot, and often it's pretty close to the surface. Real stories. The white bread has long since been stolen and eaten, washed down with blood, or red wine, or both. Guitars are not delicate, nor are the people who play them.

Bill was one of the people I first talked to when I was developing the Zulu Skies Tour. He's run The Cottage, a legendary folk/roots club for many years– and I had it in my sights as being one of the best folk venues in Africa. I was not disappointed. We had a wonderful night, and I loved the room.

The next morning, I'm off to one of Paul Bothner Music's outlets– Plumstead, I believe. Paul Bothner has sponsored my audio production gear for the South African leg of the National Steel Zulu Skies Blues Tour. It is a nice, family run, chain of music stores extending across the country. I'm very much reminded of Canada's Long & McQuade- indeed, the stores look and feel very much the same. Here, as in Canada, I'm doing a series of blues guitar workshops. The Plumstead location is pretty nice, and has a dedicated room and stage.

Yup, had bums in all the seats shortly after this picture was taken. Plenty of guitar players and, of course, a 15 year old who could play like Stevie. A good player, too. I heard him. Again, I'm struck by the sheer proficiency of the younger generation. Robert Johnson had a turntable. We had headphones, and then cassette tapes with vari-speed adjusters (hey, maybe half a tone up or down!), album jacket notes, and then the early bad-tab transcriptions (these still won't go away). Today the digital world has provided learning and listening tools that we would never have imagined. Slow it down– in pitch! Auto-replay that passage! These kids can learn stuff in an afternoon that we might of spent a week, or a month, working on. And maybe we never did get it right. Who knows? And then you can watch guys actually playing it on YouTube. So, here we are. For this generation, the musical skills have never been better, but the creative spirit- the artistry, the ability to touch the world, remains pretty much as it always has been. There's plenty of mechanical talent– but only the occasional genius surfaces to hold our hearts. This is the area that most needs encouragement.

If there's one thing I try to leave my students with, it's the courage to write and sing their own stories in their own voices; putting passion and honesty at the beginning, and letting the musical form follow as it may.

Here are two familiar faces. I've got another couple of shows coming up with Albert Frost before the Tour wraps. Very exciting. We had big fun hanging out up in Tulbagh, and I think we are both looking forward to doing it again. Here, he looks very much like a member of the Dave Clarke Five– and he's sporting what looks to be my Bandmaster- Bassman cabinet combination... I'd use my 330 with this. Of course I don't have a Fender sponsorship. Or even a National sponsorship. Or a Republic sponsorship... Could we work on this?

What it is! A great, Cape Town venue. Sold out for two shows. My pal Gavin McKeller took this pic, and the next four below. All the musicians told me I'd love this room. They were right. I came away from here with a whole lot of new friends. Somehow, in all the excitement, I failed to get any pictures of Richard and Retha and Jonnathan, and all the cool kids who help make this place go. What can I say? I'll be back!! And I'll take pictures.

So nice to have great sound done by a guy who really knows what he's doing. Richard has this aging, Dynacord desk, and it sounded absolutely wonderful. Set up and sound check took less than five minutes. Perfect sound all night, both nights. And plenty of red wine. Hard to go wrong here.

Waiting lists both nights for the dinner and show events. They do a fairly early start, do the meal first, and dessert at half time. Good folks. An educated, engaged concert audience for both shows. I sold quite a few cds to this crowd– always nice when that happens.

Neighbours and Alma patrons Gill and John adopted me for a few days largely because I am a Maclean, and also because I really needed a mid-town base for my work around Cape Town. Gill is a McLean, and took me around to meet her Mum, Mrs. McLean– a local character. Strangely enough this family originally came from the same little pocket in the north of Scotland that mine did. Up on the Lovat Estates, near Inverness. There were not many Macleans up there at all, so we are almost certainly distant cousins.

Gill has also adopted the river above. She and her group of helpers are working hard to clean it up and restore original, wild plant species to the banks.

The Barleycorn Folk Club. I think Africa's longest running folk club. A big room. Capacity audience. I wanted to play here as a matter of respect for the long history of the organization. Still a great gig because it has such a great audience. On the same bill was Steve Walsh and his Lekker Band with special guest Tim Parr. Steve has had a long career in South Africa– I'd say he's blues royalty there. A great singer, player, bandleader. His Lekker band plays as well as any of the North American festival bands. At the end of the evening I sit in with these guys for a few tunes. Big fun. Nice to get to play a bit with Tim, as well.

The Flame was a soul and rock band from Durban, South Africa. The band was founded in 1963 by guitarist Steve Fataar, above. I was thrilled and honoured that he came out to a couple of my shows. His original band included bassist Endries Fataar, drummer George Faber, and guitarist Eugene Champion. Eventually brother Ricky Fataar took on the drum throne, and Blondie Chaplin joined as lead singer and guitarist. This combo attracted the attention of Al Jardine and Carl Wilson who brought them to California to record for the Beach Boys label, Brother. Plenty of great soul and rock recordings. Eventually Blondie and Ricky joined the Beach Boys, while Steve returned to South Africa. Today members of the band continue to work with Brian Wilson and with the Rolling Stones. Amazing records. YouTube up the Flame, and then Blondie Chapman with Paul Butterfield... I did this and spent a couple of days listening to some great soul records I had never heard before. Steve can still be heard playing shows up and down the coast between Durban and Cape Town.

Originally I was going to visit Robbin Island on my down day. That was before I booked a second show at the Alma, and before it got difficult to get tickets to go to the Island. But now, here I am on a show day, early in the morning, at the waterfront, trying to hustle a ticket in person. On line they said they were sold out. I'm here with a nice young couple from the Cafe, and they are doing their best to persuade the ticket office that I am a visiting rock star from America. And it's sort of true. They have seen me in the newspaper.

This is a personal trip. My journey to look, to see for myself: to stand where Mandela stood. The ticket guy finally says he can get us on the one o'clock boat. It comes back at four. So with a little hustle I could still make my gig up in Durbanville. I decide to risk it. I have not come half way around the world to not make this visit.

I made a short Facebook, Instagram post of the above picture. The caption read as follows:

"Mandela's cell. I made the journey to Robbin Island, to stand where he stood, to look out through the bars– his bars, the bars he looked through for 18 years. To feel the place. To better understand how ideas can never be contained by structures such as this."

The response to the above post surprised me, but perhaps I should of expected it. Dozens of posts to my page suggested that I don't know what I'm talking about. That Mandela was nothing but a terrorist– a word I despise as it is commonly used today. Hostile language. Threatening language. I took the majority of these posts down– not simply because I found them to be offensive, but because I did not and do not wish to have these old battles re-run on my page. It's not that I have any lack of respect for the sheer passion behind the comments. It's not that I don't understand that there are different Mandelas for different people in different times and places. In fact, the hostile comments made this truth perfectly clear. But there is also a Mandela who belongs to the world, not just to South Africa.

Finally, my simple caption did not express an opinion of any sort, or make any comment about the Apartheid government, Mandela, the revolution, or the current state of South Africa. Nor have I done so on stage or elsewhere. I have mentioned that I believe South Africa may well become one of the great nations of the next century, but that is all. My time in South Africa has been spent listening and learning. I'm a guest here. And, I hope, a respectful one. People from all backgrounds have told me their stories, and treated me very well. I have been made welcome– and this is a valued trust.

South Africa is a young, post-revolution nation. Anyone, of any race, who has lived through the events since 1948 has been bruised and impacted in some way. It is a country still deeply engaged in healing. A country with a dream– the Rainbow Nation– that is not shared, or viewed in the same way by all. A country in which many people have suffered deep losses. A country in which everyone has a story. Or many stories. A country in which citizens wear their passion for their nation on their sleeves. A country who's future is still far from being secure or predictable. But still a country of hope, I believe. A nation moving forward. Changes never seem to occur at the right speed when they are impacting lives.

Canada and South Africa have much in common. Constitutionally, and procedurally in the reconciliation process there is a history of exchange. And both peoples are painfully polite– when someone bumps into us, we always say– "sorry!" Upon my return to my own imperfect country, I will have much to think about. Already, I am planning my return to South Africa. I am thinking about truth. About art. About the responsibilities of the artist to be truthful. Above is the view of Cape Town and Table Mountain from Robbin Island.

Probably the best concert of the National Steel Zulu Skies Blues Tour. Albert Frost and I playing a sold-out theatre show at Die Boer, in Durbanville, South Africa. There was nothing not to like about this show. After good food, good wine, great sound and lighting, and a wonderful audience– we delivered a fabulous show and had a ball doing it. Durbanville is a northern suburb of Cape Town. Thanks to Lorna and Lorna D Photography for covering no less than three Cape Town area shows, and for kindly sharing some images with me.

Back into the heart of Cape Town for a Bluestown Sessions show at the Mercury Club. It's a big, downtown room. A concert hall, really, with a bar. There were a number of acts on the Blues bill with me, but I played a solo set as the other shows were pretty much electric, big bands. All great players. The bar is pretty high in Cape Town.

Doc MacLean and Doctor John, the veteran Cape Town based blues and soul singer. It was great to meet him and hear him sing a few tunes at the Mercury Club. Next time we'll need a day to hang out!

My front row at my last Cape Town area show: Villa Pascal, in Durbanville. Lots of red wine. Lots of guitar players. There was a time when girls used to sit in the front row. Now it's a boy's club, and we enjoy talking music and guitars. A nice night out! Villa Pascal is a fine, small theatre with great sound and great sight lines. People bring their own food, so it's actually a bit of a pot luck event. Quite unique and quite cool.

Villa Pascal empresario Eugene Lebreton and I had a great time trading music business stories. We'll need more time, and more wine, next time. My quarters are only steps from the theatre but, as I'm planning an early start in the morning, I bid all an early good-night.

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