Playing names playing notes

There was a phase during which I spent many hours generating song lyrics. All were based on how miserable I was feeling because my marriage had ended in disaster, which was anyhow inevitable, seeing as it had begun in the same way. There was a fundamental problem: I am not a singer. The words I wrote were not suitable or particularly lyrical.

Nevertheless, I came to Johannesburg armed with a demo of my best songs, all of them lovingly recorded in a Durban hotel room on a Fostex 4-track, late at night after I had finished playing my regular gig in the pub downstairs.

Thus, to this day, a certain gentleman who operated at Gallo at the time (this was in 1987) has my undying gratitude for actually listening to my song demo without rolling around his office floor laughing his head off. Perhaps he did that as soon as I left his office. I don’t know — and he is not telling. However, such politeness and forbearance are rather rare qualities in this business.

With time, I seem to have reserved any sort of written expression for letters to friends and family, and for the naming of my compositions.

And — rather wisely, I think — I have left the writing of lyrics to the lyricists. Besides storing fragments of melody, passages of chords and notes about tempo, rhythm and instrumentation on manuscript paper (to be developed at later stage), I also store fragments of speech, quotes from newspaper billboards and advertisements from lampposts in my neighbourhood. Once I got something off a bus shelter in Schipol, The Netherlands. These I used later as titles for the various pieces of music I have composed.

Certain titles fit with certain compositions. When a piece of music has left my house and gone out on its own into the world, it is not at all predictable how it will behave, what sort of success it will have or how people will react to it.

Take, for instance, the title of my first “grown-up” recording. Once I had finished the recording (made for the SABC’s transcription service in May 1995), the person chosen to produce it chastised me for asking for additional fees for my sidemen, and for wasting valuable studio time by recording take after take of interminable vamps.

For those who don’t know, in musical terms a vamp is the verbal equivalent of writing, say, a whole paragraph of “oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh”. This is done in the hope that its innate rhythmic and poetic splendour will generate a feeling of wellbeing and hypnotic satisfaction in the listener.

So, in reaction to the producer’s venom as a result of my efforts, I entitled my transcription project Vamps in the Night.

The SABC had several copies made of the album, which I purchased from it in the hope of licensing my new baby to a recording company. Each clone proudly carried the title, in bold print on a yellow CD inlay.

About two years later, having recovered somewhat from my childish impulse to hit back at the producer for his hurtful remarks, I found a willing taker for my album. It was then that, rather more sensibly, I renamed the collection after the title of a piece of music in the collection.

I know that this plan was for the best. Not least because all the bitterness, anger and childish vindictiveness that moved my pen to write Vamps in the Night would have steered many people far away from choosing that particular album from the CD racks in their local stores. Thus they may never have heard a song called Trains to Taung.

Apparently there are people who actually debate whether I will ever transcend the heights scaled by that album. If I spend any time worrying about this I would never play another note — and thus I would have failed.

Names are so important — names our parents give us, names we give our children, names we give to our creations. Look at the way people have run away from names: Abdullah Ibrahim used to be Dollar Brand, who used to be Adolf Brandt. Did he jump or was he pushed to change his name three times? I wonder. But I do think that the problem with running away from something is that you inevitably end up running headlong into something else. What I ended up running away from in my life was the strictness of my upbringing, the lack of flexibility. As a result, I ran into hedonism and got to experience the hard, unforgiving bones of my own skull. These proved to be far more invincible, more forbidding than the rules of my parents’ house, as I perceived them to be.

I reached the point of shutdown in 1994. I was smoking a lot of good dagga and spent too much time alone. I must write from people to people. The instrumental track Severn from the album Naivasha was interpreted by vocalist Gloria Bosman on her second album, where it was titled Love Perfection. But I wrote it with Louis Mhlanga’s guitar-voice in mind. When he played it with me for the first time (at a wedding), it made total sense. That is when the piece became a success — the intent, the rhythm and the melody slotted together around the character of Louis.

In a similar vein, bassist Denis Lalouette and the late drummer Jethro Shasha were brought together for the Trains to Taung recordings in 1995. I introduced them to each other after a festival gig, late one night in an underground parking garage at Library Gardens in downtown Johannesburg. Jethro and I had just played with Ray Phiri. Denis had performed at the same venue. I noticed the deep affinity and mutual respect they had for one another and decided at that moment that they should play together in my sessions. Only afterwards did I discover that they had never played together before.

My hero warrior-pianist Anton Pietersen came to my last show, two weeks ago at Spier arts festival. It was an honour and a privilege to ensure he had the best seat in the house. We spent a long time afterwards talking about our lives, our music, our families … In short, about how a musical spirit keeps an eternal flame burning, against all odds — without burning up or burning out.

Catch Unofficial Language featuring Paul Hanmer at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival on the Rosies stage on Friday March 31 from 7.15pm

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