/ 3 May 2024

A genuine musical trendsetter

The Hilton Schilder Quintet, Standing Left To Right: Ruby Truter
Going strong: The Hilton Schilder Quintet, which will be playing at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. (Gregory Franz)

You could have called me a groupie and you wouldn’t have been wrong. Every single time the black goema punks from Cape Town, The Genuines, played at Jameson’s in the 1980s I was there. 

Right at the front of the crowd in this dodgy Joburg CBD basement bar, there was me, dancing on that beer-sodden carpet like I could dance, enthusiastically roaring back their Afrikaaps songs like I could actually sing. 

I bought their two 1980s records as soon as they were released by Shifty Records but nothing came close to their debauched gigs at smoky Jameson’s — raucous, creative like nothing you’ve heard before, joyful, ecstatic, communal, political, punkish, yet very, very tight because this quartet could play. 

And they played their butts off, while having heaps of fun. It was jazz, funk, punk, reggae, rock and goema, the distinctive Klopse style with its roots deep in black Cape Town’s thriving musical past.

The band was formed in April 1986 and straight away hit it off with Jameson’s lefty crowd. Bassist and singer Mac McKenzie, who sadly died earlier this week, was the perfect frontman: sexy, charismatic, compelling, radical and witty.

Joburg-born drummer Ian Herman was serious, could play the skins like he was a human metronome, but also with a loose-limbed swing reminiscent of the best jazz drummers. 

Gerard O’Brien, originally from Gqeberha, was the talented guitarist with the laid-back demeanour of a bassist. The only band member with a moustache.

On keyboards was Hilton Schilder of the famous Schilder musical clan from Cape Town. A prodigy, he started playing drums when he was three. Just looks-wise, with his reflector sunglasses hiding a boyish face, leather jacket and Levi’s, he could easily have fit into an underground band such as the Velvet Underground — oozing cool, just a few degrees this side of aloof.

Last Friday, we are connecting on Zoom, after all these years — it feels like I’m catching up with an old mate. 

Schilder, who turned 65 in January, is sitting in a Cape Town studio, where he is recording his new album with the Hilton Schilder Quintet. They have eight tracks in the can, with three more to go for an album that still needs a name. It is his 45th album.

Schilder is taking a break to chat to me between recordings and is showing me around with the help of his laptop. “We’ve got a nice studio here,” he says. “That’s what I’m recording on … a concert grand piano.”

He laughs when I ask if it is fun because I have never recorded an album.

“Well, it’s great fun, because they’re all in their twenties — they bring a lovely, youthful energy to the project. 

“I’ve got Clayton Pretorius on bass. And then I’ve got Shahima LaKay on violin. And I’ve got Kurt Bowers on drums. And Ruby Truter on vocals. I’m playing piano.”

This group will be playing with him at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

The album, all with his compositions, has an “almost classical sound because of the violin”, he says, “it’s hip, it’s really modern, but has hints of jazz in it.”

We are talking about photos he has posted on Facebook of The Genuines from the 1980s, but Schilder returns to his 2024 band, telling me, “It is beautiful having young people around.”

He continues. “Can I tell you something? This is the most fun I’m having since The Genuines!” he exclaims with a grin through his beard. “The feeling I had with The Genuines is the feeling I’ve got now again. I think it’s probably because I’m surrounding myself with youthful energy.”

Schilder’s young band has another similarity with The Genuines: “They can play, you know. They’re really very good.”

The song they are working on is dedicated to his granddaughters — his son’s wife had a baby and his daughter had twins close together and they have all just turned one. “It’s called AKA, for their names — Amy, Kate and Aurora.”

Schilder is recording the album with the group that will be playing with him on the opening night, Friday 3 May, at the festival.

They are going to play the stuff they are recording, he says. “Because it is nice and tight, but also some old material.

“And these guys can play, they’re beautiful musicians.”

But don’t musicians, however talented and — in his case, experienced — they are, get nervous? Schilder smiles and shakes his head.

“I’ve never really got stage nerves,” he says. “I was on stage at the age of three already. So, stage fright was something I’ve never experienced, really. 

“Even when we play in front of lots and lots of people, you know, stadiums, I don’t get stage fright. It’s just like, it’s quite familiar.”

There is a tiny bit though.

The Genuines 1 2 (2)
The Genuines – Gerard O’Brien, Mac McKenzie, Ian Herman and Schilder – in the 1980s. (Courtesy of Shifty Records)

“Obviously, especially just before you walk on to stage, you get that little rush. But as soon as I walk on, I control that energy for the music.

“And you need that. It’s like a sports person. You need that kind of rush. Of course, you need that little rush of adrenaline, you know. 

“But the moment you get behind the instrument, and you play your first note, it’s gone — then you’re there.”

Over his 40-plus albums, the globally recognised Schilder has played a wide range of genres: jazz, punk, rock, goema, global, classical and even micro-house music. 

He has also collaborated with a wide range of artists. Among his favourites are saxophonists Mike Makhalemele, Robbie Jansen and Khaya Mahlangu.

“Who else? With Alex van Heerden was actually the best concept that we had — it was called RockArt. I think that was my best collaboration,” Schilder says.

“We did one album in Sweden called Future Cape — if you can get it, it’s an incredible album. I’m playing about 16 instruments on that album.”

Sadly, Van Heerden died in a car crash at the age of 35 in 2009 when, as this futurist, hybrid-electro performance art project, they were finishing their second album.

I ask Schilder who his favourite composers are. Without hesitation he says: “Frank Zappa. Look, I’ve got a lot of great composers  but my favourite is Zappa. 

“Just because of his approach. His orchestral stuff is amazing. His approach to life was fantastic. 

“And then the other guy is Hermeto Pascoal. And Egberto Gismonti and Chick Corea. I would say those are among my favourite composers.

“And, of course, there’s my dad and my uncles — they are also my favourite composers as well. 

“The one uncle that we just buried a month ago, Philip, he was the youngest of the brothers. He was an incredible composer and he played double bass and nylon string guitar, you know, what a musician.”

There’s someone talking to Schilder in the studio. “Oh, it’s the band,” he says beaming like a proud dad. “They want to record.”

Last question, then, for the cool man with the plaited goatee.

“I looked at photographs of you because I prepared a bit,” I tell him. “You’ve always had an impeccable, but totally individualistic, style since The Genuines days. Why is it important and where does it come from?”

By the smile on his face it is clear this is a topic close to Schilder’s heart.

“My father Tony was a good dresser, right? He always told me the stage is where you can look like you want to.

“Well, I took it to another level, where I get outrageous and I wear costumes, but at the same time, it’s something that I would wear in the street … as outrageous as it was. Since I was a kid, since I was a teenager, because I didn’t dress like anybody else.

“When I was growing up, people went, ‘Look at the way he’s dressing!’”

Schilder was always a sartorial trendsetter.

“That is kind of my signature, you know what I mean? Because now they’re now dressing in nice three-piece suits and hats and do the whole fifties look [like I used to]. And then I’ll go into leather or whatever, like now, I’m wearing kind of Japanese outfits and that.

“And the band’s into it too. We’ve got a photo shoot tomorrow, so I’m looking quite forward to that.”

The photograph on this page is from that very shoot. Schilder is not only teaching these youngsters about the ins and outs of music, but also of cool.

A few days after our interview, I see a Facebook post on 29 April by Schilder saying: “I’m devastated, my soulmate and brother Mac is no more. Till we meet again, RIP dear brother.”

I send him a WhatsApp with commiserations.

“Thanks bru, so sad,” he replies.

McKenzie was 69.