Koos Kombuis tracks down SA music legends for Rolling Stone in the series 'Wish You Were Here'. In this edition, singer-songwriter Bill Knight.
It has become a tradition for me to end every year's activity with a solo acoustic gig in the charming little Cottage Club in Kommetjie, a tiny house-based theatre where Capetonians regularly gather to listen to lekker folk music, and also to listen to Bill Knight, owner of the venue with, as he says, his "Bokkie" Gale ("Bokkie" written with a capital letter, like most of the really important words in his e-mails).
It so happened that I struck up a friendship with Bill Knight based purely on the fact that, once a year, I'd have a few drinks with him while staring out over his stoep at the lovely view of Table Mountain.
Sad to say, I knew little else about this legendary singer/songwriter apart from the fact that he had a very friendly smile and that his last album, which contained a number of Afrikaans songs, attracted rave reviews in the Afrikaans press. "Wat 'n ontdekking!" ("What a discovery!") Die Burger wrote, as if they, like me, had only recently discovered who Bill really was.
Last year Bill gave me a couple of CDs, which I'd listen to over and over. It was indeed a journey of discovery! The following quote from his website describes his music better than I ever could: "Take his Welsh/Afrikaner roots, add a bit of Dylan, Cohen and Waits, soak in Miriam Makeba, Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens, Amaswazi Emvelo , add some Tony Bird, David Kramer, the Other Band, Bright Blue and Juluka, shake well, and you come up with a 'Kaapse Mengsel' (Cape mix). Skollie a bit of this and a bit of that, and you have 'Skollie Rock' – an African Melting Pot." According to other sources, he is seen as "one of Cape Town's National Treasures", and now I can see why!
Other interesting facts: Bill, who is of Welsh descent and was born in Botswana before he moved to Cape Town in 1966, was also responsible, together with scriptwriter Seymour Howe and actor David Muller, for the well-known Kalk Bay musical, Harbour. He is also a past chair and life member of the well-known Barleycorn Music Club.
After discovering all these fascinating things about my friend, it felt as if I'd really noticed him for the first time, and I felt that I wanted to ask him some questions about himself.
I never realised you had Welsh roots. Can you speak any Welsh yourself? I once spent a bit of time in Wales, and I loved the friendliness of the people, though their road signs were pretty long; a simple "off-ramp ahead" would sort of translate into a forty-syllable word with little circles on top of the vowels.
Well. Look at you now! Actually not, nor could my dad. I think, in order to speak Welsh, you need to have a constant post-nasal drip to get those deep glottal sounds.
You have become famous for mixing Afrikaans and English in your songs, for instance one verse in English and another in Afrikaans, et cetera. This is quite unusual, and it is admirable that you can fit these two languages in such a seamless way. How do you feel about Afrikaans as medium? Do you think the Taal (the language) is an 'endangered species', like some people say the Welsh language may be in danger of dying?
What an interesting comparison! Actually I don't think the Taal is by any means endangered – it remains a uniquely rich and descriptive language that is ever in a state of evolving - taking on many deeper meanings, and incorporating elements of our many languages. Afrikaans is not limited in any case to only one racial group - it's a second language right across the demographics. There are some concepts which cannot be adequately expressed, except in Afrikaans.
I listened to some of your latest albums and one song from the album Sout stood out and has become my favourite. It is the song called "Black Dog". What does the reference to 'black dog' mean to you? Is it a mood, a curse, or an inspiration?
Bra, it's the relentless Spirit of Melancholia/ Heimweë that both haunts and blesses me. It drives me on and it holds me back. The term I stole from Winston Churchill. Eugene Marais would understand.
You have worked with numerous well-known musicians over the years. Who has been your favourite, and with whom would you like to work in future? (I love the violin on some of your albums, by the way).
Aai Bra - I've been so fortunate to have some of the country's most talented musicians bless my work with a little piece of themselves. I love them all dearly for their selfless contributions.
My upcoming album features Lani Pieterson (who works with Rian Malan), James Hall, an amazing violinist, Lize Wiid, (Radio Kalahari Orkes) on accordion & vocals, Richard & Jono Tait on vocals, Alan Ratcliffe on bass, drums samples, midi etc... and of course my Bokkie, Gale, on violin & cello. One old china I'm looking forward to re-connecting with soon is my big boet and longtime mentor Roger Lucey, who gets back later this year.
This is sommer just for fun. Have you seen the latest video clip by Die Antwoord? I still hate their music, but I thought the bit if theatre in the beginning was hilarious. What is your take on this, and on modern trends in general?
No, I haven't, but I'll check it out. My thought about Die Antwoord is: Wat nou wassie vraag gawies? (What was the question now?) There is a whole generation of very articulate "New Folk" singer-songwriters on the horizon, who have a very clear understanding and respect of their roots.
I did a gig in Napier this weekend, and there were about 6 jong ouens (young guys) there who knew of me and what I'm about. Their comment at the end was - "Respek! Bra!" - blew me away!
I think the future of our music is immense and very exciting. I believe that the South African sound will make an enormous impact on the world in the very near future. The thing is, as you know so well - no-one's going to do it for us –we have to do it ourselves.
Indeed! Good luck with your new album, Bill, and thanks for the gesels (chat)!
Take a look at Bill Knight's website at www.billknight.co.za.