At the end of last year I heard about a secret gig happening in the dungeons of the SABC studios. It was an invite-only show and could apparently only seat 80 people. I went by myself and sat and waited. And then, finally, on he came : Paul Simon!
Not only that, but onto the stage around him poured the entire original line-up from the Graceland album, including the legendary Ray Phiri, Bakithi Khumalo, Saxophonist Barney Rachabane and both drummers, Isaac Mtshali and Vusi Khumalo. Even Bra Hugh made an appearance, as well as Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
While I sat there, mesmerised, something clicked in me. The whole mystery of the sound of that album, Graceland, unravelled in my ears. A band that had not played together for many years was the real magic behind the Graceland sound! It had just came out of them, it was within them. It was their sound. And even though I always sort of knew it, to hear that sound baring it's naked soul on that stage, it really hit me that evening; all those legends in the band, every single one of them – how come they hadn't gotten the acclaim they deserved at home?
Ray Phiri co-wrote the entire album as part of his contribution to the apartheid struggle. The band had participated as a political message to the world.
Today Ray is a humble genius who can still play the most soulful guitar you've ever heard, working away on far smaller projects that don't do him justice or utilise his vast experience. (see this clip of Ray talking about the writing of Graceland)
Johnny Fourie – by my account a true legend - passed away a couple of years ago. He is internationally regarded as one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived! When international guitar superstar John Mclaughlin was asked in a Rolling Stone interview a few years ago, "What is it like being the greatest guitarist in the world?" John cracked a smile and said, "Don't ask me, ask Johnny Fourie."
Johnny played with Bill Cobham and Hubert Laws and was a resident at the famous jazz club, Ronnie Scott's. He toured the world numerous times, playing at the heart of the bebop scene in the 70s and the free jazz scene in the 80's. That man was a gift. I met him briefly the year before he passed away, his hands were not working well at the time which meant he couldn't play guitar any more, so he'd taught himself to use a computer and had carried on composing.
He was 70 when he released his final album, composed entirely on his PC! But he was never recognised locally, and it was always his biggest regret.
We really need to start looking deeper at what amazing talent we have in South Africa. And we need to begin giving respect and support where it is not only just needed, but deserved.
Vusi Mahlasela is one of the hardest working (and the most permanently exhausted) musicians I have ever encountered. He is always working, he is always touring, and subsequently is always tired, and is often in poor health.
In addition, he is extremely generous and does a lot of charity work to help his community, even keeping his South African band members on the payroll, despite Vusi not doing many shows in South Africa – they could not survive without this.
Part of the problem is that Vusi has to continuously tour in the U.S. because he does not have the recognition and support that he needs back at home in order to spend more time here.
I've also noticed that we struggle to support a band like Die Antwoord – of course, an outrageous concept outfit. But whereas most countries would be proud of Die Antwoord's success, we South Africans seem unable to give them the credit they deserve. Alongside the film District 9, they put Afrikaans on the global map. And despite what you may think of Die Antwoord, the fact is that behind it sits a musical genius who has proved his talent over and over again in this industry for 15 years, and who deserves our respect.
So what is it that stops us from embracing our artists that are actually contributing something very real, and not just succumbing to the mundane global pop culture? Why is it that we praise our top "Top 40" bands (when I say praise, I mean actually buy their music and support them), but we neglect those that we can be actually proud of? How come, more often than not, the break-out bands from here, are recognised internationally before locally? Isn't that weird?