Any regrets? ‘A helluva lot, but they mostly involve girls. So I’m not telling you.’ Koos Kombuis tracks down SA music legends for Rolling Stone in the series ‘Wish You Were Here’. In this edition, musician, producer, filmmaker and all-round summer guy Lloyd Ross. You are a legendary figure in the SA music industry, achieving
Any regrets? ‘A helluva lot, but they mostly involve girls. So I’m not telling you.’
Koos Kombuis tracks down SA music legends for Rolling Stone in the series ‘Wish You Were Here’. In this edition, musician, producer, filmmaker and all-round summer guy Lloyd Ross.
You are a legendary figure in the SA music industry, achieving fame with your defiant record label Shifty, your recent camera work and also your work as producer, among others for Vusi Mahlasela. Yet few people know that you had your own band, Happy Ships, a long time ago. Tell me more about this period in your life?
After spending a year playing guitar with the Radio Rats in an East Rand town called Springs, I returned to Cape Town in 1980. It was late in the year and there was that typical surge of summer energy going on in the city after the winter hibernation. I was making electric guitars and jamming with different people, some of whom coalesced into this loose group of musicians with rather disparate musical sensibilities. This was the Happy Ships, a group where all members had a turn on every instrument, renowned for a handful of chaotically memorable gigs at Scratch in Shortmarket Street during high summer. The Happy Ships’ Sound Future was actually the second album released on the Shifty Records label, the first being Sankomota. The band was Wayne Raath who was last heard of doing something involving sound at Ratanga Junction, Warrick Sony who is the Kalahari Surfer, Phillip Nangle who thought better of farming after one very poor crop and was last seen with bells on his ankles, Hamish Davidson, who is paid to meditate for world peace in the Rocky Mountains, and myself who desperately needs a career change.
Rumour has it that you made a financial killing by composing a TV theme song called “Vyfster” and you then ploughed the money into Shifty Records. Is this just an urban legend or not?
I did indeed write “Vyfster”. But no, I had to make a helluva lot more money than that to lose while I recorded and released Shifty records part-time. I worked in the film industry for that money. And later the Swedes gave enough money so that I could lose it for a couple of years full-time.
What were the high points of your career?
Receiving a Sarie Award for “Vyfster” was not one of them. In the Shifty period there were many – Voëlvry (getting banned off a whole lot of Afrikaans university campuses and generally causing a ruckus during a kak period in SA history) – Mzwakhe (achieving gold status on an album that was underhandedly sold out of bicycle shops, where the cassette had no label at all, because it was banned) – having the honour to have recorded James Phillips’ entire repertoire. This to name but a few.
Many people say that, among your work in film and documentaries, the full-length movie “The Silver Fez” stands out as your best ever. What led to this remarkable project? Were there other films or doccies you’d rate higher?
I got really interested in the sublime sound of the Nederlands Lied when I was working with Kaatjie Davids on the first Radio Kalahari Orkes album. Kaatjie is a fabulous banjo player of the Klopse and Malay Choir tradition and he was just starting his own choir. I asked him if I could film the process, mainly to get to the bottom of how mixing Christianity and Islam, East and West, could result in such a hauntingly beautiful sound. If you hang out in Athlone, or Delft, or Surrey Estate for any length of time though, the characters can get big on you pretty quick. So rather than it being a documentary about a unique song form, “The Silver Fez” turned out to be a story about blokes fighting tooth and nail for a very ugly trophy, while making wonderful music. Working with Rian Malan on this helped push it to the next level. He also played in the choir for two years, by the way.
I heard that you are working on archiving a lot of older music for posterity. What do you hope to achieve with this and how do you go about doing it?
What I’m hoping to achieve is all that music doesn’t end up as a pile of shredded oxide. Every now and again I get a bit of cash from somewhere, lately the South African History Archive, and I digitise a bit more. A lot of the music wasn’t widely heard, which isn’t really much of a mystery as the lyrics generally precluded it from getting any airplay. There are also a lot of cultural field recordings that have never been properly logged and researched. Maybe it’s just me, but I think there’s quite an interesting resource there for future generations. Anyway, in my dotage, I still want to do the radio series, the documentary, and…well…the feature film, dammit.
Do you have any regrets?
A helluva lot, but they mostly involve girls. So I’m not telling you.
The last time I saw you, you arrived in Cape Town without any shoes. Was that some kind of Buddhist statement or were just down on your luck?
I don’t believe much in shoes on a summer day.