3rd Ear Music’s (and my personal) association with Lefifi goes back to the late 60’s with The Malombo Jazz Makers – Julian Bahula, Lucky Ranku and Abe Cindi. Julian introduced me to Geoff Mphakati at an event in Mamelodi and both proceeded to sing the praise of this amazing young artist from Ga-Rankuwa suggesting that 3rd Ear Music should feature him & his band at our Free Peoples Concerts.
Julian booked Lefifi’s young band, Dashiki, to open for Malombo at one of the early (3rd Ear Sound) 70’s Mamelodi Festivals and from there on I kept my finger on the record button and made it a point to try and get Lefifi and his band Dashiki – and later The Poets – onto as many events as possible; starting with Dashiki in the 1972 NUSAS / 3rd Ear Music / SAFMA Free Peoples Concert at Wits and then later – 1973 & 1974 at the same open air events – with The Poets.
The recordings on this herri page collection are the rough desk-mixes of those events and of the 1973 Soweto Jazz festival as well as a session of open-air ‘farm’ recordings near Randburg in 1974. I include as well a track by Batsumi – recorded at the Soweto Jazz Festival 1972 – to illustrate the Malombo / Dashiki influence.
The Free Peoples Concerts would attract upward of 5,000 people (one year there were approx 15,000, but attracting that many under the glare of State security apparatus was a trick and an art in itself; done partly through blind faith in the music, the smoke and mirrors of the musicians and the power of word-of-mouth. The odd (well placed) poster in the more ‘liberal’ suburbs and in township churches covered sometimes by an irregular SAFMA, NUSAS & the odd 3rd EAR newsletter, did the rest.
There was no such thing as mainstream media or airtime support – although on occasion a slight left-leaning-liberal journal would make a mention of these events and there were quite a number of post-event print-reviews. The mainstream media at the time only had eyes and ears for whatever the commercial European and American pop idol onslaught would market (has anything changed?).
3rd Ear Music’s mission at the time was simple: if it murmured or moved, tape it! If we could find the tape that is…
At the festivals and concerts, Dashiki and The Poets would use their creative (and not too shabby entertainment) skills to inform, educate and mobilize. South African schools were relatively State-Driven deaf, dumb and blind and Lefifi would occasionally perform in both rural and township Bantu Education educated schools, with remarkable success. The same magic applied to those Free Peoples Concerts – stages shared by unique and diverse groups of South African bands and musicians that you would never hear in one place: Music, art and culture from A to Z – Afrikaans to Zulu. South African folk interpreting and performing in many guises: revolting hard rock rebels or British Isle IRA folk; from American Country Rock Blues to Eastern Tamil and Indian Classics; there were dusty township string orchestras and hard drinking and determined Jazzophiles; migrant Zulu Maskandi workers and hostel dwelling iNgoma dancers, and as always the usual clutch of singer-songwriters who, to this day, have never let go.
Lefifi and his fellow Poets and music activists brought the ‘African folk’ process to those events. Not only the sound, but also the attitude and the dress started rubbing off and our South African musicians slowly started not to look and sound like the Beatles or Elvis anymore. Bands of marauding former middle-calls suburban families started using Malombo and Venda drums and poetry – 20 years before the Global Corporate made American inner city gangsta-rap a township and Radio Metro fashion item.
Dashiki & The Poets adapted the unique Malombo roots and sound – that mixed street-wise with cowboy-and-cattle calm and set them to words, music, meaning and rhythms that in turn inspired a new generation of musicians. Sadly that ‘process’ seemed to end abruptly in the 1990’s. And what this collection of rough desk-mixes and run-of-show analogue tapes hopes to do is to somehow revive an interest in that African ‘folk process’ – the main aim of The Hidden Years Music Archive Project.
The mystique and magic of Dashiki and The Poets – although not quite captured in these very rough desk-mixes – certainly reflects a time that may have been totally erased had we gone the clinical commercial studio route – if we could’ve. (As one revolting muso opined: Of course we can’t get SABC or Community Radio play today or yesterday – the productions are too rough and not what the multi-million dollar imported poison that our DJ’s, Rappers and programmers are addicted too and paid to feed the nation with. They need more corporate advertising addicts – not activists!)
The ‘outside farm’ recordings of The Poets were also in effect live – direct from a (secretly) borrowed Raindirk mixer onto a 3rd Ear Music ReVox (A-77) using bits and pieces of spliced commercial studio-floor tape off-cuts. And our audience? The birds, the odd SAA aircraft and our families; these recordings have never been heard since they were recorded; packed away in un-marked tape boxes.
As for the Free Peoples Concerts – all but forgotten in the annals of the comfortably numb post-liberation rush – we get cyber-space hits on the 3rd Ear Music website from people all over the world; they begin something like this: what happened to that Poet with the African drums that we heard when we were students in Johannesburg and Pretoria? PLEASE if you have any recordings, let us have copies. Let’s hope that Lefifi eventually select a few CDs of titles that we can issue; better late than…
3rd Ear Music
Hidden Years Music Archive Project
28 December 2006
Lefifi Tladi – Post Liberation… 2006.
Hello herri. David here. This is the second part of my hindsight vision safari with Lefifi Tladi. I sent the first ‘formal’ biog that I did some years ago… you may have seen it perhaps? Those notes were part of my musings before Lefifi was chased into exile… 1976. Notes from some 20 years ago. I hope that’s OK? It’s a bit clinical and matter of fact, rather than about our friendship, at a distance.
But first. I’m having difficulty writing these days, so the AI guided dictation notes are sort of like uncomfortable crutches; not easy, but we get along… damn Smart Phones, these. Although the predictive text floors me sometimes; it won’t allow me to write like I talk, which is what I did for years on the old Hermes and then Commodore 64k. Walk? Sure… when I write like I walk, I get into a rhythm or stride, because I’m going somewhere I can see hear… on a roll, playing with words and kicking thoughts around. Not too sure it makes sense to any body but me… and a few polite friends. So, anyway. Here goes.
The last time I saw Lefifi was before his return to the New South Africa around 2000. He was sitting in the shadows of our 3rd Ear Music Market Theatre Café in 1976, a few weeks after the June 16 uprising. I had invited Lefifi (and the poets / Dashiki), earlier that year, to do a few nights later in ’76. And then Soweto exploded and so too did the Johannesburg City water mains… flooding the Café, putting an end to our planned June / July opening. Lefifi’s visit was soon after we had opened (with Allen Kwela & Colin Shamley), before I had completed ‘building’ the Café, so, I thought perhaps that he had come to talk about the delayed gigs.
He seemed very anxious and didn’t want to be drawn into any commitment… or conversation, telling me that he may not be around in the Republic of South Africa for long. I wasn’t too sure what he meant by that… and that was it.
30 years later, in 2006 Lefifi and Motlhabane Mashiangwako and I were going through some early recordings in my 3rd Ear Music / Hidden Years Archive in Morningside, Durban… from our Free Peoples Concert at Wits in 1972 and our recordings from an open veld session.
Open veld recording sessions?… yes, on an in-law’s Honeydew Farm; part of the Northwestern Johannesburg, and Randburg stretch of farms; partially mink ’n manure, but at the time… late 60’s early 70’s – slowly morphing into a SAfrican type ‘Hippie’ style feel… long-haired stud and pony farmers, artists, sculptors, and ‘comrades on the run’ hiding inside workers’ blue overalls. Paranoia ruled the land back then… so the open veld option was to avoid anybody else hearing what Lefifi’s poems had to say.
OK… that was a sort of ‘contextual’ introduction of where we would go from me being turned onto the sounds and rhythms of music. It must have come partly from the migrant mine workers’ hostels in the labour camp thru the cow-hide drum sounds that drifted up across the valley of Johannesburg’s South West African Townships (SOWETO… as the lazy pass-book government official signed it…) from the hostels in the labour camp but it stuck!
The words and music say it all… no need to explain. Like trying to put a caption to a photograph, hey Aryan? The picture speaks for it self as does the music… and the audience, the listeners (repeat ‘the listeners’) complete the song or the picture as they see it hear!
Anyway, we somehow managed to get the two extremes of South africa’s alternative and otherwise divided music scene together. Starting with me getting to the USA where I worked with Hanley Sound (Woodstock ’69, Live Peace in Toronto) and then Bill Hanley sending me / 3rd Ear Music and Sound, the ‘Woodstock Bins’, that in turn helped me set up alternative music events, across the great divide… beginning with our Free Peoples Concerts in 1971 at Wits.
I had been setting up Sound and recording Julian Bahula’s Malombo (Jazz Makers) and doing shows in Mamelodi and Soweto. Sorry… I digress again… so here’s where the synchronicity seems to kick in.
I am a compulsive addicted scribbler of note(s)… I have scribbled nightly, since my first diary found, back 1958 at boarding school, Witbank Technical College. I was 13 / 14 years old, something like that, and I used to write things down every day because I was so afraid that I’d be missing something or that somebody who I wasn’t with at the time might miss what I had gone through and it was usually exciting things I never was a victim despite being an Englishman in the South side of Johannesburg; you know we grew up with Venda drums spilling over from the valley of Soweto onto a dirt track chicken farm home that I had lived on from my first 5 years at the West end of Prairie St. in Rosettenville Johannesburg.
It was there that the synchronicity with Lefifi and Julian Bahula and later Mabi, all came to fruition. I used to fall sleep… get rocked to dream… at night in a typical farmhouse setting in those days – post war 1940’s. There was no electricity or inside plumbing, water and the like. We had the scary night time comforts of soft flickering candle flame, or the sharp dark paraffin lamp shadows… darting and dancing thru those scarry thatch roof beams.
I never knew the people I was staying with in those chicken and egg farm days. My dear mother, Sister Rose Lovell, could only afford to take me on weekends. There were two of us boys, about the same age, and two older brothers in oil-soaked dungarees and shifting-spanners everywhere. They were always fighting or smoking and scarrying us shitless at night in the lamp-lit shadows. Our beds were balanced on bricks of course. The old tannie wouldn’t let the tokoloshe in. With longdrop outside toilets, we had a chipped white enamel pee pot under the bed. We bathed in the kitchen, in front of the coal stove in winter. All 4 boys, one at a time, got into the same water. I was the youngest, so of course I was bathed last.
And then I remembered hearing my first rhythmic sound…
…rocked to sleep and my first vivid memories of music by safe and sound with those drums that used to drift over from the southwest African townships known as Soweto Johannesburg labor camp to the northwest and the migrant workers would start on a Friday after work coming up from underground like gears and the drumming would start and it would go right through the night right through Saturday if you were paying attention because then it got fainter in the day of course right through Saturday night sometimes when the when the ladies were joining in you could hear the ululating and other instruments but they weren’t as prominent as those deep cowhide drums that the guys used to smack with sticks in a ferocity like nobody knows and at first I imagine I must have been scared but eventually those drums became my friend and those rhythms and that sound that I first heard when I heard Malombo in 1965 from a recording that Ben had done, Ben Siegel my partner at the time in 3rd Ear Music, and then later in 1968 when I worked with Dr. Tracey of course I heard a more formal recording that the doctor had done of the Malambo music and then with the Malombo Jazz Makers that was Julian Bahula, Philip Thabane and Abe Cindi.
When Phillip and Julian split Phillip went as The Malombo Jazzmen and he took Mabe Thobejane as his percussionist and then Julian got Lucky Ranku also from Mamelodi to join him on guitar. Anyway I hope the introduction is not too lengthy but it gives you an idea of the syncro that came about and let me take it further if I may I hope I’m not getting confusing here but I’m getting excited so let me go, the three instruments that make up the Malombo sound the one that influenced and inspired Lefifi Tladi and many other youngsters by the way but those instruments the Venda drums or the cowhide drum, the electric guitar and the penny whistle now I used to be enthralled by the pennywhistle players in Johannesburg and Jeppe Street when I was little, ducking in between legs and listening to these guys smack a Bellini guitar and blow the whistle like you wouldn’t believe and dance. That was the one thing, the other was in the streets of Rosettenville and Turfontein in the South of Johannesburg out of the white southern suburbs areas that were all most of them were in ethnic conclaves like having Donnelly St. was all Greeks, Bishop St. was Chinese, I think the Portuguese were up the road, the Lebanese were further down South so there were these sort of gangs of boys. White boys on motorbikes that we used to look up to, and of course there was the microscopes but it was the guitars or Eddie Cochran that came wafting out of those homes in the rock’n’roll era so that must have been like 1956, 1957 I think no no when am I talking about yeah I know OK so the rock’n’roll was there and that sound, that rock sound that Phillip and Lucky would get on the guitars.
Philip of course flashing away in distortion, that was his sound that’s what he liked – sound man’s nightmare – whereas Lucky was more controlled and sweeter but equally as good but not as inventive perhaps as Philip. Philip was a entertainer like he was just the good old Shearer of music and so the pennywhistle part that turned me on too was what made me hear the blowing instrument way. I played bugle in the band and you know rose to become a drum major believe it or not, with root marches with our cadet school band in the day and then rock’n’roll in the evening after rugby in the afternoon so there you go that was my background. Add it to this those sounds of Soweto oh and one other thing nice little story quickly he’s had In the ship van alleys of Bishop St. and Turfontein the maids and their masters gardeners the mediums maids and the masters gardeners would gather in um the alleys and they would play they would dance they would get high on skokiaan whatever it was they were drinking.
I was the 5-6 year old boy who used to have to wind up the gallery gramophone and change the needle for the records every seven plays or five plays I’d sneak into but these records astounded me and that is my introduction to the jazz of the townships I mean I couldn’t be specific at that time but given the dates and the help from historians Rob Allingham and of course Chris Albertyn you can piece and picture the musicians that were around at that time that I must have been spinning in the alleys. Of course Spokes Mashiyane, the Manhattan Brothers, The Dark City Sisters, The Black Ink Spots. That’s another influence by the way, The Ink Spots the American exports they turned me on as did the Township sounds that I had to wind up the gramophone full. OK I think I’m getting far off the point but just giving you a background of where I think Lefifi fits into this.
The first time I heard Malombo, the trio, (the Malombo Jazz Men… Philip Tabane, Julian Bahula and Abe Cindi) was from what my 3rd Ear Music partner (and founder) Ben Segal (RIP) had recorded at the 1965 National Folk Song Festival, held at Wits University. And then I heard Malombo 3 years later when working briefly for Doc Hugh Tracey at his ILAM archive, in Roodepoort. I just knew that I’d heard those deep cowhide drum sounds, somewhere before.
In 1969, while playing a copy of Ben’s 3rd Ear Music Malombo tapes to record Producer Arthur Gorson in New York, it struck me… there is a connection to those wild dream-inducing SOWETO migrant COWHIDE drums, back in the 1940’s. Here’s a thing. Ben recorded the 1965 Malombo set on his portable, quarter-track Akai tape deck, i.e., on ‘both sides’ of a 3-inch reel of magnetic analogue tape (3M or BASF), and at the unfortunate speed of 1 ⅞ ips. The Elektra Record Company only had a 7 ½ and 3 ¾ ips 2 track tape deck… so when we played Ben’s tape both sides of the 3-inch tape came thru… one side forward – at double the speed – and one side backwards: sort of like the Beatles on the Sgt Pepper’s Album. Gorson was impressed… even with the strange half speed of sound backwards. We could hear about a minute of Penny Whistle, guitar, and drums, and that sounded hauntingly different to anything we had heard before… but the sound of the Malombo drums backwards, reminded me of the Valley of SOWETO, and the whistle of the Kwela Kids… when Jeppe was a 2-way Street.
On my return to South Africa in 1970, I met up with Julian Bahula and Geoff Mphakati in Mamelodi; my sound safari into the Hidden Years of 3rd Ear Music, and our backyard ‘labour camps’, began. Having just been gifted a Bill Hanley Sound System from the US – those legendary ‘Woodstock Bins’ – I began to set up sound in and around Johannesburg and Pretoria’s backyards, and producing the first of my many Free Peoples Concerts at Wits University.
While working at Dorkay House in Eloff Street downtown Johannesburg, I connected with Julian Bahula again. Philip had left the group (for New York, with Gabriel ‘Mabi’ Thobejane on Venda drums) and Lucky Ranku had taken Philip’s place… and with Abe Cindi on Flute and Penny Whistle, now known as the Malombo Jazz Men. I booked them for our 2nd Free Peoples Concert. And that’s where Lefifi came in. Julian had been raving about this young Poet Percussionist, Lefifi Tladi from Garankua, who had set his revolutionary poetry to the Venda Drums of the Malombo… Music of The Spirit. At Julian and Geoff’s insistence I booked Lefifi, with Dashiki and Batsumi, for our 1972 FPC.
The Malombo sound… was just that!… a sound in Music. As my friend Paul explains: Music that one can see… sounds of the bright city, the laughing dusty townships and labour camps… birds, elephants, trucks, taxis, and frogs. You can see and hear them all in Music of The Spirit… and as my 3rd Ear song sings… dusty roads, rusty carts, shanty shack shebeens… work all day, play all night, dancing on my dreams…
How did I hear Lefifi’s words? I had no idea in what language he was writing or in which tongues he spoke – it’s the rhythms in the sound of his words; not unlike the imBongi who slowly gets over being over excited… he pauses… a tacit… before he throws and dices the bones of his mesmerising, melodic words around.
Meanwhile… Abe Cindi’s penny whistle whispers as the flute sings and dances with the birds behind the distorted rock ‘n jazz guitar, of Philip Tabane; or around the smooth definite jazz sound of Lucky Ranku – the ice on fire – with Julian Bahula or Mabi Thobejane’s cowhide Elephant stomping Venda Drums, pounding padded feet to beat the Lions at play… on the prowl painting.
Music you can see.
Given my love of Folk ’n Rock – and as a closet Country Music follower (Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Huddy Leadbetter, Jeremy Taylor), lyric is what I like. Lefifi’s poems were like listening to a tour guide; we are on an inner-sightseeing word and sound safari, where we can look out the window (or look at the Windows) and listen to a Spiritual tour guide… who doesn’t explain, but points out where we are at, on the map of change and transformation. Malombo – Music of the Spirit, leaving the path of the ancestors behind, and moving to new ideas and vision? Change. Who knows?
Philip Tabane was usually shy on words and vocals – although he did begin to chant and chirp and dance with confidence on his return from the USA in around 1974. But Lefifi’s playing with words and images over the guitar, whistle and drum sounds of Malombo, resonated with me.
It wasn’t until Lefifi’s return to Durban in 2004, that I connected with the sound of his words and Music of the Spirit, to my own personal Folk ‘n Rock Sound Safari. The poems with Dashiki and The Poets In 1972 were set to the same ancestral sounds, our sound of music, as Lefifi and Malombo would say; but they were sharp, harsh daring sounds and words – shouts and cries from the heart. Similar perhaps to political graffiti; over time, the message and the meanings and the art fades… but when restored the graphics (in the vernacular?), all came alive again, in a different more positive feel.
OK so Lefifi was introduced to me by Julian and the years went by he came to the Market Café in 1976. He was on the run, he was in hiding he was sitting in the shadows at the back I think he sat into a few shows he wouldn’t play by the way I asked him and I had already featured him as I mentioned in the biography on Free Peoples concerts and recorded him in the out in the open in the valleys of near Honeydew but he then left and went to Sweden and we never stayed in touch much. I think we may have written a letter or two but I always tried to keep in touch with him because of all the tapes that I had recorded of him through the years and then eventually out of the blue I get a phone call one day in 2004 to say that that Lefifi Tladi is in town and I thought wow that’s something so of course I made arrangements.
I had just received a grant from the National Research Foundation for my Hidden Years Archive as long as I partnered with a University and there were a few on offer. Rhodes University’s Dr. Tracey had sent his collection to the Free State university because I was thinking of moving to Rustler’s Valley up there near Clarence. We’re thinking of places to store all these tapes and the stuff that I’ve been collecting and then I’ll be damned if the money didn’t go missing at the University of Kwazulu Natal and I’ll make no bones about that I think something went very wrong there which we could never prove anyway we sort of had to come around and do it we could to keep the archive and 3rd year going so of course our mixed sound and it shows line log or whatever anything to keep the archive alive and 30 year functioning and of course I put on many shows started Splashy Fen and then as I say out of the blue came this phone call.
I just left Nashville actually I’ve decided not to do it after 10 years and Lefifi said that he was on holiday only on his own at first and can we meet so of course our set up our meetings and at with the archives or near and then um couple years later he I got the phone call again by that time we were in touch by the way we had spoken to Julian Bahula and we were going to now put the poems of Lefifi he wanted to synch them over the Music of the Spirit album they recorded in 1971 and music of the spirit had some amazing little African visual songs, I mean this was music you could see elephants cranes hyenas and of course the odd scavenger in the Township but basically the pennywhistle and the guitar and the drums spoke volumes.
Lefifi had returned in 2006 but this time with his family wow the most beautiful children you’ve ever seen two wives and you get that right I don’t know Sweden apparently if he was the first person given permission to be a polygamist in Sweden I don’t know how true that is but maybe it is and then we got together with Mothlhabane Mashiangwako in 2006 November December and spent a good month or so recording over the Music of the Spirit of Malombo and rapping and just sitting on the couch and Lefifi, who had been a very straight young man, he never used to drink or smoke or anything, surprised me a little bit by his intake which was impressive, he could out drink Mothlabane which was saying something and still make a lot of sense but he was wild in his imagination very vivid and very adamant that the people who had taken over the struggle from the real struggle heroes were, in his words, and I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this, “peasants” in terms of what they had in the way of art and culture, African art and culture, in their homes, in their attitude, it was all just pomp and splendour which Lefifi disliked or dislikes and he just felt very let down as I think we all do now but at the time I thought he was a little way out and a little harsh.
You know things were just getting going, Mandela had stepped down and we started rapping to each other, we both agreed that South Africa needed a proper anthem not three anthems but our anthem that embraces everybody although if the truth be told I tell you something I’ve grown to like the anthem as it is, sorry about that Lefifi, don’t let the side down but you’re all right you know if we want a nation we should have one anthem one flag and there’s nothing for you alway say “South Africa is not a place it’s a direction”.
Instead of finding ways to unite we’ve got you know 59 distinct cultures and they don’t seem to be getting together anyway. At the moment the divisions are getting deeper and the politics are getting tribal and the traditionalists have with good intentions started splitting the spoils amongst themselves so that a lot needs to be done and maybe in the poetry and the paintings and the utterances of Lefifi’s revolutionary mind from his revolutionary mind we can you know stop using this direction of South Africa and turn it into the land of promise somehow.
Lefifi Tladi – Malombo Venda drums
Plantobeng ‘Oupa’ Mokou – vibraphone
Tebogo ‘Gillie’ Mabale – flute
Mampya ‘Lawrence’ Moloisi – guitar
Tebogo Gilbert Mabane
Thomas Masemola – flutes
Abel Maleka – drums
Zulu Bidi – bass
Botabota – vocals
Lancelot Mathopeng – keyboards
John Mathopeng – guitar and Venda drums