-- On the wrong side of South Africa's racial divide
by Keith Addison
South Africa, 1974
|Finding Tom Hark
By Simon Bender
I think I was nine or ten years old when I first heard 'Tom Hark', and of course I had no inkling of the journey that had begun. My recollection of the TV drama it introduced is non-existent; diamonds, South Africa, and apartheid weren't even on my radar. If I tell you it was called 'The Killing Stones' it is probably not a true memory because that information is on the record label -- a very worn '45' which is the only one I still have out of hundreds we played to death on our tinny little portables.
I was a musical kid, grew up listening to my mother's 78's, and when I liked something I would play it until I wore the record out and drove my folks crazy. Music reaches deep into my soul and moves levers, pushes buttons that I can't access any other way. The ocean brings me peace, but music brings me joy. Music is far more evocative for me than any other sensory input -- it's the purest form of communication and when it happens, it's like magic -- better than sex, it's so much rarer, delightful and evanescent. Like a moment of enlightenment, it slips away when you try to hold it, leaves you with a tantalising glimpse of what our minds are capable of, and in a subliminal sense, of the road ahead.
So, why did I keep that one? Because the irrepressible life running through those two simple tunes, 'Tom Hark' on one side and 'Ry-Ry' on the other, grabbed me, spoke to me, inserted itself into my DNA like a benign but powerful retrovirus, and changed my musical life forever. I wanted to play music like that and I wanted to know the people who did... Elias and his Zig-Zag Jive Flutes...
And so it remained for ten years or more, much more than a favourite tune, something I came back to again and again, my only '45', hell, my modern turntable wouldn't even play it. I would put it on when nothing else in my eclectic collection of sounds appealed and it was always fresh, always refreshed my ears, as it still does and always will. Even then I never gave a thought to what it meant, to the lives that produced it.
Until around 1969, when I met my first South African -- Keith. Of the meetings that I look back on, this one was definitely a nexus; as when I encountered 'Tom Hark' there was a powerful pull from the future, a signpost to the way I would be going, whether I knew it or not. And like so many meetings, it might never have happened. As a comfortably middle-class university student, I thought I knew all I needed to about apartheid, and when one of my jamming friends suggested I come and meet this guy from South Africa, I wasn't sure I wanted to, and nearly didn't go round to Portland Road that day. As it turned out, Keith was a free-thinker of a kind I hadn't come across before, and he gently opened my mind to so many possibilities, the world never looked the same again. I had a new Brother.
But the common thread was music. One night, improvising on guitars together, the musical alchemy was flowing. What came out could never be rehearsed, and could never be captured or repeated -- the essence of it was in the moment and we both saw it at the same time. We stopped playing and laughed with pleasure, and there were to be many other such moments out of time over the years, by no means all of them musical. Keith has the most original point of view of anyone I know, and an unparalleled ability to communicate it.
I don't remember how we got onto Kwela. The term meant nothing to me -- I don't think I'd even identified the music as South African, but as soon as Keith described the criss-crossing lines and rhythms of the penny-whistle music I was excited, because I KNEW exactly what he was talking about, and had known since I was nine. I ran home and returned with the precious '45'. We played it, and the music was renewed in me again. Now I knew where it was from, and I determined to get there as soon as I could.
It was 5 years later and I was totally Londoned-out, ready to move on. Keith and I had kept up a correspondence, not a lot of letters, but all good ones, and his recent ones were telling of a man he'd come across in the music promotion business -- a good musician, but also a bit of an astrologer and Sangoma, a witch doctor. He wanted me to meet him; not only that, Jake wanted to meet me. I sold everything I had except my guitar -- that bought me a return ticket to Johannesburg and about 3 months living money.
When I arrived unannounced in the middle of the night at Keith's farmhouse north of Joburg, I was initially confined to the taxi by a monk reincarnated as a wolf; Sam the malemute (with a shaved head, following a cut from a barbed-wire fence) wasn't about to admit anyone without the nod from Keith. I didn't realise that I'd caused minor panic inside the house among the two black musicians who were staying there with Keith, because the most likely reason for an unexpected midnight visit was a police raid, and they were breaking the law just by being there at night. And so was Keith. It was my first exposure to South Africa's repressive laws.
The next morning I met Jake -- my first black South African; a small man, sparingly built, hard to guess his age, with a skin the colour of old leather. A shy smile at first, then a ready laugh and an unforgettable voice, no surprise he was sometimes called 'Big Voice Jack' . I spent quite a bit of time in his company in my first few weeks in Johannesburg, and it was with Jake that I saw firsthand the effects of petty apartheid if you didn't happen to be white. We stood side by side in different worlds: I, the boy, was his 'boss', he, the man, was my 'boy'. In my naivety I thought we could ignore this nonsense; on reflection, I think his reticence to do so was looking out for me. I was proud when he began to call me 'Brother' too.
But the best times were the evenings -- as night fell on the Transvaal and it got colder than I ever thought it would in Africa, we would sit around the fire talking, smoking, drinking, listening to music and of course playing it too. Jake's a gifted jazzman; he plays great sax, but I couldn't really keep up with him on my guitar. I was much more interested in his penny whistles, and I could strum backup for a kwela tune. The first time we played 'Tom Hark' was exciting, but it was much more than that for me; it closed a loop that stretched back to my childhood, as though I had been waiting all my life to play this music, in this place with these friends. The sense of convergence, of fate leading to an event and a point in time was quite overwhelming. But I was even closer to 'Tom Hark' than I realised.
I told Jake how this tune had been a part of me since childhood, how I had the record safely stashed away in England, and Keith said something like: "What did you get for recording 'Tom Hark', Jake?"
I thought they were having me on -- taking the mickey out of the naive white boy -- but when Jake said "Six pounds", I knew it was true. A fleeting expression of something had crossed Jake's face, not anger or bitterness, not even resentment, maybe sadness. I'm unsure at this distance in time, but I knew he wasn't pulling my leg.
"But... who's Elias?" I said, trying to get my head around the significance of this revelation.
"He's my brother, Brother Si," Jake replied, and in time I learned the whole story.
I also learnt to play the penny whistle from Jake, and I still treasure the set of all-metal Hohner whistles he helped me buy at Magnet's -- you can't get them now. My C-whistle has the chrome plating worn away from the finger holes, polished down to the brass like Jake's, from bending the notes the way he taught me.
Some time later I went on a road-trip from Joburg to Cape Town with Jake. Someone else was driving so we played our penny whistles most of the way. We played kwela of course, but this time I was able to show him some jigs and reels -- he called them 'puzzle tunes' and there was a lot of laughing and 'Jeewiz' as he grappled with unfamiliar cadences.
I guess the loop was fully closed in Joburg, late in 1977. Jake invited me to a recording session and I played guitar backup on 'Penny Whistle Man', which featured Jake on penny whistle and vocals. The record was a Christmas hit, and Jake made sure I received around six pounds for the session. And now I have two '45's.
I haven't seen Jake for more than 20 years, but his spirit is still with me, as it was long before I met him, from the day I first heard 'Tom Hark'.
September 5, 2002
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