Towards the Peace on Earth
Interview Aymeric Peguillan

He said,

“Listen. I am a trained violinist. I started playing the violin at 7 and played until I was 18. Being trained in classical music in France. And I had a cousin who was a jazz guitarist. And when I was getting trained in my violin, we played a few family gigs together. That was pretty much it in terms of jazz. I did a few concerts in classical. And then at 12 I had lots of back problems and my physio took me to my first jazz gig. Lionel Hampton in Paris and that was a big revelation for me. After that I started to listen to jazz, everything I could lay my hand on and then I started, where I could by law, going to clubs. I started going to clubs in Paris and other French cities and every time there was a festival I was trying to go there. And I started travelling a lot around the world for work, nothing to do with music; Film production and then non-profit work with Doctors without borders, for many years. Everywhere I would go I would try and find the place to listen to jazz.

Then, one day I was working in Bangladesh with Doctors without Borders and another French guy arrives that night and we share a flat and he starts listening to that music in his room that I had never heard before. “What is this music, it is beautiful.” It was Abdullah's music. We spent the entire night listening to Abdullah's stuff. At that time my knowledge of South African music was MM, HM and I had vaguely heard the names of JG, and CS. That was it! For me that is a huge train passing over me and we spent the entire night talking about South African Jazz, Abdullah in particular. We spent the whole night listening to Abdullah.

This guy tells me about Kippies as he had just spent three years in South Africa between 1989 and 1992, which were obviously critical historical times. He told me about Kippies, Sophiatown and all sorts of places like Rumours and iconic venues. And, in my head it is clear that at some point I will have to go to South Africa. At that time I was quite lucky because with Doctors without Borders when you are a head of mission, which was my position, you could do your own little trading between heads of missions, so when the guy finishes his contract somewhere, just call him and say, ‘listen when are you finishing because I am interested to come that side, ya.'

So I called the guy in South Africa and said I would love to come and take over from him. I landed in South Africa in January 1994, four months before elections with all the tensions and hope, this very special atmosphere, feeling you are part of this big history with a big H. I was staying in Yeoville and from the first week I was going to Rumours in Yeoville and Three Sisters in Hillbrow, going to Razzmatazz and Kippies of course and to any place where I could listen to live music, Moratele park for the gigs and also for that very special atmosphere. I am out every night and most of the times I finish my nights at Rumours.

I started meeting some musicians, Hosticks, Prince Lengoasa and a few others, Mac Mackenzie… And as you know Bassline, 206 and the Blues Room opened. All this happens and I am there. I am single like a free bird. By then I had left Doctors without Borders and I am working in communication. I am a freelance translator, I am doing voice overs and all sorts of things. And I meet all sorts of people. And I spend my life in the street. And every club at that time has its own specificities. Bassline is the most happening place, sometimes with its own frustrations. Beginning, the stage was at the end, then the stage was in the middle, then the stage was on the right. And especially when the stage was on the left as you entered, for the musicians it was crazy. But still always packed, lots of gigs, lots of great atmosphere. Kippies remained one of the places, very noisy. There was a place called the Shebeen in Rosebank and then Rumours stayed until '97 and where you could see Charlie Sawyers arguing badly with Mike Makalema late at night. Charlie would come with his horn and Mike would try and jam with Charlie and these two would have an electric thing on stage. It was never easy. It was like arguing.

And then the new cats came on the block. There was Voice with Marcus. He gets together with Herbie, Andile, Sydney and Afrika and Lulu. Voice was the band that really took the place by storm. They were cooking. Herbie's swing was already there and Marcus was like really sharp. Lulu was the best drummer at the time in the country. It was really cooking.

There was also Hugh Masakela's joint in Yeoville. JB's Jazz joint or something like this. And that lasted for about two years. There were four partners with lots of money stories and drugs. That was the time when Bra Hugh was seriously sniffing. Every club would have its different atmosphere.

And then Bassline moved. 206 closed, Rumours closed, Blue Room became a bit different. There was very corporate business shit and a few ladies of the night that hung out there. Sophiatown had closed already. Kippies was going through difficult times and also closed. I was living in Troyeville and found a beautiful space. And that's why I started Pegs Cosy Corner and there the idea was to do more like a social club that would play jazz and be open from Thursday night to Sunday night. And open very late. We were a late night kitchen serving food until 2:30 in the morning. Nice place, but quite isolated. It became a neighbourhood joint. We would have gigs but not on a regular basis. That was when I started creating a relationship with guys like Andile, Herbie, Feya, Vusi Khumalo, I had known already for quite some time. Sydney Mnisi, Sipho and Mac again and Peter Mahlubo was there often. I really enjoyed myself. Those were two of the best years of my life but by then I was married and I got a child born in July 2001. And at the end of 2001 it became difficult. I was working in advertising, four days a week in agency. We were managing clients on the continent from South Africa. So, they wanted me to travel more and more and it proved to be more and more difficult. In the first quarter of 2002 we had to close. We were initially four partners then two other partners. They were silent partners. I had to stop. I never managed to find somebody that would help me or take over when I was not around and who would do jazz. There was literature on site, we had Downbeat and Jazz Times magazine there. It was a nice joint. We also had an armed robbery precipitating the closure. No one got hurt but it was scary.

The musicians felt good there, they had a table and they would sit around and talk shit there. And then I went into advertising full time for another two years, by May 2004 with my wife we decided to move with our second kid we decided to Europe and I took a job with Doctors without Borders at the HQ in Geneva. I was there for four years and we would come back to South Africa once a year on holiday. We moved to Swaziland for four years still with Doctors Without Borders. I was in contact with some people but not that closely. And when we got back here which was December 2011, my wife had a job here and I was a bit tired after 8 years of MSF so wanted to do something else, so started studying at Wits and things didn't go exactly the way I wanted. I was spending time with my kids and thinking how I would start something.

You had the Loft. You had Wish, which was at the corner where Poppy's is now. Marcus was doing a gig. Bassline was in Newtown. Nicky's was there, but terrible food. Good music but for musicians, it was frustrating because the piano couldn't be used because it is not tuned or in bad shape. The stage is very uncomfortable. You come in and there are only two tables that see the stage properly, all the left section you can't see anything, the other section you have these benches facing each other and she has never done any changes. There was nothing.

When I came back I hooked up with a lot of guys like Marcus, Feya, Andile, Sydney, Carlo, Peter, Concord and I asked, ‘where do you guys play?' ‘We don't know. We do corporate gigs and we do gigs at houses. There is no place to play, festivals some time.' I said, ‘this can't be because Joburg the city that it is with the history that it has, you can't not have a proper jazz club.' So, I started to engage with a lot of people and talked to musicians and guys like Colin Miller, people at Sheer sound, guys at SAMRO, Carlo at Wits, Brenda's son at Kaya and I try to put on paper the concert. What would it be, where would it be and what would be the operational hours and format. Quite rapidly I came to the conclusion that it would be something where music was central and musicians were at the heart of the concept and where food would come as a compliment. We would need to create a destination where people would come to spend a few hours. Oscar Mahuba used to be a regular and he was the brand manager for Milk Stout. He sponsored the Milk Stout series at the Bassline many years ago. Oscar helped me put a presentation together. I started approaching people to see if they were interested. And as expected I was not getting much good support. The only support I was getting from a friend of mine who happened to be at the time the director of the Doctors without Borders office in Joburg in Jorrison Street, the street up from the Orbit. We started talking about the concept of The Orbit which was a restaurant downstairs in the pathway. I told him I liked the space. At the time I didn't know about the first floor because at the time the two floors were not connected. Dan and I started discussing more about this and I continued and I applied for my liquor and entertainment licence and then I discussed with Colin a lot because he worked with Pro Helvetia at the time and his offices were up the street and he told me about Robert. I knew of Robert because of MELT and all the recordings he had done.

I was freelancing for MSF and I get a contract, which pushed me towards Switzerland. I go to Switzerland for March, April to May 2013. By then, I still don't have my liquor licence, and my entertainment licence. By then I have made another proposal to the land lady of the premises, including the first floor, which is completely naked at the time. Dan is still on board but clearly the two of us don't have money. I am getting a lot of kuk on board because my wife is not impressed with me and she thinks I should get a decent job because she remembers the previous jazz fair with me working my ass off until 3am. She doesn't have as good memories of it as I do. I leave for Geneva and there I hook up with some friends, including that friend who made me discover Abdullah's music. He is now based in Geneva. I do my consultancy there and use the opportunity to go to Luzern to meet Robert. And I spend a whole day with him at Luzern at the studio there. Beautiful place, beautiful house with all the sound systems he has developed with Vivid Audio. He is looking at me like who is that guy because we have never physically met before. We start talking and we realize that we know a few people in common and I am not even close to the background in music that he has. He has produced a lot of music and iconic records. I tell him about the project and ask him, ‘for a project like this who would I speak to'. He gives me a few names of people he thinks are solid and reliable. One of them is Brenda Sisane at Kaya FM and a few others who are not necessarily in music. A couple of them, being in the liquor trade.

We talk about a lot of things and spend a really good time and we stay in touch by email. My sense was that he was not in a super good space at the time. He didn't look very good health wise and also looked like he had left a lot of things in South Africa, emotionally, financially, physically. There was that tragedy and there is something that he speaks about that is not all good. His son was there as well. Great experience for me. I think when I left him he probably thought I must be a bit crazy and a bit stupid to want to do that. And he speaks of experience having left a few million pounds in South Africa. And at the same time I can sense that the guy is sporting.

I went to Basel and I went to meet the guy called Veit Arlt, who is a professor in Basel University and is very connected with a music foundation in Basel. He is connected to a big pharmaceutical company. In that set up there is a massive lover of South African Jazz, who is loaded like you have no idea and is kind of willing to help supporting South African artists and who is actually owning a club in Basel called The Birds Eye. So we go to the Birds Eye which is a very nice club and that is when I realize a lot of South African musicians are actually recorded there. Carlo, Hilton, Feya, Andile, Paul Hanmer. McCoy Mrubata, Kesivan, many. And Veit is very instrumental in assisting in this. So I put my proposal to them and a few months later we agree that they would support us.

I come back to Johannesburg and when I come back Marcus Wyatt introduces me to Kevin Naidoo and Kevin is a big jazz lover but not a musician at all. He is coming from financial services and IT. He owns three companies. He is a bit of an original. He is a good business person. We hook up together and I introduce him to Dan and present to him the concept and where we at and we tell him what we need in terms of money, ‘are you interested?' Before that, I had had a few close encounters with a number of people who were seemingly close to saying yes and never did. People like Hugh Masakela's nephew Pious, who was very close then suddenly disappeared and never returned his messages. Pissed me off quite a bit.

That was it, Kevin was the guy. We formed that partnership and mid July I get my liquor licence and a couple of weeks later we get our entertainment licence. I said I am not going to sign the lease unless this is sorted. I always do things by the book. And then I chickened out, end of July because the ideal plan for me was to run that place with another partner. For me that was the ideal set up … Having had the two year experience of the small place, with this big operation I was going to die. And I am half dead actually as you see me.

The ideal set up was I have a friend in France in Lyon. He has a night joint like this. There are two partners. One does a week and then the other does a week. They exchange. When the one is in charge he is in charge running the place and managing it and the other one has a back seat doing marketing and so on. And it works like that. But I never found this partner, because my first partner is busy freelancing and traveling quite a bit although he helps me a lot on the social media side, he cannot alternate with me. Kevin has got all sorts of commitments with his businesses, so in the end the picture is that I am on my own with the team. And that is challenging and I don't sleep much and I don't have as much time as I used to. I am enjoying myself. Don't get me wrong. It is that idea. This is a six-day operation. If I want to see my kids I wake up 5:30 in the morning and take them to school so I literally sleep 2 and a half hours per night. Right now I am trying to make time during the day. It put a lot of pressure on the family, so I am trying to preserve my Monday's. It is a bit of a monk kind of thing. I don't have much life, outside of that. You see me here today with you, it is a bit of an exceptional thing. It is good for me as well, that I get out.

The thing about the Orbit is, it is already a special place. It filled a gap immediately as we came in. By the time we started we have a very good network of people in the industry and outside. Kevin is very well connected, Dan is very well connected and I am well connected, so we all have our groups of friends and acquaintances. Beyond that we came up with a model that was very centered on musicians and we said that this place had to be a place where musicians felt comfortable and really enjoy playing and they meet other musicians. The sound is good, there is a sound engineer all the time, there is a backline. We made this deal with Tomms Music, which is this music shop in Braamfontein. It is really about getting this going for musicians and make sure they have it. I couldn't believe it initially and very quickly we got musicians coming and wanting to check the place and tell us I want to play here, and not just your chancers and junior guys, established guys. For me, the day Barney Rachabane walked in and said, ‘I want to play here,' I was like ‘hey'. And guys like Salaelo Selota, guys who were either iconic figures or guys who had made it in the music industry. That is the thing we need to preserve at all costs, we need to do this for musicians and make sure musicians are very happy and comfortable, because if we fuck this up there is no point in continuing. There is no other venue in the history of Joburg that has had a piano like we have. It is not like a grand Steinway. It is a Yamaha C3 in very good condition and it is fucking sounding brilliantly and all piano players enjoy it. There hasn't been a venue in Joburg that had a piano. Kippies never had a piano, Nicky's had one but it is not useable. Blues Room, Bassline didn't have a piano. We are coming with something that looks serious from the start. We have a drum kit on site; we have an amp on site. The guys come with their instruments and that is it. Drummers come with their cymbals. Piano players come with their hands and that is it and this is how it should be. That is the only thing we wanted from the start. When people walk in they know where they are because of the music that plays and the pictures on the wall. Before we started we had a series of meetings with established musicians, we told them that is what we would like to do and how do you see yourself fitting into this thing. I am very happy we did it. Carlo, Concord, Andile, Peter, Marcus, Sydney, Justin, all good guys and in the end it worked because they bought into the project and everyone is excited about playing there and we are excited too. We've seen already in the last five months, projects being born, creative ideas coming out and bands being put together, visiting musicians coming to play and visitors coming to say we heard about The Orbit in Cape Town and we heard about the Orbit in Washington. It is changing the way things are happening and it is changing the way things are happening for musicians as well because there is a momentum. In the last six months there have been a number of recordings.

Live at the Orbit?

We record everything. But people are coming with recorded new material. Nduduzo, Thandi Ntuli, Steve Dyer, Feya, Herbie, Language 12, Sisonke, Banda. It is an exciting time you know and guys right music and they want to perform at the Orbit. We launched Reza Khota's album. Launching Kesevan first week of October. We did the Joburg launch of Carlo's thing, Stories quartet. We are doing Thandi end of September. Benjamin Jephtha. There is a dynamic. It is really nice. And then the bigger guys, Joy of Jazz. We did the media launch for Joy of Jazz at the Orbit and then we did the road to Joy of Jazz last week with Nduduzo. A beautiful show.

We have a room for musicians. We have a policy that musicians who have played at The Orbit who are going to play at The Orbit, don't pay at the door. We feed them well when they come to perform. I told the staff they need to know these guys and they need to remember them. When they come in they need to feel acknowledged, comfortable. appreciated. I remember when I had all those conversations with those guys before I even put this thing on paper, what was coming up regularly was that thing on recognition. Like, ‘we don't get any recognition, we don't get any acknowledgement for what we have done. We are nobody's. Nobody knows about our work.' And it was quite strong. And, it is not like an ego thing from artists. You could sense there was a genuine respect and the fact that there was no venue. Guys would be playing restaurants where I little corner was put for them. The only venue that was trying hard before we opened was the Freedom Station in Westdene. Steve has done a wonderful job. Small but all the cats love playing there and the connection with the audience is so good and he is a great host and so for us the idea was not to redo African Freedom Station or Pegs Cosy Corner but to do something bigger, with a jazz club feel. But, because we are in Braamfontein to have a business model that works we needed to have the other things on the side. The food, the wine, the liquor, comfort. You come to The Orbit on any given night and you are going to have a top business person with a crew of partners. A couple of PhD students or academics from wits, a few couples where guys take their girlfriends to have a good time. A girl's table of about six girls having a girl's night out. You are going to have some NGO workers, some city workers. You are going to have a table of international tourists. A guy who is alone who wants to go somewhere nice to experience South Africa and comes on his own and sits on a stool. So you have these people and they all come for one thing and one thing only and they want to experience South African music live in the best possible conditions. I am not saying it is perfect. I bet 95% of the people have an experience of a lifetime. They see great musicians, in great company, at a reasonable price, We've been going five months. On my planning I marked the gigs that I found special and there were a lot of them. Last night was special, Dorothy Masuko, 79 years old, you should have seen this woman on stage, Fuck! People standing at the end and she had the time of her life. Yesterday we had a table of twelve people, the co coordinator of UN Aids, Michel Sidibe from Mali. I know him from Swaziland. Nice crowd. Last week Barney was amazing. And Sunday, Sydney Mavundla was fantastic. We are not there yet, we know it is going to take a few more months to establish ourselves and then we may change the business hours because I am finished.

Can you see a change in SA Jazz?

What struck me the first time I heard Abdullah's music was that there was something very deep and solemn about the music. There was something charged with images of spirituality but images of projects as well. There was something very connected to this country. There was something very simple but at the same time very sophisticated in terms of the changes and there was a lot of singing in the music and for me the striking thing was how many images I could put onto that music. Images of people, images of marches, images of protest and how the music would change from something so completely joyous to something completely hurting. For me, it was amazing the number of emotions I would go through from listening to one piece. It doesn't always happen that quickly. Abdullah is a case of its own but when you listen to Herbie Tsaoli's album, African Time, I listen to that every single day. We open the shop and we play Herbie. That is a bit of a ritual. And when I listen to Nduduzo's music, that album that is coming out now, Mother Tongue. Fuck! It's so deep and powerful and Feya's music is so deep. And Marcus's melody is unique. It is about those changes. It is about how many emotions you are going to find in one song. I found that very specific to South African jazz, how colourful it is and how many images you can put into it. All the guys from the Eastern Cape have these really strong rural images that come out of their music. It speaks a lot to you about essential things like family and values and connections.

Did you not come across the Blue Notes in France?

No, in France I was very focused on American and European jazz and I didn't grow up in a family other than my cousin who is into Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. But, I never got an education by any one. As much as the Blue Notes were very big in Europe and France in particular, by the time I started getting a serious interest in jazz which was '82, these guys were passed already or the impact that they had a few years earlier had gone. I heard the name Chris Macgregor vaguely. It is only in 2002 that I found about it.

Is the education work part of a personal passion to shape jazz?

We are just a medium but it is guys like Marcus who put the Blue Notes orchestra together, it is really about people making sure they do know about that music which was a bit of an accident initially they thought it would be a once off gig but it was something they continued. We did a couple of classes with the guys at Wits who are students. We tried to bring young guys on stage but even among musicians I am not sure that everybody is aware about the Blue Notes.

UCT, Mike Campbell is quite in tune. And UKZN as well I find that guys that come out of UKZN are very strong. You can see at The Orbit. The UCT guys are very fluent in contemporary bebop. The Wits guys are a bit more like all over the show. Pretoria is very good.

Your work with medicine and your work with jazz, can you stitch them together?

I don't know I have never really tried to connect the two. For me the reality of my work at MSF was the many different kinds of peoples and cultures I was going to encounter, work with and socialize with. I am looking at essential stuff, not too many nitty gritty's on the side. I find there is something very essential about jazz. There is something very central to your existence. It fills you in a way which is similar to what the work I have done with MSF would be as well. Its real emotions, real extremely deep, you don't listen to jazz by accident and you don't work for MSF by accident. You may encounter them by accident but once you are in it you concentrate on the essential. If I wanted a connection I would say jazz is a life saving music. MSF is the business of changing lives but jazz is something that keeps you alive.



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