Towards the Peace on Earth
Interview Neil Comfort
The Rainbow has a lot to do with my story with Busi. My older brother Steve first got to meet Busi through the Rainbow and see her perform here. I became a friend of hers having experienced her at the Rainbow. That was in the late 80's when she was first converting from Vicky Mhlongo to Busi Mhlongo in terms of her stage name or persona in the South African music scene. He met her they became close friends, I think they may have been lovers for a while. He was and still is a software engineer, so was making decent money and started putting money into her life to help her. 1991, in the family we knew about Busi Mhlongo but the first time I met her physically was Mid November '91 I had a farewell party at my folks house in Westville North. I was leaving to go to the Antarctic on the SA National Antarctic expedition. Steve came with her and Mshaks and Doc and Sandile the drummer. There were about 4 or 5 of them From Busi's band that came to my farewell and that was the first time I ever met Busi.
And then Steve had been in the Antarctic twice in the 80's, in '84 and '87 and his radio operator on both of this trips was a guy called John Walker who became part of our family as well. He would also have been at that farewell. He used to live at our house. And in 1992 while I was in the Antarctic, John was then doing his masters in psychology. We had studied together at UKZN. I was at UKZN '87 to '89. He started in '88, so by '92 he was doing his doctorate and also helped me with Busi's band. He died on Christmas Eve of '92. His car aquaplaned off the road into Connaught bridge, there by Umgeni River. To her death bed Busi would talk about John. He was one of her important people in her life. She kept his old British army hat that he always had, after her died. She kept it in her house. We down at Antarctic only got to hear after New Year that John had died. It took a bit of time for the message to get down there. And then a couple of weeks later Steve sent me a telex and said what are you doing when you get back to South Africa. Would you be interested in helping with Busi's band and continuing what John and him had been doing. But I had already planned to go overseas a month and a half after I got back to go to Scotland with my mother to meet her family over there and then I was meeting up with a friend in America for a few months. It was around October of '93 once I was back from all my travels I then started going around to Busi's place at Grace Avenue in Westville which is part of that Westville shopping complex. The house that used to be there was 12 Grace Avenue. I would go around there on a daily basis. Some nights we would sit until 3, 4 in the morning talking about her life, smoking spliff, just getting to know her. And also for me it was very much a period of conscientisation to the life of a black person in South Africa, and particularly the life of a musician in South Africa.
I had had an interest in music, in helping bands. I grew up on the Bluff, there were a couple of bands on the Bluff, ‘Dax Martin', ‘What she said…' I used to help them out with transport and all that once in a while. Dax is now a swimwear designer. Growing up on the Bluff, black people were servants. That was about as much interaction as you had with a black person. I wouldn't say we were an overly liberal family, we were certainly not supporters of apartheid but we were certainly not activists against apartheid. Steve was a lot more conscious and got a lot more involved than I did. There is a seven year gap between him and I. What Steve did I followed. He is my brother. It was at Grace Avenue where you would have Bheki Mseleku and Sandile Shange, Madala, Doc and Mshaks. Sue Barry was living there with Busi.
I got to understand and learnt the hardships and got involved in helping Twasa. They had a tour in early, March or April '94 back to Holland and the Benelux countries. We did all the rehearsals at Grace Avenue. I was fortunate my father was doing alright in business at the time so I had a bakkie and I had transport, resources, I had a petrol card and I could do these things. We did a show at Behind the Moon in Point Road, Barney Pavitt's old place. I remember we got paid R1500 for an eleven piece band. But it was a rehearsal gig, it was prepping the band for their rehearsal to Holland. Because she was big over there. She had spent many years working in Holland and developed a name there. Her previous tour in 1992, John had helped them with. They had recorded that Babhemu album which was Busi Mhlongo and Twasa. Twasa was the name of her backing band. Crazy motherfuckers all of them. But, so much energy. Wim Westerveld was the promoter who put all her tours to Holland together. Munich records was the label. We are still in touch. They did the tour and in August of '94 she got her first big festival gig as Busi Mhlongo at Rustlers Valley. We did that and did some shows in Joburg. On the '94 tour it wasn't just Holland. She also got a couple of gigs in England. I think she played Ronnie Scotts as well on that tour. Will Mowatt saw her at the Chard Women's festival and introduced her to himself and fell in love with her right there and then and said he wanted to work with her.
It was around '95 that Robert started getting involved here. The whole Outernational Meltdown stuff and all that was done. He came in via Sipho Gumede who was one of his first Durban contacts. Sipho then put him in touch with people like Busi. I am pretty sure that was '95 that we had this big incident. There was this producer from Cape Town, Brett Piper, who had been involved in the Grahamstown festival and he had been commissioned to produce a show with Sipho Gumede and Busi Mhlongo. Understand that I was naïve and still learning the game. Busi was my university of music. Sometimes a biased university, sometimes rose-tinted. Even I didn't understand her greatness at that stage. I was still learning. Sipho got the impression that Busi was going to back him at the Grahamstown show. I remember we had to call Brett Piper up from Cape Town and say look, Busi is no backing singer for Sipho Giumede. This is an equal billing, half the show will be Busi's material and half will be Sipho's material, with one band. So we had to sort that issue out. They did it and it did very well, the show, down there. It would be great to check the archive of that. Then she would have done Rustlers Valley again in '95. Each time we did a show we just pushed the envelope more and more. As you do, as the popularity of the artist grows. We got ripped off a couple of times, particularly in Durban.
'95 Barbara Masekela was the ambassador to France and she put together La Villette, which was a two or three week South African celebration and obviously Hugh was quite involved. And that was around the same time that I got to meet Hugh. He took her over there for a month. And her picture ended up on the front cover of the SAA magazine at the time. She was very photogenic.
I kept myself busy because also by then I had become friends with Hannelie Coetzee and Chris Parkin from Soundcrew Banana Bandwagon so used to go down to ‘Jam n Sons' a lot and started working with Soundcrew as an equipment helper and all that. We had Urban Creep, we had Squeal on the books. We had the Durban Comedy Road show, we had Scooters Union, Sipho we would do some booking, Busi we would also help. Chris would help with equipment for rehearsals in Grace Avenue and all that. He was also a great fan of Busi's. In '95 I spent more time on the road with Squeal then I did with Busi because she was working a lot more with Sipho. It was late '95 that the whole thing with Melt came through and they wanted to sign her and I facilitated the signing and all that. I was the student, so you could view me more as Busi's personal assistant. I was never her manager. How do you manage a person who taught you? That could have been detrimental for both of us in that I would always defer to her. It was always Busi's way and not somebody taking a harder line on her and saying you must do this or that. I didn't know. I was too inexperienced. Going back to those earlier days, Bheki Mseleku was really hard on me. He said, ‘What are you doing here whitey. What the fuck do you know about us? Get the fuck out of here. You don't know nothing about our lives.”
Christmas Eve '94 Mshaks and I, in my father's work bakkie went to Lamontville to Bheki's house to pass our greetings and all that. And as we were leaving Mshaks was taking his time getting up the drive-way from Bheki's house so I had walked ahead out onto the road, naively. I saw these two lighties and this girl come up the road. I had parked the bakkie across the road. I wandered over to stand by the bakkie waiting for Mshaks to come up. One guy came up to me and put a knife to my throat and said give me the keys. Mshaks came up the driveway and the other guy pulled a gun on him and said get away. Very shaken up, Mshaks's place wasn't too far from there. We went up there and there was a local gangster friend of Mshaks. A guy called Ndlovu. Mandla Zikhalala was also very close to him. And still is. He went to him and said the vehicle has been stolen please can you help us. We all jumped into Ndlovu's car, drove around asking questions and eventually got a lead that these youngsters had gone to the Jam which is now Suncoast Casino. Those days it was known as the Jam and is where the black youth would go for Christmas parties and New Year and all that. Things were still only normalising in terms of space in Durban. We tracked them there. By the time we got there, they had headed back to Lamontville. The guys said look we can't have you driving around with us because this was now late at night. We will drop you at the police station and we will go on because things were hotting up in terms of tracking this car. At About 3 o clock in the morning they came and fetched me from the police station. They had found the car. These lighties had crashed the car. Somebody else had hotwired it and it was parked 200m down the road from the police station behind the garage ready for shipment out the next day. So we got it and I drove it home in the early hours of the morning and had to tell my father why his bakkie was a little bit dinged up. And I heard via the grapevine that within two months both of those youngsters were dead. Live by the sword, die by the sword or I had the belief that in those days musicians in the township were still respected. And what they had done to Mshaks and myself they had got retribution for. I don't know. We got the bakkie back.
Bit of a haze '95-6. I was on the road with Squeal. '96, Chris Parkin and Hannelie split up, their relationship was always very tempestuous and she took Banana Bandwagon with her which was the booking side of the business and Chris carried on with Soundcrew. '95 was also the first time I ever worked at the Rainbow. Chris was doing the sound for a Mankunku gig and I helped carry the sound and do the set up and all that it was the first time I ever experienced a gig at the Rainbow.
Ben's speciality was bringing a big name in and putting together a band locally and doing a show with them. In '96 Castle Milk Stout got involved with music, we have still got the banner on the wall. ukuShaya aphagati, ‘it kicks inside.' There was a black guy who was the brand manager who had a love for jazz so he aligned the brand with jazz. From that started the Rainbat project.
In '96 Chris was soundcrew; Ben at the Rainbow and the Bat Centre, started the Rainbat project. It was a three way partnership, they bring in artists once a month as the Rainbow has always done. Friday and or Saturday at the Bat Centre and then Sunday at the Rainbow. We managed to get that on the Castle Milk Stout program so we had a bit of funding there. Then December '96 I was on tour with Squeal again. We did the big tour to Cape Town. That was their heyday, the peak of Squeal. Banana Bandwagon used to work with Funky's, the place at the Bat Centre.
We used to work with Richard, he opened up a similar joint to the Rainbow. He had been manager at the Rainbow for a couple of years, 94 – '95. He opened Ethekwini Junction in Greyville. If you are driving down Umgeni Road and go passed Game, there is road up that will take you past Independent Newspapers. On the corner there was a building there and he opened Ethekwini Junction and modelled it on the Rainbow, also doing music and servicing the lower income folk. We used to do work for Ethekwini Junction, by then Jam ‘n Sons had closed which was modelled after Jamiesons in Joburg. Hannelie had been a partner there but they couldn't keep it going.
On the Squeal tour the Springbok Nude Girls said the next time they come to Durban, they can't play Funky's because the last time they had played Funky's in '96 we had had to shut the door and turn people away. With 350 people we couldn't jam more people in there. We did some fantastic shows with Funky's. Landscape Prayers was another group on our books. We did their album launch. 23 rd of February, it was a Tuesday night, the Nude Girls came to Durban on their next show and I had said let's move up from Funky's to the Bat Hall and they said ok. Give me R500 to coordinate locally for them. Kevin Winder was their manager at that time. He now owns the Mercury in Cape Town. He has for many years. He started the Mercury. I remember personally handing out 4000 flyers in the two weeks leading up to it. All over Durban, I walked the streets, at all the hotspots where things were happening. We had over 800 people in the Bat Hall on a Tuesday night in February. R30 a ticket. And within two days, Hannelie and I were approached by the Bat Centre to put in a proposal to manage the music program at the Bat Centre as they couldn't believe what had happened with the Nude Girls. They had never seen those sort of numbers come through the door. So we did and they accepted our proposal. We were supposed to start on the 1 st of April.
Hannelie was still going to run our office in Halford Road and was going to be the on-sight representative of Banana Bandwagon down at the Bat Centre. By gong early instead of waiting until the start of the contract I met Nicola, my wife and we had a brief fling because she was at the end of a year in Africa volunteering at the Bat Centre. She volunteered there for a year working day time on the arts admin and she was a trained actress so she was involved with the actors co-op, the theatre program. We never met until then because she was always there during the day and when I was working at the Bat, it was always at night. We became friends, got involved and it was her last three weeks in Africa because her visa was up, but she was quite dynamic and Paul Mikulai had taken a real shining to her; and Phillipa Huntely was by then centre director. She returned to England. We produced our first show which was Scooters Union, Squeal and Turquoise end of March. And the next week we had Sipho Gumede in the hall. We got stuck right in.
By then Busi was due to deliver material to Melt, so running the music program was; the hall, the music on the deck plus the rehearsal room. Phuzekhemisi was looking for rehearsal space. I gave him space at the Bat Centre. We had Busi rehearsing in one room and Phuzekhemisi rehearsing in the room next door. She was looking to find material for the new album. And we got friendly with Spector Mgwazi and Themba Mkhize. Themba was bass player for Phuze and Spector was the second acoustic guitar. They started interacting and developing material together and that is where the Urban Zulu material was developed in the rehearsal rooms of the Bat Centre. Will Mowatt came out later in the year and stayed with us in Halford Road.
Nicola moved into the house in Halford Road. Mowatt stayed with us for a few months. Naively we facilitated and accommodated but we never got paid. I am not a business man, just working for free all the time making things happen. Mowatt was good. He is still a very close friend. We developed the material and then we went off to Downtown Studios to record it. I was Will's fixer. I even get a credit on the album, but I never got paid one cent, besides having my costs covered if we were on the road to Joburg. We went up there and recorded it. With Spector and them bringing in maskanda, people like Mfazonyama. He just pulled in because he is mates with all these guys from Phuzekhemisi's band and the next thing he is in studio dropping down some riffs on the album. And beautiful stuff came out of that. The band recording was done. From late ‘97 Busi went to live in London with Mowatt and that is when they went and laid down the voice tracks. Most of the vocals on that album are Busi's besides the male vocals from Phuzekhemisi's band. All the female backing vocals are all Busi. And so they developed that album. It was released in '98 in Europe. Without a launch tour and then early '99 they did a launch tour in South Africa and Trunz gave the work to Brad Holmes from the Bassline. I was cut out and had to deal with the Durban launch which was at the Bat Centre. I remember Mfazonyama did not pitch up to the rehearsals or something like that, or the soundcheck, so I was instructed to tell him that he couldn't play that night, so he was really distraught. He had his manager with him and he wasn't happy. Eventually we let him perform at the launch concert. It was only the next morning that he had to catch the flight for the Cape Town launch that the police stopped him and said he couldn't bring his gun on the plane. I realised that while I was arguing with him about not playing at the launch concert he had a gun on him. Off they went. That was one of the last shows I produced at the Bat Centre.
We gave our heart and soul to our work. We were surviving on fuck all. Beans on Toast, Nicola and I. The Bat Centre motivated for her to get a working visa to come back and offered her an administrative post. She came back to South Africa in August '97. '98
We stayed in Ryde avenue down by the Winston for six months. By March / April, Hannelie said she had enough and could not handle this hand to mouth situation we were in, producing all these shows, making fuck all money. That is when we took over her rental. By February '99 I had burnt out. Plus by then Nicola and I were due to get married in June of '99 and for her to get permanent residency I had to prove that I could support her and she had to stop working. My brother was working for one of these money lending businesses. He had a share in some of these Mashonisa kind of shops that bought out the revolution. That was the only place that I could get a quick job to produce a salary slip at the end of the month because working in the music industry you don't get a salary slip. No credit record, anything. It took about 8 months for her permanent residency to come through.
That came through in September of '99. Next month I resigned from the job and started working at Bargo which was a club by Greyville racecourse. It used to be known as the horse with no name or in the industry the whore with no shame. The guys from Tilt took over the lease and opened Bargo and brought me in as an event co-ordinator. That is where we did Rodriguez two nights. We did some good shows. Springbok Nude Girls. I produced all the Springbok Nude Girls' shows at the Bat Centre between '97 until when I left in March '99. We did six or seven shows; every time packed. One weekend we were doing Nude Girls, next weekend we were doing Bayete, the next weekend there would be fok all. But it was fantastic. You would have music on the deck. Funky's would be happening. It was a really vibrant time at the Bat Centre. I just burnt out.
I got involved in Bargo and we were only there for about 13 months. We continued doing the Rainbat project. '99 it fell apart, Chris Parken left Durban and went to Cape Town, burnt out from the industry. In January 2001, Pam Pretorius approached me and said could I help her put together events, a surprise 50th birthday party on the 10 th June 2001. I co-ordinated the sound. And we started getting the word out to the musicians like Darius Brubeck that it was Bens' 50 th birthday and would they play. Darius said yes and Sandile Shange. As the word got out everyone said, ‘if it is for Ben we are playing.' We learnt the Mankunku was going to be in town that same weekend on a South African Ports operation ticket with Feya and his top quintet. We got the word to Chris Siren and Mankunku said he is definitely going to be playing for Ben. We had this fantastic show. Pam handled all the invites, inviting the customers here. We all had to be here at 11 o clock on the morning of the show. Gearhouse helped. Nicola got a job as soon as she got her residency with Gearhouse because I had become close with them. They used to help me out at the Bat Centre. That is why I always had fat sound in the Bat hall because Gearhouse were supporters of us and really helped. And even through to the Bargo days. Gearhouse helped me.
10 th June 2001 we had this humdinger of a party. We all had to hide at that side of the room and she said they were going to town for a lunch and she brought him in and we all jumped out, ‘surprise'. At the end of the afternoon there were about 500 people here just having a raucous party and at the end of that party, Pam and Nicola got to know each other. And one of the conversations was, ‘why don't you and Neil take over the Rainbow;' even though while I was at Moneywise at Hill Street in '99 in the middle of the process of getting her work permit through, I heard that Ben was advertising for a manager here. I applied and he rejected my application because I had no food and beverage experience. It was quite ironic within a year and a half I was helping Pam with this party and then there was the suggestion, ‘why don't you and Neil take over'. So, I wasn't good enough then but as soon as my blue eyed wife with all her energy was on the scene we got invited to take it over. A day or two later we said we were keen but we had fok all. She had her job at Gearhouse but other than that, we had nothing. I was back in the industry and living from hand to mouth. But fortunately she had a bit of money in England she could bring over. I only later learnt that she didn't bring all that money over. She brought a little bit and we took a second bond on our house, an extra 100K, so we managed to rustle together R200 000. And his asking price was R320 000. We applied for finance but like any good business man his books showed that the place was running at a loss. We couldn't get finance so he then agreed to finance us the other 40% that we had to pay off over three years at prime plus interest so we officially took over on the 1 st of September 2001.
The official hand over concert was on the 2 nd of September. And I asked Busi. That was the time she had then gone to Chisa with Masekela's label because Melt had not taken up the option on her second album. Robert, well meaning, but he blew his money too fast. He didn't have a sustainable model with what he was doing with Melt in South Africa. There were just too many suffering musicians. Too many fantastically talented musicians that he listened to and gave to and eventually the pot ran dry. So she went off with Chisa and we weren't that close in that I wasn't involved in her business but I was always there for her and she was always there for me. She said she would do the hand over concert and that she wanted R5000 for her musicians and, ‘me you get for free'. By that time she was commanding festival fees of R60 000. She did this show and we had 450 people in here at R30 ticket. We did about R12000 turn over on the bar and then 9 days later 9/11 happened. It was only in hindsight that I realised that we had given Ben all we had. We had no safety net beneath us for any mishap. By then my dad had passed away in '97, there was no money. My family didn't have money. It was her and I and the Rainbow staff and that was it. In hindsight that handover concert and the cash that we generated plus, before we officially took over Ben said go and speak to SAB and tell them they must put some money to get the music program at the Rainbow up and running again. He had been so hands off and his managers had fucked up here that the music program was haphazard, maybe once a quarter there was a show. We set up a meeting with a guy called Grant Preston down in Hillary. Grant listened to our long story and our aspirations and he signed off on R36 000 for a year, R3000 a month to reintroduce the music program at the Rainbow. The place was sliding. Any business like this without the hands on energy of a Ben is going to. It is that personality that drives it as much as you are just selling alcohol. Those two things, the Busi show and Grant; we got the music program up and running again. The first show we did after Busi was Philip Thabane and Malombo. October. November we did African Jazz Pioneers and burnt our fingers badly. It was a disastrous show we lost so much money on that. Or did they do the birthday concert? We timed it wrong with the customers and they had all gone home for Christmas. But we got through it.
I would say the most influential people in my music career were Squeal, Dave Birch, Busi and Sipho Gumede. One of the reasons why Nicola left the Bat pretty soon after I left … We used to put these fantastic cultural evenings at the Bat and get the corporates. And one night Sipho came round with a lady friend or two and they were getting stuck into the food and the drinks and all that and Nicola naively said no you shouldn't be doing that, ‘this is for the guests'. He was a trusty, he went to the board and lodged a complaint of racism against her. It was hectic. She would have to talk about it but it really scarred her. In 2002 he came to play the Rainbow again. The trust was built up again between Sipho and Nicola and they became respected colleagues. Sipho was our banker gig, he would play here 3 or 4 times year. Sipho Gumede would guarantee 3 or 400 people every time. He would bring Busi in, Bayete. By then Busi was strong enough financially with her shows that she didn't really need me anymore. She could handle things herself. The money was there.
She would always visit with us but I was fulltime here. Our year on year turn over growth from 2003 to 2004 was 48%. That was all on the back of being on sight all the time, having regular music again. I am one of those people who can attest to the value of music in terms of the strength of this business. We carried on producing shows. There is lots to tell.
For many years Busi suffered from piles. Eventually in '99 Nicola and I got her a surgeon to do a pro bona for her to take her piles out. If anybody pissed her off she would say tell them, ‘come and kiss my piles'. When Busi started coming to stay at our house towards the end we would have long sessions some of the nights. I had a recorder like this and probably have about ten hours of recordings with her. I would just put it on the table and we would tell stories and laugh. You might want to listen to that. It is sitting there in the safe for when Busi's story eventually gets told in terms of a documentary that will be given to anybody who does that and we can maybe cover that last four five years when she was re-diagnosed with cancer. She had cancer in New York when she was working there in the mid 70's but cancer of the cervix. She had her cervix removed and that is why she only had one child in her life. She couldn't have children after that. In 2005 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were with her through that and helped her through her vasectomy. And people like Sue Barry. If you want to talk about Busi you got to talk to Sue Barry. She did even more for Busi than I did. They had a tempestuous relationship. Busi didn't have much respect for her musically and used to give her hell in the rehearsals. ‘Sue you fucked up that bridge again.' But Sue, also put a lot of her life into Busi. Without her they wouldn't have had that house in Grace Avenue. We should have a quieter conversation about those years. Those were quite heavy years. Towards the end she couldn't say a good thing about Robert. He fucked up. There was never a proper music video for that album. He spent 1.5 million producing it and nothing on promoting it. I was on that tour when we did the Fin de Siecle festival in Nantes. I went as roady with her. That was the only time any footage she took of her I saw flighted. It is a story of constant struggle. Robert buying Themba his bass guitar because his guitar was just too fucking out of tune to play anymore.
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