Towards the Peace on Earth
Interview with World music presenter and DJ Nicky Blumenfeld

How did you get into music?

I got into music by default when I came to live in Johannesburg in 1990, I had been out of the country for some time. I came from Swaziland. I had been there for ten and a half years. I was teaching art and English. And I had studied fine art, I was exhibiting and I came back here thinking I would get a part time teaching job and maybe go back to school and Wits couldn't offer me what I wanted. I had also been very keen on the murals. Qin effect when I came back I was very lucky and I started the murals with kids in Hillbrow and so forth and then I met Julia Meintjies from Arts Alive and she wanted to start murals so me and Drew Lindsay started the murals in South Africa. We hadn't been allowed up to that point but at that point the ANC had been unbanned and everybody was looking to look cool, so we got the permission to do the public art. And that is what I was doing and I was teaching and then I was taken to a fantastic party of Michael Kia and he had a house in Bertams and he eventually moved to the bigger house that became the Troiville Tea garden. I went to this mans parties and he used to have the best parties ever and I realized this man actually builds homes to have parties in but he had the worst music ever, so my friends started saying bring your music in and I started making mixtapes and surreptitiously sticking them in the machine and that was when I started DJing and strangely enough it was people like Steve Newman and Tananas who was staying at his house that kind of got me in there. And that was how I started DJing and then I became the first DJ in Yeoville. At that time there was only live music in Yeoville but the guy from Tandoor had moved from Hillbrow and had started to ask me to play after the band on Friday and Saturday nights. Then it was house parties and then I got a permanent gig every Friday night at Polly Polly in Yeoville. Tiny little club, we started there and like ten people would come in. The ten people would strangely enough be Herbie Tsaoli, Andile Yenana, Steve Dyer, they would come after the gigs on a Friday and it grew until there were like 1500 people a night. And I started doing festivals and gigs, still teaching, still painting murals and then I got offered a job in Kaya, when Kaya started in 1997. And I got that job and was recommended by Peter Makorobe who started the Monday Blues years before. He was a producer for the likes of Lawrence Dube, Bob Mabena, you name it, Peter was behind them and involved from Radio Bop days. He was behind the start up of Kaya and he recommended me for the job. That was how I got the job at Kaya. The rest is really history. Eventually the art and the teaching phased out and it was full time music and that is really what I have been doing since then. Obviously there is a whole lot within that time period.

I always so I was the worst radio presenter. In the history of radio I still say I am not a radio presenter and I am not a journalist, I am an artist that has been blessed with space to do that.

From day one I was told that I couldn't do what I was doing on radio and from day one I fought for the right to do what I do which is basically to play the music that I choose in the order that I choose. I have been on air 17 years now and I literally fought for that right for a good 14 years. I was literally threatened with being fired, my other show was axed, they tried to push me off the edge of the week, push me as late as possible. I always believed this was the way I had to do it. I was the worst presenter but the music carried me.

The first musician I ever interviewed, thank God, was Pops Mohamed. I say thank God because Pops Mohamed talks. You don't have to do too much interviewing. Being this really scared person on air, I always say climbing a six story wall mural on scaffolding that was rickety is never as scary as being on air. Pops just carried me through the interview and then a short while after that and I only used to do pre-recorded interviews in those days so I could edit my own voice out. A short while after that Pops called me and said Robert Trunz is in town. I had probably been on air three to six month at that point and would I like to interview him. At that time he was still B & W. I interviewed Robert and he was certainly the first non artist that I ever interviewed or the first producer or first record label owner that I first interviewed him and the time I met him was through Pops.

Because of the kind of music Robert was releasing and he became MELT2000 and became more daring in South African terms. He was in effect releasing the artists that nobody wanted to record because they couldn't find a category for them or because they found their music to deep. Or whatever it is, and that was eventually when he became MELT2000. He was releasing the artists that I was interested in promoting my show. If I put it this way, the very first song that I played on the very first world show that I ever did when Kaya began was Busi Mhlongo's Uminchisi' and that for me will always be the first song I ever played on air. If you think about it, just to do that was quite revolutionary and what is interesting in those days and Peter Mokorube brought it to light. I just played music I liked and what I didn't know for a long time is because I had no background in radio or broadcasting, I had always loved radio, and people like Chris Pryor in the late 70's changed my life. I think he had a show at 11 o clock on Monday night and I first heard Pink Floyd on his show and things like that. In terms of radio what Peter told me later was that there was still that thing, if you were a Zulu person you wouldn't play Xhosa music and if you were a Xhosa person you wouldn't play Zulu music and so forth. I just played music that I liked and I kind of inadvertently broke down those barriers. And now you will find Lawrence Dube who is Pedi playing Busi Mhlongo who is Zulu, but up until that time you wouldn't find that on radio. I didn't realize that I was breaking down those kind of boundaries inadvertently. I was already playing artists that Robert was recording or in the process of recording or promoting. To be in a position like that, I still feel honoured every week although there have been times when I was hanging on by a thread, or times I had wanted to leave because the environment was getting unbearable in terms of management. I would always think, I haven't played that song and until they kick me out or I get a better option, I am going to keep playing this music. To this day Busi comes up all the time and people talk about how much they miss her or would love to just feature her at this festival or that festival. It just shows you. My very first programme manager told me /you can't play this music. I am playing this music in the clubs and I can see people's faces, so I am going to keep doing it. He said well it's an R&B station. And I said if people have only tasted apples how are they going to know what oranges taste like and maybe they are going to like only oranges, or a mixture of apples and oranges, or maybe they are going to add some strawberries. The point is we can't say people only like apples if they have never tasted another fruit. For me, Busi or Pops is a reflection of that. Someone like Taiwa was to the history of our country, not just cultural history. Maybe sometime I will be revisiting an album like one of the obscure albums like Outernational Meltdown series at two in the morning and I would think Oh my God and I would have to phone Robert, or email him or sms him in the middle of the night just to say, ‘Oh my God.' Those are those moments when I listen to an album like that and I think he for one has had a lot of shit, from so many angles because of his passion and commitment. But, how many producers in the entire world will go in and say here is the key to the studio, go in and do. For me, he is a magician as he somehow has the ability to find these incredible people and put them in a space that nobody else would have the guts to do. It is driven by spirit or some divine intervention. I really asked Robert if this was a conscious cultivated thing or of this was intuitive. For me, it feels intuitive. It feels like Airto Moreira maybe knew him and somehow the energy of that moment putting him in a studio with Vusi Khumalo and Taiwa and Amampondo thrown into the mix. I remember watching Amampondo in the early 80's in Cape Town. For me people like Tananas and Amampondo, which Robert was largely responsible for their international success ongoing, they were the first world music before world music was even a definition. They were South African world music internationally. Even to this day, who would sign Amampondo? Even after 25 years in the industry I still don't know anyone who would sign Amampondo. Nowadays things are different because people are releasing independently. And Mabi Thobejane, who would ever give Mabi a chance to do a solo album, let alone a couple of them? Robert is a magician because I have these moments when I am listening to an album whether it is an improvisational album like one of those from the Outernational Meltdown or whether it is a Taiwa or a Busi, I get the feeling that this guy would choose the musicians, choose the space, give them the key because it is that point when I listen I think that is when the producer left the room because the spirit is so much bigger than anything the producer could have imagined in the first place, but he may as well shut up and sit in the corner because now the spirit has taken over. His role is done and you can hear that in those albums. There is a point where this guy was a channel actually. We hear musicians talk about it often, the space they go into to perform, and Robert is one of the few producers whose work says to me, he becomes a channel for some other divine energy flowing through him. And the producer leaves the room because it is bigger than anything he could dictate with his conscious mind.

How much have you seen the music change? Did the remix projects trigger the world music genre?

I am one of those few people, there are a handful I could credit, but I have had dealings with every record label in this country, and internationally with artists of such diverse genres and it is a very interesting position to be in because other people have worked for a specific company or pushed a certain genre or whatever but I have experienced it all. It was an interesting time with the transition into democracy playing music at that time. I was one of the people as a DJ who promoted music from other African countries first. Maybe me and one or two other people in the entire country but at gigs, probably me first. I was probably the first person to play the likes of Salif Keita and Youssou N'Dour at gigs, let alone some of South African music that wasn't getting the appreciation that it deserved. And that was another thing I was very conscious of when I started on air. I always say America has really succeeded with cultural colonization and particularly in the struggle years with the cultural boycott. Every other country pulled out of South Africa except America so that was really all that we were exposed to, American creative culture, and maybe Afrikaans culture. We didn't have a broad exposure. For me it was really interesting because there I was playing at clubs in Yeoville which was fast becoming multi cultural, multi racial environment. Playing Pan African or global music at that time, before independence in 1994. I think there was a group of us who were really key at that time, without realizing it in transforming culture in this country and the way it was perceived. We weren't doing it consciously we were just doing it because that is what felt right, that is what was exciting. One thing I was very conscious of was to promote South African greats on the same level I would promote the other greats, Salif Keita or Pat Metheny. I made very conscious decisions to say things on air like That was the fantastic Salif Keita followed by the Amazing Pops Mohamed, kind of thing, so you elevated them to the level that they deserved to be elevated to and kind of gave them that credibility.

I was very fortunate because through jobs I was given and research projects that I researched the not so distant past in terms of the history of South African music and the challenges artists faced and the lack of opportunities to the big bang of the 90's where suddenly South African music was the hippest thing and every major label wanted to be signing artists and facilitating them. There was the birth of kwaito and a whole new asserting of identity, within the different ethnicities and this new African music which was again very timeous in an international sense because then World Music had been labeled as a genre because up until that point these kind of artists would never have been recorded or if they were it was like really badly recorded traditional music or indigenous music, that would never get airplay because of the quality and might be great for archival purposes or whatever. Until there was a category name called World Music there was nowhere for this to fit and the industry being what it was very strongly wanted categories, I think less so today because of the age of technology. It was a very interesting to live through that time to see this boom bang, majors taking off, South African music being the hippest hottest thing. And then sadly to also see its decline and the majors collapsing which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the establishment of the artist as an independent producer releasing their own music independently and of course in the age of technology where we just have access to so much music. People are doing collaborations via email and stuff like that. And as somebody who has had contact with the musicians, the distributers, the companies, kind of all realms of that, it has been an interesting time. In the world there has definitely been a decline in CD sales, even being in France quite a lot last year. The only decent FNAC that still exists is the one main one, Virgin. The other FNAC's are mainly gaming stores. We see that here as well. Recently I have been a bit more inspired again because there has been a spate of individual artists who have now experienced releasing independently and the challenges that come with getting your music in the stores if there are stores and how do people know about those stores because they are few and far between and buying online and so forth, who with their recent releases are showing again actually that CD's have not died and there still is a need for it. To take your music seriously enough to put it onto disk with the right packaging and the right information and I have listeners who are still trying to buy those things, even though there is a challenge because retail is limited. There are new ways of looking at how people can access music that is not just through credit card and being able to order online. I also think in terms of what we call world music and jazz people still want to own the hard copy. I think digital downloads are fantastic for this months hit or this seasons album but in terms of quality music that is going to last … I have had house robberies and have re-ordered albums which were stolen from me because I had to have that album in my collection. One of my favourite albums was Zakhir Hussain's making music from 1981 or 85 or something. That is the kind of album I will still re-order or Lee Ritinour Twist of Mali, I re-ordered that when it was stolen from me. I want the hard copy, and from my listenership I know they do too. They want to look inside and see who played base and even forget about it five years and then come back to that album and have a look, who produced it, which label it was released on and the artwork that accompanies it. Maybe the format will change, maybe CD's will become memory sticks, I don't know, but people are still going to want to own that hard copy. They are going to keep those memory sticks in a special box that has been made for memory sticks, they are not going to record over them because they have got all the artwork in.

In those days when I started on air in the late 90's, I had two shows then and I could virtually send my groove listeners or world music to a certain store and tell them to speak to a certain person and there would be a whole side allocated to world music and if he didn't have it he would order it. Now there is none of that but whether I criticize it or not, I can't say because I love the fact that everybody can be a star now and I love the fact that it is not so exclusive anymore.

Also if you think of Busi with Bryce Wassy producing that album, and he did an Amampondo one as well. Also, to look at those kinds of exchanges.

Looking at the change in music, there will always be a need for dance music or groove music or whatever you want to call it. I think that the market for that is largely your under thirties, your younger market. They also have your biggest disposable income, they don't have children and school fees and bonds to pay off so you find they are the ones who are probably your biggest consumers when it comes to music. I think South Africa is at the forefront of global dance. I am really blown away by what is happening here in terms of dance music. Yes, I do think that Robert was one of the first touching into those elements. I don't find all his albums digestable, the one he did in the early days with the British South Africa. Some of them were a bit like ‘Oh this is a Madala remix, where is Madala in this.' Like some guy had a loop he was working with and was oh someone asked me to do this remix, great I can do this loop, with no feeling for Madala's music. I am a great one for remixes, but if I read Madala Kunene remixed i want to hear Madala in there and know how the producer fed off what was the Madala in that. I don't love all of that experimental stiff. Some of it I prefer more than others. But yes at the same time he was one of the first initiating those and even some of your albums like the first Busi Mhlongo remix, Melt volume One and Castro B had a remixy dance flavour. I remember those days going to a concert and because of those Madala Kunene remixes, young people were going to see Madala acoustic because they had got introduced to him because of those drum and base remixes. It has definitely grown the awareness through that collaboration.

I see on Facebook, Robert posted a photo of Black Coffee who was originally with Shana … and that he is now one of the pioneers in the house scene

That's right! I love Black Coffee because I remember the days when he wasn't even hip. And he just kept doing it you know. He has been a great ambassador for South African house. And now you are reminding me that that Shana album and those tracks and I find that that is a lovely circle that is coming full. I am pleased to hear that. Shana was a beautiful album and it was a bit ahead of its time maybe. There is one Shana track that I still play and it is still a hit and people still want it. I am soon going to be asking Robert for the rights to release it on a mix, you know what I mean. But if I think about it that whole album was pretty special. It was really an electro Zulu kind of electro indigenous and one of the first, way ahead of its time. It hardly got any airplay at that time.

Is this the kind of music that destroyed genres?

Genres are less important now for various reasons. One reason is that there is so much music out there that it is just difficult to categories and I think also because of the global age and even without that more and more serious musicians are being exposed to sounds by countries with other styles and are integrating it into their music. It makes sense with the age of information and all that that there would be. You will find a Zulu musician adding Latin elements, Mafikizola now doing the kwassa thing and you are even going to find that from musicians who tour often at festivals all over the world and they start getting exposed to different kinds of music and are inspired by those elements. For me, that has always been the wonderful thing about jazz or world music is that you are not dealing with huge ego's so you will often find that people will watch a band from Mauritania and be ‘Wow.' And then start bringing in elements or start collaborating with other musicians playing those instruments and in World and Jazz people tend to be more open to influences, assimilations or collaborations. I also have a problem with jazz or world and how do we distinguish between what is jazz and what is world. Is Richard Bona jazz or world, is Hugh Masakela jazz or world? And from then on all of them. Are they jazz or world? I know that freaks the American jazz fundi's out when I say that. I have got one long letter from a guy recently. When I made a statement on air and said I don't know about the Americans saying funk started in America. Listen to Manu Dibangu. This guy wrote me an essay back saying ‘funk is American.' ‘No no, Manu Dibangu was doing funk long before.'


A spiritual question. I think Moses was one of the first to make world music and jazz absolutely one.

Yes, he like Busi, people are still morning. And that is not just people who knew them personally, that is people who had a really personal relationship with their music. People like Busi and Moses are geniuses that come once in a hundred years kind of thing, you know. You almost make me quite sentimental now and missing the good old days …

Will I think the point of remembering them is to recreate that in the present like with Feya remembering jazz from the 60's when that music was silenced.

Ya, it was only just beginning and then at its boom, it suddenly all collapsed. I was speaking to Mapumba yesterday. He is a Congolese musician who I had dealings with about ten years ago when he released his first album and he has been very busy and also at a loss, the way he said it to me, was in quite a dark space. I think a lot of artists in the last five or so years, have really been challenged in this country. More so than in Europe or Japan, or I could still be in Paris and then stressed about which gig I am going to go to tonight. Should I go see Manu Dibangu at that venue or go see Richard Bona at that venue and Bilaki Sissoko at that venue and then you go to each of those venues and they are all packed. Here we don't even full venues anymore with quality music. The artists have really really struggled and still are. I mean great artists. It has been taken over by the electronic age and house music and bad house music. But, in the last year or so there has been for me a resurgence. And artists are looking at other alternatives. Dave Reynaulds was saying to me recently, because he has just released a new one, he was saying, ‘Why don't these guys het it right. There are all these little spaza's in the townships and if you know that that music is selling in that township get a little spaza going that is selling CD's for that community in that area. People like that kind of music. People are starting these house concerts. There are a few places that do them. Glyn does them once every two months in Observatory where they have these soirée kind of evenings. A limited audience, maybe one hundred people can see Pops Mohamed in a beautiful setting in someone's garden and have some soup. So, artists are starting to create things again in the gaps to be able to on one hand be seen and be heard and on the other hand get their music sold. For me that is becoming interesting now, what kind of out of the box ideas we can get. Lindiwe Maxolo, I had her on air and she is the next hot thing in terms of jazz vocalists. When she was on air she was like if you need my album let me know and I will arrange to get it to you. It is like next time she is in Sandton she will get it to me.

Did you see anything in 2003 / 4 that might have killed the industry off?

House music, Dj's, the DJ explosion. And I love DJing, but it went over board and there was the annihilation of live music. But, I do see it coming back and I even see it coming back within the DJ community. More and more DJ's are working with live musicians. Whether it is live or whether it is recorded. That has come full circles as well. I have been doing live gigs. I was the first person in this country ever to work with live musicians. And one of the first live musicians I worked with was Mabi. That was when everyone was starting to get a drummer or percussionist to work with them. I have worked with Jimmy Mgwandi on upright base. I have also done a fair amount of production and remix stuff. On that level I have also worked with live musicians adding their bits and recordings. I have worked with “Concord, I have worked with Dave Reynaulds and a variety of people. I am very excited right now about what is happening in the new jazz field in South Africa as well. A lot of youngsters have had enough of house. We are finding a lot of youngsters are making really good Nu Jazz and breakbeats and stuff like that. I am finding it very exciting.

And going back to Melt people still cry of they can't find the album. Again that shows that it is timeless music. And people still want to buy the hard copy of certain albums.

Your work in affecting syllabus in African music.

I did a series over a period of time of workshops for community radio people. At first for quite a few years I got money from the French. And then I got money from Mmino and then it fizzled out and I haven't got money again and haven't found a place to get the money. I would bring in people from community radios, maybe 20 people from around the country and bring them into Joburg for an intensive two weeks, put them into accommodation and the focus of that was African music and programing from an African perspective and basically developed curriculum that could do that over a period of time as it evolved I developed this curriculum. When the Mmino funding ran out that was when it ended. And at that point, I was looking at getting it accredited as a course but one thing lead to another and I kind of stopped. Basically that it what we were doing, bringing young people here from different community radio who basically had no concept of what African music was, as far as they were concerned it was bad kwassa as you see on TV. I have them a variety, for instance of there was someone from a gospel station I would play them highlife gospel. And if someone was into hip hop play them Senegalese hip hop so you kind of change their perception of what African music is and the understanding of musical history particularly in this country. And at the same time looking at content for broadcasting, to how to package a show, how to interview artists, how to fill out PRS forms or what SAMRO is about, get SAMRO to come and talk to them about different rights and that kind of thing. I would always say to the students, I am going to be nice to you because one day you are going to be my boss. Funnily enough a lot of them have gone on to major positions and went on to start African music shows in their regions. Some of them are now in positions of power. And can have an effect on that level. That was an intensive course. It would be jam packed for two weeks and then send them back to their regions again because they were coming from Qwaqwa, the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and all over. Places that really don't have expansion. In terms of interviews, some one could cancel me this afternoon and in the morning I have got a replacement. I have got a six week waiting list. Whereas how often does Marcus Wyatt, Ringo or Black Coffee go to Qwaqwa or the Mahotella Queens to Mpumalanga. I wish I could get out of Joburg, but those are one of the things that make it so difficult. If I go and live in Cape Town, how many times can I go and interview Jimmy Dludlu? And even the internationals, they are always passing through even of they are not performing here, they pass through there.

I saw you at Womex in 2000?

I haven't been there since. In Paris last year I realized there is more Virgin in Paris, there is no more FNACS other than the big one, but in Europe it is a lot richer. I do think there is a change in the way people digest and access music, but still there is a huge appreciation for mastery. Every venue is packed if you have live music at night. Actually I did my show from Radio Nova last year a couple of times which was great. That just opened up a whole door and it showed me that all I have to do to do my show from another country is find a radio station. It takes one codec which is a downloadable function of the internet to allow me to broadcast live to Johannesburg from the Radio Nova studios. Music will always be music. Even in the States I know there is a lot happening. The problem we have here and I also see it in festivals is so predictable who we get. Even in terms of promoting festivals I get so frustrated because yes I understand that you have to get the crowd pullers and all that. I always introduce one or two new things to give them the chance to become the next. It is the same old people, same old festivals every time. Not much of change happening.

What are your future plans?

Right now I am considering to go to Thailand and teach English to primary school. But no! My plans are I have just opened my website. I haven't even announced it yet. It is live, it went live a week ago or just over a week ago. I haven't announced it as live because there is some content to upload but hopefully I can announce it this Sunday. But, the music industry in this country is very hard. Maybe it is all over the world, but I find particularly in this country there is a culture of people wanting to pull people down. I take Lucky Dube for example. We could not fill a small venue with Lucky Dube in this country. Of course they made a noise when he died. He was huge internationally. Huge! There is that element of, he thinks he is clever. In many ways we have compromised quality for that attitude of pulling people down. I have seen great musicians, their spirits being broken or almost spiritually killed by this industry. There is not a lot of support. And some great musicians who have fucked out and died for lack of support in the infrastructure and the cut-throatness. At the end of the day when I speak to musicians who have been in that dark place like Mapundwa, there will be a point where they go back to the music. They disappear so they can go back and work on the music. So the music always survives.

For me, the future is looking more at online radio, or online ways of accessing or digesting music. Here you say you left the music industry but you are talking about it now, so have you really left it? It will always live within. I am exploring other ways of making music accessible. I am exploring ways which will benefit myself, the artists and the consumer so that everyone can win. A lot of the problems I am having is my listeners can't find the music I am playing. Artists battle to get their music into retail. With the website I am starting to look at ways that we can bridge those gaps. On one hand I am working on a whole series of Nicky B remixes. The first five of which will be using music that is literally from my friends around this country and the world that are a phonecall or an email away. Very often combining songs that were not often heard and mixing them in with young producers or artists or presenting music in a way that is accessible. My by line is “music that deserves to be heard.” I am promoting and making it available. And we can all win. The mixes that I am making are either young people or people who were never heard in the first place when it was released in 2005. Listen to how hip it is and what quality it is.

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