Interview Brenda Sisane
Director of International Jazz Day South Africa
I meet Robert after I meet the music. I was one of those who were lucky enough that I started off at Radio Bop a long time ago. I had a radio show during the day, and a lady called Diane Regisford walked in one day to do interviews to bring the music to Bop. She was launching the music of Barungwa at the time. Barungwa was Max Mthambo, Andrew Missingham and that whole outfit. It was the early days. There is this girl from London and she speaks with a British accent and she is black. And there is this music that has so much of South Africa in it. It was a mind blowing experience for me and a small little town of Bophuthatswana at the time. It was a whole world. I fell in love with the idea of this music. Half of the time it was where is this music coming from, who is putting it together? It was B & W records at the time. And then I get to know the artists as well. Through this introduction I got interested in this great singer called Max Mthambo, this young man called Moses Molelekwa and obviously one then wants to know more. And he is doing works with the likes of Busi Mhlongo and all that. So for me it was very exciting but it was still at the back of my mind because I was dealing with the music.
And then I would hear there are music festivals in Joburg. Because I am from Joburg, but I had joined radio Bop to work in the small little town of Bophuthatswana with the radio station and the TV station. And, in those music festivals were the likes of Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. Again it is unveiling a new music to me on a live stage that I know not much about but somehow it is linked to this record company and this man called Robert Trunz. I went back stage and every time it was about interviewing the musicians or playing their music and not really the business of making music. I think you grow and I grew differently in terms of this music. Eventually things changed and I moved back home to Johannesburg and I joined the SABC and I worked for Metro FM and through people like Shado Twala I get to engage more with the albums that are coming out. I get to spend time with Busi Mhlongo and she starts telling me her stories, the good stories and the sad stories because musicians have their ups and downs.
I am not sure if it is a nice line to say that musicians have ups and downs in their life because it is a wonderful exciting career. It should go well because they make so many people happy. I suppose it is characteristic with South Africa’s history and the journey to freedom that there would be those reflections of the highs and the lows. In an interesting way, culturally it was a very exciting place to be around. There was heavy messages in the music, there was huge excitement and exuberance in presenting the work, and the opportunity to perform. For me to be at that age, in my 20’s and early 30’s and surrounded by this work, because it was a number of years that Robert Trunz was busy with B & W then to Melt2000. I remember that transition. Things happen and you get introduced and I find myself at a farm in Cullinan and there is this larger than life character called Robert Trunz. He is a tall man. He is in love with his child. It is in the middle of nowhere, far from the city centre in many ways. I go and visit and it becomes something I do very regularly. I even know the way. You take the motorway, you drive through gravel and you are going to get there eventually. And sometimes I am going to sleep over because there is a band performing and it is going to be unplugged, it is on site. He is forever recording or capturing or documenting. That is just his life. Also when he comes to my house. There was a very interesting moment one day he was standing in a particular corner. I had just moved to this house and he said to me the best acoustics in this house are in this corner here. This is where I am hearing the music best. That was the interesting character that Robert Trunz is. His work is such a fibre of his life. It is so interwoven in his life. All the time he is thinking of the lighting technique and what someone is doing and how he can enhance it. “Oh Airto and Mab”, and he has got one on one good relationships with the musicians and he knows their stories. Robert Trunz goes into the townships, he understands that he is not phased by it. It is normal for him. Even for you interacting with Robert is normal. There are no graces. And yet he is doing such interesting work. He has devoted his life savings as well to this. The audio technology that he works in as well and how knowledgeable he is as well. I had this opportunity in just sharing this library of knowledge directly from him. How he spoke to me about the music. How he didn’t make it too technical to ask questions. So I didn’t ask questions. I was forever just absorbing it and just enjoying his archive. He would say I don’t think you listened to this. This one I did with the people of the desert, and all the displaced people. And the drum collection he has at his house. He tells me where the drum comes from and he plays the sound and it is a huge gong that reverberates in the room. All of it is done without any purpose of getting you to think he is such a wonderful man. In a way he made me look at this world of music through a different eye, a very relaxed and comfortable eye of discovering. Because you feel the pressure when you work on radio. I worked on both radio and television and you feel the pressure of being. People expect you to know. And when you are with people who create the work you actually hope that they find you worthy of sharing their time.
With Robert it was easy. In fact it deconstructed the whole way I perceived artists. I think he is an artist. He is more of an artist than he is a business man and when he tells me his story I realise that the businessman suffered, the artist thrived in terms of the success he made out of his work. And towards the tail end when Robert left and I met his friend the Frenchman who died under very extraordinary circumstances; Ananda, what a character. Tall, very good looking, very full of life. I believe it was an important era that Robert represents. The exposure to Flora Purim and South America was very important and I think he also went East as well; Deepak Ram. I discovered those tunes. He introduced me as well to Dizu Plaaitjies and that whole crew from the Eastern Cape. And he opened his library to me and I felt compelled to invite him one day and dedicate the whole show to Melt2000 and say let us just enjoy. I said you need to sit with us and start playing from song to song and let’s explore. It was brilliant and I would like to do a show like that again with him.
We are owning the music which is a good thing but we are never looking back to the stories of where our music comes from. It also reminds me of the other stories at large, if you talk about the Blue Notes, the Brotherhood of Breath and Melt2000. Where are all these characters behind the music, about the music? Where are they? Wonderful to reminisce about the artists themselves because also the artists share a whole lot of themselves for the music to get out.
And the people who give the artists the legs to stand on that is a different story altogether. They also sacrifice a lot I think. It takes an amount of dedication to do that. I consider Robert as someone who shared a very serious light in terms of the way I recklessly pursue what I want and the interests that I serve in the most honest manner. This is my journey with music. He made me see that in a wonderful way. Also as a producer, as a sound specialist, as a foreigner, as a whole lot of other things and yet as someone who is so grounded. There were different ways to look through his eyes that I started to look at my work and the work of promoting music. Or just being in the creative space. And I think I look at the bit he has to share and I think about Moses Molelekwa a lot and I think about what we are here to do when I think about death and life and the end of an era, you realise that there is a continuum. Life continues. Sacrifices get made. Lives are lost. Successes are achieved. Archives are created. Mementoes remain. There is a whole cycle, an eco-system of some sort. I understand why Robert had to come here. I see what he is going to leave behind. He may be working and doing some exciting things like Forest Jam. But he leaves so much behind. I just admire him and I love him as a person as well. And I also see somebody who doesn’t talk much but he says a lot.
He listed you as one of his inspirations …
In sharing that time, I also met Robert when I was going through a whole lot of personal quests. I had lost a few things in my life that I thought were important, amongst them trying to find a new way of doing work, trying to find new partners, trying to recreate myself as a professional. I met Robert when he was almost in a bit of a despair because he had been doing this for a long time and I think he will appreciate me telling the truth. He had invested and spent most of his money and it was a difficult time. The musicians were moving along, they wanted other things. He had launched some of them and shown them the careers they could have. And suddenly he was feeling that when he needs to be lifted himself there was nobody around and our friendship was very strong at the time. I think he was separating from his wife at the time. It was hard and for a creative spirit you know how hard that becomes because it is the hard of the inside. It is the hard that you experience. It is the hard of your spirit, the place that makes you do what you do. We met at that time.
I think he put my name down for people who want to know about him, because I heard him when he needed someone to listen. Because I think I actually don’t deserve his attention, I didn’t work as long and hard as a lot of other people who were part of his movement in music that he created from the beginning. But I appreciate that he thinks like that about me and that I could be that because he also contributed similarly in a very important space in my life at that time.
Were you always into indigenous music?
That was what I was seeking to understand. At the time I even went to a radio station that I worked for and I asked them can I get a show that is not what I do right now. I was doing a predominately popular show, midday, prime time on a Sunday and all that. I just want to play the music I love to hear. Yes the music is fine but it is not you know, I want to listen to different music. The kind of friends I have, the kind of people I hang out with, the kind of music I listen to, the kind of shows I attended. The fact that I come from a family where jazz played a part. My father and my step father were both jazz lovers. I used to laugh at my mom and say did you ask them if they loved jazz first? Because, they used to collect music. Indigenous music is something. I grew up in a street, when I was young I remember going to watch drumming with the sangoma initiations. And watching the church people and how they sing and they move and they make those sounds. I grew up in that space. I grew up in Meadowlands. My grandfather played the saxophone in Sophiatown. My mother married two men that loved jazz. Inevitably those influences were at the back of my head.
Even when I went into broadcasting it was not because I went to school and decided this is what I wanted to do. I walked to the radio station and made friends with the presenters and we started sharing music. I would be interested and would go to the albums and say let’s listen to the music. And I would select the music to be played. Yes it has always been part of me!|
Are you preserving a memory that has past?
No. I think those communities exist. Soweto is a township that has not changed. The houses still look the same although some have been refurbished. You know for the kids they add a window and a room and all of that. The being squashed and being cramped kind of life still remains the same. So people find solace in the things that stay the same; in the music, in the shebeens. It is in the townships that people like to go out have a drink and get down and party and dance and dress up for it and all of that. So it exists. I think in music we are exposed to more with media, phones and downloads so that the texture of the music has changed. What I find is people are starting to collect their granny’s photographs and aligning it to the LP’s in the house and realising it is a treasure. They are holding onto it. I think there is going to be a spin around. In the next ten years people are going to be going back because they have got this music, it sits there, it makes them curious. Vinyl is making a comeback and it is fashionable again. I don’t think it needs to remain the same.
Somebody looked at me funny the other day. Maybe it comes from the fact that I was very sick one day and people were worried that I was not going to make it. And in that process I realised that death exists. Sometimes we live. So I made a statement, “I just want to understand what happens ten thousand years down the line and somebody is here, what are they going to say about who we were when we were here? How are they going to find it? Where is that information going to be? In what shape is it going to be? Is it going to be a true reflection of who we were?
I am excited to realise that Johnny Dyani was 19, but he was the kind of musician he was at that age. A 19 year old wunderkind today is no different from 60 years ago. It is a creative soul that can make things and can create amazing sounds. It then makes me think, you go back further to the classical masters and you realise that it is just the time that we are at but the human spirit is there and they have stories to tell and they leave stories behind. It is interesting to know what stories there are to tell because half the time we say the same thing, the lessons of life…
Robert says the music marked a time period. For me it was free-ing the music up…
I loved what he did with indigenous music because he free-ed it as you say but it also made the relationship obvious. In jazz you can actually enjoy this music, innovate about it and present it. You can play indigenous music in a jazz setting. We need to embrace that even more. Why do we like the sound of other countries like Brazil? Because, it is all about their own indigenous music fused with jazz. I think we don’t do much of it. That is the one thing that I would like to explore some more.
I think when I talk about International Jazz day and what they are doing celebrating people and solidarity through jazz I think it is a perfect platform to say in fact, when you engage South Africa, here is what their offering is to jazz. Yes maybe I romanticize that ideal a lot because I believe it, I think it should be seen that way and practitioners should engage that. That will be the conference that we host and the debate on the 30th April this year.