This is the story from the point of view of our Producer, William Gets
I had an idea to create a show that would showcase South African hit songs from 1960s to today, tell stories around those songs and serve ‘greatest hits’ South African food. A wholesome evening of music, wonder, great tastes and culture!
I originally had this idea when I was living in England, and managed to put one show on. The show, rather amusingly, was called Shuffle and Chomp. ‘Shuffle’ for the Madiba shuffle and ‘Chomp’ for the food.
After dreams of touring Europe with the show, I had to suddenly return to South Africa for various reasons, and thought that that would be that. Then a friend said, “why not produce the show here in South Africa? Plenty of tourists would be delighted.”
I slapped my forehead and started the process.
Based in Cape Town, I put out an advert on social media for musicians to come and audition for the show. A drummer from Gugulethu answered the call.
I said, “sure, come over.”
His father drove him over in an old bakkie (pick-up truck). The gears ground and the exhaust wheezed as the bakkie arrived at my house.
And I thought, “okaaaay ….”
Then a thin young man hopped out of the passenger seat, introduced himself as Artee, and unpacked his drum kit. It was old; with scratched drums and dented cymbals.
And I thought, “okaaaay ….”
And he began to play. And boy, did he play well!
So we had a little jam, me ‘rhythming’ on guitar and him on the drums, and it was good.
I said, “Ok, you’re on” and told him about the show. I then asked, “I need more musicians. Do you know any?”
“I have a whole band,” he announced.
I said, “that’s great! I would like to hear the band play.”
Artee’s band, Vukuhambe, which means, “get up and get going!”, was playing at a venue called Mojo Market in Seapoint, Cape Town. So I went along with my camera and, wow, could those guys play!
Artee with his dented drum kit, KG the keyboardist with a keyboard that looked like it came from the wrong side of China and the bass guitarist without front teeth (sadly now deceased). With Ncera, the trumpeter, Mphumelelu, the saxophonist and Poppie; their very own Mama Africa, they rocked! Their Afro Jazz style got people off their seats and I was very impressed.
Vukuhambe at Mojo Market Nov 2020
And So It Begins
After their set, I bought a round of beers and told them about my idea to create a show. They were so eager they wanted to start rehearsing the very next day!
“Great!” Thinks I.
“Where can we rehearse?” I asked.
“We have a rehearsal studio in Gugulethu,” says Artee.
“Oh,” thinks I. “Gugulethu. A township in South Africa …”
Windows up. Doors locked.
South African townships are sprawling shanty towns that developed during the apartheid era, when black people were forcefully removed and dumped “out of town”; out of the way.
Over the decades, these ‘towns’ grew and grew into enormous settlements. Some areas are filled with small, wonky, DIY corrugated iron shacks; blazing hot in the summer, freezing cold in the winter. A long-drop loo shared by hundreds. Some areas have rough and tumble houses and then some areas have more upmarket housing. But no such thing as leafy-suburbs.
Overall, they are heavily burdened with poverty and rampant crime and almost exclusively populated by black South Africans. Life is hard. The band was inviting me, an umlungu (a white man) to go and rehearse with them in the township.
So feeling a little vulnerable, there I was driving into Gugulethu. Windows up. Doors locked.
The Famous Vukuhambe Venue
The house had been built by Artee’s father, Thamsanqa. There was a lounge, kitchen and a bedroom. If you went through the kitchen, you entered an outside open passage that led to the toilet; an outbuilding with a toilet and basin, and a bath, filled to the roof with old mattresses and linen. Clearly this is not where bathing would take place.
If you came out of the loo and turned right, the passage snaked around back to the front again, where several other buildings, uses unknown, existed.
Back in the front, there is room about the size of a single garage, with VUKUHAMBE, written in an arc, painted on the front wall.
Through a rough and beaten up wooden door, with a sign that reads “Jazzart”, I entered the room. In one corner was a stage with Artee’s drum kit, the keyboard to the right, the bass guitar to the left and a dusty PA system. The ceiling was in a state of disrepair and in the room were several chairs, a tall steel cabinet, contents of which I still don’t know, lots of carpentry equipment from Ta Tyler’s kitchen fitting business and a large chest deep-freeze.
It was cramped and dusty.
I set up my amp and mic, and we started talking about the project. I had also prepared some music, just the lyrics and chords, and we looked at the chosen repertoire for the show.
“You are going to change our lives!” Says Poppie.
Gulp… No pressure.
Excitement to Reality
Without further ado, we started with The Crossing, a Johnny Clegg song. And here again I was delighted to see just how good these musicians were. Hardly looking at my provided music, they had the song down in about an hour, even effortlessly transposing it when the key did not suit my voice.
“These are natural musicians!”, thinks I.
And so started a long journey of learning the repertoire and as the weeks went by, followed by months, me driving once a week into Gugulethu township, I realised the challenges that this project was facing. It was astonishing to see just how little resources the team had. No phones to arrange gigs. No data for those that had phones. Certainly no cars to drive to the studio and no money to pay for a taxi to get to the studio.
The South African Taxis
In South Africa, the word ‘taxi’ has a whole different meaning to a taxi in London or New York. In London, for example, only the wealthy took taxis. It’s expensive. Regular folk take the train and underground. In South Africa, only poor people take taxies. Everyone else drives everywhere. There is practically zero government supplied public transport.
While we do have normal taxis like Ubers and taxi companies, the most common kind of taxi is a Toyota Hiace minibus. It (officially) takes 12 people. But in South Africa it takes three times that on a normal day. And while millions of car-less people get from A to B using this service, the taxis are the scourge of the road because they are generally not roadworthy, generally owned by gangsters and always driven by maniacs. And I am not waxing lyrical; the taxi owners are genuine gangsters and the drivers simply drive as they want, over payments, swerving in front of cars, through red traffic lights – just doing whatever it takes to get their passengers to their destination.
Many people die in those taxi; some from the dangerous driving and some from the taxi wars, where gangsters literally shoot rival taxis in route wars.
It is beyond belief. But when that is your only means of transport, you use them.
Then, having to walk through the township to the rehearsal studio, because you’re avoiding taking a taxi, is a dangerous undertaking. In the street where you live, and are known, you are safe. Outside your street, you are vulnerable. Muggings are regular.
Not for the Feint Hearted
And so, arranging rehearsals in terms of communication and transport slowed our progress down dramatically.
I even started going to their various houses before a rehearsal, giving them a lift to the studio, and then driving them back to their houses, in the dark, after rehearsals, with kids shouting “umlungu!” as I drove past.
Driving the band members home at night was particularly dangerous for me. If I have a flat tyre in a township, and I am alone, I could be in serious danger. Muggings and murders were commonplace, especially if you are a white person in a 100% black township.
And not specifically because I am white, it was just because it was extremely unusual to come across a white person in a township. Being white, it is perceived that I would have something valuable to steal, as the bass guitarist explained, “they see a white man, they see money!”
I have had a smash and grab incident – luckily the guy failed to break the window. Our photographer has been held at gun point and had his equipment stolen.
But having said that, I don’t seem to feel that fear that logic says I should feel. I am a regular now in the township, have been invited to stay in a shack one night and can drive around knowing my way. The streets are always full of people; young and old. It’s a great atmosphere.
I even had the privilege of attending our bass guitarist’s funeral. A sad and joyous cultural experience. Amazing.
It was minutes after this footage that I had an attempted smash and grab. I assume the guy was trying to get my phone that was mounted on my car dashboard. I had stopped at a red robot (South African for traffic light), which is not a clever thing to do and most people don’t stop at red robots in the townships.
I was a sitting duck!
Luckily, I’m driving an old Vauxhall Astra 2003, that I brought back from the UK when I came back to South Africa. The guy didn’t manage to break the passenger window!
At our bass player’s funeral. Marching and singing in front of the hearse. He lost the fight against cancer.
Note how I am the only one in black! 🤦🏼♂️
We were making extremely slow progress, and it was most disheartening to see how difficult life is for these guys.
When you don’t have basic resources like mobile phones and transport, there is very little you can do. Very, very little. Not to mention all the life complications that come with poverty.
Band members, for example, would simply not turn up to the rehearsal. Sometimes no-one would turn up! And I would not get notice because band members do not have a phone or data. I will print out new copies of the music, only to find that the files have been lost or damaged. I would hand out pens so that band members could take notes, never to see the pens again! I was constantly being asked to lend money. It was incredibly frustrating for all of us.
And why were these guys in this situation? Why did they not just “pull themselves together” and get things done?
Firstly, you have colonialism, from about 1652. Then apartheid from the 1950s. The negative effect of keeping a race of people dispossessed for hundreds of years, does not recover quickly – the disadvantaged folk have little money and sparse education to facilitate that recovery.
And then, to kick a person when down, when apartheid was abolished, the ANC took over. Nelson Mandela’s party. And things looked rosy for South Africa. Finally! Economic growth for all!
But, after Mandela ended his term and other presidents took over, things began to crumble. Without going into details or mentioning names, just YouTube-search for clips from the Zondo Commission. You won’t believe your eyes!
The ANC government trashed South Africa with the most unbelievable corruption, even going as far as facilitating state capture. The people in the townships, who needed economic upliftment through housing, education and jobs, suffered a triple-whammy of colonialism, apartheid and corruption. After a quarter-century under ANC rule, most of the township population were in no better position than before!
After 6 months, we had sort of managed to get about 6 songs working. This was not going to work if we carried on like this. As previously explained, this is not the fault of the band members. They just have impossible odds to overcome.
I could not keep pouring money into a stuttering project, and it was severely affecting my focus on my own business too; the proverbial day job!
I decided to take the project to a new level. I started working on getting sponsorships to get phones, data and taxi fares for the band members, and better equipment – the microphones were unknown brands that popped and scratched during rehearsals. The drum kit was still dented. The keyboard still from the wrong end of China.
When a friend, Steffi Cook, visited from the UK, I took her and her son Barnaby to meet the band. I then proposed to Steffi that she invests in the endeavour, as she had said she was looking for something to invest in. Steffi agreed, and what a difference this has made! From that point forward, I could pay the musicians for the rehearsals, buy a set of mobile phones, pay for the transport costs, studio equipment and more. It was a huge relief for me and the band members, and rehearsals became very productive from that point forward. I was sleeping better at night …
Opening for Nelson Mandela Exhibition
One of our recent highlights was being the chosen band to play at the launch of the Nelson Mandela Exhibition in the City of Cape Town City Hall. What a wonderful evening!
By Buying Tickets, You are Becoming Part of the Story.
For those that are coming to see the first show, you are seeing the product of one year of work, against incredible odds, with extraordinarily good musicians, with HUGE hearts and even bigger smiles. They have not had the break they deserved until myself and many other people and the band members worked together to make this dream a reality.