Last Night at the Bassline

David Coplan and Óscar Gutiérrez
Jacana Media

224 pages
Recommended retail price of R280 at all good book stores

I am standing next to Brad Holmes’ partner Casper Labuschagne, pressed up against the coffee machine at the back of Bassline for a performance by piano merman Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. Brad has placed the piano in the very middle of the club, with the seating arranged and elevated into a shallow bowl around it.

Too late to get a seat, Casper assures me the coffee machine provides the best standing point.

Molelekwa, pencil thin in a matt black suit, enters and sits at the piano, which is bathed in white mercury. Diamond highlights glitter like Christmas from the curves and angles of the instruments.

Moses stretches his long, spidery fingers, then lowers them to the keyboard. His pile of dreads bob above his long face like an under-sea anemone. Mountain Shade, his most memorable, serenely painful melody, flows out to and over us.

Submerged, our lives pass before us as we drown in lapping waves of sound. I am reminded of the lines from Ariel’s Song in Shakespeare’s Tempest:

“… Full fathom five thy father lies

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes …”

And then of some from Psalm 23, my very own Psalm of David:

“… He makes me lie down in green pastures

He leads me beside the still waters

He restores my soul …

… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me …”

I am not a religious nor even a spiritual person. Indeed, my favourite line of scripture is also from the Psalm of David, which has a more vengeful, Old Testament feel: “He has set a table before me, in the presence of my enemies.”

But I am redeemed this evening. As the last shades of the mountain fade, the air crackles. The applause wants to be wild, tumultuous, but we feel restrained; usually rowdy Melvillians now in a mood. I turn to Casper and say, sotto voce: “History is being made here, right now, tonight. It’s like Minton’s in New York in the 50s.” Caspar smiles, bemused. The music starts once more, the earth resumes turning …

I might have told Casper more poignantly that history was being remade. Melville is walking distance from Sophiatown, the much-celebrated suburb in story, song, image, stage and screen.

Bulldozed out of existence by the apartheid regime in the late 50s, Sophiatown lives on, not least significantly in the minds and memories of everyone who loves the art forms that gave Johannesburg’s canary-in-a-mineshaft culture something to sing about. The white nationalist rulers hated and feared jazz and jazz people as cosmopolitans out of place, and sought to suffocate them.

They were right to be afraid. The infectious, larger-than-life creativity and racial mixology of Sophiatown presented an alternative vision and practice of urban life and breath to post-war South Africa.

It was a “King Kong bigger than Joburg”, as the line from the title song of the famous musical King Kong (1959) put it, that came to tower over black township culture all over the country. This freehold “black spot” in the heart of whiteness presented a living alternative to apartheid’s closed compound, and fatally exposed the yawning gap between its distorted social mythology and the actual social reality of the black majority.

Maybe it is pretentious to suggest, but Bassline became a naive effort to let the spirit of Sophiatown’s hep cats out of the bag again, just as soon as it could be opened.

I think it therefore no accident that Brad had a special affection and respect for Sophiatown’s surviving senior performing citizens, including especially Dorothy Masuka, a songbird who is very much still singing. Sophiatown’s culture was freedom’s song imprisoned, then buried alive under apartheid’s rubble. The Bassline wanted that song unearthed, rehearsed and freed...

Piano wunderkind Moses Molelekwa featured Fana Zulu, Khaya Mhlangu, Max Mthambo and Vusi Khumalo. Then Vusi captained for a week. And playing off in all directions came Xhosa jazz philosopher Zim Ngqawana, postmodernist drum intellectual Lulu Gontsana, the eclectic acoustic musical archaeologist Pops Mohamad (born Chris Barnard) and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Cassidy, with his band Body Electric.

Frank Leepa, Lesotho guitarist and leader of legendary ensemble Sankomota, with vocalist Tsepo Tshola, extended mellow House grooves into jazz territory, as did Stimela’s Ray Phiri and Nana Coyote, and bassist Sipho Gumede.

Sipho, like quite a few of his fellows, too laid-back and unassuming for a township session man, also recorded a superb album, 20 Years of Life: Live @ the Bassline (Sheer Sound, 2000). Today Sipho, Frank and Nana are gone.

These gentle, intelligent, musically embracing souls were treasured friends of Brad, myself and many other comrades in artistic arms, and the pain of losing them has never gone away. But neither has the pleasure of listening to their compositions and arrangements, which are still very much in circulation.

And in that vein, there was, in the inchoate views of a number of us Bassliners, some sort of co-identification between Moses Molelekwa and the Bassline itself.

Molelekwa’s tragic early death at 27, like that of his fellow piano wizard Bheki Mseleku, who also died young (Bheki never seemed to outgrow his boyishness) at 53, seems to me to illustrate some things that South Africa inflicts upon its original and sensitive creative talents.

Moses came from a jazz-addicted family background, and he had the right grounding and training and ability and wide-ranging imagination to breathe new life into our traditions of African piano.

His Africanism ranged beyond the Cape soundscape painted by his mentor Abdullah Ibrahim.

His tone was precise; perfectly articulated.

He effortlessly swung. He was also a fragile, sensitive person who was not very skilful at handling the rough realities of the music industry and the Johannesburg show-business world. Despite having so many of them, Johannesburg really isn’t for beginners.

Yes, he made some compromises with more widely popular genres than simply intellectual jazz. He became heavily dependent on the management of his formidable wife Florence Mtoba, who was experienced in the business of show business, a situation that seemed to bother him.

He got close to musicians who played kwaito and other more commercial styles. He began to use drugs as a way of easing his professional frustrations and personal and financial problems, but this only made things worse. He always seemed short of money.

One morning in 2001, he was found hanging in his studio with the body of his wife Flo lying strangled at his feet. Of this shocking and suspicious “murder-suicide” I dare not speak further, except to say the Bassline seemed never quite the same afterwards, as if we had somehow been cast adrift. Those were pearls that were his eyes…