Robert Davids, Cape Town musician and playwright, died last week, aged 79.
In the early days of my journalistic career, back in the late Sixties, when I plied my trade as an entertainment reporter at that august yet sensationalist tabloid, The Cape Post, I must have dealt with hundreds of musicians.
The majority have faded in the mists of time, in part due to the fact I have been out of the country for 30 years.
But Robert Davids I do remember. Quite distinctly. Quite emphatically.
He stands out in the memory because he was . . . different. Not peculiarly different. Not funny different. No, different as in a class above most of the others.
I may not be able to detail the minutiae of all of our interactions but the gist of it was he was always looking for a write-up on some project or other.
I do remember his music play, Goodbye District 6, and his passionate belief in it. Unfortunately, that passion was not shared by as many people as he would have liked. More’s the pity.
Almost 20 years later, another local work, District 6 The Musical, was a resounding success. Was it that Robert was too far ahead of his time? Too prescient?
In all he wrote five plays: Goodbye District 6, Friday Friday, Sound You Fool, a one-man satire Sugar Coated Pill, and a children’s space fantasy, Monsters. He also penned numerous musical compositions.
I remember him wandering into our newspaper offices on a few occasions to update me on his latest project/venture or band he was with. On a number of occasions I saw him playing with various groups around the traps. Not contorting himself in a vocal frenzy, not laying down some heavy licks on the guitar. No, just quietly pounding out an enchanting rhythm on the congas. Congas? Yeah, that’s what Robert brought to the table. Something different, something to bend the dominant paradigm.
Unfortunately, newspapers of the Sixties and Seventies servicing the black communities did not lend themselves to in-depth interviews in the entertainment space.
It would have been something special getting into his head and having a deep and meaningful with Robert. He had the intellectual rigour that could have produced something eminently readable – and given us an insight into his musical thought processes. He would have been a marvellous subject for an interview on this blog.
Now we are left to ponder on what might have been. More’s the pity again. He will be, he should be remembered.
Terry Fortune’s Tribute
It was early 1969, I had just turned 20 and was still living with my parents in Allenby Drive ,Retreat. One day I got a call: “Hi, it’s Robbie.”
“Who?” I asked, puzzled.
“Robbie Davids . . .”
“Oh hi,” I answered. After the normal pleasantries he said: “I’ve written a musical theatre piece about District 6 called Goodbye District 6′. It contains vocal songs and instrumental pieces . . . all original.”
“Ok, come around”, I said. He did, early the next morning in his 1966 Volkswagen fastback. I listened to the music and loved it. He had written a song for me to sing called Mr Hammer Man, a protest song pleading with the bulldozers to stop the destruction.
Goodbye District 6 was written nearly 20 years before the famous musical by Taliep Petersen and David Kramer’s District 6 The Musical’.
We rehearsed for months and eventually staged it at the Space Theatre in Long Street, and then a jazz venue in Green Point run by Merton Barrow. We also performed it at the Lansdowne Civic Centre and various other community halls.
On keyboards was Aubrey Kinnes and Robbie played vibraphone. I also remember he had his two brothers, Cyril and Stan, helping with the technical stuff.
Goodbye District 6 received rave reviews in the local newspapers but it finally ran aground when we did the Wynberg Town Hall and the impresario ran away with the money – the story of our lives.
Robbie was eager and hungry for success. But by the ’70s apartheid bit savagely. There was no room for artists to be creative, let alone for protest music or theatre in an apartheid South Africa. Due to this and other factors, many of my peers in the music industry regrettably never achieved their dreams but they did sow the seeds that that’s artists should nurture and use to develop.
During the ’70s I saw Robbie lugging his vibraphone and congas to the Sherwood, the Goldfinger, the Beverley in Athlone, and the Jolly Carp, jamming with the guys. He loved being part of the industry and playing music.
Then he disappeared off the scene and I didn’t see him for years until fairly recently. It was Greg and Fiona’s renewal of their wedding vows and Robbie was there. He said to me: “I’ve rewritten Goodbye District 6, added new songs and want to do it as an opera.”
He was as eager and enthusiastic as ever. Next year it will be 50 years since District 6 was proclaimed an area set aside for white occupation . . .
So . . . Robbie my bro’ . . . you will probably knock into Zane, Taliep, Monty Weber and the other main “manne”. Give them our love . . . and if you guys decide to put on something – and you are looking for a singer – don’t look my way! I’m staying right here . . . I’m not going anywhere soon.
Greg Davids – a son remembers
Our Dad did not hold down a 9-5 job. He did not leave at the crack of dawn or return before sunset exhausted from a day of unappreciated toil in the service of another’s dream. Nor did he conform to the expectations for a black man in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s’ worth to be defined by the daily sweat on his brow or the callous-formed hands of one who was used to hard labour.
Instead, he dared to dream about how greatness could exist from within. He considered creative expression as a nobler alternative and reasoned that when sculpted as a platform for social commentary, the arts would eloquently give voice.
Robert Herman Alexander Davids, with the burden of a long name and a difficult childhood – the effects of which would often weigh heavily on his relationships with others – chose his innate creativity to make his mark.
To achieve this, he defied the convention of the time, the staid societal norms and the constraints of an unjust political system. Without reference and the support of but a few, he redefined the stereotypical image of the musician of the day – he did not drink or smoke, he worked hard and he went straight home most nights.
With self-actualisation as his strongest attribute and steely self-imposed discipline, he helped re-invent the role of the musician in South African society. He became a househusband, one of the first local musicians to trade a steady day job in order to commit time to developing his craft. His dream was to become an accomplished music composer and arranger.
Our father diligently spent each day carrying out first the duties of tending the children and the home and then with discipline and focused intent, honed his ability to read, write and arrange music.
He also created several clever inventions that saw him face-to-face with a business world for which he was no match. A big part of his routine was practising his instruments: drums, congas, vibraphone, piano and voice. This daily practice regime exposed us to culture – the arts, music, and an appreciation for theatre.
We grew up singing our Dad’s catchy songs, recorded and performed by great local artists, played back live, on the reel-to-reel, long player and eventually the wireless: Hammer Man, Friday Friday, We Live In A Double Bed, Fight For True Love, and Hello Ms Phone – how cool was that!
He was a lifetime SAMRO member. At night, after he helped with supper, often cooking the family meals, he would slip onto the music club scene and became the alter ego of his daily self, the Hip Cat, the Conga Man. With his psychedelic painted congas, bongos and timbales he created a role for Latin percussion on the SA jazz scene.
Appearances with the bands of the day, The Four Sounds, Henry February Band, Sabenza, Pacific Express, pre-Tananas Steve Newman, and many others, his playing added new colour to their music and helped build a solid swing groove which became his signature sound.
His spirited performances and soaring percussion solos informed generations of music lovers. These nightly gigs sadly never realised the intended income for our Dad or most of his generation of musicians.
Much of the money remained in the hands of exploitative club owners, promoters and bandleaders. Robbie Davids served music first, and with little pressure to financially support his family, seldom insisted on payment. Our Mom, Marj, the main family breadwinner, unrelentingly supported our Dad with his art in spite of the personal price she continued to pay throughout their 52 years together as the wife of a struggling musician.
His numerous creative endeavours did not live up to the commercial success that he promised it would. It did however “set him apart” as an innovator and as a musician who, if the support were different and the creative economy better acknowledged, he might have gone on to enjoy the success his talent deserved.
Robert Davids, through his projects, helped influence the careers of Zelda Benjamin, Terry Fortune, Darryl Andrews, Danny Butler, Vernon Castle, Leslie Kleinsmith, Vinette (7de Laan) & Vincent (The Kumars) Ebrahim and many others. He wrote five locally acclaimed musicals, most notably Goodbye District 6 that preceded the famous musical by a number of years.
He composed, arranged and produced several tunes and recording sessions. He studied part-time music courses at Stellenbosch University, UWC and UCT Music School and continued to study and write music right up until his death.
His last major work was to compose a full suite of tunes for jazz orchestra. His practice and composing regime never slowed. Our Dad was an inventor and an artist, a gentleman and a life long musical scholar.
His earlier works were never without political perspective and he used his creative talent to address inequalities foisted upon the South African people. His music and theatre contributions often were expressions of freedom. To many of his peers he was loved and respected, especially because of his well-mannered demeanour.
His legacy is most evident in his children and grand children. He infused us with passion, creative intellect, critical thinking ability, the gift of time and most importantly, integrity.
As his eldest, the very essence of my joy – music, a lifetime of musical associations and deep friendships – are thanks to my Dad. It is an ever-continuing gift that champions many of my happiest moments.
A daughter’s insight: Janine remembers
My father, Robert, or Papa as he was known to his grandchildren, was a complex man, a man who did not conform to any stereotypical image of a person of his generation.
He was a highly creative individual with a strong moral code.
He was a musician, playwright and inventor who followed values of his choosing and did not drink alcohol, smoke or eat meat. He was a highly private person who shunned large social gatherings and parties.
If he had been born into a privileged family he would have been eccentric. As it was, he merely marched to the beat of his own drum . . .
We’ll remember him for his strong work ethic and discipline and how he was always pursuing some or other project – unfortunately, none was ever commercially successful.
We will also remember his unfailing punctuality – he always arrived early for an appointment or pick up. He was our informal safety officer at home, driving us crazy with his constant reminding to lock doors, pull out plugs and switch off appliances. We often joked about him having OCD and being paranoid, but the firm boundaries that he constructed for himself and those around him provided a home environment that felt safe and secure.
We grew up in a house where music was always played. Papa was always singing and drumming his fingers on tables and work countertops when not listening to albums of classical music. He may have been a jazz musician but he was not a music snob and kept abreast of what was happening on the pop scene by listening to pop music programmes on TV, often with the volume turned up very loudly.
Perhaps because our relationship was often complicated, I don’t think I appreciated, as a teenager, just how cool a dad he was! I am pleased that my children grew up around him. They appreciated him with all his quirks and idiosyncrasies and had a better relationship with him than I ever had.
He often looked after them when we went out because we knew that we could trust him to take care of them. For a long time they considered him their go-to-person for toasted cheese sandwiches and there were days when he spent a good afternoon, and a loaf or two, making their favourite snacks for them. It is a memory that will stay with them forever.
Papa became a vegetarian in the early ’80s and never wavered from the choice he made. In terms of food though, his one absolute weakness was sugar. He loved cakes, ice-cream and chocolate in any form. Family dinners were always very funny because we always tried to get him to wait for all of us to be seated before he started eating and my mother always tried to limit his consumption of desert, to no avail.
As an adult I realised that he had a stronger influence on all of us than what we were ever willing to recognise. He helped shape who and what we’ve become today and I know that we’ve acquired many more positive qualities and characteristics from him than negative ones. Papa, we will miss you, your laughter and tears and your particular brand of madness. Family dinners will not be the same without you but we will always have a bite of something sweet in your memory.
Robert Davids with some of the cast of Sound You Fool, singer/actor Connie Beukes and flautist Calvin Humbles.