It’s February 2. Basil Coetzee’s birthday today. He would have been 73 years old had he not succumbed to cancer back in 1998.
He was just 54 then and probably at his most creative as a musician. It was such an exciting time in his life too. He had found his “inner self” as he told me in an interview back in 1983. He was put on a pedestal, idolised even, because of his contribution to Abdullah Ibrahim’s (Dollar Brand) seminal work, Manenberg, which featured Basil’s very moving sax playing.
Some say it wasn’t so much Dollar’s hypnotic keyboard rhythms that made Manenberg the rallying cry of the turbulent times of student unrest on the Cape Flats in the Seventies and Eighties, but Basil’s strident, raunchy tones on his tenor sax.
It was a pure township sound that people identified with. It was Basil’s sound. Although he was born in Bloemhof Flats in District 6, when that community was dispossessed, Basil and wife Mary went to live in Manenberg. Bleak,desolate, barren Manenberg.
But it gave us Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee. Basil, and his good friend Robbie, fired up the huge protest crowds that filled Civic halls around Cape Town with Manenberg. The tune reached anthem status.
I first met Basil back in May 1970 when he joined Respect, then the trendsetter group that thrilled fans with the more serious sounds of Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago, Clapton’s Cream and Spooky Tooth. It was here he first teamed up with Issy Ariefdien and Jack Momple. Then he was simply “B’ to one and all.
When Respect floundered, “B” and Issy and Jack teamed up with Robbie Jansen, Georgie Carelse and James Macdonald to form Pacific Express (after kicking out one or two of the orginal Pacifics band — they simply took over!)
Express developed something of a cult following as a jazz-leaning band but Basil moved on. The Manenberg album with Dollar, recorded in 1974, had stirred something inside him and he did some serious soul-searching about his music direction.
In a quite revealing and candid interview I did with him in September 1983, he was quite emphatic: “People call me a jazz musician. I am not a jazz musician, I am a musician who plays African music.”
He admitted that he never really liked the music he played with Respect and Express.
“All the years I played with groups like Respect and Pacific Express, it was a matter of survival: playing for the pay cheque at the end of the month. It seemed that all we were doing was waiting for some group’s next album to come out, buy it and the sheet music and then thrill the crowds with it. It was destroying me.” [Click on the image to read the full interview]
That was more than 30 years ago when he spoke out. I still seem to be hearing that sentiment today. Hilton Schilder said virtually the same thing in his interview recently.
Basil’s “conversion”, as it were, gave us three albums in his name — Sebenza, Monwabisi and B. That is part of his legacy. We should honour. it.
Happy Birthday “B”. Thanks for the memory. Listen carefully to the original Manenberg recording and you’ll hear Dollar Brand’s statement at the end: “Julle kan maa’ New York toe gaan, ons bly innie Manenberg.”
Says it all, doesn’t it
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