Birthday boy Mervyn Africa: ‘play us a song, you’re the piano man, you’ve got us feelin’ alright’

18 October 2020

Mervyn Africa may have done his apprenticeship as an upholsterer, but there was no way he was spending his working life covering furniture. He was going to fulfil his destiny; it was written in the stars . . . he was going to be a pianist.

Look at the pedigree. The Africa family has its fair share of a keyboardists, starting with the mother who taught them all. Then there is the fact that the Africas and the ultra-musical Schilders are related. There is a bloodline there.

And throw in the fact that the late jazz pianist, Henry February, is a cousin of Mervyn’s father. Could there have been any other future for the young Mervyn?

“I suppose I didn’t want it any other way, did I,” Mervyn said last week on the eve of his 70th birthday.

“The fact that I did my upholsterer’s apprenticeship was because one couldn’t make a living as a musician back in the day. You just had to have a day job.”

But when Mervyn’s day job disappeared and his night job became the only game in town, this gifted District 6 boy’s career simply flourished. He played for some of the top groups in South Africa and then carved out a career in the very competitive London arena.

Mervyn Africa, around 1970 playing with Robbie Jansen (flute) Nazir Kapdi (drums) and Lionel Beukes (bass) in Oswietie.

But let’s take it back all the way to around 1953 in Phillips Street in District 6, when toddler Mervyn was laying the groundwork for his life as a musician.

“My mother always told me I wanted to touch the keys when the piano was left open. I think I was about three years old. She said I always wanted it open and I even called it a radio. ‘I wanna play the radio”, I used to say.”

Under the watchful eye of his mother, Mervyn practised scales and learnt arpeggios. While the others kids were outside playing games, Mervyn was playing the piano.

“I never got bored as a kid playing it. My first tune I played was the English rhyme, Up Hill Down Dale. My mother was my inspiration. She had a keen touch for the instrument.”

At Holy Cross Primary, Mervyn whizzed through the grades in the music class. “By the time I was 11 years old, I had finished my Grade 8s which would have allowed me to go to the College of Music. At the age of about 7, I could read music.”

Mervyn joined the acclaimed Cape Town Boys Choir as part of his music education and, on occasion, he would play the piano for the choir because he could read.

He attended Trafalgar High School where teachers like Vernon Hoffman and Ronnie Davids sharpened his political awareness. “They taught us things about life; things that we did not find in the text books; things that made us aware of the situation we were living in.“

When he left high school, he knew he had to make some big decisions about his future.

“It was difficult as a musician to make a living back then. I realised at that stage that playing the piano would never be ‘the day job’. I had to get a day job, so I did my apprenticeship as an upholsterer,” Mervyn said.

He was still at Trafs when he got his first real gig.

“My cousin Rudy Burns said his band needed a keyboards player. That was around 1968 and they were playing in the white club, Darryl’s, on the Foreshore.

“It was a crazy time. I was still in short pants at school and I had to lie to my folks, saying I was going to study at a friend’s place in Bo-Kaap. Rudy had provide me with long pants for those gigs.

“I started rubbing shoulders with guys like Robbie Jansen and Nazir Kapdi and Lionel Beukes who had to play in the white clubs to earn money.

“At some stage, we made a conscious decision to head out into the townships and play the ‘coloured’ side. That was how the band Oswietie was formed.

“How the name of the group came about is quite funny, we tried various options but nothing stuck. When someone came around and asked what the name of the group was, the initial response was ‘os wietie’ (we don’t know) – and that was it, quite by accident.

Mervyn Africa shares a moment with Prince Harry and Meghan Markel when they visited the District 6 Museum.

“The woman who had to publicise our first gig at Las Vegas club in Athlone was appalled at the name. She said she couldn’t advertise that.”

Oswietie was made up of some of the most progressive musicians going around on the Cape Town scene at the time but they were not averse to playing some of the bubblegum music of the time.

“In the white clubs, we had to play that music, people wanted to dance,” Mervyn said. “And we had to earn a living.”

“We started playing the heavy stuff with a group called Black Death which didn’t last too long but we played progressive songs by groups like British bands Coliseum and Pink Floyd, and guitarist John McLaughlin . . . other bands wouldn’t touch it.

“We had a great following of people who appreciated good music and we had unconventional methods of advertising our gigs. Nazir even got a couple of kids to graffiti our gig dates on walls. It almost got us into trouble because the cops thought it was part of a protest thing and they came looking for us.”

Oswietie outgrew Cape Town and went to Luanda in Angola in 1975 on a contract gig.

“Things got a bit out of hand there, Mervyn recalls. “We got caught up in the civil war. Bombs were going off close to where we lived.

“We then scored a gig in France and on our way there we stopped off in Gabon. We had a serious problem there because we were on South African passports.”

The Gabon authorities wanted to detain the group because they suspected them of being spies. In the end, fellow South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) got them out of the hotspot because of his connections in Africa.

“When the group – Robbie Jansen, guitarist Russell Herman, bassist Lionel Beukes, drummer Kapdi and Mervyn – got back to Cape Town, they were joined by saxman Basil Coetzee. He added another dimension to their sound and they grew in stature as the hottest jazz-funk-fusion outfit around.  But as was the nature of the band scene in those years, nothing ever lasted. Basil found other interests and in 1976 some of the band went to Johannesburg and those who stayed formed a group called The Works.

Mervyn then found himself in the backing band for the musical Black Mikado.

“I got the job because the pianist in the band, Bheki Mseleku, who was a phenomenal keyboard player, couldn’t read the score. I was playing with guys like (bassist) Sipho Gumede, (horn man) Duke Makasi, (guitarist) Russell Herman, (drummer) Gilbert Matthews and (trumpeter) George Tyefumani.”

That group morphed in another of South Africa’s supergroups, Spirits Rejoice, which went on to record two brilliant albums, African Spaces (1977) and Spirits Rejoice (1978) and take out a number of the music industry’s top awards, nine Saries.

After Spirits Rejoice folded, Mervyn found himself heading to London in 1981 to do a tour with Julian Bahula’s group, Jabula. And for him, London was the ultimate experience.

“I was invited join Jabula by Linda Bernhardt who was connected with Spirits Rejoice and (female vocal group) Joy. She organised for me to go over and tour with them, with the expectation that I would come back.”

London turned out to be a much longer stay. Mervyn made it is base and actually formed a group called District 6 with Russell Herman and drummer Brian Abrahams,

Mervyn Africa . . . . born to tickle the ivories.

“It was a nod to our roots,” Mervyn said. “We were all from District 6 and we were quite popular in London with its huge population base.”

Mervyn has been back in Cape Town now for four years but he still has a home in London where he also has a son, Zeke, who is a promising musician in his own right.

“My time in London brought me closer to Russell who was a remarkable individual. As a musician, he was in a league of his own.

“I have a penned a lot compositions, but much of it was a collaborative effort with Russell. We had such a good understanding. But then we shared so many tough times. When we hit London, we melted down the Springbok Sarie awards in Amsterdam for cash so that we could survive.”

Although is now 70, Mervyn hasn’t been idle. Over the last couple of years, he has jammed with Bernie Lawrence’s group, New Beginnings. and even scored a gig entertaining Prince Harry when the Royals visited the D6 Museum.

When he reflects on a long career, he thinks of the people who had a major influence on his playing.

“I owe a lot to Henry Feb. As a kid, I went to him with my satchel full of classical music books. He told me to put it away and said, ‘now you’re going to play jazz’.

“He introduced me to the sound of Duke Ellington and songs like Autumn Leaves, even though I was more into the sounds Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett.”

Mervyn’s other favourite pianist was Bill Evans. “I could hear all the classical things he played in his songs. I was always excited playing his stuff.”

As a veteran of more than 50 years, Mervyn has a good perspective of the local scene.

“The younger generation in Cape Town is amazing, they are on the right track, but I’d like to see them focus more on a sound closer to home. They need knowledge of their roots, they need to see within themselves, not to try to sound like Keith Jarrett. They need to find a style of their own. They can follow the lead of Hilton Schilder. He has done it.”

There is one box that Mervyn still wants to tick: “In the 1990s I composed a jazz concerto. I’d like to perform it in Cape Town.” So will we, Mervyn, so will we.

Enjoy your 70th today Mervyn – you’ve earned it.

Spirits Rejoice, South Africa’s top jazz-fusion group in the ’70s. Seated, from left, Mervyn Africa (piano), Robbie Jansen (flute/horns), Paul Petersen (guitar, and Duke Makasi (sax). At the back Themba Mehlomakulu (trumpet/trombone), Sipho Gumede (bass), Gilbert Matthews (drums) and George Tyefumani (trombone).


Salakahle — a tribute to the departed

All material on this blog is copyrighted. Permission has to be obtained to reproduce any part of it. Photographs sourced from Warren Ludski’s archives and from Mervyn Africa.