8 July 2017
Guitarist Henri Donjeany, one of the wave of Durban musicians who found their way to Cape Town in the late Sixties, has had his fair share of highs and lows in his long career.
The list is extensive, but two incidents involving superstar international artists bear repeating – he was praised to the high heavens by blues legend B. B. King . . . and sacked before the show even started by Nina Simone.
For the last 30-odd years, Donjeany – “Hens” to those who know him well – has worked on the European circuit out of his home base in Geneva, Switzerland.
This bricklayer-turned-musician has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest international names in that time and was never in awe of them, but the B. B. King and Simone experiences standout.
“It’s strange how a music career can throw up such differing moments,” he says with a casual laugh.
“I had been touring on the same show with B. B. King for three weeks around Switzerland as part of the opening act and we got on like a house on fire. One day he took me aside, told me that I had what it takes and said: ‘You’re too humble, don’t be nice, nice guys finish last’.
“That was nice, I really appreciated it, coming from the big man. With Nina it was the complete opposite. We pitched up to rehearse with her and as we walked on stage, she shouted, ‘get off my stage, I don’t want you here’.
“That was it, we were gone. It was very deflating, but that’s life. I don’t think she was in a good space.”
Donjeany took it in his stride and moved on much like he did with all the other setbacks he encountered over the years. He is very focused individual.
That’s what you do when you come through the school of hard knocks and survive in the music industry.
His life as a musician started at a tender age when at the age of five, he became fascinated with the guitar a man was playing at a party at his home.
“It mesmerised me; music captivated me and I never ever got it out of my system,” he says. “Whenever I was around people who were playing I would be watching keenly. Whenever a band was playing, I would be there.
“Eventually, my dad bought me a guitar and I would sit with it for hours at the bottom of the yard and play there. My mother used to scream, ‘that’s the instrument of the devil’.
“Now I have to tell you, I don’t know what it is, but I have this ability to look at the fingering of a guitarist and sort of memorise the positions. I don’t know what it is, but I can do it.
“I found myself remembering things as a whole, rather than little bits. I could hear the whole arrangement of the song, I used to memorise the tunes, the melodies and stuff like that.”
Donjeany’s love for music consumed him and it came as no surprise to his family that when he got to Std 6 he left Greenwood Park School. “That was it, I’m outta here.”
He slowly immersed himself in the pop world of Durban at the time, playing with The Scoots, The Cheyennes, Wild Thing, Soul Brothers, Ginger Crush and Chayn Gang. None of this sat well with his mother. And that’s how he ended up being a bricklayer.
“I actually completed my apprenticeship. It came about after years of nagging by my mother. She didn’t want me to play music. I wasn’t allowed to. I had to duck and dive to play, which was one of the reasons nobody knew I was actually playing.
“One day my cousin came around to our place and in casual conversation he said he was going to a place that was looking for apprentices. My mother shouted: ‘take him with you so that he can get a job too’.
“I went along as a joke; I wasn’t looking to go and work. I wanted to play music! But I qualified in 1965, aged 17, as a bricklayer in between doing gigs.
His early days in the bands around Durban including playing with Baby Duval who had a stint with The Flames, and Jack Momple. He was also playing bass around that time. His first gig was in the Himalaya Hotel, “those infamous 2pm-6pm afternoon sessions”.
“Initially I never did singing. I was so afraid to sing. Don’t ask me why. Then one day we tried doing a song called 1-2-3 by Len Barry and it was quite high up in the register. The singer wanted to do it but then they would have to change the key. So I said I’ll give it a shot. They laughed at me but I knew I could do it. They were shocked when I pulled it off.”
Donjeany headed to Cape Town late in 1968 with Chayn Gang which included Jack Momple, Baby Duval and Denver Easthorpe. They almost didn’t make it because the Kombi rolled somewhere in the Karoo in the middle of the night.
“Cape Town was great. Musically it was happening. It was a bit of an eye opener because we were exposed to guys like Issy Ariefdien and Respect and they were doing great things. They were guys who knew what they were doing.
“When he headed back to Durban – we all had jobs to go back to – they hadn’t really heard of Jimi Hendrix. The Flames were pretty big with their soul sound.”
For a few years he settled into a routine of locals gigs. Then Toma Simons, a “roadie” for the new Richard Jon Smith show, pitched up doing advance publicity for the show.
“They were looking for a guitar player and asked me to come to Johannesburg to join backing group Drive. I thought, ‘what have I got to lose’.
“It was great touring with Richard and when that finished I had a stint with The Miracles – a great group – before heading to then Rhodesia to play with Chris Mathy’s band, Freedomm.
More short-term jobs followed with club gigs in Johannesburg playing with Joe Fynn in Sir Prise and a Lionel Petersen tour.
At this stage of his life Donjeany was becoming increasingly frustrated with the short-term nature of the work and the unprofessional attitude of some of the musicians he played with.
“I quit the SA scene when I got tired of playing with guys who were not as focused as I was. I got sick of the bullshit. There was constant drinking and smoking dope. I didn’t really have an issue with it if we weren’t playing. But it didn’t sit well with me when they came on stage like that. It was never really my scene.
‘‘When it was time to work, I was focused. But too many guys just couldn’t give a shit.”
He looked for greener pasture and went to the new hot spot, Maseru, which is where he met his Swiss wife, Marie Eve. He played in a group in the Holiday Inn and she worked there.
Although the pair were in a relationship in Maseru, ostensibly an open society, they still felt heat of being in the public gaze as a mixed couple.
“When I started to go out with Marie Eve, it pissed a lot of people off in the establishment. It was a bit rough in the Seventies.
“We got married in Maseru in 1981 and it made matters a little worse. They fired Marie Eve from her gig in Holiday Inn, there was a lot of bullshit going on and things just were not right in the group.
“It was so bad, I was not even communicating with the guy who led the group. One night, pretty late-ish, the top management team came into the restaurant. I could sense something was not right. They sat down and ordered drinks.
“Come 11.30pm, we stopped playing, that was our normal time. One of the bosses insisted that we play on. By that time I had had enough of all that shit, and I just refused. I packed away my guitar.
“So they fired me. I packed up all my equipment and left. Soon after, Marie Eve and I were told to vacate our accommodation at the hotel.”
There was still one twist to the drama. Donjeany, being the complete professional, had taken the time to chart all the music and had spent hours wiring the sound system to get the best out of it.
“When I walked out, I pulled out everything that belonged to me and I took my charts.
“They came pleading for the stuff. They didn’t have a clue about wiring up the instruments. I told them to piss off even though they offered me money. It would have been like selling my soul if I had given it to them.
“A month later, in April 1982, we left for Switzerland. Marie Eve said there no way she could live in South Africa and we weren’t too keen on Botswana or Swaziland.”
For two years he had virtually no work in Switzerland. He started recording his songs in a makeshift studio at home. “I had nothing else to do and I was always interested in recording. I used to record with a cassette player, push mics around until I found the sweet spot.
“I wasn’t interested in dealing with a record company because it was a record company that broke up Freedomm. I’m not a big fan of theirs.”
His luck changed at the Montreaux Jazz Festival when he caught up with an American singer he knew from his days back in Maseru.
“We exchanged cards and two weeks later an agent called for a gig in Berne. Everything is done through an agent. You have to know your shit when you’re doing the work I do, especially when you have to back singers. You can hop on a plane in Geneva in the morning and be backing somebody in Barcelona that night.
“Fortunately, I learnt to read when I was in Maseru. I’ve played all over Europe on this basis.”
For a while he played with a band in Geneva doing pop stuff. The fact that he could sing in English was a bonus. “They flicked their guitarist so that they could get me into the group.”
He has worked with a lot of “great people’, among them US jazz pianist Morris Nelms.
“He was a bit like Roy Petersen. We would spend hours together, with him telling me how he would be playing things in intricate terms, like scales, chords, modes and stuff like that. He wanted to know what my mental processes were when I got into my music.
“I told him all I thought about were the harmonies of the thing and it’s either major or it’s minor. That’s it, fuck the rest.
“He, and all the others, were amazed that I have no formal music education. But I hold my own in their company.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to do that education thing. I just didn’t want to kill that ‘thing’ I have. I noticed when I got into reading, it changed something. I did not want to depend on my eyes only. I want everything to be there.”
Although he wasn’t big on being educated himself, he isn’t averse to teaching guitar and bass to others. Back in 1984 he sold some of his equipment from his home studio to a young man who came back later and asked him to teach him.
“So I got into that and I liked it because it made me question certain things that I did and never knew why I did it. I had to have all these answers if I wanted to teach. It also opened me up to other kinds of music.
“It was also a way of me trying to keep up to date. I subscribed to music mags like Downbeat, Guitar Player, Keyboard, whatever. I used to read all these things like reading the Bible.
He has an understated sense of satisfaction and pride when he talks about his brother, Trevor Donjeany, who has been in the top flight of bassists in Southern Africa for a while now and has been playing with Johnny Clegg for years.
“I don’t know what he is going to do now that Johnny Clegg is retiring.
“On one of our visits to Durban many years ago he had bought a guitar and he wanted me to teach him. I was hard on him. It is one of the regrets I have in life that I never had someone in my corner.
“I told him to go and get lessons. I would photocopy all the charts. I would send him the piano score and the bass score. And I would record the shows. We were paying for his lessons.”
Although he has been associated both in South Africa and in Europe with musicians who are regarded as essentially jazz artists, Donjeany himself does not want to be labelled.
“Don’t put a tag on me. This is what messed up things for me when I came to Switzerland. They could not put me in a box. One day they saw me playing this style, the next day, shit, ‘he’s playing that’.
“They ask you, ‘what are you playing – jazz, or rock or blues’. Music is music. It’s either well played or it’s badly played.
“The most boring thing for me is getting to a gig and find that I’m playing [jazz] standards all night. I’m gone. They play it the same, way, same tempo, it never changes. You want that challenge. Let’s slow it down so that you’re almost falling over playing the song. Things like that. I like that.”
These day Donjeany, aged 68, enjoys a quieter lifestyle tinkering with all the equipment he has in his home studio. Marie Eve passed on a few years ago and he lives alone now with Zulutte, their cat. He has enough time to reflect on things.
“When you listen to music, what are your preferences, what float’s your boat?” I ask.
“That would be difficult to say. It’s like asking me ‘who is your favourite musician”. I don’t have a favourite musician. I like all musicians. And I like all kinds of music.
But he does have one or two South African musos who left a mark on him.
“Roy Petersen was a great musician; he was also an arsekicker. That’s what you need. I also had lots of respect for Bheki Mseleku and the Sithole boys in Drive.”
Although he has been out of South Africa for decades, he still keeps abreast of things.
“There is interesting stuff happening. Guys like Jimmy Dludlu are certainly impressive.
“Basically, the music has changed everywhere, there is all that electronic styles. I’m not going to knock that, that’s how it is. When we were growing up, our parents obviously didn’t like the music we were listening to either.
“I’m not going to spend time criticising it. It’s their music. But, we got to face it, there are some amazing musicians in SA that just never got the fucking chance.”
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