16 August 2019
Issy Ariefdien, regarded by many as one of the finest jazz-rock jazz-funk guitarists to come out of Cape Town, will in all probability, not strap on his instrument for a public performance again.
Be mindful of that caveat of “in all probability”. One can never say never, specially with musicians. It’s been four years though, since he last performed publicly (the Pacific Express Reunion gig at the Cape Town Jazz Festival in March 2015).
After more than 50 years of strutting his stuff on stages from Cape Town to Dubai and hundreds of places in between, this Elsies River guitar maestro looks like bowing out without a swansong or a final curtain call.
Given his contribution to local music, he deserves recognition as one of our best. The least this blog can do is acknowledge his career and the role model he has been for younger musicians.
The Issy Ariefdien story is a long one and it could not be told in full in a single blog profile to do it justice. The following is part of that and something of a highlights reel.
His love for music started at a tender age when he found that he enjoyed singing and fooling around on a guitar.
“My father gave me my first guitar. On my birthday, he came home with this ‘something’ wrapped in brown paper. Out came the guitar and the instrument has been a part of me ever since,” Issy recalled.
“I have never had any formal training. Like most of the musicians of my era when we were starting out, we stole with our eyes watching others play and then went home to practise it.”
The Ariefdiens were originally from Bo-Kaap and later moved to Elsies River where, as a teenager, he was approached around the mid-’60s, by drummer Alistair Arendse to join his group, The Magnets.
The Magnets were very popular in the Elsies River area and known for their sensational harmonies of Beach Boys and Mamas and Papas songs. Their rendition of Dedicated To The One I Love was a show-stopper with Issy doing the high notes.
“I was known for that high falsetto voice but it wasn’t my natural voice. The Magnets already had the other voices so I just took on that job,” he says.
His stint with the Magnets ended around the end of 1967 and he then helped form the group Respect with bassist Melly da Silva.
“My first real day job was in the Jordan shoe factory. I actually worked with Melly Da Silva and we both lived in Elsies River.
“Those early years with The Magnets, Respect, and later Big Daddy were defining moments in my music career. It helped make me the musician I am today because it made me realise that you need to work hard if you want to achieve anything.
“Those were hard times, in the Sixties. We did four-hour gigs on Fridays and Saturdays and sometimes on Wednesdays. We had to lug around our own sound systems and, in some places, we had to haul our gear up flights of stairs to get into the venue.
“The club scene was just beginning to explode and there was enough work but the pay was pretty bad.
“We loved it though because the mid-to late Sixties was an exciting time musically. The popular music taste was transitioning from Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley and the like to the innovative stuff of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the psychedelic sound, and underground music. We were just caught up in it.
“All our money went into paying for our instruments but it really was exciting times and we played in some very interesting places.
“At one gig in the Burial Hall in Matroosfontein, there was a gang fight and one of the gangsters rode into the hall on a horse. There was pandemonium. We just had to ride it out until things subsided. On another occasion there was fight inside the venue and the bricks came flying. One of them landed close to Alistair on the drums.”
Issy is quite adamant that the Respect period was one of the most creative in his life and set him down a path that was the basis for his approach to music.
“We all started out playing that pop stuff of the mid-Sixties. That was all we knew,” he said. “Things changed a bit when we started Respect. Melly da Silva had been the bassist with The Raiders, before that the Lunar Five and The Shannons. He had some brilliant ideas for the band.
“Melly and I tried to keep abreast of all the music trends coming out of London and the US where the soul sound and Motown was riding high.
“What grabbed us however, were the creative sounds of musicians experimenting with their instruments. We bought the popular magazines Melody Maker and New Musical Express to see what was hot in psychedelic and underground music.
“We devoured the news of what groups like Spooky Tooth, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Vanilla Fudge and The Jimi Hendrix Experience were doing and went to great lengths to get their records so that we could play it.
“In Respect, we were fortunate in that we recruited guys who were just as keen as we were to kiss goodbye to the bubblegum sound and focus on quality music. We had Noel Kistima on drums sharing similar tastes and later we recruited Ivor Wagner to play keyboards. He is one of the most ’intellectual’ musicians I have come across.
“With Ismail Mohammed and Tyrone McCranus, at different stages, handling the vocals, we were a pretty potent group if I must say so myself. We had a strong following that helped us to play in packed venues from backyards in Bellville South to clubs and community centres in Elsies River, Athlone and Wynberg.”
For about two years, Respect was one of the top groups on the local scene at a time when The Flames and The Invaders were wowing crowds nationally. It all started coming apart when Da Silva emigrated to Australia and the group, after a few minor additions, folded.
Part of the musical journey of Issy Ariefdien — with Respect, Pacific Express, Love Supreme and Southern Glow
Issy landed a gig at the Eureka Lounge in Elsies River where The Pacifics were the resident band playing pop and langarm for the regulars.
But this wasn’t for Issy. He made his views quiet clear to the manager of the group that he couldn’t go back to that type of music and if they wanted him, they would have to have a more progressive sound.
“Unfortunately, some of the guys weren’t prepared to get out of their comfort zone and they made way for musicians like Georgie Carelse, Robbie Jansen and Jack Momple to come in and accept the vision of the new group.
“We also changed the name slightly and that is how Pacific Express was born. Only Paul Abrahams, bassist of the original group, stayed on. “
The journey with Express was a long one with many stops and starts. The group had multiple changes in its line-up as veteran musicians and young tyros embraced the dynamic sound of Cape Town’s most progressive group at the time.
It would be extremely hard to name all the musicians who lined up with them at different times but it included big names like Chris Schilder (Ebrahim Khalil Shihab), Barney Rachabane, James McDonald, Basil Coetzee, Jonathan Butler, Robbie Jansen, and Tony Cedras.
Express would, at times boast a horn section of up to seven musicians. It was a very imposing sight for a local group and they shaped the thinking of a generation of music lovers
For a very long time the core of the group was Issy, Paul and Jack. They were uncompromising in their stand that they would play mainly jazz-funk.
Issy was part of the group’s recording effort – the still very popular Black Fire and On Time albums – and says while he never physically wrote any stuff, he “contributed” by making adjustments when they were put on the table. “And my contribution in that way, was highly valued I would like to think.”
As Express took its regular sabbaticals from the local scene – it was hard to sustain a group of that size – Issy and the rest found an income source with other smaller local groups but not with as much of the same intensity of jazz-funk (think Love Supreme at the Goldfinger Lounge in Athlone).
He also played in the backing band for District 6 The Musical and featured in Taliep Petersen’s group, Sapphyre.
Eventually Issy would go the way of most serious musicians who made a living out of their talents and headed out of town to play at the lucrative luxury hotels in the region. This was a stepping stone to numerous stints overseas in Dubai and Asia.
“When I left Cape Town for the first time with a group called Exit, we went to the Comores, an island in the Indian Ocean. Paul Petersen, Bernie Lawrence and Elspeth Davids formed part of that group.
“We went for three-month working holiday and stayed for three years. It was our first gig overseas and it was a wonderful experience.”
Issy also had regular stints in the Gulf States. His group performed at The Emirates Leadership Summit in Dubai for an audience that included Richard Branson, Bill Clinton and other world leaders.
“I’ve played with some incredible musicians in the time that I did the contracts overseas,” Issy said. “We developed a reputation of delivering a repertoire that would draw in a crowd. There were times when Sun International would relocate us so that we could build up a venue experiencing faltering crowds.
“On one occasion one of the patrons was so impressed with us that we were flown to Romania for a one-night stand.”
After more than a decade of playing overseas at swish hotels Issy headed home in 2011 to a quieter lifestyle with only the occasional gig to draw him out of his home sound studio.
Things looked on the up in 2014, when talks of Pacific Express getting together again – after a break of 30 years – started doing the rounds. Veteran Express members Jack Momple (drums) and Ebrahim Khalil Shihab (keyboards) were still around as was Zayn Adam who had a stint with them as a vocalist in the early years. Bassist Paul Abrahams had passed on.
The group had their first “reunion” gig on December 6, 2014 at a festival venue in Ottery and by all accounts it was hugely successful. Issy himself said the response from the crowd was immense and “invigorated” him.
In next to no time they had four gigs lined up – at Tietiesbaai, at the P.P. Arnold show, at The Castle and a big one at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.
But fate dealt their plans a cruel blow when Zayn died in late February 2015 after a short illness. They had to cancel a few gigs but stayed committed to the Jazz Festival using another singer.
For Issy, it was all a bit too much.
“Zayn had been doing all the organising and with him gone it fell to me,” Issy said. “I was an emotional wreck. I was dealing with issues that I thought I had left behind many many years ago and I just couldn’t cope.
“On the day of our CT Jazz Festival performance I couldn’t get out of bed and my wife had to convince me to get up.”
That was the beginning of the end. Issy hasn’t had a gig since. Recent health issues have compounded his reluctance to strap on the guitar again although, for a brief while, he was jamming privately with his former Respect colleague, Ivor Wagner.
“I hardly pick up the guitar these days. There is just no inclination,” he says. “I occupy my time working in my studio doing stuff for my sons.”
One of his sons, Shaheen, was the driving force with Ready D in the hip hop group Prophets of Da City that thrilled South Africa in the ‘90s.
Issy had a big role to play with POC. “I was a co-producer and composer for POC. Shaheen, who is an awesome lyricist, and Ready D were the main producers. I played all the instruments and arranged most of the stuff and the pre-production was done in my home studio. POC played with Quincy Jones at the famous Montreaux Jazz festival and they opened for Lauren Hill and The Fugees in Europe when they promoted their first album.
His other son, Anwar, is an IT specialist in telecommunications. He also composes his own songs and has his own studio.
Issy is reluctant to mention any single standout thing of his long career or any favourite musician that he played with.
“I’ve had many brilliant musicians play alongside me and each in their own way, was special,” he said.
“I will always cherish my friendship with Zayn and Taliep, that was special. And those early years with Da Silva, that was something. We tried something different and it worked.”
Having been a guitarist for so long, he is loath to pick his favourite ‘axe’? “It’s very hard to say. It depends on what type of music you play. If you play jazz you’ll need a jazzy guitar, if you play heavy metal stuff, you’ll need another guitar. The Fender guitar is the type of guitar you can play anything on. I had a Les Paul and I had a Fender Stratocaster. I started off with a Hoffner.
Given his long career, he has many memories – good and bad (like the Burial Hall gigs) – that mark his journey.
“During the apartheid years we played with a white band, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and they had to sit behind a see-through curtain at The Luxurama while we were up front on stage. It was like apartheid in reverse.
“When we went to Athlone Stadium and played with them at an open air concert, they had to darken their faces. We also needed a permit with Express to play at Claridges.
He was part of the opening act and backing group that played in Bob Adams Big Band for Peaches and Herb, Arthur Conley, Oscar Toney Jnr. He also opened for John Paul Young and Ray Charles.
He produced the soundtrack for Farook Vallie Omar’s production of Bugsy Malone The Musical, performed with the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra in the City Hall with Gerry Bosman and Taliep Petersen and was part of the backing group for District 6 The Musical with Monty Weber, Darryl Andrews and Howard Link.
So, does Cape Town, or anywhere else for that matter, get to see Ismail Ariefdien on stage ever again?
“At the moment, I’d say I am very passive. I’ve had my fill. I feel like I would only do a gig with an important fund-raising show for the community or charitable organisations.
“I have the studio at home that keeps me occupied and my passion, hopefully, will be recharged in the next couple of months. I’m serious where my religion is concerned now and that determines a lot of what I want to do. At the moment I have no strong desire to perform live.
He has one bit of advice for aspiring musicians: “If you think music is an easy way out, you have another think coming.”
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