23 May 2016
Bassist Sammy Webber has always been, figuratively speaking, a musician with loads of vision. He knew what he wanted from the start, almost 40 years ago. He knew where he was going.
Now, sadly, Sammy Webber is lacking, literally speaking, in vision. He is almost blind.
The talented musician, a fixture on the local music scene since the mid-Seventies, has had to contend with a form of multiple sclerosis that progressively damages the nerve that sends vision signals to the brain.
How bad is it? “I think I am at the stage of being declared legally blind,” he says matter-of-factly. “My neurologist and ophthalmologist agree that 85-90 per cent of my sight is gone. That is legally blind.”
But there is a steely grit to the 57-year-old that says something called neuro myelitis optica isn’t going to stop him doing the thing he loves. He still has regular gigs and is busy putting the finishing touches to his third album.
“I have made up my mind, it will not control my life,” he says. “In the beginning, it was tough and for the first few years I struggled a bit.
“I serve the Lord. For me, it’s a case of I believe in my bible. I pray all the time. I ask the Lord to keep me safe and there’s never a day I will say ‘no, I’m too tired, I’m not going to do this gig’. That doesn’t happen. When I have to go and work, I go to work.”
Before he was struck down with the condition, Sammy’s life was going smoothly. He had progressed from being a pop musician to a respected musician who played jazz. His health was good, he was a fitness trainer and black belt in martial arts.
Then, one morning in Oct 2009, the first hint of the sickness came. He woke up and staggered around. His balance was gone.
“I didn’t know what it was. My then girlfriend said she thought I had a tumour. I refused to accept it. I was a healthy man. I’m a qualified personal trainer, a teetotaller. But I was walking like a drunk.
“It happened every morning when I got out of bed, it was a 24-hour thing, it was relentless.
“The other symptoms were the gradual decline of my handwriting and my speech was slightly impaired. I would stumble over big words. My playing went downhill and my driving was erratic. That pushed me to get something done.
“I’m now also diabetic because of the medication.”
Sammy initially kept his condition to a very tight circle but he knew he had to make a public announcement when some “crazy rumours” started going around.
“The one that got me going was when a casual acquaintance told me that people were saying I’d had a second stroke, and that I was on my last already.
“I put it on Facebook just once to set the story straight. I explained my condition, that there was the probability I might lose my eyesight and I might end up in a wheelchair. But no stroke!
“I have no idea how many have seen my explanation but I don’t do Facebook anymore.
“I have managed the condition over the six years that’s it been in my life. I have managed to push it to the back of my mind. The only thing that really reminds me of it is that I am visually impaired.”
He doesn’t read anymore, he doesn’t drive anymore – “my wife does that for me; I can’t watch a movie, I listen to movie nowadays”.
On stage, Sammy has learnt to adapt. “It’s a little bit of a struggle for me still when I must have interaction with the other musicians on stage because I hardly see them. It’s just a haze around me. So when they indicate the end of a song I don’t see the hand going up. But they make sure that they do something that attracts my attention and we take it from there.”
Although Sammy is coping with the physical aspects of his condition, the financial side of things has proven to be another stumbling block. The cost of his medication costs more than $1500 a month and visits to the specialist don’t come cheaply.
“I have three specialists who see me constantly. I was one of those clever musicians who made provision for things like this and old age. But these people don’t come cheaply, and like everything, the money runs out.
“What helps are the gigs I’m doing now and I am extremely fortunate in being given financial assistance by the African Musicians Trust to help pay for medicines every month.”
The African Musicians Trust is a relatively new organisation created to help local musicians in a number of ways but particularly in setting up a medical aid and provident fund. The plight of our older and ailing musicians has been a talking point in recent times with a number struggling financially in their declining years. This blog will look deeper into this issue soon.
Sammy Webber’s life story is unremarkable in a lot of respects but there was always one constant – he knew he wanted to be in music.
He was born in the Bo-Kaap but his family moved to Retreat when he was two. Retreat is where he has lived ever since.
“As far as I can remember, my interest in music was always there,” he says. “I’m from a very poor background. My mother was a single parent. She couldn’t afford to buy me an instrument. I was playing on pots and pans and bashing everything around the house.
“I only got hold of a guitar in my matric year. That’s when I learnt to play.”
His move from Steenberg High student to musician is so quintessentially Cape Flats. It could have gone horribly wrong but for that “vision” Sammy had about what he wanted in life.
“I actually joined a street gang,” he says.
“In the afternoons, when I came from school, there was always a group of guys standing around in the neighbourhood, singing their harmonies. They called themselves the Runaway Kids.
“The leader of the gang was the guitar player. After a week or two, they noticed I was always standing there. They confronted me and wanted to know if I was ‘spying’ for another gang.
“I told them I was just listening to their music, so they told me come and stand with them. I was in heaven.
“Eventually, after I joined them, I got his younger brother to teach me how to play the guitar.
“Soon I surpassed his younger brother and then the gang leader took over and taught me all the latest songs. I was over the moon. Whether I was in a gang or not, I was over the moon. That’s how my guitar playing started.”
Initially, his first group was an informal set up, a “garage” band as Sammy described it, the product of a Concert Boulevard family. It was in fact the birth of Venom, the first pop group that brought him onto the club scene.
“I played guitar and then when the bassist left, I was handed his instrument. I knew my way around it because I was one of those guys who would play anything in a quiet moment, I’d play everybody’s instrument.”
Sammy has played with six or seven bands over the years but the one closest to his heart was Virtual Jazz Reality.
“I learnt so much playing with them. Those guys were all UCT music graduates you know . . . Ian Smith on trumpet, Andrew Ford on piano, Frank Paco on drums, me on bass.
“At the beginning, it was a bit of a struggle fitting in with these varsity-educated musicians, but what they liked was my playing and they liked my spirit on stage, I was a little livewire on stage.
“Also, at that time I was the only bass player who was cordless here in the Cape. It gave me freedom on stage. They loved that. They were willing to put me through what they knew and what I didn’t know. They were willing to put up with me and teach me all that stuff.
“And it’s been fantastic, we’re still playing after 23 years, not that often but we still get together to do some gigs occasional.”
It was with Virtual Jazz Reality that he achieved the highlight of his playing career thus far. The group was doing gigs at The Galaxy in Rylands and one night Jermaine Jackson walked in. He liked what they were doing and the next thing they knew, they were jetting to the States to play at the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
The cordless bass was a bit of an output financially for Sammy . . . but I was earning quite a bit of money back then. “I still have it, I just don’t use it anymore.”
He has great admiration for local bassist Spencer Mbadu – “he’s a killer on the bass” –but it is the late American bassist Jaco Pastorious who first inspired him. “He was the first influence on my playing, the one who made me want to play virtuoso and not just lay down a bass groove.”
The early years were with pop bands Venom, Puzzle People and Sparkle playing the local clubs. Then he joined Funtime with whom he was for four years, and they travelled a lot. That is when his outlook on music really changed.
“Whenever we were to be on the road, the guys would want to party in their spare time. I wasn’t into that lifestyle. I would be in my room listening to tapes and stuff.
“That’s when I discovered the likes of bassists like Jaco Pastorius and Bunny Brunel. I decided then that the pop thing was not working for me anymore. That was in early ’80s.
“At first I was into contemporary jazz. I told myself that if I joined another band, it wasn’t going to be a pop band and I started looking around.”
When he came back to Cape Town, he settled into the Sea Point white circuit with a two-piece called U-Turn because “that’s where the money was”.
Although he has adopted a jazz style in his playing, he says he doesn’t like to “box” himself in.
“I’m a musician who can play jazz. We do corporate gigs and play everything, from Simply The Best to Buble. I enjoy playing jazz. As you progress over the years, you like to put up the finer things in life.
“When I’m backing others, I am quite happy just to lay down the bass groove. When I’m in my own band, then I pull out the big guns.”
At the moment, Webber is at Pigalles in Sea Point three nights a week as his regular gig, with Johnny Williams on keyboard, Bjorn Peterson on drums. Some nights they change and have Gavin Minter, Carmen Exclusiv and Ian Smith doing guest spots.
Sammy also does gigs with his singer wife Lesley-Ray (named after veteran Cape Town singer Lesley-Rae Dowling), just the two of them and a backing tracks on a laptop on Saturdays on the grass in Camps Bay.
He has had his fair share of overseas work, performing in Australia for Beryl Cosher Segers, Dubai, the New Orleans Jazz Fest, Turkey, and Tunisia.
As for recording his material, Webber is currently working on his third album.
His first was Happy To Be . . . in 2003, a collection of 13 contemporary jazz tracks, all his own compositions. The second, I Never Thought . . . saw a slight change in musical direction.
“On the second, I’ve introduced some home-grown stuff. The influence of Robbie Jansen, Errol Dyers and Spencer Mbadu crept into my compositions. It was a strange change to make from all the pop stuff and the contemporary jazz, but I wanted to get it out there.
“What I regret most, because I was so ignorant in those early days, was I didn’t get a chance to hook up with guys like Robbie and Errol, just to get some knowledge off them.
“Later in life I did get to meet with them and they gave me some good advice in music business. It was a little bit late. But I was glad to meet with Robbie before he died.”
Sammy’s lack of formal training has meant he had to look for inspiration and ideas at the one easy place to get it – the radio.
“I didn’t really have much exposure to the local influences as such. Those were the days when it was just the radio and me, every Friday Springbok Top 10 and you’d get a diet of overseas stuff and Afrikaans.”
He is looking forward to the new format on South African radio where stations have to have 90 per cent local content.
“I’d like to think it would lead to a better deal for artists all round. It has been pretty poor to date. I have only ever heard one composition of mine, the vocal title song of my second album on the radio.”
“My third album will still have the contemporary stuff. We grew up with Jarreau and Benson and Ritenour. That will ultimately influence your composition skills. Whether you like it or not, it’s in your psyche. We have been exposed to it for so long.”
The album is almost done, however it is hampered by the same old issue experienced by other local artists – funding. He works on it when he has the cash available.
On his second album he played almost all the instruments. On the third, all his own compositions again, he has opted for a “young” feel to it. His guitarist on this one is Lyle Syster, aged 16.
“He is a revelation. I’m a friend of his parents and I’ve watched him over the years. He is quite a lovely player. He likes Jonathan Butler, George Benson and Jimmy Dludlu. He is accomplished player and going places.”
The keyboard player is Dylan Roman, a youthful 31 years and Jason Ward is on drums.
“They are lovely youngsters coming through and I’m giving them that opportunity to add a new flavour to things. Give the youngsters a chance and it works, it’s fantastic.”
So, notwithstanding his debilitating condition, Sammy still has a positive outlook on life.
“I’m not about to pack it in, I’ll go on until they put me in grave with my guitar. There is no sense of retirement. I’m still mobile. I go everywhere, I do my exercises – and I’m not giving that wheelchair a chance.”
He has even pulled one positive out of his predicament, if one could call it that. Most blind people say they have an acute sense of hearing. Has his improved?
“Before this, my hearing was going – not like in a major way. Funnily enough, it’s back up again. It does take over, it’s sharper.”
This material is copyrighted. Seek permission before re-publishing.