Sound sense

What do you do when you are a successful business person and have a passion for music? You get a B Hons in music and build a recording studio.

At least, that is the route taken by Port Shepstone, KZN engineer Thulani Bhengu (40) who is currently building a cutting edge studio facility on the site of an old house in Southport – a small village just north of Port Shepstone and in the heart of the Hibiscus Coast.

An integral part of the studio complex is a five-bedroom Bed & Breakfast accommodation setup for musicians recording at the facility.

The studio – as yet unnamed – will feature state of the art recording equipment plus separate sound booths for the various instruments and will be totally soundproof and inaudible to the nearby residents.

“I will probably involve a couple of local schools in a competition to design the logo and name the studio,” says Bhengu. “The winning school will get a cash prize for its art department.”

The affable young entrepreneur was born and bred in the Gamalakhe township near Margate on the South Coast of KwaZulu Natal and, post school, went on to study engineering and then to form the civil engineering company Ngcolosi Consulting Engineers.

“With the business up and running nicely, about six years ago I decided I could indulge my passion for music,” he says. “I took piano lessons and this went well. I am now in the midst of exams for my Music BA Hons through a university in England.

“During the earlier years I helped a number of young local musicians by sponsoring studio time for them and this grew to the point I installed a small recording studio at my home. However, a combination of musician hours and time in the studio started interfering with family life.

“This cemented my decision to create a stand alone studio.”

Bhengu explains the decision to incorporate the accommodation suites was based on experience with musicians.

“Travel for many of these people is a major problem and so much valuable time is wasted if they have come from far afield each day. Also, between leaving the studio on one day, going home and maybe going out for a few beers with friends, there is a detectable change in voice tone by the following day.

“It will be much better to contain them on site to maximise studio time and to try and eliminate the kind of changes I mentioned.”

The recording studio is 150 square metres in size and has individual sound booths plus the engineer’s control room, which will be kitted with the latest generation recording facilities sourced from England.

The studio itself has been designed by Johannesburg-based sound specialist, Harry Timmerman from 4th Dimension and, besides the soundproof cladding one would expect, features double width air-gapped walls to prevent any sound creep inside the facility or any leakage to the neighbourhood.

Even in its current state of ‘undress’ a handclap anywhere in the studio precinct produces no echo!

“The specification for the studio and the equipment being installed can be compared to that used by the giant studios overseas such as Sony BMG and Lucas Films,” says Timmerman, who is a THX certified audio engineer.

“The backbone of the recording desk will be Pro Tools, while the Playback Suite will conform to full Auro standard with 32 speakers, so the artists can hear every minor nuance of their work and become wholly immersed in the sound. There are only a handful of studios worldwide that have this specification and this a first for South Africa.

“The smallest sound booth is 7,8 square metres and we are using Miller and Kreiselle speakers throughout – the same speakers used in the creation of the soundtracks for movies such as Pearl Harbour, Gladiator, Jurassic Park and Star Wars.”

A resident full-time sound engineer will be employed to operate the equipment but Bhengu says artists are more than welcome to bring with their own producers to work with the engineer during the recordings.

Significantly, studio time in Southport will be around a quarter of the cost of time in a Johannesburg studio, making it that much more accessible to young and upcoming artists.

“We intend to be as flexible as possible,” said Bhengu. “Many young musicians just want to get one or two tracks recorded professionally they can use for promotional purposes and possible radio play while they build a following that would justify going into studio to record an entire album.

“We need to make it as easy as possible for them to do that. At the same time, the lower cost we hope will attract top line and well-known artists to the venue and we would also love to see some foreign artists taking advantage of our lovely sunshine, the beautiful South Coast and the value of the Rand to record here.”

So, why Southport?

Bhengu chuckles and explains: “I bought the house eight years ago and wanted to have the zoning changed so I could move my office there. However, my staff was so against the idea I ended up renting it out as house for a few years.

“When the idea for a recording studio took hold, it was the ideal venue. I approached all the neighbours and we submitted the plans and proposals to the Council. Nobody was opposed to the idea as long as we could guarantee the studio would be soundproof.

“All the nearby residents have been very supportive of the project – which I hope will be complete by December of this year.”

Local resident and drummer for The Sound Dogs, Mike Linten says many local musicians are likely to benefit from the facility and that it will be a long-term gain for tourism in the area.

 

Wake Up to the Frost

Telling someone “to catch a wake up” is usually dismissive of their abilities, intentions or a combination of both. Telling yourself, on the other hand, is motivational – exactly what Albert Frost has done with his new album, ‘The Wake Up’.

The legendary (well, in the circles I like to move in) blues guitarist is in a state as we chat backstage at The Barnyard in Umhlanga before the live launch of the album to a Durban audience. He is, quite frankly, terrified and this is palpably obvious in the body language, but it is the eyes that are really telling the tale.

There is so much excitement in those eyes, so much belief in what is to come….

“Some of the ideas included in the album go back 20 years,” he says. “However, most of it has really happened in the last year.”

Back in the 90’s when just 15, he joined the Blue Broers as guitarist – in itself an interesting mix as his father, Frank Frost was the drummer. Sadly, Frank died in 1999 and it was nearly the end for the band that used to rattle the pipes in The Pump House on Cape Town’s Waterfront.

Fortunately the band recovered and Albert grew in the role to become one of the country’s leading blues players. He also expanded his own horizones and has worked with the likes of Arno Carstens, Koos Kombuis and Vusi Mahlasela as well as being a regular member of Riders From the Storm with Mel Botes, Nathan Smith, Piet Botha and Valiant Swart.

He has shared stages with The Rolling Stones, R.E.M. and Simple Minds and performed for Nelson Mandela. Alongside Arno Carstens, he shared the stage with Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and the Pixies.

He’s played all major festivals in South Africa as well as having had the honour of performing solo at the famed Isle Of Wight festival, where he also did a collaboration with James Walsh from ‘Starsailor’.

Some months ago he announced his decision to quit the Blues Broers permanently.

“It really was a hard choice, but I needed to finish The Wake Up and I needed to have no commitments that would interefere with the writing and recording,” he says. “I love the blues, I will always love the blues, but I needed to exand musically out of that niche and The Wake Up is a mixture of things and influences from pure rock to West African sounds, accoustic to electric and all stops in between.

“I needed to be more than just a lead guitarist and this is me ‘coming out’ as a singer and songwriter as well.”

Frost is joined on the album by Jonno Sweetman on drums and Schalk Joubert on bass – for the live launch augmented by Peter Mitchell on accoustic guitar and backing vocals.

 

“The whole album is self-funded from the recording through to sales and marketing. The good thing is I had total control over the production, which I co-produced with Albert Meinjties and recorded at VH Studios – and I am extremely happy with the result.”

Like Shotgun Tori, Piet Botha  and so many other local musicians he spends months on the road playing small and larger venues, festivals and country shows with little or no support from the industry at large or from radio stations, these tours involving moving, setting up and taking down their own equipment and most often all on the same night before hitting the road again.

Getting industry support is a problem going back to the ‘50s. Simply, the return on investment for the record companies comes from sales volumes and by far the largest music buying audience in the country wanted its own from township jazz to the more modern hiphop/kwaito tastes.

At the other end of music spectrum it really was only the ‘vanilla’ pop artists such as The Dealians, 4 Jacks & a Jill, The Bats, Steve Hofmeyer and the like who could generate enough volume to make it worth coughing up for studio time. Mango Groove and PJ Powers both managed to stretch their music across all spectrums and were value for money.

Make no mistake, the local record industry has never been a ‘supporter’ of local music – they’re in it for the money.

Back then there was LM Radio that was prepared to push musical boundaries (when SABC banned all play of The Beatles) and post LM came Capital Radio. Today, the national stations have morphed into an androgenuous mass pumping out insipid music – gone are the adventurous DJ’s such as Chris Prior, Leon Economides and Gavin Buckle, to name but a few.

True, they are all around on streaming radio and even LM Radio has made a comeback – but it is national airplay that generates interest, motivates sales and convinces corporate execs to spend the money on new local talent.

Sure, some less than mainstream artists did make records on the corporate dollar – Otis Waygood Blues Band, Hawk, Freedom’s Childrem, Sugadrive and Baxtop….Oh! and not to forget Rabbitt. However, these remain a few and most did not get the airplay support they needed either.

Imagine, even now, a radio DJ daring to announce a new song by Fokofpoliesiekar!

So, musicians like Albert Frost remain dedicated to their craft – and it is not surpising he is so thrilled with being able to control the end result of his work.

The Wake Up is 11 songs – some he wrote himself and some with Albert Meintjies, Hunter Kennedy and one with Simon Orange. Two he co-wrote with the man he rates as the finest guitarist in the country – his brother-in-law and fellow musician, Robin Auld.

Songs are very often stories and the tracks on The Wake Up are just that – stories from Albert Frost’s perspective that need to be heard. Tales of love, life, record companies or just being ‘Outside’ ‘Tonight’ in the ‘Summer Rain’ enjoying a ‘Modern Romance’ before ‘The Wake Up’ and ‘Leaving Town’, back ‘Against The Wall’ at ‘Sunrise’ with the ‘Morning Pages’ fluttering in the breeze as this place is ‘Home No More’ but we’re still ‘Together’

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Articulating the Lyzyrd

Piet Botha and Akkedis: The Lyzyrd Kyngs – a retrospective

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The English language is a wonderful thing, full of nuances and subtleties – and complexities that make it easy to understand why it is such a difficult language for a total foreigner to learn. One of its quirks is providing words that need only a small change in emphasis to mean completely disparate things.

The word of choice in this narrative is ‘articulate’. When pronounced with the emphasis on the end – ‘articuLITT’, as in Lewis from the television drama ‘Suits’ it means the ability to communicate fluently and coherently. When uttered ‘articuLATE’, as in the very thing you hope your girlfriend never tells you she is, it refers to something having joints or jointed segments – think here of a train winding its way through a series of curves.

For the purposes of clarity – yes, being articulitt – we will misspell the one variation.

So, how does this relate to Piet Botha and Akkedis? A truly South African band, it is also an entity that exists in two forms; semi-acoustic and full-on electric. However, this retrospective will concentrate on the semi-acoustic variant.

Musically articulitt, jointly and severally, the unit comprises Piet Botha (guitar, vocal), Arthur Dennis (lead guitar, vocal), Rudi Dennis (rhythm guitar, percussion, vocals) and AJ Graham (bass). They play a mix of cover songs – ‘Further On Up The Road’ (Johnny Cash), ‘Wish You Were Here’ (Pink Floyd) and self-penned titles including ‘Suitcase Vol Winter’ (JP Botha), ‘Children of Africa’ (A Dennis) and a delightful Afrikaans version of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’.

Almost always on tour, especially during the summer months, they traverse the country in a small van playing gigs in pubs, clubs and wherever there is an audience. Still a fairly loosely knit outfit as Botha has a number of side projects including appearances with Rider From The Storm.

Historically, Botha came via Wildebeest and Jack Hammer and is an icon of the Afrikaans rock movement, playing with or alongside other icons of the genre such as Valiant Swart and Koos Kombuis.

Botha’s musical career started in Cape Town some 30 years ago, but it was with hard rockers Jack Hammer that he started to garner public acclaim. However, it was in 2002 the friendship he already had with the Akkedis Band consisting of the Dennis brothers, Arthur and Rudolph and AJ Graham turned into a solidly professional relationship as well.

Back then, Botha was touring a lot with Jack Hammer and used to bump into Arthur and Rudi who were known as The Dennis Brothers in those days. There was always some kind of jamming going on. Through the years, the bond remained strong, Akkedis came into being, Botha did some solo Afrikaans albums and kept on recording and touring with Jack Hammer.

“The Dennis Brothers played the same pub in Stellenbosch every week for 14 years. It was amazing training for our livers,” grins Arthur. “Actually, it was not bad considering every four years the entire audience would be new.”

Then around 2002 they found themselves in London Town at the back end of a disorganised tour.

“Myself and Johnathan Martin, had gone over, thinking it would be acoustic gigs, small pubs or theatres but then we found the venues rather bigger and we were just two guys,” says Botha. “Fortunately Akkedis Band were there and just volunteered to help us on all the gigs.”

During the next few years they would share stages across SA and Namibia and Mozambique but about three years ago there was a shift and Piet Botha started to tour the Cape more and more using Akkedis Band as backing band for his repertoire.

This soon developed to a new concept being. ‘The Lyzyrd Kyngs’. The name comes from a Jim Morrison poem, ‘The celebration of the Lizard King’. The weird spelling is a combination of ancient English and a serious reference to Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band that has been a source of inspiration for more than 30 years.

“It was natural for us to share our talents, now we have three vocals and a four piece band that can work any room or big stage, both electric and acoustic. It is also wonderful to share each other’s songs and collaborate,” he says.

This is where the articuLATE comes in. Like that train weaving through the curves, there is a sinuous movement through the band that links complex chording, melodic structures and key changes into a tonal tapestry.

From the tight, definitive guidelines of AJ Graham’s bass to the sometimes-acerbic lead guitar of Arthur Dennis, the evening’s tapestry is woven skilfully and with purpose. In the electric version, Rudi Dennis gives up guitar for a drum kit. In the semi-acoustic format his soft-plectrum playing style provides a rich and full melodic background to the more adventurous moments coming from Botha and Arthur.

Now the modern rock era has largely eschewed the rhythm guitarist in favour of a three –piece – think ZZ Top and Rush. Think back to years gone by when acne-ridden high-school wannabees were force-feeding Vox amplifiers with four-chord classics like ‘Stepping Stone’ and the ‘rhythm’ guitarist tended to be the kid in the band whose parents had the biggest house and didn’t mind you practicing there.

Not so here. Not at all. If AJ Graham provides the outline of the musical image, Rudi – as he says: “…colours it in. I like to fill in between the lines.” And, fill in he does from warm pastels musical colours to rich, strident neons.

Botha, hugely accomplished on both acoustic and electric guitars, makes the complexity of the arrangements look simple – covered every step of the way by Arthur, giving the paid ample opportunity for the kind of interplay that comes only with considerable talent and the sort of trust that evolves over time spent in the same comfort zone.

Thus, throughout the band there is movement, constantly shifting but always following….

A rainbow-coloured ‘articulitt’ articulated Lyzyrd. Rock on.

Sources: http://www.pietbotha.com; Brian Currin

An Evening With Albert

Of all the blues songs in all the world, one of my favourites is ‘Who Do You Love’. Written by Bo Diddley and first recorded in Chicago in 1956, it is one of the most copied and re-arranged with notables such as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks (later known as The Band), Quicksilver Messenger Service, George Thorogood & The Destroyers, Juicy Lucy and The Doors all recording versions.

 South Africa’s blues-rock maestro Albert Frost also does a version, well a couple of versions. With Rider From the Storm it is a full-blast rocker, while as part of his solo (or near solo) set it gets more of a blues feel with all the freedom in the world for Frost to criss-cross guitar boundaries and make each rendition almost unique.

The best part is you have to wait. As the pre-encore closer for his show there is a great feeling of anticipation as he works his way through a mix of his own music (‘Catfish Blues’) and classics such as ‘Help Me’, ‘Same Thing’ and the like.

Part of the opening line of ‘Who Do You Love’ kinda sums up what Frost is all about – “I walked forty-seven miles of barbed wire,……”

Like Shotgun Tori and so many other local musicians he spends months on the road playing small and larger venues, festivals and country shows with little or no support from the industry at large or from radio stations, these tours involving moving, setting up and taking down their own equipment and most often all on the same night before hitting the road again.

The barbed wire walk started back in the 90’s when, as a fifteen-year-old kid, he joined the Blue Broers as guitarist – in itself an interesting mix as his father, Frank Frost was the drummer. Sadly, Frank died in 1999 and it was nearly the end for the band that used to rattle the pipes in The Pump House on Cape Town’s Waterfront.

Fortunately, the band recovered and is currently completing a new album. However, in the interim, Albert went on to work with the likes of Arno Carstens, Koos Kombuis and Vusi Mahlasela. He is currently part of the band The Gods, who released their first studio EP Devil & Gods in 2009, as well as being a regular member of Riders From the Storm with Mel Botes, Nathan Smith, Piet Botha and Valiant Swart.

On his current tour, he is travelling with fellow Somerset West resident, Keenan James backing him on drums.

The Albert Frost show is quite special. Using four or five guitars, both acoustic and electric, he records loops and then plays over them – there are no backing tracks. It is all Albert Frost and his mastery of the guitar makes every set whizz by all too soon.

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts always maintains his job is to be the “engine room” of the band, providing both rhythm and guidance. In this, Keenan James is a follower.

“I love his style,” says Frost. “He goes so far beyond just providing a backing and becomes part of the music, making it possible for me to be a bit experimental and vary the interpretation of what I’m doing. He helps make the music fun.”

And that, really, is what it is all about.

He has shared stages with The Rolling Stones, R.E.M. and Simple Minds and performed for Nelson Mandela. Alongside Arno Carstens, he shared the stage with Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and the Pixies.

He’s played all major festivals in South Africa as well as having had the honour of performing solo at the famed Isle Of Wight festival, where he also did a collaboration with James Walsh from ‘Starsailor’.

Right now, he’s playing a venue near you

. Don’t miss it.

Live at Rock Bottom, Umzumbe
Live at Rock Bottom, Umzumbe

Coming of the storm

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There is something, perhaps insanely, magical about the mental images conjured up by the words “Cities on flame with rock and roll/ Three thousand guitars they seem to cry/ My ears will melt, and then my eyes/ Oh, let the girl, let that girl, rock and roll/ Cities on flame now, with rock and roll”.

Even if Blue Oyster Cult was tending for some overkill with the notion of 3 000 guitars, there is just as delicious an image with six rock axemen doing it live.

And they are!

In a country that produces a prodigious amount of talent and all too often an equal amount of under-enthusiasm for artists not named Steve or Kurt, the rock guitar legends are fighting back through ‘Riders from the Storm’, an initiative undertaken by Mel Botes, renowned for his master craftsmanship on the electric guitar, his interpretations of various legendary rock works, his original compositions and his classical repertoire.

Says Botes: “The concept was born out of similar projects undertaken by international rock legends such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Locally, we have also had unprecedented success with the band ‘6 Snare’, in which we have combined six of the most popular Afrikaans folk musicians into one group, roughly following the same recipe used by the international supergroup ‘The Travelling Wilburys’.

“Hence, joining six of the most prolific electric guitar players into one rock supergroup was a logical next step to take.”

The band members shared a stage for the first time at their maiden performances in February last year at the Atterbury Theatre in Pretoria. Most recently they performed at Shelley Point in St Helena Bay as part of the Hyundai SA launch of the Santa Fe – cars and rock ‘n roll, always a good mix.

The band members are: Mel Botes, Piet Botha, Albert Frost, Valiant Swart and Nathan Smith. There will always be an invited sixth ‘mystery’ member who will be selected from guitarists from popular local rock bands, session musicians and solo artists. In fact, for the latest gig, Mauritz Lotz joined and Robin Auld was the guest – Nathan Smith sitting this one out.

Botes is an accomplished player, interpreter and originator of legendary rock works, including his evergreen nationwide top-sellers ‘Crazy Diamond – A tribute to Pink Floyd’; ‘Sultans of Swing – A tribute to Dire Straits’ and his own original, ‘David’s Confession – About Time, Chapter II.

Piet Botha is renowned as one of the pioneers of South African rock and has become a legend in his own time as front man of ‘Jack Hammer’ as well as a host of solo Afrikaans and English rock works. Along with the likes of Valiant Swart, it was Botha who was a ‘voortrekker’ of Afrikaans rock and their groundbreaking work probably paved the way for the likes of Koos Kombuis and Fokof Polisiekar.

It was never easy and in the early days more attention was paid by the media to who Botha was related to than the music and I recall talking to him at an early Jack Hammer gig where he said, emphatically: “I don’t care about that shit; I just want to play music.”

In fact, what they were doing back then was a huge step away from what was considered ‘normal’ for a pair of ‘boereseuns’ and their songs were not cutesy little ditties about boy meets girl but real reflections of life, love, hate, fear and hope in a changing South Africa. And this probably scared the crap out much of the ‘establishment’.

Now, older and sporting a Willie Nelson kind of look as the long tresses ease towards grey, he is doing just that. Playing the music. So too is Valiant Swart.

As a session musician, Mauritz Lotz’s innovative style can be heard on more than 1 000 local album productions and he has shared the stage with various South African artists supporting international artists such as Roberta Flack, The Bee Gees, The Rolling Stones, Ronan Keaton, Eric Clapton, Sting, Midnight Oil, Joan Armatrading and OMD.

It is hardly surprising the rest of the Riders joke about taping two of his fingers together before a gig to even the playing field.

Albert Frost is one of the most accomplished guitarists in South Africa and brings some edgy blues-rock to the collaboration, having cut his teeth with the Blues Broers and in his capacity as a solo artist or with his trio.

Says Botes: “The brief to these musicians was simple – each had to contribute three compositions to the group’s performance in which that particular musician plays the lead guitar to accompaniment from a full rock band.

“They were given a choice between original or standard rock renditions, provided the music fitted within the overall criterion of ground-breaking work. Furthermore, each musician also had to submit material that could be played be the group as a whole, balancing recognisable sounds with new artistic works.

Of course, Riders would be little without proper backing and the engine room of the group comprises Ghapi (aka Phillip Botha) on drums, Simon Orange (Blue Broers) on keyboards and Schalk van der Merwe (Bed on Bricks) on bass.

Unkindly they have been called a ‘cover band’ and, perhaps, in a sense they are. However, it is the interpretation that makes for originality and the mix does include original works from each of the collaborators, such as Valiant Swart’s ephemeral ‘Die Vloek van die Kitaar’, ‘Suitcase vol Winter’ (Piet Botha), ‘All of Woman’ (Robin Auld), ‘Mountains’ (Albert Frost), ‘Torremelinos’ (Mel Botes) and ‘Nemesis’ (Mauritz Lotz).

There’s a spider-shiver that runs from the base of your spine to smack you in the back of the head when the entire ensemble gathers its collective force to belt our “Riders on the Storm (The Doors), Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple), ‘Le Grange’ (ZZ Top) or ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix) and you have never heard Beethoven’s 9th Symphony played the way Mel Botes does it.

Other contributions include material from Pink Floyd, Toto, Santana, Johnny Cash, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Gary Moore.

This is a storm of epic proportions and it’s coming for you!