Friday, July 15, 2011

Skanking at the Pink Hall

Think of a pale pink church hall at the bottom end of Vredehoek where a cloud of incense and dope hit you as soon as you entered the room full of some truly alternative Capetonians. It was a mixture of Black and White, many very thin, dreadlocked males and women in long dresses and with ethnic headdresses standing around while the band was taking a break or dancing meditatively when it was on stage. Apart from the ganja, as we used to call it back in the day, the other predominant aromas were of the organic vegetarian food being cooked on trestle tables at the back of the hall and a weird body odour from the actual Rastafarians present, as if they washed with some peculiarly scented soap. It was, as the cliché has it, a heady brew. It was a lot of fun, even for non-Rasta, non-alternative me and I never missed a reggae night for the couple of years they were held at the Pink Hall. I did not eat their food or smoke their dope but I danced all night to their music.

Reggae spoke to me because of the deep bottom heavy yet nimble bass sound and that insistent "chicken scratch" guitar rhythm on the off-beat, with sweet melodies and infectious chanting over the top. It is groove music per excellence and great to dance to, even if I got the beat or skanking moves wrong.

In the period 1985 to 1989 there was always at least one reggae act, who appeared alongside the alternative rock acts at the anti-conscription events I attended (just for the music; I'd already completed my 2-year National Service stint) but the best reggae music was at the Pink Hall. This venue was a church hall, perhaps no longer used for the original purpose, on the lower fringe of Vredehoek, close to where De Waal Drive becomes Roeland Street. From 1986 through to 1989 and about once a quarter the Pink Hall hosted a reggae event, most often featuring 3 bands a night, mostly Sons of Selassie, The Spears and another band.

The audience was a mixture of the seriously alternative right on Cape Town crowd. Even the white people, male and female, had dreadlocks, everyone seemed to wear tie dye clothes with the de rigueur funky African theme, were stick thin and very deeply committed to a vegan lifestyle and politically correctness that eschewed racism, chauvinism, sexism, anti- Semitism, and espoused radical feminism and gay rights and freedom from the oppression of apartheid and freedom from conscription, and so on.

At the end of each song the vocalist praised Jah to the extent that I was wondering whether he was taking the piss or whether the church hall was in fact simply hosting a different kind of religious experience as alternative to the Christianity otherwise practised in the hall. Haile Selassie, apparently a god0like figure received his fair share of sanctified praise as well. It was rather odd for a non-religious sectarian White guy like me.

I really only cared for the deep reggae grooves and dancing the night away. I did not buy their food, smoke their dope or take their propaganda pamphlets. I did not mix with anyone or try to pick up weird looking, mixed up chicks.

The aroma of marijuana hung in the air and the band members openly smoked it on stage. I was always astonished that the police were nowhere to be seen. My belief was that the powers that be considered these reggae nights to be some kind of safe outlet for White radicalism, as the politics was pretty ineffectual and harmless and posed absolutely no threat to the status quo. It was all right to let the White liberals have their infrequent nights of solidarity with the oppressed. On the other hand, perhaps the police just did not know and nobody ever tipped them off about what was happening at the Pink Hall.

The reggae bands got a bit of exposure in the Cape Town press and it seemed to me that there was a significant Rastafarian movement on the Cape Flats and Black townships.

I do not know why the Pink Hall gigs came to an end. Perhaps the police eventually wised up; perhaps the owners of the hall got to know of the free dope smoking and did not want to have anything to do with it; perhaps the gigs were no longer commercially viable. Whatever the reason, the reggae scene at the Pink Hall in Vredehoek did not survive the Eighties. There may well have been a continuing reggae scene in the townships but as a cautious Whitey I had no intention of going there simply because I happened to like reggae.

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