Sunday, August 07, 2011

Wondering about Makhulu

Makhulu is a kind of South African blues supergroup as a studio project in 1999 for jobbing musicians with some time on their hands. Larry Amos, once guitarist and vocalist for Baxtop and leader of his own band, sings. Willem Fourie, once of the Flaming Firestones and Southern Blue and some other projects, plays all guitars. George van Dyk, once of Hotline and some other projects, in the UK and in South Africa, plays bass. Junior J Botha, whoever that may be, plays drums.

All these musicians are storied and have been around for a while. I've written about Baxtop before and will not rehash that here.

Hotline is a subject for further investigation. P J Powers, Alistair Coakley, Van Dyk (supported by various keyboard players and drummers) were the leaders of one of the biggest commercial rock prospects in South African in the Eighties. Hotline started off as a bog standard hard rock band, then discovered mbaqanga and crossed over to the townships, and charts, with a mixture of rock and jive that was very right for the times. At some point Van Dyk went to the UK, lasted for a couple of years and then returned home to record a mega pop hit with the same mbaqanga jive influences Hotline had used to such good effect.

If Junior J Botha is Piet, as I am guessing, then I have also written about him elsewhere.

Willem Fourie is an interesting study in ambition and perseverance that leads to achievement without genuine talent. Steve Louw and Valiant Swart are much more successful local examples of this phenomenon.

Like me, Fourie attend Paul Roos Gymnasium but was a year or two behind me. He reappeared on my radar when he started playing with the Flaming Firestones as part of an occasional horn section. Fourie played trumpet and Jannie van Tonder played trombone. One of my abiding memories is of the Flaming Firestones doing a red hot flaming end-of-set version of "Rock Me, Baby" powered by horns. I think Rob Nagel might have joined in on saxophone. No other blues band in Cape Town ever had this benefit.

As it turned out trumpet was not Fourie's only instrument of choice. He also learned to guitar. By the time Clayton Frick left the band, Willem Fourie was accomplished enough to join the Flaming Firestones as second guitarist behind Nico Burger and as singer. In the beginning it took two sets and probably alcohol to get Fourie to relax into his vocals and not sound so stilted. He could carry a tune but he had no passion with it. He was okay as rhythm guitarist. Unfortunately he also took some solos and th9s showed off his limited chops and the journeyman nature of his skill. It sounded as if he were just running up and down the scales with a certain degree of fluency yet once again without passion or fire of intensity. His dexterity was a mark of plenty hours of practice. The thing is: you cannot practice feeling and he had none of it.

When Nico Burger left the Flaming Firestones Willem Fourie was left as lead guitarist and this was not a good thing. He could replicate the chords and licks but he could not bring the necessary spark to the band. I guess he tried and maybe it was simply his inexperience that let him down but the Firestones had had two really excellent and interesting guitarists before Willem Fourie and the comparison was not flattering.

Not long after the Firestones fell apart Fourie popped up leading the Southern Blues Band, later abbreviated to Southern Blue, and all of a sudden he had a new authority on vocals and guitar. Not that he was in the league of, say Nico Burger, as axman, but there was a new deal that made it an interesting prospect to go check out his new band. He sang better and played fewer banal solo's and the songs were great.

Southern Blue lasted for a short time and then Willem Fourie dropped out of sight. I heard that he went north to Gauteng to seek more lucrative opportunities in his chosen career. Nothing more was heard until I saw the Wondering album by Makhulu (on Spook Records) in either Vibes Vinyl or at a Cash Crusaders outlet, took note of the musicians and bought the CD.

It is probably down to the combined experience and professionalism of the four musicians on the project that this album ain't half bad. I always wonder how and why albums like this are recorded. Did Makhulu ever gig? Why did Willem Fourie and Junior J Botha write these songs? Was there ever a hope that the album would be a good little earner?

Well, all I can say is that Wondering is a good testimonial for the song writing skills of the Fourie and Botha and the combined efforts of the musicians. The production is crisp and clear; the playing is tight and concise; the songs have tunes and hooks. The format is blues rock, though there is quite a bit of African musical influence in the mix. The mbaqanga thing is filigree, a tasty decorative pattern that lightens up the potential stodginess of the chosen genre. Having said that, though, the take on a well-worn staple of rock music is fresh and likeable. Willem Fourie shines on guitar. On this showing he has mastered his instrument to the point where it does not really matter whether he has the talent or not. He knows his stuff and the deftness of his touch is a delight. It is truly amazing that such perfection is applied to very minor release in the bigger scheme of things.

On top of that Larry Amos brings a world weary soul voice to songs of love and experience. The man can sing and he sings the hell out of songs that may be somewhat trite otherwise.

Wondering is not the best South African record I have ever heard but I would put it in the category of "must own" for anyone who is serious about local music. The unique selling proposition is that such quality exists in a project that must have been pretty low key.

It goes to show that one should not sniff at second hand albums in Cash Crusaders. Many may be total shit; every now and then a gem like this comes along that makes the endless browsing worthwhile.


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