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Pakhamisa Mayaba can’t think of a single person Colesberg townships playing a musical instrument. This is the most terrifying statistic I have heard in my whole life.

By contrast, two thirds of US citizens play, or have learned, to play a musical instrument. Of them, half think it is “natural” to learn and play one. Perspective: this is 219 million people, or more three times more than our population.

Why is this?

I think it is about poverty or at least non-affluence. I mean here poverty of attitude as much as I mean “platsakkerigheid”. South African parents want the school, the field bands, or “ someone (anyone?) else” to provide instruments. I don’t think they can be blamed. As a country, we have allowed our baasklas to steadily erode our take home pay. I don’t need the inputs of bean counters and actuaries here: it is simple. My grandad easily afforded raising and schooling three children, my dad needed help from my mom, and I could not afford to raise and school my children without my wife working.

Under apartheid the unofficial deal was job reservation. Your job was white-guaranteed, and in exchange they felt we should be grateful for peanuts. I say this because Rhodesia was always better paid than SA, and they had neither legalised apartheid nor job reservation there. I remember being very envious when a friend at UNP told me what he earned as a booking clerk for Rhodesian Railways during the holiday season. On top of that, his parents were to me more than comfortable on the father’s civil service salary, where my dad battled to pay the bills throughout his life. He was also a civil servant.

I feel sorry for bean counters. Understanding quantities only, at the expense of quality, must be about the most talentless cross to bear, and certainly has nothing to do with beauty. A drummer I worked with once mocked that professsion, saying

“Hey guys, you should have seen those guys faces when I laid that balance sheet on them. They were over the moon”.

Yeah, right.

It must not be thought that all bean counters lack a sense of humour, though. I have in my life memorised possibly three thousand jokes, and have been kicked out many places for telling a thousand too many of them. Of those, a whole TWO are about the accounting profession. Here’s one:

Q: What is the definition of an actuary?

A: An actuary is a person for whom normal accounts are far too exciting,

You may wonder what all this has to do with not playing an instrument, but, reverting to that question, who can afford an instrument these days? My father complained bitterly when I asked for a penny whistle for my eleventh birthday. He bought it, then complained bitterly:

“PENNY B….. WHISTLE! D… thing cost HALF A B… CROWN!”

In those days before Daan Desimaal, a half crown was worth 30 pennies. My dad was not being stingy. At the time, he earned 50 pounds sterling, meaning that he could actually feel a half crown coming off his monthly pay packet. The truth is, you won’t find an all metal penny whistle for R100 today. You will pay up to R300 for a good all-metail “Irish Tin Whistle”. We (Spokes Mashiane, Lemmy Special Mabaso, Robert Sithole) all used to play a German make back in the day, but they are no longer in production. Lemmy still played his old Hohner penny whistle while in the African jazz Pioneers, and perhaps Mduduzi Magwaza still had one for his Special Star with Mango Groove. Even if you think R300 is affordable, remember that you are getting is still just a penny whistle, a tin pipe with a few holes drilled into it. Not a sax or a trumpet. Student trumpets are more like R3000 today, and student saxophones are more like R23000 for a Yamaha Alto. Chinese made alto saxes can be as little as R3000, but serious student players don’t want them. You will want to pay at least R5-10k for one.

The other question, also to do with affluence, is, ok, now you have an instrument, where do you play it? I grew up in a family with four teenagers practising instruments, sometimes at the same time, and I can only say my mother thanked her lucky stars that she was at work. She was wise, though, and toughed her way through it until we were good at it, and enjoyed the bands when they came along, but we drove the neighbourhood crazy. I reckon Kuyasa or Remvasmaak may be more tolerant, but I don’t know.

There is another problem. Space. Lets say I don’t want a blowing instrument. I want a drum kit. I could have found space for a drum kit in the colonial style house we lived in in PMB, but I doubt many of today’s houses have bedrooms that can fit a drum kit. Alexarndra Township produced many find musicians, but only two famous drummers that I can remember. When I asked Mpho Mathabe, the drummer for the African Jazz Pioneers, why this was so, he replied “I learned at Alex Arts Centre. I could not fit a kit in my room at home”. And there you have it. Most of the famous drummers were from townships other than Alex.

I spent a few Christmas holidays in Havover, and there were a few bands with home made instruments. Guitars were a plank nailed to a petrol or oil can, with four strings, sometimes five, ane drums were a rim of metal drum or can with cowhide stretched across it. I was totally electrified with the rhythms and the skill those guys had. Most of them were not much more than toddlers. I am not saying people should make their own, but I admired those who did. In fact, I admire anyone who crafts any instrument. For a time, I worked with a man named Mervyn (surname maybe Davis, not sure) who made violins, violas, possibly cellos and I think even a double bass, using only South African woods. There were others.

Thinking back on my own musical trajectory, I am happy with my liberation role in music. I never set out to be a musician, but when forced to become one by a bunch of talentless corporate drones from Durban, I sat very happily with the notion of myself as a cultural worker, and more particularly a culturation liberation worker. As it turned out, and I learnet this fact only after my bandleader Ntemi Piliso’s death, both he and I were more driven by the liberating effect that swing music and Glenn Miller in particular, had on people in and after WWII. The world would never be the same again. The direct opposite of fascism is swing music or jazz! They do not happily co-exist! Ntemi, I found out, had wanted to play trombone. He ended up on sax because he was someway back in the queue of boys lining up to claim an instrument from a man named Casablanca, who arrived one day in the townships with a load of instruments, and announced that he was giving them all away. By the time Ntemi reached the front, there were only saxes left. He paid me the ultimate compliment one day in an interview, saying that he liked having me in his band because “I wanted to play trombone, and if I had played trombone, I would have wanted to play exactly as he does” (with a nod in my directdion).

Liberation and our music ushered each other along. The ANC, proud of, and seeing how attractive our colour, our sense of occasion and our wide ranging cultural aplomb went down with people from the rest of the word, held one event after another all over the world, featuring South African musicians and other artists.

Then, when Mr Mandela came along, they promptly messed the whole shebang up by spending their entire future on an arms deal. We artists were happily exploited to the nth degree for fundraising the world over, winning the day and kicking apartheid on to the trashheap of history, only to be dumped within years of the advent of the so called Rainbow Nation. Joe Modise and a whole team of other childish louts spent an entire fiscus on a pile of boys toys that today lie rusting or otherwise inert in harbours and military bases around the country. We had no enemies at the time, in fact were the darlings of the world. Buying arms made no sense, was stupid, and satisfied the greed of a handful of thugs.

I personally can never forget 1988, because in 1988, the African Jazz Pioneers performed 88 free concerts for both the MDM and the UDF. We were platsak, were paid nothing, yet we paid it forward and are fantastically glad that we kicked apartheid’s sorry ass right out of the picture.

Then we watched these overgrown high school boys, who “didn’t join the struggle to become poor, (and here I am not letting “Terror” off the hook: there is a picture somewhere of him raising his head and looking in wonder at a soon to be dead-in-the-water, clueless and crew-less submarine) delighting in the pile of obsolete boats and planes they had just squandered our future on. Notice I left “trains” out of that song. Well, it didn’t take them long to waste untold billions on useless, wrong, locomotives.

Notice I entitled this piece “Scary”. Why? Because boys and girls will be boys and girls, and we have amongst the best, despite the wasteful stupidity of their fathers and grandfathers. Given those elders’ woeful performance to date, the boys and girls of today have something going for them that has never been around before: cheap computing, whether by way of cheaeper-every-day smartphones or Raspberry Pi. If you add-hand-me-down PCs donated by wives, farmers and businessmen, these will replace the penny whistles, drums, guitars, brass and woodwinds of before, and the hackers will, without any checks placed on them by their technically bereft fathers and grandfathers, set about developing their side hustles. Most will be social media based ways of making money. But some will inevitably be scammers and crackers, and a couple will be cut from the same cloth as Assange or Snowdon,

ANC, be very afraid. You will never be able to fight the hackers. Investigative journalists have armies of them, who expose daily your financial shenanigans. Be glad that these are currently mild mannered and decent, resonsible people. Because the next hacker generation will include many people who, like hackers the world over, do not like secrets, won’t tolerate locks and safes, and will expose every last crooked, treaherous, mpimpi transaction, and they many of them will not do it for money.

December 2, 2022