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Trevor Rabin: All Colors Considered

By Published: November 26, 2012
Nurture is everything, however, and Rabin grew up in a family that had no tolerance for the human-rights injustices of apartheid. "In the family that I grew up in, it was always made very clear to us that this was a highly evil regime. I come from a particularly anti-apartheid family," declares Rabin. One of Rabin's cousins was Donald Woods, editor of the Daily Dispatch, whose brave public stance against apartheid, and friendship with Steven Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, is documented in Woods' two books, published during his subsequent exile, and in director Richard Attenborough's powerful film Cry Freedom (1987). "He's now looked upon as a hero in South Africa," says Rabin of Woods, who died in 2001.

Rabin has returned to South Africa every couple of years to visit family, and he talks frankly about the changes he has observed in his country. "I think it's gone from an evil regime to a highly corrupt one," he states frankly. Rabin is, however, full of praise and admiration for the chief architect of the ending of apartheid, Nelson Mandela, and for the positive changes that have taken place in South Africa, notwithstanding widespread institutional corruption. "One of the fundamental things, which I'm really happy about, is you don't go into a restaurant these days and see only white faces. Everyone's welcome. It's a normal thing. On balance, as corrupt as the regime might be, it's a hell of a lot better than what was there before."

Musically, Rabin cut his teeth in South Africa, as both a member of popular South African rock bands and as a session musician. "Playing sessions at the time was quite funny because there were no specializations," recalls Rabin. "It was a smallish market. Local country music was quite big in South Africa, so I would go from doing a country session to a conga session the next day to African kwela, and then maybe the next day there would be some orchestral sessions. It was a really good training ground because you were covering all kinds of areas."

Jazz sessions, too, were a regular part of Rabin's day to day. "Jazz? Yeah. One of the guys who I really learned from was Hennie Becke, a phenomenal keyboard player. I used to do sessions with him, and once we got to know each other better, I used to play some weekends with him in his band the Johannesburg Jazz Club." Rabin's jazz chops are heard to great effect on the composition "Freethought," which has a very stylish, contemporary jazz feel, though Rabin's jazz influences are classical. "I used to listen to everyone from [saxophonist] Stan Getz
Stan Getz
Stan Getz
1927 - 1991
sax, tenor
to [guitarists] Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
, Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel
1923 - 2004
guitar, electric
, Herb Ellis
Herb Ellis
Herb Ellis
1921 - 2010
guitar
and Joe Pass
Joe Pass
Joe Pass
1929 - 1994
guitar
. I used to love all that. My favorite pianist, like a lot of people, was Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
.

A lot of Rabin fans who know only his work with Yes may be surprised to learn that Rabin had already achieved enormous success in his native South Africa with the rock band Rabbitt. "We couldn't walk the streets without being recognized and often mobbed by young girls—a tough problem," Rabin concedes. "The band had been together for years before we were even called Rabbitt; we used to play residencies in clubs and grew to where we were doing these really extensive tours, playing these really big places—we had a fantastic stage set—but the band got to the point where there was over-saturation in South Africa," Rabin explains. "When it came time to do the third album, we knew we had to go beyond the borders of South Africa."

Apartheid, however, dashed the band's ambitions. "It became a problem," says Rabin. "In Rhodesia at the time, now Zimbabwe, there were permit problems, and that was a constant issue. It became a huge issue when we realized we'd got to the limit of what we could do in South Africa." The international community's boycott of South Africa's apartheid system, via trade sanctions and the imposition of cultural and sporting isolation, dented Rabbitt's hope of touring abroad, but Rabin's sympathies were first and foremost with the plight of the blacks. "It was horrific," states Rabin. "That was always in the back of my mind. The government did an amazing job at making sure the status quo was, for white people, natural, like anywhere else in the world, and clearly it wasn't."

Rabin eventually left South Africa in the late 1970s and made his way to London. "It was strange because after living in the ridiculously evil apartheid regime for 20 years, I saw what freedom is really like—it was amazing," he recalls. There Rabin recorded, produced and toured. One of those tours was in support of guitarist Steve Hillage, whom Rabin remembers fondly. "The main thing I remember about that tour was how much I liked Steve Hillage and what a nice guy he was and how generous he was to the opening act. He was just completely pleasant."


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