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Dave Ledbetter: Diversity and Unity

Dave Ledbetter: Diversity and Unity
Seton Hawkins By

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Music intrinsically knows where it's going to go. You've just got to be the vehicle to let it go where it wants. —Dave Ledbetter
Even the most cursory listen to South African music yields an embarrassment of riches in the realm of guitar talents. Indeed, throughout the country's musical history innovative figures have forged a near universe of unique approaches to the instrument, fusing the many musical traditions of Southern Africa with popular styles into a staggering array of styles.

Even within this abundance of guitar talents, Cape Town-based Dave Ledbetter nevertheless manages to stand out. A genre-hopping virtuoso whose guitar and keyboard work have graced projects ranging from the short-lived punk outfit Illegal Gathering to the Jazz-Fusion supergroup Workforce, Ledbetter has forged a highly individual and iconoclastic career in South Africa. With his latest project Deep South, a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Ronan Skillen, Ledbetter has brought his extraordinary guitar and compositional talents to bear in a meditative and hypnotic set of pieces inspired by the environment.

All About Jazz: Can we talk about your earliest memories growing up with music?

Dave Ledbetter: My mum was a Classical pianist, a very excellent one. And so my earliest memories would be around the piano listening to music, and then taking piano lessons and guitar lessons. Everything was music. So from as early as I can remember, there was always musical activity in the house. Then there was music at school. I think the moment I heard the Beatles for the first time was when I realized that there was something here for me.

AAJ: One of your earliest recordings is with the punk band Illegal Gathering from 1985, featuring you on electric bass. How did you get involved with James Phillips and with that band? What's the story behind that particular recording?

DL: James Phillips' parents were very good friends with my parents. My father was a structural engineer who also happened to be a very active thespian. And they did a lot of theatrical work together. Through the friendship of the families came the friendship of James and myself. James was a couple of years younger than me at school. What happened was that as we got older, we started hanging out a little more together and gradually began making music together. I left Springs—which is where he hailed from and where that entire East Rand Renaissance happened—quite early on. So I kind of wanted to get out of there as soon as I had wings to fly, and I pretty much did. But James stayed for awhile, and then he went to study music at Rhodes University.

On one of his backs, he came down to Cape Town to hook up with Carl Raubenheimer, who was also an ex-Springs friend of mine. They got this band together in an incredibly short time, and they asked me to come and play bass with them. So that's pretty much how that happened. The band was together for I think two or three weeks. We did six gigs, we recorded 14 or 15 songs, and broke up. That's pretty much it.

AAJ: That band springs out of a very interesting 1980s counter culture fomenting in South Africa, with things like the Voëlvry movement. From your perspective, what was driving that?

DL: The entire alternative rock movement in South African in the mid-1980s came out of people wanting to make pertinent social commentary about what was actually going down in the country. And James, as it so happens, was one of the first, if not the very first alternative voices of that genre, along with Roger Lucey. Those two particularly were among the first people of that movement to have their music banned, or just not played on radio stations at all. And it's strange to think, but if it wasn't for James, there would be no Die Antwoord, for example. I think the tragedy of James's life, if we're still talking about James, is that he was never recognized in his lifetime. It's taken 25 years for people to actually wake up to the fact that he was a hugely influential figure, you know?

AAJ: Yes, particularly with his creating the alternate persona of Bernoldus Niemand. You're right that Die Antwoord absolutely carries that.

DL: Pretty much. It all came out of that first initial idea. It's amazing that all great ideas initially begin with one person, and then other people take that stuff and they carry it further. It's been the case throughout artistic history if you have a look at it. In terms of nearly every major art form, there's always been one person who initiates something, taking it through to the next stage. And in the case of South African alternative music, I think James is that figure.

AAJ: Absolutely. Thinking on your own career, there's a moment of whiplash where we see you playing bass in a punk band, and then we turn around again and suddenly you're at the Jazz Workshop in Cape Town taking lessons with Merton Barrow. Can you talk about that experience, and how you got involved with the Jazz Workshop?

DL: Well, they asked me to teach there. I hadn't really been playing for that long, but Merton had heard me play. He was such a mentor and father figure to me. Merton's still alive, in his eighties now, and he was a mentor to some incredible musicians. We're talking about guys like John Lockwood, who's in charge of the upright bass faculty at the New England Conservatory outside Boston. There are so many, many musicians who've all been nurtured by and come through Merton Barrow and the Jazz Workshop. Merton preceded the University of Cape Town's Jazz Faculty. My earliest memory of him was just how incredibly encouraging he was. He just sat me down one day and said, "I'd like to offer you a job teaching. I can see that you love music and you're obviously very musical." I thought that was rather nice! And then he proceeded to say, "I hope you have an unusually long and rewarding career playing music." I just never forgot that.

One of the things that used to happen with Merton a lot is because I played piano and he played vibes, we would often play duo piano and vibraphone together. We'd play on "Giant Steps" for half an hour, and that would be my lesson for the week, which was great fun. It was really like being thrown in the deep end. Through Merton, I came into contact with so many other amazing musicians, like Kevin Davidson, who was head of the Tshwane University of Technology music faculty in Pretoria. He became our daughter's godfather. So I met so many amazing people through Merton, and I think Merton is just one of those people who oozes music. He takes the responsibility of anybody under his wing incredibly seriously. I remember recommending a child go to lessons with him and he said, "Please don't ask me to teach children, the responsibility is too big!" That's how he is.

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