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Dave Ledbetter: Diversity and Unity

Seton Hawkins By

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AAJ: In terms of your time with him, were there formal lessons he did as well, in addition to the lesson type you just described?

DL: Yes, I jumped the gun a bit. "Giant Steps" is a ways down the line! He started me off just he started every other person by giving me some basic Classical stuff to read, and then by quickly introducing me into improv in the same way that one would be educated by understanding simple things to start with. Things like the modes generated by the notes of Diatonic scales, and then chord progressions, and then improvising patterns. At the time, there wasn't anywhere near the amount of information available then in South Africa that there is now. You had to pick it up from somebody who knew. So I picked most of my theoretical information up from Merton, and also from Kevin Davidson. And then that continued through my involvement at the University of Cape Town, where I studied under Mike Campbell as well. Prior to that I'd taken classical piano lessons as a child with my mum and with Steven van Staden, a concert pianist.

AAJ: To your point of jumping into the deep end, you then auditioned for Duke Makasi and his band Workforce! How did that come about? How did that process go?

DL: Well, one day the late great Robbie Jansen arrived at my house in Devil's Peak and said, "We're looking for a keyboard player to join this band Workforce." The person whose shoes I had to fill was one of South Africa's most incredible piano players, a guy called Ibrahim Kalil Shihab, formerly known as Chris Schilder. He's part of the Schilder keyboard dynasty in South Africa. You had the eldest brother Richard. And then Tony, his son Hilton, and then the other brother Chris, who later converted to Islam and became Kalil Shihab. An absolutely incredible pianist. So I got his job when he left. I had only been playing piano seriously for about a year and a bit. So Robbie Jansen, the great alto saxophonist, he arrived at my house and said, "We're looking for somebody to come and play in this band Workforce. We play original music and we do some covers. It's a five-night-a-week gig. We play Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday afternoon, Saturday evenings, and we rehearse on Mondays. Are you in?" And I thought, "Yes, absolutely!" I just jumped at the opportunity.

There were no parts, everything was by rote because many of the musicians didn't read. Robbie didn't read, Stompie Manana, Spencer Mbadu, Denver Furness, none of them really read. Duke did a little. So I was the only person who was vaguely schooled on reading at point in time. And yet we'd be working out by ear all this stuff. At the time we were doing Steps Ahead-type stuff, or Weather Report, but no parts so we'd just work it out and play it! It was quite an incredible experience. It really developed my ear, because these guys had unbelievable ears. They had the ability to manifest it into what it was meant to sound like. That was quite an incredible experience working with Duke. He commanded respect in the politest kind of way. He would enter into his solo, he'd play a soft note and the band would just come down, as it should be! He never raised his voice, there was none of that. There was just a very polite gesture of "Guys, I'm playing now, just listen and act accordingly."

So that was a major learning curve for me. It was bang-smack in the middle of the unrest. It was the middle of 1985, when there was unrest in Belgravia Road in Athlone. So myself and Richard Pickett—a drummer who played with Tony Schilder—were the only white people playing with bands of color in Cape Town at that time. We would go out and play these Detention Without Trial concerts at the Luxorama and the University of the Western Cape. And there were spokespeople on stage, and they'd be getting arrested as they came off stage and detained without trial for 48 hours. It was mayhem! While I was working with the band, what would also happen is that there would be a police presence outside my house. They would follow me to work, and they'd follow me back because I was accused of being complicit in devious undertakings.

AAJ: When we read about one of the other great integrated bands of South African history, The Blue Notes, Maxine McGregor talks about how while they were in South Africa before going into exile, they had to permanently stay on tour and keep moving in order to safely perform. Can you talk a bit about that progression from the early 1960s— when the Blue Notes were touring in the country—to 1985 in terms of integrated bands in the music and the official response to them?

DL: Well, I think in the case of The Blue Notes and quite a few of the musicians of that time, many of them felt that there wasn't a platform—or an equal platform—for them to perform their music. And there wasn't, it was the apartheid era. So they left. Many of them left, they relocated and they set their lives up in other countries. Abdullah Ibrahim, Harold Jefta, Bheki Mseleku, Russell Herman, Mervyn Africa, so many of them relocated and went to live overseas. Some of them did come back, but some of them never did. Some came back to visit, yes, but never permanently returned. I think the natural progression started in the early sixties, but I think by the time the mid- eighties came along, the dice were rolling. We'd reached a point of no return in this country. In many ways the music that came out in the mid-eighties kind of won the struggle. It was a powerful tool. I remember feeling that I was part of something that was so huge, and I was really very proud to be involved in that.


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