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Dave Ledbetter: Diversity and Unity

Seton Hawkins By

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AAJ: On this idea of your fusing guitar work with composing, can we talk a bit about the formation of your band The Clearing, and what drove that group's formation?

DL: It's interesting, but Lee Thompson, the trumpet player in that band, has just moved into my place and we're sharing right now. We're going to be doing some projects and some old music together, and we're actually going to be reviving The Clearing and playing a few gigs. Funnily enough, as you mentioned that band! It first formed because he came to me and said, "You know, you're a great writer, maybe we do some of your stuff." I said, "Let's get a band together."

So drummer Kesivan Naidoo is Lee's best friend, and he was onboard from the get go and then the bassist Shane Cooper joined. Andrew Lilley, who is head of the piano jazz faculty at UCT, and Buddy Wells on tenor saxophone also joined. That was the lineup. So then I had voices to write for because I know these guys, what they sound like, and how they play, and so I can write with their voices in mind. So the formation of the band came about just by having a group of musicians who were inspired by what it was that I did, and who were willing to let me write for them and to play my music.

AAJ: In the case of some of these artists, you were working with younger artists who were coming up in the scene. Did you feel also that you were stepping into the role of a mentor as some of these things have developed?

DL: To me, music is not age discriminate. There are elders who I suppose should be respected, and there are younger ones coming through who you should encourage and try and lead by example. So I felt that they were great musicians, and I'm always happy to share the same stage with them. I saw no difference between us. I view musicians essentially as family, part of the same brotherhood. Maybe not everybody feels the same of course, depending on how large your ego is, but I view them all as part of same family. And one of the reasons why that band was a hip band was because everybody felt the same. We'd all back down and just play the music, and when you've got that, music instantly occurs. There's nothing that can stop it. Music intrinsically knows where it's going to go. You've just got to be the vehicle to let it go where it wants.

AAJ: One thing that's striking with both The Clearing as well as your project Deep South is that both bands seem to draw a huge amount of inspiration—in title and musical approach—from the environment itself. Can you talk a bit about that?

DL: I live on a conservation state. I'm surrounded by nature, in the middle of a forest with a river running through it. So a lot of the tunes on the first album and on the second were written here just by going down to the river in the morning with my guitar and getting inspired by nature, or going for walks on the mountain which is right behind me. I was inspired by that, I guess like the way Beethoven would be inspired. He'd go out and look at nature for the day, then he'd come back and write it down. I did the same thing: I sat next to a river, and when the music came, I wrote it down. Those became the templates for virtually all of the songs on those two albums. That's inspired by the environment in the sense that we're losing the environment. People are raping the land, and they're doing it the world over, not just here in South Africa. It's our duty to make people consciously aware of how important it is to look after the land. The land is all we have.

AAJ: If we look at the debut album of Deep South, A Waiting Land, that seems to be the sort of core concept that's being explored there. Can you talk about how you and Ronan Skillen got together on this project? And can you describe the process of creating this album?

DL: All of the tunes on the album were written and arranged by me, and they were all inspired by the environment, by nature, and by conscious intention, I would say. I really feel that it's crucial to perpetuate those things that are most important in the music. So I wanted to do that on the Deep South albums. And so the pieces came relatively quickly, but the recording process took a while. Ronan used to live just across the road from me up until a few years back. So I used to see him quite regularly, and I realized I had an ally because Ronan is a very hands-on guy who gets things done, very organized. I'm more musically oriented, but I'm getting there! I have to say I'm getting my organizational chops together, but he is great at that. He's a good engineer as well.

We gradually recorded those tracks over years, when he had time in between all the other things he was doing. He was involved with Hot Water, he was involved with Tonic, he was involved with Babu. So there were all of these things going on with him, and I had The Clearing. The bands were running sort of simultaneously in and across each other. And in between those, I'd go around to his place and I'd lay down a track, and then we wouldn't see each other for a couple of weeks. And then we'd go back and we'd lay down another track. So the process took a while, and then eventually we realized that we had an album. I was initially a bit skeptical because I didn't feel that it was there. It didn't sound quite like a Blue Note album, which is what I always envisioned I'd want my albums to sound like. But I realized it had its own unique charm in the way that it had been recorded, and that was thanks largely to Ronan, and to him wanting to keep everything else off it other than the things that needed to be on it, at least as far as the editing process and the recording process was concerned.

That was a great experience. I think we learned a hell of a lot, both of us, in recording that first album in how to record instrumental music and capture it.

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