The trials and triumphs of Stephen Erasmus

Stephen Erasmus . . . singer, bassist, percussionist and mentor for many. Picture: Paddy LeeThorp

Stephen Erasmus . . . singer, bassist, percussionist and mentor for many.  Here is seen providing the goema rhythms at a gig in Malaysia in 2007. Picture Paddy LeeThorp

27 Church Street, Athlone. A fairly nondescript house in an unassuming part of Athlone. Yet, it has played no small part in the pantheon of music luminaries of Cape Town.

Winston Mankunku, Tony Cedras, Robbie Jansen, Hilton Schilder, Jonathan Butler, Kader Khan, Bones Delight, the Dyers brothers, Mervyn Africa, Russell Herman, Bheki Mseleku . . . well known names on a list that is endless. I could fill a page with the names of all the people who walked through the gates of 27 Church Street.

They all had one thing in common, they were there to “hang out” at Stephen Erasmus’s place – in particular wendy house at the back.

That is where the creative juices flowed, the juices that, some say, moulded the sound of Cape Town and laid the foundation of the “jazz-goema” sound so favoured by the younger generation of musicians today.

“I called it the Labourers’ Restroom. It was where we used to jam and where we exchanged ideas,” Stephen said.

Stephen was born at 27 Church Street – the house fronted by the palm tree – 62 years ago. Neither the tree nor the wendy house is there any longer, but it is where he cut his teeth first as a singer then as a bassist.

“I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house where there was always music,” Stephen says. “My older brother, Andrew, had a band in the late Sixties and I used to travel with them as a 14-year-old when my dad drove them to gigs out of town.

“They started out as the Duet Five – don’t ask me why they had a name like that, I don’t know – and it became the Buttercup Conspiracy when I joined the group.”

It was quite by accident that Stephen found himself a part of the band (didn’t this happen to so many of our artists?). As he recalls it, his father picked up the band members for one of their regular Friday night gigs in Wellington. The two vocalists did not make the pick up and they left for the gig thinking the two would make it there on their own.

“When we got there, they were nowhere to be seen. For the first set, from eight till 10, they played ‘jiet’ and instrumentals, hoping that by 10pm the singers would pitch up and then they would do the vocals.

“All in vain though, they never came. The band started panicking but I told them I knew all the songs and I could do the gig. They weren’t interested but I persisted and eventually they said they’d let me have a go at the first song.

“It was Venus by Shocking Blue. I’ll never forget it. Now, when I think about it, it’s such a terrible song. But it was a hit song then and there I was belting it out on stage wearing short khaki pants.

“I actually knew their entire repertoire because I was in the house where they practiced everyday. I sang the whole night and that started my career. They never bothered to pick up the two singers ever again. I was the vocalist.”

Those early days with Buttercups, in the late Sixties, where they played cover versions and “jiet” music, never sat well with him because his head was tuned into underground and psychedelic.

“I always used to wonder why the Invaders were so successful. It was because they were playing the people’s music. They appealed to their audience. What they played that time is more appropriate than what the bands are playing now because they are all playing cover versions. The Invaders were playing that kind of music – and that was our music. We just didn’t check it out.”

Although Stephen was the singer for about four years, along the way he taught himself to play the bass and Buttercups became something of a cult band because of their transition from a purely pop group to one with a focus on a more progressive sound.

The band was like a work in progress. Musicians came and went and it read like a “who’s who” of the music scene in Cape Town. At any given time the group could feature Robbie, Mankuku, the Tony Cedras, Mervyn Africa, Russell Herman, Michael Van Eden, Hilton Schilder, the Dyers brothers. It folded around 1973.

Before it came to an end however, it launched the careers of one or two of our best known musicians in the strangest of ways.

One of the many iterations of Buttercup Conspiracy with Stephen Erasmus on vocals. From left, Clive Barthus (guitar), Gus Stevens (vocals), Basil du Pont (drums), Andrew Erasmus (percussion), Stephen Erasmus, Mike van Eden (bass), and Chris Phala (violin). Picture Mike van Eden

Colin “Bones” Delight was “a street corner singer” when Stephen brought him in to sing with the Buttercups.

“I found him in Bridgetown. He was just one of the many ‘corner singers’, but he was brilliant. I brought him home and auditioned him to help me with the singing load.

“I can remember his first song at practice. He launched into Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come with its opening line of ‘I was born by the river . . .’ My mother rushed into the room to see who this fabulous singer was.

“He eventually moved on to become the front man for the Rockets. Now he is a highly respected solo artist and jazz musician in his own right.”

His recruitment of Tony Cedras for the group was even more bizarre. He was driving along one day when he saw a man wearing an army suit walking along road with a trumpet case in his hand.

“I stopped because I could see it was a musician. He was on his way to his girlfriend in Vanguard. I happened to know his girlfriend because she was a friend of my girlfriend.

“I told I would drop him at his girlfriend’s place, but I took his trumpet. I told him it would be at the Beverley where I was playing that night – ‘if you don’t come to the Bev, I won’t give your trumpet back’. He had to come.

“As fate would have, our pianist, Calvin Humbles, didn’t pitch up that night – his wife wanted to go to the movies. Tony did come. I had no idea he could play the piano and he simply slid into the piano with trumpet in one hand and let rip with Isn’t She Lovely – and he played the trumpet part.”

Two examples, yet there are so many more who walked the same road. Buttercup Conspiracy did not last that long. The Labourers’ Restroom as a meeting place continued for a lot more years.

It is a bit problematic pinning down with whom and where Stephen played after the Buttercups. That was the nature of the band scene in Cape Town at the time. There was a period with Siyabuya, Mahogany where he played with Bernie Lawrence and Daryl Andrews, and Jie Jah Jungle.

It was a case of musical chairs but in trying to crystallize it, one could say he formed a core group with Hilton Schilder, Robbie Jansen, and Jack Momple.

“We played all over the country with Warwick Hawkins on bass and I was on percussion but he left and I slipped in on bass.

“The band was doing great and we had a fantastic frontman in Robbie. Having him there though, was also a bit of a problem. He had a habit of turning up late or not at all. We settled on the band name Robbie Jansen and Sons of Table Mountain. We figured if we named the band after him he would be more responsible and punctual. If he didn’t play, we simply played under the name Sons of Table Mountain.

“It worked well. It also allowed us to bring in other musicians whenever we wanted and we all just played under the umbrella name of Sons of Table Mountain.”

stephen rsz WL

A self-taught musician.

All the while, Stephen was honing his skills as a bassist. “I basically taught myself by watching others. I used to watch Basil Moses of the Four Sounds at the Beverley most of the time. I loved the way he played.”

One of his closest music collaborators was Hilton Schilder, son of Tony and a member of the ridiculously musically gifted Schilder family. The Schilders lived close by in Athlone and it followed that Hilton was a “huis kind” at 27 Church Street.

Stephen and Hilton practised and composed stuff but, as he says, there was no formal writing and it never bothered him that he couldn’t read. They got their first gig at the Joseph Stone Arena. Joe Fynn drummed for them.

“To fill the Joseph Stone with your own music is something beyond your wildest dreams. Everybody who came to the house was involved.

“That gig could have sparked off something nice. The next day there was an article in the Cape Times. The writer had been to the show and he posed the question ‘where are the guys with the megabucks that can help these guys with their own music’.

“As a result of that a doctor out in Paarl invited Hilton and I to his house. He was the ‘megabucks’ person. He wanted to know what our intentions were with our music. We told him. He said he would give us, I think, R150,000, all equipment provided and paid us to rehearse for six months and then come out as a band.”

Sadly, that little exercise came to nought. Stephen and Hilton roped in people like Robbie, Kader and Tony to see if they could “make this the band we always dreamt of”.

“Then Robbie and Kader decided to go their own way. Hilton had issues. He didn’t want to play cover versions. There was a bit of confusion about direction.”

Stephen is quite emphatic on one thing. “Of all the bands I played with, the one that gave me most satisfaction was with Robbie, Hilton, Alex van Heerden, Jack and Errol. They all would have played other gigs, but that band could get together at short notice.

“Robbie and I were the core figures. He was staying with me at the time and he was trying to find ‘the music for our people’. I can’t say the klopse is our culture but the rhythms are important. We tried to capture that rhythm.

“I played in a langarm band for a while to get that sound of the horn section. We knew what we were doing. We set out that time already to try and get the music for our people, including the klopse, but only the rhythm.

“We had to give that sound a name. The Invaders had lovely music but they had no name for that sound. Was it it volk music, or plaas music. You have African music, like the Click song, you know who that relates to. I’m not speaking about segregation; I’m just telling it like it is.

“It has to be music for our community to say ‘hey, this is our music’, we can put a label on most things but couldn’t define or name ours. So what are we going to call it? We started calling it ‘kadoema’, We were thinking ahead of albums and tours. If we went to Europe, we couldn’t play their music, we had to play our music.

“So, with Robbie Jansen and Sons of Table Mountain our direction started to evolve. It was kadoema, goema and now it is accepted as ‘Cape jazz’. We had just about given up playing cover versions except for favourites like Georgia and What’s Going On. They were Robbie’s signature tunes but I got to detest it.”

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Cape jazz exponents . . . Chris Engel, Hilton Schilder, Stephen Erasmus and Carlo Fabe pictured  at the Sunset Jazz Club in Paris in 2009. Picture Paddy LeeThorp

Stephen played on all of Robbie’s albums and the three Cape jazz albums (see discography below). The Cape jazz sound, which is a core element of all three, now has currency as a genre although some would be reluctant to credit it all to Stephen and Robbie. They would argue Dollar Brand and Basil Coetzee would have some skin in that game.

There is no doubt Stephen has played with hundreds of musicians, many of whom darkened his door to step into that smoke-hazy world of his wendy room. The one who left the biggest impression was, he says without hesitation, Robert Edward Jansen.

“He wasn’t a perfect human being but he was the perfect muso. What he left behind, what came out of his horn is of value to me. I don’t look at anything else. Hilton Schilder and Errol Dyers aren’t far behind.”

He is adamant that our home-grown musicians can hold their own on the world stage and cites two examples when they did a gig with Eric Clapton for King Mswati and when Chick Corea came to Cape Town

“At the Clapton gig, it featured him and other guitarists like the blokes from Dire Straits and Steve Newman. So what we did on that occasion, we took the action away from Robbie and his sax and featured Errol. He grabbed it with both hands to impress them. I mean, these were our heroes hey, we have been imitating these guys our whole life, and we’ve never seen them ever.

“Clapton wasn’t worried about me or anyone else. He couldn’t imagine that Errol was so gifted and that he came from such a poor and humble background . . . he couldn’t handle that. Corea loved Mankuku’s playing.”

The “poor” thing rankles with Stephen. He has been playing close to 50 years yet he is the first to admit that, materially, he doesn’t have much. But he thinks if he is remembered for being part of defining the Cape jazz genre, he’ll be happy.

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Stephen in the early days with Mike van Eden’s son, Brandwin.

“I don’t know if the people will take to it but that is what we set out to do.”

He has great faith in the ability of the new generation of musicians coming through now. “They are beautiful, they know where they want to go with their music. I take it from when I started to play underground music and my father used to say ‘what the fuck’. Now I’m not going to make that same mistake. Music moves on and you have to move with it?

“Some of these youngsters coming through now, who are becoming leading lights, we gave them a chance to play in Sons of Table Mountain. One of them is that exciting young bassist from Hanover Park, Jonathan Robain. Spencer Mbadu also played with us. He recorded an album with Jack and I.”

At a personal level, Stephen is the father of seven children shared among four wives.

“I saw to it that all my children were well educated. Not one is a musician. They didn’t want to go down that road probably because they saw how poorly rewarded I was. On my 60th birthday I had all of them together, plus all the wives. It was lovely. They’re beautiful people and lovely children.”

He has had his brush with cancer and is currently dealing with some issues. Twenty years ago he had the same thing. Then his weight went down to 35kg. He could hardly walk. He says, it didn’t come back full on this time.

“I’ve had laser treatment on pollips. I went for a check up to see if it had come back. It is clear but I must keep on with treatment that costs R1200 a time. I only get R1000 a month pension.”

He plays a few regular gigs but thinks his future lies in composing and has a ready answer when the issue of his inability to read and write music comes up.

“I’ll sing my compositions for whoever is interested in recording it. It’s all stuff that goes through my head. I did it when I re-worked Die Maan Skyn So Helder Vanaand when we did a gig in Malaysia. Kyle Shepherd will bear me out.

“That’s just a little piece of me that I leave in the community.”

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