Black Fire

When Cape Jazz found a perfect mix with R&B, fusion and pop.

Pacific Express. Image courtesy Matsuli Music.

The band Pacific Express was Cape Town’s “answer to Earth Wind and Fire.”  In 1976 they released the watershed album, Black Fire, the first successful confluence of Cape Jazz with R&B, fusion and pop. Reissued in 2017, Black Fire is clearly music for dancing, and even the more extended improvisations of trumpeter Robbie Jansen, saxophonist Basil Coetzee and pianist – and chief composer/arranger – Chris Schilder (Ebrahim Khalil Shihab) keep that in mind. The appealing voice of Zayn Adam, Issy Ariefdien’s guitar, Paul Abrahams’ bass and Jack Momple’s drums complete a musically skillful and innovative adventure.

Black Fire is also significant as it marks a specific point on the trajectory of jazz in the Western Cape: a moment that still influences the unique ways many Capetonians use the word today.

“The double beat that people dance to,” reflected the late reedman Robbie Jansen, “[here] they call that jazz: ‘I’m going to jazz tonight’ – that’s got nothing to do with real jazz!”

Jansen’s comment captures the complex meanings that jazz carries for Cape Town fans. On the one hand, the city has a rich heritage of the improvised music which genre fundis call jazz. It was, after all, the home of jazz pioneers such as reedman Christopher Columbus Ngcukana and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. On the other hand, there’s a vibrant club dance tradition, particularly among the communities apartheid classified as “coloured,” which its enthusiasts also refer to as “jazz.” That jazzing tradition has, among multiple influences, some ancestry in the city’s ballroom dancing style (“langarm”) some in the hop-step choreography of Khoisan tradition, and some in tickey draai (“spin on a sixpence”: the whirling popular dances of the mine camps). It solidified into a unique style distinct from all of these in the mid-1970s. “Jazz is a culture here, almost like the Kaapse Klopse – it’s part of our history … it’s in our blood,” a research interviewee told dance scholar Jade Gibson.

And one band, better than any other, represents the historic nexus between jazz and jazzing; between instrumental improvisation and dancing and between musical lives of club gigs at night and challenging jazz studio recordings in the morning. That band is Pacific Express.

Black Fire by Pacific Express

By the time the band laid down this album in 1976, they’d been around for a while, having been brought together by bass player Paul Abrahams and guitarist Issy Ariefdien in the early 1970s (initially as The Pacifics) to work as a pop and cover band. The band built a strong reputation among clubgoers, so that when a new club, the Sherwood Lounge, was planned for the suburb of Manenberg in 1975, Pacific Express was invited to open it.

“And then they came to me,” remembers pianist Shihab, “and asked if I would join them. At the time, I was leading another band, but because they had this big gig coming up, they wanted somebody who could bring a bit more musically. They persuaded me – they said nobody else would be appropriate.”

Shihab comes from the musically prolific Schilder family. He was previously known as Chris, his mother was a church composer and pianist, and his late brothers, bassist Phillip and pianist Tony, also went on to achieve national, jazz recognition. He describes his musical education as initially “stealing with my eyes” from family members and schoolmates and then trying to replicate what he saw and heard. By the age of 14, he was working at the Normandy nightclub in Rondebosch, scoring what he calls “a huge tip” when he demonstrated the complex changes of All the Things You Are in response to a patron’s challenge, purely from memory.

As he entered his twenties, his reputation built demand for his skills as sideman, composer and leader. His voracious musical appetite took him into classical music and American jazz, as well as the popular sounds that (barely) put bread on the table. Like others among his peers who wanted to take even popular music in a more adventurous direction, he was already experimenting with free sounds in the late 1960s and by the mid-70s he’d started listening to the jazz-rock of Santana, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire.

At that early point in his career, Jansen would not have called himself a jazz musician. By contrast, Shihab was already active and admired on the bop, post-bop and free Cape Town jazz scenes, as is shown by his many recordings in the Ian Bruce Huntley archive. But both of them were equally compelled to listen to what Jansen called “more complicated sounds, more sophisticated compared to the easy, bubblegum pop… We had to tune into LM Radio and catch a little snatch of a song and learn it. Tomorrow, maybe, we would hear the other half and by the weekend we could play the stuff before it was on the {South African} hit parade.” Before 1975, when it was nationalized by Frelimo, LM (Lourenco Marques) Radio based in Mozambique had been one of only a few accessible stations catering to those seeking contemporary pop sounds not showcased by South Africa’s segregated, censored state broadcaster, the SABC.

The coloured township of Manenberg – about 20km away from Cape Town city center, and cut off from the black settlements of Gugulethu and Nyanga by a railway track – had been officially established in 1966, based on the apartheid regime’s belief that what they defined as different “racial groups” could not live harmoniously together. (Mixed communities in Cape Town – such as District Six – and elsewhere had flourished before the advent of advent of apartheid, and often struggled to stay together despite harsh new laws.) Manenberg began life as a very basic settlement, dusty and bare of almost all amenities. Its first houses and flats had no finished ceilings, inside water or internal doors. Residents had been uprooted and trucked in from the suburbs of Constantia, District Six, Cape Town, the Bo-Kaap, Wynberg, Crawford, Sea Point, and Lansdowne and now had to learn to live together under these disadvantages.

As a consequence it was, Shihab reflects “quite a rough place.  But the Sherwood Lounge was located close to the highway, so people could come in without getting mixed up in whatever was a happening on the streets. And once we opened – people flocked.”

The Sherwood Lounge joined a constellation of busy Cape Town music venues in every kind of district. There was the Naaz, in Woodstock, the Ambassador in District Six, the Goldfinger Lounge in Athlone, the Vortex Coffee Bar in the City’s Long Street and the Mermaid seafood and jazz restaurant in Sea Point. By 1978, they had been joined by the long-lived Club Galaxy in Rylands, still flourishing well into the 2000s.

As Shihab began developing more sophisticated music for Pacific Express, the band’s routines also became more sophisticated. There was less grabbing sounds from the radio, and more intensive workshopping. “We didn’t mix much with non-musicians,” Shihab remembers. “We’d go to somebody’s parlour and jam… (guitarist) Issy Ariefdien, (vocalist) Zayn Adam, (drummer) Jack Momple and (bassist) Paul Abrahams were the nucleus of the band, and they were all so talented we could just feed off one another’s ideas.”

“Our music was jazz-rock,” Shihab explains. “At the start, I was the only jazz improviser. I listened a lot to Chicago. The other guys were more into pop music. For me, the appeal of jazz-rock was it allowed me to explore in those directions, and I introduced the guys to those improvisations. Meanwhile, I was also learning in that process; the collaboration was beautiful. So before we even introduced my compositions, we were already jamming on the pop tunes we were playing and learning how our different ideas complemented one another.

“The kids who came to the Sherwood were all interested in dancing – they were very good dancers, and they had a kind of style – dancing, dressing – to go with the music. So, the kids were hip, the club was new, and we all agreed that, as well as being interesting, the music has to suit dancing. At that time Robbie [Jansen] had other gigs, but as we became very popular we invited him, and he and Basil (reedman ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee) came in and out when they could, Basil more often.”

The reputation of the band and the Sherwood Lounge soared. “There was just a lot happening there,” remembers Cape Town pianist Gary Hendrickse. One of Gibson’s respondents recalls: “‘I was at this place, and they put a Santana record on, and suddenly all these people were dancing in couples, swaying from side to side … I’d never seen it before … I thought, “What is this?”

But despite audience support, steady jobs like the Sherwood gig were scarce, as racial zoning made venues increasingly hard to sustain and unrest and tough policing impeded movement. Shihab lived and composed in a single room, crammed with piano, cot, baby and spouse. Jansen remembered that sometimes he played “for five rand a gig… I got R25 a week when I played with Pacific Express when I got married, and that was playing every night, seven nights a week… a hundred rand a month: that was good money.”

The intensive workshopping paid off when the opportunity to record Black Fire at Volker Miros’s UCA Studios arrived. A year earlier, in June 1974, those studios had been the setting for the Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand) recording “Mannenberg Is Where it’s Happening.” Executive producer Patrick Lee-Thorp was responsible for organizing and managing all of Pacific Express’s recording sessions and the post production. “Oh, we were all very excited,” Shihab remembers. “And not just the band. Our fans – all the people who were into our band – also got excited.”

The session itself, he says, was not quite so exciting. “It was the usual thing of budget constraints on recording time. It’s a good job we were so well-rehearsed, because when we got to the studio, we had to sit down and just get through the tunes quickly. And we were able to do that.”

Shihab still listens to those tracks with affection. Black Fire, the title track, is one of the few explicitly political allusions in the music of Pacific Express. “All our lives were affected by [apartheid],” says Shihab. “It was there all the time, even when you didn’t talk or sing about it; you couldn’t escape it.” Pacific Express lived resistance by frequently operating as a racially mixed outfit with black and white as well as coloured players. This led, for example, to police warning them they could not perform on the segregated stage during Australian singer John Paul Young’s 1977 South African tour. “What I was seeing at the time was that because of those circumstances,” says Shihab, “black musicians had more of a certain kind of fire in us. Black Fire gave me scope to express that energy.”

His other favorite track is “Sky Ride 2,” and the reasons there are musical, not societal. Although Jansen at that time felt he was still an apprentice in jazz, for Shihab it’s Jansen’s flute solo that stays in his memory. “It’s not a simple melody, even though it has a relaxed, easy feel to it,” says Shihab. “But when I listened to Robbie’s solo that comes at the end, it knocked me off my feet. The way he interpreted that melody, against the rhythm section behind us, it was everything I wanted to say with that song.”

Pacific Express recorded two more albums, Expressions and On Time. Shihab eventually took on hotel work on a circuit in the Middle East to provide a steadier income. But he never stopped exploring and composing and has released a solo piano outing of his own music, as well as leading a Cape Town International Festival concert, and a Pacific Express revival performance. Robbie Jansen continued straddling the divide between jazz and jazzing until his death in 2010, releasing multiple albums as leader that combined vibrant dance rhythms and challenging improvisation.

But perhaps most emblematic of that jazz/jazzing relationship is what happened to the Sherwood Lounge. It later became Club Montreal, Cape Town’s most famous dance venue, memorialized in the song At Montreal, composed by Shihab’s brother Tony, and sung by another world-famous musician who passed through the ranks of Pacific Express: Jonathan Butler.

* This slightly edited version of the sleeve notes for Black Fire is reprinted here with the kind permission of Matsuli Music and Gwen Ansell. The album can be purchased on most streaming services and the vinyl here.

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