4 Dec 2001: Basil Manenberg Coetzee - A Struggle Biography  

Basil Manenberg Coetzee - A Struggle Biography
By (c) Steve Gordon

Born in District Six, Cape Town, the late Basil Coetzee started out playing penny whistle in District Six as a teenager, worked with the Dollar Brand trio, and eventually rose to prominence through his 1974 recording work with Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand). The composition Manenberg became an all-time SA jazz classic, and is one of the most internationally renowned pieces of music emanating from the southern tip of Africa.

Basil or “Ou B?as he was known, lived a life intertwined with the struggle. Although born in the District, it was at Mitchell’s Plain that he re-emerged as a cultural icon, ending the virtual hibernation which followed his famous 1974 recording of Manenberg with Abdullah Ibrahim. It is not that Coetzee didn't play during those nine years - but the cultural fragmentation after District Six's destruction killed music as a livelihood for original artists. Coetzee became a factory worker, and developed his playing after hours.

So when the United Democratic Front was launched at Rocklands Civic in 1983, Coetzee was ripe to reconnect with his audience. And his sound, like freedom, was that which the people were hungry for.

Basil Coetzee 1987 (c) Steve Gordon
Basil toured with the Dollar Brand in the early 1970’s, making his first recording for the Abdullah Ibrahim album “Underground in Africa?in 1973. Recordings with ‘Oswietie? followed, but it was to be the ‘Manenberg?recording which established his name. This was at the time he and his family had been moved to Manenberg, after the destruction of District Six.

After the departure of many of his musical partners for exile, Coetzee remained in SA and weathered the lean years, working in a shoe factory through the 1970's and into the early '80's. This was not his preferred option, but music did not offer the financial security for him to support his family.

With the growing resistance to Apartheid manifesting itself in increased political mobilization, Coetzee was called on to give musical input to the meetings and rallies which were happening with increasing frequency. He would often perform solo saxophone, and then called on Paul Abrahams ?the Pacific Express bassist ?to accompany him. The duo performed at the historic launch of the United Democratic Front at Rocklands, Mitchell’s Plain in 1983.

‘Struggle?appearances did not provide a solid income, but Basil seldom declined the calls of comrades requesting his help. The duo (and at times a trio, with drummer Jack Momple) played at numerous trade union and UDF concerts and rallies, and served as the foundation core of the band ‘Sabenza? which Basil assembled in 1986. The group included as core members Paul Abrahams (bass), Paula Goldstone (keyboards) and James Kibby (guitar). Jack Momple, Tich Arendse and Deon Slabber filled the drummer's position at various stages of the band's evolution, as did Michael Martins on keyboards.

Sabenza circa 1986: Basil Coetzee at front with (clockwise) Paula Goldstone, Tich Arendse, James Kibby and Paul Abrahams. (c) Steve Gordon
At the height of the struggle, Basil once again came to assert a presence on the South African jazz circuit. The number of gigs and requests the band had forced Basil to drop his factory job, even though his performances did not earn him an equivalent income.

In those repressive times, the beauty and pain of Basil Coetzee's melodies offered sustenance to a hungry audience. He could play his soul, his sounds, his sax, his way. Coetzee was not a purveyor of smooth or tame jazz. His saxophone voice was at times rough, vibrato-like, for which he made no apology: "There's a lot of poverty in the townships, and people are frustrated, and the sound is created within that environment", he told me.

something we can feel but not explain, which gave voice to the speechlessness of those times".

“Ou B? was at the forefront of a ‘revival?of cultural music and expression, revitalizing a voice of the people which had been repressed by the Apartheid controlled SABC. He had an intense passion for this cultural struggle, and despite the frustrations of working on makeshift stages, or waiting for hours backstage while comrades pursued agendas, this passion compelled him to retain his role at the forefront of the cultural struggle. He was also a founder member of Cape Town music project MAPP (Musical Action for People’s Power).

In 1987 Sabenza performed at CASA (“Culture in Another South Africa?), an anti-Apartheid festival hosted by the ANC and Dutch Government in Amsterdam, an opportunity also to meet and exchange notes with exiled musicians such as Jonas Gwangwa, Mervyn Africa, Russel Herman and Dudu Pukwana.

In 1988 he toured Europe, and released his album Sabenza. Later, the album Monwabisi was issued on the Mountain Records label. When the ANC was unbanned, Basil and Sabenza performed at numerous rallies, and in pre-election campaigns. With Abdullah Ibrahim returned from exile, Coetzee regularly performed in Ibrahim's various ensembles. The band Sabenza remained active on the local scene, and regularly featured bassist Paul Abrahams, guitarist James Kibby, and drummer Vic Higgins.

Basil Coetzee, James Kibby and Paul Abrahams, on tour, Europe 1989.
Coetzee lived in Rocklands, Mitchell's Plain. He died in 1998

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