by Richard HaslopAbout two years ago, a leading South African newspaper polled its readers to find their favorite South African song. The winner was "Master Jack" by Four Jacks and a Jill, a pretty, if insubstantial, slice of harmony pop that became, in 1968, the first South African record to reach the U.S. Top 20.
The song itself was more interesting than the performance. It had been written a couple of years earlier by a young miner from the country's East Rand gold mining area by the name of David Marks (his surname contracted from the Greek 'Markantonatos' of his adoptive parents). The song addresses itself to a mysterious authority figure that has been variously identified as Hendrik Verwoerd ('60's South African prime minister and one of the architects of white apartheid rule) or U.S. president John F. Kennedy or the manager of the mine where Marks worked. Marks himself says that the song was already mainly written by the time Verwoerd was assassinated in 1966 - by a man of Greek extract, in fact - but that the event, and the response to it by a young Afrikaner miner he knew, allowed him to finish it.
The readers' poll was demographically skewed by the paper's readership profile, and, consequently, more than a little unrepresentative, which is ironic given the fact that Marks's musical career, in its South African context, has been especially inclusive. Marks responded by pointing to a list of songs that he felt were more deserving, having his customary dig at a local music industry that had overlooked all of them and found himself referred to in print by Rob Allingham, the American born archivist at South Africa's major Gallo Music as "a disillusioned old white liberal who has been grinding the same axe for years."
Marks often refers to himself as 'Groucho' in his frequent correspondence on the state of the music business with anyone who will listen. He has accepted the description with a smile and a shrug. Battling the South African music business for more than forty years can't have been easy but the axe has been well worth grinding, and a vast amount of otherwise overlooked South African music has been recorded and preserved as a result of his devoted and some would say single, if not bloody, minded endeavors.
He started out as a songwriter and folk singer as the folk revival arrived in Johannesburg in the early '60's. The success of "Master Jack," which went to the top of a number of national pop charts, allowed him to give up the mines and pursue a full-time, though never particularly lucrative, career in music.
His songwriting produced one more minor American hit with Four Jacks and a Jill's "Mister Nico," which just squeezed into the Billboard Hot 100, and a few more local successes though his own folk singing was never going to put food on the table on any kind of regular basis. But while he was in the USA in 1969, engaged in a sound engineering gig that saw him setting up and mixing sound at Woodstock and at Lennon's Live Peace In Toronto gig, two friends back home in Johannesburg founded a small, independent record company that they called 3rd Ear Music. Marks assumed the somewhat grandiose title of 'managing director' upon his return the next year. 3rd Ear, which has most often consisted of no more than Marks and his conviction that what he is doing is worth the trouble, is now more than forty years old. It's definitely no less independent nowadays, and perhaps less a record company than a brave idea that refuses to die.
3rd Ear NUSAS Free Peoples Concert - David mixing, 1974
Marks's approach is a simple one. An ardent advocate of live music, which he has always preferred to studio versions, he'll record or film anything that "murmurs or moves," always provided that he considers it worth recording or filming. And what he considers worth recording has almost invariably been at odds with what the local industry has recorded or, with very few exceptions, what the draconian, separatist local radio has deemed worth playing. The fruit of this is what he has called 3rd Ear's 'Hidden Years Music Archive Project'- essentially thousands of recordings, photographs, concert posters and other artifacts of South African music that would otherwise not have been preserved, or perhaps even noticed.
These include: rare recordings of the early performances of Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, who would make their international name as Juluka; a rather drunken night in Johannesburg with American folk singer Phil Ochs, who had recently suffered an attack that damaged his vocal chords; plenty of the great but seriously under-recorded band Malombo, whose Phillip Tabane had attracted the attention of Miles Davis among other luminaries; and rare recordings by two of South Africa's finest traditional or neo-traditional musicians, the Zulu maskanda guitarist Shiyani Ngcobo and, in the mid '70's, Xhosa composer and mouth bow specialist Madosini. The Madosini recordings were sampled by the South African born Manfred Mann, as well as by New Zealand pop rockers Crowded House on their hit single "Weather With You" and the royalties from these and other uses were apparently Madosini's only source of music industry income until an album was finally released under her name in 1998.
It ought to be a mark of shame against the local recording industry that the debut albums of both Madosini and Ngcobo were eventually, after many years, recorded by foreign record companies, and that these remain their only formal releases. It apparently is not something that the industry cares about or has any shame about.
There are studio recordings also of Mchunu's first solo album after Clegg had left Juluka for Savuka, and material recorded by internationally acclaimed jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela while he was living in neighboring Lesotho. This was a record company after all, even if a great deal of what Marks recorded remains unreleased.
However, 3rd Ear has put out limited CD runs of recordings by a handful of outstanding local singer/songwriters who flourished artistically, if not commercially, during the ‘70s, but were pretty much ignored by the mainstream industry. They include Colin Shamley, Mike Dickman, Jannie Hofmeyr, Paul Clingman and Brian Finch. A collection by John Oakley-Smith, who is often considered the finest of the lot, has been in the pipeline for some time. One South African songwriter who was not ignored, even if none of the majors would touch him, nor any radio station would play his material, was the confrontational and uncompromisingly political Roger Lucey.
In 1979 Marks recorded Lucey's debut, The Road Is Much Longer, and released it through 3rd Ear. South Africa's notorious Directorate of Publications considered four of the songs "extremely dangerous to the State." One of them, "Lungile Tabalaza," about an ordinary citizen who had died in police custody, had in fact been left off by the nervous record pressing plant and replaced with a minute's silence. The album was banned outright, and the few copies that had been released for sale were confiscated. Possession of the record was a criminal offence. In 2000, 3rd Ear finally released a double disc Lucey compilation that included the four songs that had caused all the trouble.
These were 'Hidden Years,' indeed for Marks and this became the title of the only album issued under his name. He waited until 1997 to put more than forty years of songwriting on record, an effort bolstered by a supporting cast of over 70 people, from Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and some of Paul Simon's Graceland musicians to Lucey, Shamley, Finch, Ngcobo, Manfred Mann and a Madosini sample. The ever self-deprecating Marks has called it "the one and only overproduced un-folk album by this folk singer," which sells short an admittedly flawed, but nevertheless charming and important South African record.
Marks, whose resume also includes the organization of countless multi-racial gigs and festivals during a time when these were frowned upon, if not simply illegal, is currently writing a book about his experiences in local-related music over the past four decades. He has recently entrusted his 'Hidden Years Archive' to the safe keeping of the South African Music Rights Organization (essentially the local version of BMI or ASCAP). This follows a period during which the archive's survival was uncertain after a national funding grant failed, amidst unhappiness and recriminations, to achieve its purpose, and the archive's continued upkeep was proving beyond Marks' means. But critical though he may be of those whom he believes ought to have treated his favorite South African music more favorably Marks remains remarkably positive, a fact that can be gleaned from his website at www.3rdearmusic.com, where he continues to grind that axe, hopefully, fearlessly, and still with little regard for the sensitivities of the musical establishment.
David mixing for Hugh Masekela - Botswana, 1982
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