Dougie Oakes

MUCH like the minstrels of bygone times and like his Khoisan forebears who wandered around the wide-open landscape of southern Africa hundreds of years ago, Tony Cedras’s life has been shaped by journeys.

He has been to countries he would never have imagined visiting as a teenager growing up in one of the most deprived townships of the Cape Flats. But included in his life story are also journeys that have shaped his mind, his spirit, and his outlook on life.

“Born and bred” in Elsies River 52 years ago, Cedras was a member of a family who gathered and sold firewood for a living. “Elsies in those days was mainly farmland,” he says, “and the housing was like that of an informal settlement.”

“And so, yes, it was tough, but I was blessed with a wonderful mother, a pillar of the Assemblies of God church. Everyone knew her and loved her. And it was because of the respect the community had for her that my two brothers, four sisters and I were able to go through childhood relatively untouched by the activities of gangsters in the area.

“It was my mother, too, who encouraged and nurtured my love for music,” he says.

Cedras was in his teens when he decided that music would be a big part of his future career. But some hard negotiation needed to be done with the matriarch of the family. “My mom said, ‘Fine, you can play your music – but first get a real job.’

“I got myself an apprenticeship, which involved spending three days a week at technical college, and which gave me more time to practise my music.”

Cedras was about 18 years of age when he joined the South African Cape Corps band, run by another person who had a major influence on his career – Desmond Leibrandt.

“It was through Dessie that I met Basil Moses – and it was through Basil that I moved into secular music, joining the jazz group the Four Sounds as a trumpet player.

“In my opinion, the band members – Basil, his brother Cliffie, Billy Bowers, and Richard and Chris Schilder – were among the best I’ve ever played with. I was fortunate to have been with them when they were at their peak.”

From the pure jazz of the Four Sounds, he then moved to one of the Western Cape’s great jazz-funk groups, Pacific Express. This was in the 1970s, the golden age of live music in Cape Town, with Express, Mahogany, Oswietie and Big Daddy all being widely followed around the clubs by jazz and funk aficionados.

But dark clouds were gathering on the political front. An increasingly brutal state crackdown on political activity after the pupil and student uprisings of 1976 convinced Cedras that change would never come in South Africa.

It was time, he decided, to make some tough decisions.

“I thought about becoming a member of the banned ANC in South Africa – and then quickly decided not to,” he says, opting instead for exile.

“I travelled to Botswana, and a haven with the ANC. There I linked up with Mongane Serote, the then Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete, her ex-husband, Keorapetse Kgositsile, the journalist and musicologist Muff Anderson, and musician Steve Dyer, among others

“We were an arts group, but in fact we were couriers for the ANC, with our work taking us all over South Africa, Botswana, Angola and several countries overseas,” he says.

“I also did (a) stint with the ANC’s Amandla Cultural Ensemble.”

He eventually made his way to London, where he lived for three years, linking up with artists such as Russell Herman, Mervyn Africa, and Brian Abrahams.

He eventually returned to South Africa, via Zimbabwe, where he became part of the goemba music scene for the United Democratic Front.

But his music adventure was far from over…

One day in about 1987, he got a call from New York. “It was one of Paul Simon’s representatives. “Paul is putting together a group of musicians for a Graceland tour, and Hugh Masekela says you’re the right guy to play accordion for the Boy in a Bubble,” the guy said. “Sure,” I replied, “but to be honest, I hadn’t played an accordion for 26 years.” And I did not even like Paul Simon’s songs.

“Anyway, the guy then asked: ‘What kind of accordion do you play?’ I had no idea, so I said: ‘Call me in 10 minutes.”

“I quickly phoned my brother-in-law to tell him my predicament. ‘Tell him a Hohner 120 bass’, he advised.

“The guy called back, and I told him, and he said, ‘We’d better get you two.’

“When I saw Masekela, I said, ‘Hey Bra Hugh, why did you tell this guy I could play the accordion?’ Bra Hugh just laughed and said, ‘You can play anything’.”

Cedras said he was useless in the first practice, but Simon was very understanding. “He suggested I take two days at the Grosvenor Hotel, where we were staying, and practised the song until I got it right. I went back to the hotel, rolled myself a thick joint, smoked it and practised until I cracked the song. Next day, I went back, played it and everyone was happy.

“Well, not everyone. The ANC accused Simon of stealing South African music and called on me, Ray Phiri, Bra Hugh, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Mahotella Queens and others not to play with him. We said, ‘Hell no!,’ in fact, Paul Simon was very good to us in every way.”

Of course, much water has passed under the bridge since the days of Graceland and the cultural boycott.

Last week, in his Roger Street home in District Six, Cedras gave an impromptu demonstration of yet another musical instrument that he is mastering: “This is an !guora,” he says. The Khoisan have been making music with it for hundreds of years.”

An !guora is a hollowed-out piece of wood shaped into a bow, to which a piece of gut is attached from end to end. It produces a strangely compelling sound: a combination of a rhythmic “twang, twang, twang” made by the single string (played with a short stick), with an echo-chamber type of “woo, woo, woo,” made by blowing into the hollowed-out part of the wood (like the Australian aborigine instrument, the didgeridoo).

For Cedras, a long-time interest in the history of the Khoisan people has grown into steady activism.

“The Khoisan have a sad history in which dispossession, abuse and indifference stand out,” he says.

He tackles these issues on his new album, Love Letter to Cape Town, in a song dedicated to one of the best-known and most horribly abused Khoisan women ever, Sarah Baartman.

The tribute to Baartman, Mother’s Song, is a collaborative effort involving his wife, Tania Kleinhans-Cedras, his grandson, Dailen Pillay, Dailen’s friends, Zian and Luan Petersen, and Zolani Mahola, the lead singer of Freshly Ground.”

It is a hauntingly beautiful song, which suggests that for him, the journey is far from over…