Biggest Revelation In 30 Years Of Photography

When the XE3 came out, and I spotted it, I realised it was perfect. It had a large APSC sensor – the same size, but far more sophisticated, as the one in the big Nikon D200. It had a high-quality electronic viewfinder. And it took interchangeable lenses, many of which were much, much more compact than SLR lenses. Most of all, it was tiny. Not just smaller than the Nikon D200 or the Nikon F100. But smaller than my Pentax MX even – and without the central hump for the reflex system prism. It was so perfect, I realised I wanted one myself.

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I had dinner Saturday night with my cousin Robyn who’s visiting Cape Town from Melbourne. Although she surprisingly finds herself a public servant, she’s a fantastically skilled visual artist who draws great masses out of nude human bodies, or swirling abstracts of detailed octopus tentacles.

Stolen from Robyn’s Facebook page.

I also remember that she was a wonderful photographer. I remember that mostly because Robyn took the very first pics of me that appear on my Facebook feed. She took them on September 11, 2001 – a memorable date to be photographed in an airport.

A tiny 2007 Facebook style jpeg of (left to right) Steven Ellis, Philip Anastasiadis, and me – that Robyn took at Cape Town International on September 11, 2001 on her Nikon FM10. We weren’t celebrating – no matter what Trump says.

So I asked her if she still took photographs. She was a little puzzled. Not just phone pics, I clarified (I know full well people take magical pics on their phones but – mostly – they’re used for snapshots that all look pretty much the same). She dug into her small handbag at the table and pulled out her dedicated camera – the beautiful little Olympus Pen-F. And I felt like we were both riding the same secret current.

This year, after over fifteen years of looking for ever more versatile cameras with the highest possible image quality, I finally got something that had been knocking at the door for that entire time: size counts. And small is beautiful.

My father got me a Pentax K1000 when I was twelve years old. But the bug didn’t bite. I never loved that famous bare-bones camera. But in 1993, the year I finished high-school, my dad had moved from Pentax to Nikon for its far more capable autofocus cameras for his wildlife photographic passion (it was an N8008 if you’re curious). And so that was the year I inherited his Pentax MXs. 

My old Pentax MX at right with an Olympus OM4 and a matchbox for scale

Practically the MX is little different to the K1000 except in one regard: it’s tiny. It’s one of the smallest mechanical 35mm cameras ever made (along with the Olympus OM1). This was a camera I could carry anywhere in one hand. So that’s exactly what I did. That camera went all around the world with me as the photography germ infected me.

A recently processed jpeg from Istanbul in 2000 taken with the MX and Fuji Superia 200

And as the fever reached its peak the MX seemed to have many deficiencies. The lenses were not as sharp as they might be. The maximum shutter speed not ideal for all cases. The flash system was very primitive.  I ordered a Nikon F100 used from B&H. I got an 80-200 f2.8 zoom. Impressed by the wizardry and razor sharp images, I then became dissatisfied with the limitations of the 35mm format. I got a Yashica D TLR. Then the interchangeable lens Mamiya C330 and C220 TLRs. Then, the grand-daddy, a Pentax 6×7 SLR with lenses ranging from an ultra-wide 45mm to a telephoto 400mm. But something new began to happen.

My father and I were traipsing through a local public forest with a bunch of tripods, big Nikon SLRs and the Yashica TLR, and some forest officials stopped us and told us we needed a permit. I told them that we certainly did not need a permit for non-commercial photography on public land. It took a bit of an argument and I was furious about this ignorance.

Then, having taken a couple of pictures of a weird tunnel that ran from the nurses home at Karl Bremer hospital where I worked, and the hospital itself, I decided to reshoot some of those images with the Mamiya C330. It didn’t take long for someone to call the hospital administrator who – in full institutional dudgeon – told me that any photography needed to be cleared with the hospital administration. Apart from what this said about the culture of covering up deficiencies in South African public hospitals at the time rather than fixing them, it was also absurd given that, even then, everyone had cameras on their cell-phones that could convey any information I was capable of capturing on film.

The Mamiya C330 is an astonishing piece of engineering. But unobtrusive it is not. Image by haribote on flickr.com

Somehow I’d got the message without actually understanding it. My initial love of photography began to wane. I’d achieved the technical competence I’d been striving for – and so had tens of thousands of others in the digital age. It became hard to see why the pictures that I’d lugged all that gear to photograph actually mattered. I mostly limited myself to shooting wildlife images on trips into the bushveld and then I’d usually shoot video anyway – intrigued by the new ability to get 35mm cine-like footage.

A modern SLR and modern lenses are still unbeatable for bird and wildlife photography

Youtube channel, theartofphotography’s, video essay, “No one cares about your photography,” blew a little fresh air over the embers. I began to see that it was pointless striving for universal images of well-known subjects. The trick was to photograph things that were of local and individual interest (in my interpretation). I took my dad’s near-obsolete Nikon D200 this year and put a 1970s prime 105mm f2.5 lens on it and began to enjoy taking pictures – although they were mostly on major outings and holidays. Often I’d look at the bulk of this camera/lens combination and decide I’d rather not lug it down to the coffee shop.

A pic I took of Aparna on holiday – trying to use the technical skills I’ve learned to create images that will be important to *some*, rather than all,  people in years to come. And ancient DSLRs and lenses are up to the job in the right light.

Then Aparna said that she was looking for a new camera to replace her compact Canon S90 for taking continuity pictures on film sets. There was nothing wrong with the Canon, but she wished she could get something with Bluetooth and wifi for easy transfer to her hard-working iPad. And, if she was going to get a new camera, she reckoned she might enjoy something a little more versatile. I began to look for the right camera.

A lot of cameras were too bulky to consider for her needs – she has to carry a lot of gear. Just switching from paper to the script-E continuity ipad app had reduced her load by about 8kgs at the end of a project, and she’d been lightening the load ever since. But a lot of small cameras were bulky or lacked some key feature. The Olympus Pen-F looked amazing but had no viewfinder. The Fujifilm X100F was a bit chunky and lacked interchangeable lenses. Somehow I’d missed the Fujifilm XE line. 

When the XE3 came out, and I spotted it, I realised it was perfect. It had a large APSC sensor – the same size, but far more sophisticated, as the one in the big Nikon D200. It had a high-quality electronic viewfinder. And it took interchangeable lenses, many of which were much, much more compact than SLR lenses. Most of all, it was tiny. Not just smaller than the Nikon D200 or the Nikon F100. But smaller than my Pentax MX even – and without the central hump for the reflex system prism. It was so perfect, I realised I wanted one myself.

Since I had no cash for an XE3, and because I didn’t need the Bluetooth and wifi, I grabbed the first generation XE1 for R1,500 – or about US$100. Even five years old, the image quality is in another league from the D200, especially when it comes to getting clean images in poor light. And Fujifilm, with its long history of making films with delicious colour palettes, had made jpegs so pretty that many people weren’t bothering to shoot RAW files and post-process them. What I’d discovered was a digital camera as simple to carry and shoot as my Pentax MX.

My ‘new’ Fujifilm XE1 with the same brand matchbox. Minute. Lightweight. Superb.

But the penny only truly dropped when I was discussing it with my friend Mike – an XE2 shooter for some time – when he talked about the unobtrusiveness of the camera. He told me that, working as a tech journalist in the early ’90s, when he carried a very expensive, very professional Leica camera, no one questioned him about his photographs. And so here it is: people see big cameras as professional no matter how ludicrous it seems to me.

I’d grown up in a household with SLR cameras and knew from an early age the difference between a professional camera, like a Nikon F3, and an amateur camera like a Pentax K1000. What I didn’t understand is that others saw no difference at all. Carrying a big black SLR – no matter how cheap – makes you a ‘professional,’ while carrying a professional Leica worth $7,000 makes you a snap-shooter to the person on the street. 

So, while a beefy camera like a Nikon D850 gives you some powerful tools to get great photographs, it’s very appearance means that there are many situations in which people want to stop you. And many photographers understand that the laws around photography and what people think they are – including the police – are often completely at odds. A small camera that the photographically illiterate can’t tell from a tourist’s compact camera can ghost past these self-appointed gate-keepers while sacrificing almost nothing in terms of image quality or versatility. But wait there’s, as the cliché goes, more.

A big camera also asks to be left at home. Just the suggestion that it’s going to be a pain to lug around and conceal from bandits and fit on the table or on your bike can influence you to just leave it behind. “I’m exhausted. I just want to enjoy a drink on Las Ramblas without worrying about the Barcelona pick-pocket community.” So you leave it in the hotel room and have to photograph the fight between a scooter driver and a silver painted human statue with the best camera you have to hand – your phone.

But a small camera, with small prime lenses that encourage creative composition instead of just zooming, is trivial to carry. In fact, I’m shooting the second roll of film in my old MX in years – shooting with 28mm, 50mm, and 105mm primes. And with its enormous viewfinder and simple manual controls, it’s the greatest pleasure imaginable. This effort to bring a big SLR out is what Robyn told me pushed her from SLRs. First she got one then a replacement Pen-F that she had on her that night because, with it’s tiny form and pancake lens, was easy to leave in her bag. I’m still going to take the Pentax 6×7 with the howitzer-like 400mm f4 to the Kruger National Park in a week. But then I know I’ll have a car to lug it all about. And leopards can’t tell a monorail camera from a Minox.

A leopard on the other end of a Pentax 400mm F4, a 1.4x converter, and a Pentax 645N

A quick note on this blog: This has been a learning year for me. I’ve conceived a lot of topics and started a lot of posts and then decided I don’t have anything clear to say on the subject and abandoned them. This coming year I’ll have much more to contribute. So if, for some reason, you’ve actually missed seeing new posts here, next year will be a good year.

Streaming Has Opened The Floodgates

Full disclosure: I quite recently became old. I’m 41. At this point it’s practically impossible to be hip in any realistic sense – to the extent that I just used the word, “hip,” as though it’s current. But I do try hard to resist the sense of smug self-satisfaction that has set in rather alarmingly among many of my peers. I mean the way that, at a certain point in life, people begin to believe that anything new makes life worse, and that the shitty things we had to put up with when we were young and full of hope were the reason for being young and full of hope.

And yes, I do have a vinyl collection. There were some good things about big-ass discs – number one being the large surface area for cover art and album notes that you could pore over as you listened. Every medium besides cassette tapes had its pros and cons (cassettes were just rubbish. The only thing of value that they created was the mix-tape).

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Crazy shit like this just didn’t work on a cassette cover. img src: pintrest.com

But in 2017, this old asshole was finally convinced by younger friends to get on board the streaming rocket. It was an immediate revelation. For a start, Neil Young can just fuck off. I’m very sorry to that dear old crusty rocker, but I doubt that one in a million listeners could tell the difference between the high quality streaming mp3 format and a master tape played in the studio control room in a blind test.

Because I am an old bastard, my listening set up in commensurately old-fashioned. I have a 1980s NAD stereo amplifier running into a pair of early ’70s Goodman speakers with 12″ main drivers. I just couldn’t get the room filling sound experience from the supposedly magical modern book-case speakers. So I just went looking for the same loudspeakers my old man has and am very happy with them (the whole rig cost me less than R3,000 – about $215). I got a little Phillips bluetooth box that let’s me suck sound out of a library of thirty million songs or something and send it into an amplifier that was built while Thatcher was in Downing street, and blows it out of speakers that were built when Led Zeppelin were in their prime.

Do I have a point? After I turned 40 I mysteriously began to ramble tediously. But yes. My point is that I’m not listening on some tiny phone or laptop speakers. I’ve got a pretty ass kicking system, and the sound, streamed over wifi and sent to the system by bluetooth sounds fucking amazing. Don’t believe for a second that you have to sacrifice sound quality for the convenience of streaming.

But so much for how streaming measures up to other formats. How is it different? The most essential difference is the freedom to explore. Unlike the TV streaming services that are shit because they each have their exclusives – meaning you’d have to subscribe to all of them to be able to catch all the shows you want to see – the music streaming services pretty much all have everything. If you’re not fighting off the curtaining off of your perception that comes with age, this means that your entire collection is already available – in multiple formats. No more being relentlessly conned into re-buying your entire Pink Floyd collection every few years. Each new ultra-deluxe, now-with-a-recording-of-David-Gilmour-discussing-his-royalty-cheque-with-his-manager-included, is available almost as soon as it’s released.

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If you must insist on listening to Pink Floyd, it’s all there.

Even for those people, looking for nothing new on Earth, there are things to explore. I’ve found myself listening to a great many live records from artists I know well. Before streaming, it’d be a bit of a risk spending you hard-earned monies on a live record. You could read reviews of course. But music journalists, being among the most bewilderingly fanciful species of observers in the world, don’t offer a very firm foundation. Even for those disgusting fiends willing to deprive be-suited record company executives of the fruit of their immense labours by pirating the record, you still had to take the time and sacrifice the hard-drive space. But now the only exertion I need make is one of curiosity. There are misses, of course, but also some astonishingly good live performances of which I was previously  completely unaware.

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Some of these old folks were pretty hot shit in concert. img src: youtube.com

And then there’s new music. And by new music, I include old music that I’d never encountered before. I threw myself into an exploration psychedelic folk music, new and old. Some of these records, like Mark Fry’s 1972 record, were produced in such tiny numbers that they were largely forgotten even by their creators until record collectors began to pay extraordinary sums to be able to hear them. Now that record is as easy to hear as the fucking Dark Side Of The Moon. Artists so obscure that no one you’d speak to in given week would ever have heard of them are available at the end of a search to listen to in their full glory – such as the romantically named, B’eirth, the eccentric singer-songwriter and instrument-maker behind In Gowan Ring and Birch Book. No commitment is required. You’ve already paid your modest dues, so you can explore their work without decision fatigue.

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B’eirth. If anything the beards have only got more weird. img src: permaculture.co.uk

Arabic folk-dances? Ethiopian jazz? It’s all there whenever you have a notion to hear it. And it’s there at a quality that only studio engineers got to hear before digital music became available. And that reflects on another of my generation’s favourite whinging points…

Pop music is now irrelevant. If you’re in the streaming world there is no reason whatsoever to have any idea who Justin Beiber is or whether his music measures up to your standards. He simply has zero impact on what’s going on in our musical worlds. I don’t need to rail against what he or any of these other commercial hacks are up to because I’m not 12 years old and what they do is totally irrelevant. When you still needed radio and TV to help you discover new music, you were at the mercy of the human garbage in charge of record companies in terms of what you were exposed to. Now you expose yourself to music. It’s all up to you. And I can absolutely guarantee everybody over 38: there is literally more great music being made every year than has ever been made before.

When I hear my peers beat their little fists and wail about how soulless and untalented today’s music makers are compared to a carefully selected list of the greatest musicians of their youth, I snort – yes snort – haughtily – in contempt. If you think that today’s music is some heavily promoted pop musician, you’re doing today wrong. On the streaming services, that little group that delights audiences in their home-town of Zagreb, Croatia is exactly as accessible as whatever munchkin Buzzfeed has been paid to heap hyperbole upon. That young saxophone player who’s been honing his chops in the jazz clubs of London and spinning in a creative vortex is just as easy to find as whatever corporate ear-sugar your twelve year old is listening to through his phone speakers.

Streaming is just marvellous. Pretty much all the music ever seriously recorded by humans at your finger tips. And the more obscure they are, the more likely you’re contributing to the artist’s living and ability to make more. There’s a bit of a secret to the big artists complaining about streaming revenues. It’s that their traditional record companies are taking the lion’s share of it. Independent artists are not doing too badly at all. With this in mind, I actually find myself tending to avoid putting really big artists on my playlists – knowing that each play for a small, independent artist is a meaningful contribution. That’s just me, obviously, but it’s still an interesting effect of the medium.

Medicine-Boy
Go check out Medicine Boy. This Cape Town band is just as easy to stream as Beiber.

Most services – besides Apple Music (being an organisation that abhors democratically selected options) – allow people to create public playlists that can be followed as they are updated. What this means, gentle reader, is that you can discover someone whose taste you admire, and let them do the hard work of discovering new music. Apple Music does have professionally curated playlists – but at that point you  may as well be listening to radio DJs spin the discs by whoever dropped the largest bag of cocaine in their laps. Services like Spotify and Deezer in particular allegedly prioritise the use of community playlists. Yes, many will be by people who listen to rubbish. But once you discover someone with whom you’re sympatico, you have your own selected DJ. If you’re on Google Play Music, you can subscribe to my surf guitar music taster if that floats your war canoe.

To my fellow salt-and-pepper haired Gen Xers, I say: do it. Do it now. Don’t look back.

5 Myths Electric Guitar Players Can’t Let Go

Myth 1: Tube amps are expensive kit for experts*

DrZ
A loud, expensive tube amp img src: 515musicservices.com

When electric guitar really became a mainstream hobby in the mid ’70s, “solid state,” transistor amplifiers were already available, and had a reputation for being more reliable and less expensive that amps using vacuum tubes, as all the older amps had been. So from around then until around the mid 2000s, they were the cheap amps that all beginners had to learn on. Eventually you’d scrimp and save, and buy yourself a tube amp that was way too loud to play in your house.

This has all changed. There’s large range of low-cost tube amps that are affordable for beginners–especially used–and that are either very low powered, or have a low power setting, that allows you to play them at home with having to hover the volume between 0 and 1.

KONG_TubeFifteen
The new Kong TubeFifteen with 1W setting. Retails at 340 Euros img src: session.de

Beginners should be getting these amps. Not only do they allow new players to learn about guitar tones with the gold standard of tone, but their low wattage allows players to learn about power amp distortion that you hear on those old rock records–because many are quiet enough to turn up far enough to begin driving the power section of the amp. Many owners of high wattage tube amps have never heard their power amp drive because they daren’t turn them up loud enough. If a beginner needs an amp, recommend tube amps. Every time.

Myth 2: The Stratocaster is the default, do-anything electric guitar

The Stratocaster guitar, designed way back in 1954 by Leo Fender with consultation from various country guitar players is undoubtedly the most popular electric guitar design in the world. They’re used in every context of playing, and stages are positively lousy with them.

ClaptonStrat
This is wrong img src: et.wikipedia.com

But the Stratocaster has a really particular sound. It’s far from generic. It can be described as ‘quacky,’ (as Strat fans may describe my opinions). Many players, who pick it up for its great ergonomics and toughness, sound much better with other styles of guitar.

While a Telecaster can genuinely be used in any context, from jazz to heavy rock, there’s a short list of players whose sound was actually enhanced by using a Stratocaster–and that list doesn’t go much further than Dick Dale, Buddy Holly, and Hank Marvin. David Gilmour sounds way better whenever he straps on a Les Paul.

buddyhed
This is right img src: mentalfloss.com

Myth 3: Guitars don’t stay in tune with Bigsby tailpieces

I suspect that this myth started with players in the ’60s before it became common for players to have their guitars set-up. Players would lightly use their Bigsby or Gibson Maestro vibrato arm and the guitar just wouldn’t return to pitch properly.

NeilYoungBigsby
OMG! Sum1 tell him it’ll never stay in tune! img src: neilyoungnews.thrasherswheat.com

Guess what? 99% of the time it’s because the nut (the bit at the headstock end of the fretboard with slots cut in it to guide the strings back to the headstock) is badly cut and the strings are sticking in it–and hence not returning to pitch.

The nut is not an easy thing for a beginner to get right DIY style. But take it to a competent guitar repair person and nothing short of constant whammy dive bombs will knock it out of pitch.

You do not need special bridge saddles like nylon or teflon. And you especially don’t need roller saddles that can ruin the tone of your guitar. Any decently cut saddles will do. Lots of guitar players who’ve known this have used these tailpieces for years in live settings. Someone like Brian Setzer, or Neil Young, wouldn’t keep shaking that bar if it was impossible to set them up to stay in tune.

Myth 4: Certain brands of guitars have better resale value over time

It’s so common to see this said that it’s become frustrating. You buy a guitar for R10,000 (US$777). Ten years later you successfully sell it for R11,000. You congratulate yourself that you chose the right brand and made R1,000 on the deal. I’m sure some of you can see what’s wrong here already.

StudioRed
“When I retire, I’ll sell my LP Studio and buy a house, lol!” img src: gak.co.uk

In real terms (adjusting for inflation), very few instruments, and certainly no entire brands, ever reach the new retail value over time. But people make these claims as a justification for choosing some brands over others. What they usually really mean is that their more expensive brand has more real value after the 40% drop after taking it out of the shop (you can look at the used prices of guitars that are still available new in the stores to confirm that this is roughly true) than a cheaper one. But of course the 40% they’ve lost is much more cash too.

Example: You buy two guitars, brand A, and brand B. Brand A is super prestigious American guitar. Brand B is a less prized Asian guitar. A costs R20,000, while B costs R10,000. You try to sell them 6 months later, and you can get R12,000 for A, and R6,000 for B. So A is still worth more, but you’ve also lost more money than on B. Ten years later, at inflation of 5% per year, A costs R31,000 in the store, while B costs R15,500.

But when you try to sell your 10 year old guitars, A sells for R18,600, and B sells for R9,300. They’ve nearly reached the figure that you payed for them. But they’re still worth 40% less than the item in the store. They haven’t increased in value at all and A hasn’t gained in resale value over B. Even in terms of the speed of the sale, the greater desirability of A is offset by the higher price–people will more easily part with a smaller sum of money.

Guitars aren’t particularly good investments (very few increase in real value) but used guitars can are pretty easy purchases as they tend to maintain their value over time (unlike cars, for example), whether the brand is prestigious or not.

Myth 5: You need to jack up the action to use a guitar for slide

This one’s bewildering and walks hand in hand with the clear fact that, while everyone tries slide guitar, only a handful of people, “get it.” There is an, “it,” to get, but it’s not about jacking up the string height. I can only presume people get this idea from lap and pedal-steel players, or at least seeing those instruments.

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This is a different thing from slide guitar img src: makingmusicmag.com

The thing about those two instruments though, is that they don’t have frets and aren’t designed to have their strings pushed down onto the board. But a cursory glance at almost any electric slide guitar player will make it obvious that players fret notes, play fretted chords (although the players who play with the slide on the middle, or index finger may be unable to do so very effectively), and, in many cases, switch between slide playing and fretted playing mid-phrase.

Having the strings hovering at a dizzying height would not make that very feasible. In fact, slide guitar players use medium to low action. Their touch with the slide is so light as to avoid accidentally fretting out with the slide, but the low action still makes it very easy to fret and bend with the fingers. The one aid they will tend to use is a heavier string gauge so that the strings are less easily pushed down onto the frets by the touch of the slide. .11s and .12s on the high E are not unusual on electric guitars used predominantly for slide.

It was brought to my attention that some may think I’m dissing solid-state amps. There are fantastic SS amps out their for pro players who love that sound–such as the Roland Jazz Chorus. But for learning to play electric guitar, they’re less versatile than tube amps. And my main point is that, among budget beginners’ amps, solid state amps are not the only option. Not even a good option, in my opinion.

A South African Guitar Maker: Hayward Guitars

Graeme Hayward begged to be retrenched. The corporation in which he’d worked for years had been purchased and was down-sizing. But Graeme was easily offered one of the remaining jobs. He’d had enough. He convinced them to pull the offer and give him a severance package instead. Stepping out of the rat-race, he rented a Salt River workshop, filled it with industrial power tools and began making guitars.

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Graeme Hayward’s Salt River guitar workshop

Graeme is no novice builder; he’d built guitars in his spare time before. He completed several of what has to be the gold-standard for electric guitar makers–exact replicas of the 1959 Les Paul. With its carved maple top, glued-in (rather than bolted on) mahogany neck and its legendary scatter-wound pickup coils, the ’59 Les Paul is possibly the greatest challenge for any guitar maker to get right.

And he did it. I know. I’ve played it. I know way too many details about the original guitars, and the only thing I could find on his Les Pauls that wasn’t identical to the ’50s originals was the little plastic cover that hides the access to the truss rod that adjusts the guitar’s neck tension. But now Graeme is taking that hard-won skill and using it to build guitars full time during the longest recession since The Great Depression and with our president pointing the SA economy at the waterfall and rowing with all his might.

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The unfinished flamed maple top of a bound, semi-hollow T-style guitar

If he succeeds, it’ll be a triumph of craftsmanship over widget-making. I went down to visit Graeme at his workshop at 9 Friend Street, Salt River. Hollering through the gate got Graeme to open up for me. It’s not just a workshop, it’s a place for people who love guitars to come and hang out. The hall is decked with pictures of iconic guitars, and the men and women who made us worship them. Couches make it a great place to talk about our beloved bundles of wood and wire. Graeme tells me he’s going to build a fake fur-lined case for finished guitars for players to paw at, and possibly a feature wall of stand out instruments to ogle.

The main workshop contains an array of very large and serious machines that transform raw timber into objects of desire. Guitars in various states of completion are everywhere. The South African guitar expo is coming up next week, and Graeme is working non-stop to get his projects ready to show off. Chief among them is a series that marks a return for South Africa–resonator guitars.

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Two styles of resonator guitar bodies at an early stage

Resonators were designed in the era of big bands, before amplified electric guitars, to make guitars loud enough to be heard alongside brass instruments. Since then they’ve become synonymous with blues, thanks to great players like Bukka White, Son House, and Tampa Red. They were also very popular during the Hawaiian music craze, which is why many were decorated with palm trees and other island scenes. Made of steel, these guitars are known for being polished to a mirror finish. Paul Simon sang, “The Mississippi Delta, was shining like a National guitar,” on his song, Graceland. And it’s here that Graeme’s route departs.

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The laser cut top-plate of a chemically distressed resonator body

Computerised machines have made producing perfect guitars trivial, he says. Even some budget guitars, like the LTD line made by Japanese guitar legends, ESP, are in many ways better made than electrics that were largely handmade, and might cost two months’ salary, back in the 1950s. But the downside is the decreasing individuality in each instrument. Those of us who adore guitars think of them almost as friends or pets. It’s not pleasant to think that our guitar may be pretty much indistinguishable from another. Graeme wants each of his guitars to be beautifully playable, but still unique. So a laser-cut cover plate has a bridge plate mounted on it that Graeme carefully hammered out himself over a mould. The neck shapes are shaped to different specifications using a range of cutting jigs, but the final finishing is done by hand.

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A luxurious, flamed sapele, T-style fat neck with a buffed cocobolo fretboard

He’s turned to alchemy, experimenting with dangerous concoctions of chemicals, to distress the bodies of the guitars. No mirror-shine for him. Each guitar looks like it’s been discovered in an attic after 70 years, but with its playability and voice intact. He’s cooking the character into his guitars to make something completely unique and unavailable elsewhere.

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Details count: a vintage punch makes deliberately uneven serial numbers

And hence, South Africa’s economic ailments may prove beneficial. With the exchange rate of the Rand with the dollar, Yen, and Euro weakening, Graeme’s handmade guitars and hand-wound pickups may become increasingly affordable even to working musicians overseas. But he’s not leaving it up to luck. He’s also going to have guitar building workshops in which local players can pay a sum, and then spend several days building their guitar from scratch in his workshop–using premium woods and hardware–and take home an exceptional electric guitar that they’ve built with their own hands under Graeme’s guidance. And on Saturday mornings he’s going to welcome players who want help getting their guitars set up to play better–so that we come in, talk guitars, and walk away with an instrument that plays and sounds its best.

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Three glue in necks with their cut mother-of-pearl logos in holly wood veneers await finishing

Tape Hiss & Sparkle At The Armchair – April 2017

Disclosure: I’m acquainted with the whole band and have been good friends with bass player, Helen Westcott for many years. Hopefully I won’t give you a biased perspective. Also I hopefully won’t have to say anything that’ll will make them hate me forever.

One of the big advantages of living in Observatory, as my cellist friend, Nicola, said last night, is that you can decide late in the afternoon to go and see a music show, and then just amble over there. The Armchair, which used to be a bank and has a vault door behind the bar, has been hosting gigs since at least 2001. I can remember gigging there with Krakatoa in its first couple of years.

Now though, the creeping death of gentrification has severely restricted the volume at which you can play there. So the room has wooden covers over all the windows like they’re expecting a tornado. It makes it hot. Very, very hot.

So it’s a good thing to be there for bands that need you to sit still and listen carefully as the sweat drips down your neck. The opening act was Martinique, a young woman who markets herself under the name Matinino. She faced us seated at an electric piano in a broad-brimmed black hat and black dress, and sang personal stories through story-book lyrics. She blended her clear high voice with itself through simple use of a looper pedal, complementing these harmonies with a confidently played grand piano sound.

It just so happens that she completely had my number. I’ve just been gorging myself on psychedelic folk bands of the early ’70s. Pentangle, Bröselmaschine, Vashti Bunyan, and, particularly, Trees, whose song, The Garden of Jane Delawney was very much in the same vein as Martinique’s story-book, dream lyrics.

Nicola said that she’d like to see her behind a real grand piano, even though she agreed with me that the deep reverb on the voices and the piano blended very well–at the expense, perhaps, of not sounding very ‘live.’ And I didn’t like hearing about looper pedals during a show. To me it always sounds like the musician is trying to draw attention to something exciting and new, while actually loopers have become something of a scourge as musicians understandably try to get a bigger slice of the pitiful performance money while still sounding like multi-piece bands.

But she used it well, and these minor pet-hates in no way stopped me being utterly enchanted by her songs. She’s definitely on my to-see-again list.

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Simon Tamblyn img src: alexanderbar.co.za

I saw Tape Hiss and Sparkle in an earlier line-up and was not impressed. Simon Tamblyn, the singer, song-writer, and guitar player was in an irritable mood and managed to put me into one before the end of his set. This time was completely different. The whole band were enjoying themselves immensely. Their friendship and rapport was obvious. As the band traded jokes over the course of the show, Simon’s laconic, understated humour was enjoyed by the audience too, which laughed harder at each successive quip.

Simon has an comfortable eccentricity. He married a black kilt and red boots to a casual black t-shirt. Helen elegantly carried off a kind of pirate chic in appearance and playing style–her mist-blue Precision bass growling with a picking motion that looks like she’s sewing a seam at speed. Drummer (and published science fiction author, as I quite recently discovered), Mandisi Nkomo–who’d guested briefly with Martinique–looked incongruously prim in a high buttoned shirt and a high-seated, delicate touch on the drums.

Simon’s songs carry an early 2000s vulnerability that’s mirrored in his very inviting performance. I remember seeing him as lead singer in the alt-rock outfit, The Sleepers, where he seemed out-of-place among the Tool-obsessed rockers. Singing confessional songs, like he’s admitting his secret fears at the end of a garden party tête-à-tête, he felt far more convincing. I have a limited basis for comparison of his singing style since I missed much of the music which likely influenced him. The vocals remind me a bit of The Decembrists.

The songs are lyrically coherent in a venue like The Armchair in which you can hear them. And they’re full of hooks. But in a stripped-down band like this, doing these kinds of songs, I felt strongly that I’d enjoy the songs more and more as I became more familiar with them. Hearing them for the first time, I felt that they were songs that could easily grow to love, but I didn’t love them yet.

The band worked well. The powerful sound of Helen’s bass provided a solid, indie body to what might otherwise have come off as a light, folk sound. The drums were necessarily light due to the noise restrictions, and only the bass drum was miked up. But Mandisi’s playing is excellent. When I see them again, I’d like to hear the whole kit amplified.

My biggest gripe is with the guitar sound. Simon was playing what looked like a vintage Epiphone concert guitar which I’m sure sounds excellent acoustically. But plugged in it has that typically nauseating quack of an unmodified piezo pickup. I’d like to see him either switch to an electric like a Telecaster, or get a more sophisticated direct-input box that either equalises the sound better, or something like an Aura Spectrum DI that puts the acoustic sound back in.

But if the piezo sound is my bugbear, I must admit that I hardly noticed it by the end of the show. And that sharp attack does cut through the band nicely when strumming. It was in the solo guitar parts that it got my goat.

A Brief Note On The “Benefits” Of Colonialism

South Africa has been thrown into a debate on a “truism” of colonialism by a tweet from Western Cape Premiere and former leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille:

The debate around this quote has revealed a pillar of white supremacy that has been upheld for generations, even by liberals. It is bizarrely impervious to reason. People repeatedly state that this is an obvious fact, while it is, in fact, pure nonsense. Here are the assumptions underpinning it:

(1) Without the domination by force of European powers, countries could either never have been exposed to technological and institutional developments in Europe, or would never have seen the value of adopting them.

(2) Without European wealth and power, it would have taken far longer for the ‘primitive’ societies to adopt these useful developments.

Both of these assumptions through which people assert this myth are totally false. This can be shown by the only example of a country that categorically was not colonised*. This nation was able to defeat a major European industrial power in a sea war as early as 1905. It was able to strongly contest domination of the Pacific with the two greatest technological super-powers of the ’30s and ’40s. Now it builds robots in glass towers. The two assumptions I listed would have predicted Japan to still be fighting feudal wars out of peasant hovels–which was the state they were in before the European voyages of discovery.

Now we can debate the extent to which Japan would have been a typical case if other nations had remained uncolonised. But the fact that the only example on record does not even remotely match the assumption that, without colonialism, peoples would have remained stuck in the state in which Europeans found them, immediately debunks the so-called, “truth,” of these assumptions.

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Japanese fight Russians with modern weapons in the early 20th C img src: arcimboldo.cz

The overwhelmingly likely outcome is that there would have been vast variation between nations had they never been colonised. Some may have reached the 21st century in poverty and disaster due to vagaries of history. But many that are now struggling to catch up with European prosperity would very likely be way ahead of where they find themselves today. Why can I say that?

Because colonialism extracted resources, labour and materials, from colonised countries to feed the economies of the colonial nations. Without colonialism, cultures could have used those resources for themselves–whether for their élites or in more egalitarian ways, it matters little. The point is that they would have had more resources for self-development, and greater incentive to spread the use of technology internally instead of using it only for the extraction of resources to foreign states, and the comfort of a colonial minority.

Japan was an aristocratic oligopoly. But those oligarchs could see the benefit of enriching their commoners to become fit soldiers and consumers of the industrial products they made. The only reason many assume that this would not have been the case more commonly in the absence of colonialism is a species of racism that suggests that brown people do not recognise their own self-interest. The failures of slow development of post-colonial states is blamed, in this racist narrative, on the ‘nature’ of the post-colonial inhabitants, rather than the well-recorded history of exploitation, declining terms of trade, and cold-war manipulation of leadership by the world’s big economies (most of which were developed through colonial extraction in the first place).

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All this without colonisation. A Tokyo street circa 1910 img src: gettyimages

Every time one of these post-independence nations begins to succeed, one gets the impression of the racist narrative shifting slightly to accommodate the contradiction to the ‘nature,’ based argument–where Indians, Chinese, and Koreans are now natural business people rather than indolent degenerates. Will the rapid growth in West Africa cause people to argue that West Africans are somehow inherently more productive than the ‘ignorant savages’ in the rest of the continent? I doubt those espousing these views will consider the fact that, for example, fast-growing Ghana was the first African nation to gain independence and has thus had more time to overcome its colonial legacy than some others.

What’s particularly dismaying is how people who consider themselves liberal or progressive fail to examine these assumptions. Because technology appeared in these countries while they were colonised, they assume that colonisation was necessary to its appearance, rather than seeing that these technologies became available while those countries were colonised, so naturally their introduction was through that channel. But there is no reason whatever to assume that there would have been any great barrier to that technology in the absence of colonialism. It assumes technological transfer was a benefit of colonialism, when it, in fact, only accompanied colonialism–a force that caused such economic and cultural devastation that even the two nations that were the economic powerhouses throughout civilisation, India and China, are still struggling to catch up.

Europeans did not take to the great oceans to colonise. They took to them to trade. That would have brought their technologies around the world even had they not found opportunities to seize control of their trading partners by force. Japan demonstrates what happened when Europeans found no such opportunity. Trade and technology transfer with Japan did not cease as Zille’s claim would predict, but was vastly accelerated compared to the countries that received their technologies through European domination.

Not everyone would have wound up as successful as Japan. And technological and institutional development would not have helped to make benevolent societies (as Japan proved by itself embarking on a programme of colonisation). But colonialism reduced, rather than increased, opportunities to develop technologically and institutionally.

I should make it clear that I have read Zille’s full series of tweets and she was not taken out of context. She was praising autocratic Singapore which she suggests as a model for South Africa with its paradox of anti-worker, free-trade libertarianism, and harsh authoritarianism which, she argues, embraced rather than lamented colonial institutions. This makes her not only ahistorical on colonialism but actually anti-democratic too. She does not, for example, suggest the Nordic countries as a model with their magnificent standards of living due to embracing democracy, and worker and human rights, rather than suppressing them.

*Some nations that were nominally not colonised (Thailand, Liberia) were very much unable to make policies that in any way contradicted the wishes of great, Western powers and were effectively under their sway.

The Pixies – Cape Town, March 2017

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Lovering, Lenchantin, Santiago, and Black img src: pretoria.getitonline.co.za

Young people, here’s a sad truth: that tribe you inhabit that seems to own the streets and the night-spots, that defines what’s hip and what the issues are? They’ll one day retreat into cars and offices, homes and restaurants, and they’ll mysteriously disappear from view and be replaced by another tribe that despises all yours stood for. But just occasionally they may re-emerge, blinking in the light.

The crowd for The Pixies at Kirstenbosch constituted an informal reunion of Cape Town’s Generation X. We had the experience, all but forgotten, of recognising many faces (usually a little greyer and a little stouter) in the crowd without necessarily knowing names or even where we’d seen each other before.

And there on a wide stage were the alleged best bands of our generation. In the local case, The Springbok Nude Girls, opening for the internationally beloved Pixies. Named for the cover girls on a series of compilation records put out by Springbok Radio in the ’70s, and ’80s, Stellenbosch’s Nude Girls seemed improbably original with machine gun vocals, a trumpet that danced over the grunge guitar chords, and the echoing whoops that made square-jawed frontman Arno Carstens into an almost credible South African equivalent of a celebrity.

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The Springbok Nude Girls img src: thebioscope.co.za

This time Carstens looked in his skinny jeans like a rugby player shyly enjoying his first adult ballet class. His total contempt for his audience had gone and with it much of his fuck-the-rules power. While guitar player, Theo Crous, laid into his Telecaster with every ounce of his ’90s vim, and the new (I presume) drummer was giving it hell, Carstens and bass player, Arno Blumer, seemed to be phoning it in. He could no longer reach those iconic whoops, which had to be filled in by Adriaan Brandt on the trumpet.

That’s not to say that the audience wasn’t loving it, which may tell you that I may not have been in entirely the right headspace. They roared along with the well-loved tunes and called out for more. I was dead centre, about three metres from the stage, and was probably getting most of my sound from the stage amps and monitor speakers. I’m pretty sure the sound was a lot better a few metres back catching the convergence of the main speaker towers. But I couldn’t help thinking, unfairly or not, that this being the greatest South African band of the ’90s says more about the ’90s than about them.

South Africans are so starved of international musicians that women behind us were yelling at The Pixies’ guitar tech* to take his pants off. Jason was naturally quick to join them. The band came on in darkness and opened without a word in a blaze of light and much improved sound. If I was still only getting stage sound, it was a lot louder and a lot clearer.

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Our view of The Pixies pic by Jason Coetzee

The wordless opening was no mere device. As the band went through a careful mix of well-worn classics and songs from their recent record, Head Carrier, with hardly a pause between any of them, the Alfred Hitchcockesque figure of Frank Black (who still goes by his given Charles Thompson in private) said not a word to the audience. Neither did slender, well-preserved guitar player Joe Santiago. In fact, neither of these two remaining primary icons of The Pixies seemed to even look at, or take in the audience at all. It was new bass-player, Paz Lenchantin, and drummer, David Lovering, who gave signs of being present in Cape Town.

Their performance though, was faultless. They hit all of their best loved numbers (besides former bass-player, Kim Deal’s, signature piece, Gigantic) with energy and conviction. Black never shied away from the screaming choruses that electrified us in the band’s glory days of the late ’80s and early ’90s and, despite not being a technical guitar player, Joe Santiago nailed every fiercely original part he ever wrote.

The crowd surged ecstatically for their biggest numbers, with the youngsters hopping onto the stage and being hurled off again by stagehands like kittens. I loved hearing numbers like This Monkey’s Going to Heaven, and Debaser. But some of their biggest numbers I’ve so over-played that they left me a bit cold. I actually found myself bored by their best-known tune, Where Is My Mind–waiting for it to end.

Where I lost myself completely was in the new numbers like Tenement Song and especially Magdalena–songs which prove that Black’s song-writing has only matured and refined over 30 years–the dreamy Bossanova numbers, Velouria and Havalina, and their cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Head On.

After they’d blasted through about twenty five tunes, they acknowledged the audience for the first time, still wordlessly, took some bows, did a single encore, and then it was done. I don’t wish to suggest that my experience was universal, but I found the professional but impersonal style of Black and Santiago a barrier to immersing myself fully in experiencing the performance of a band I’ve adored for two and a half decades. They gave no indication that they had any investment in playing to this audience in this city, and I think many of us want that illusion from our artistic heroes. They literally did not speak a single word to the crowd. Lovering though, who never flagged in what must have been a truly gruelling performance, was beaming during the bows, which counted for something.

I’ll avoid saying too much about the behaviour of my generation. I shouted at one old fool who was trying to relive his youth at the expense of everyone around him. “Moshing,” was one of the shittiest, whitest, notions of the ’90s. It’s even worse if it’s not kept to the front of the stage where participation can be considered consensual.

*Guitar nerd note: I love a band with great taste in guitars, and The Pixies have that. Even a non guitar nerd friend was impressed by Joey Santiago’s black and gold, Bigsby’d Les Paul Custom (you see guitar folks? People do notice). A cherry ’60s Bigsby’d ES345 and a pick-guardless dark-back ’57 reissue goldtop rounded out his choices. Black played a well-worn blonde Telecaster. Bass player, Paz Lenchantin, used a covetable, well-worn, off-white Precision, with a red/tortoiseshell guard (with a scarlet flower attached to the headstock), that may have been an original or some kind of distressed reissue. Joey played through a master volume JCM800 and a Fender Princeton or Deluxe Reverb. Black played through a small pile of AC30s. It’s a good example of how to get tonal separation between two guitars.