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.

Median Income Per Capita in South Africa

I finally found something I’ve been looking for for a while: a figure for South Africa’s median income per capita. The average income per capita is an absolutely meaningless figure unless income is distributed in a bell curve–which it almost never is. It certainly isn’t  in South Africa–a country ranked as the most unequal in the world by some estimates.

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A family in New Crossroads Township in Cape Town that I photographed in 2004

Median is the figure taken by putting every person’s income in ascending order and then selecting the middle figure. For the median you need to know each income–including for those without bank accounts, not paying tax, and those working entirely in cash. This is much harder to do than the meaningless average figure, for which all you need do is take the gross national income and divide by the population size.

Easy, but it is absurdly misleading in the world of the “one percent” who are estimated to own half the world’s wealth. According to this calculation, the average South African earned $7,563 per annum in 2012–or R65,000 using a 2012 exchange rate of R8.60 to the US$. Remember, that average includes a handful in South Africa who earn vast fortunes.

A Gallup survey of at least 2,000 people per country  conducted from 2006 t0 2012 gives SA’s median per capita income as $1,217, or R10,400. Then take on board that the poorest households were possibly more difficult to contact, which would make the survey figure higher than it actually is, and we start to see how misleading the average figure is.

This median figure suggests that, at the time of the survey, half of South Africans earned less than R10,400 per year. R65,000 would be hard to live on, but R10,500 is in another league. In comparison, the median US income at the time of the survey was $15,480 or R133,000–more than ten times the South African figure. Of course, the American average at that time was $49,481, or R425,500. Because the average is also a meaningless measure of central tendency in a society with income as skewed as the USA’s–where, like South Africa, a handful of super-earners take the lion’s share.

Urbanisation in South Africa

I was messing around with SA metro populations. I found the top 100 and graphed them. It’s interesting to me how a country that is halfway through urbanisation looks. We have a handful of huge metros, comprising about 20% of the 55 million national population. But they rapidly taper off to small towns. In these top 100 cities, the median population is about 100,000 (red line). And together these 100 make up just shy of 50% of the population –which gives you an idea of how many South Africans live in villages and really small towns.

SA Cities

The biggest are Cape Town and Durban, by the way. Gauteng is really one urban sprawl, but contains 3 large metropoles: Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Soweto.