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SA With Martin Simpson: Remembering Gito Baloi

Meet Martin Simpson –

For this, the fifth interview from South Africa, I thought I’d do something quite different. Back in April 2004 we lost one of our top bassists – Gito Baloi was senselessly gunned down on the streets of Johannesburg, just a few hours after a wonderful performance in Pretoria with his friend, Nibs van der Spuy. The whole continent reeled in absolute shock. Gito was a very peaceful man and for him to die such a violent death was something we just couldn’t come to terms with. Gito was one of the founding members of the South African Bass Players Collective and we’ve never quite gotten over the loss. Gito had his own recording studio set up in the garage at the back of his house and made three solo albums and was involved in a number of collaborative efforts. He was the bassist and vocalist in one of our most popular local bands, Tananas, and was one of the busiest musicians in the country. Late last year, I was handed a couple of copies of a CD called Beyond, which was put together by Dave Reynolds. I immediately gave one to my friend and fellow bassist, Kai Horsthemke, to review and kept the other one for myself. Kai reviewed the album and then spoke to Dave about the project.

Gito Baloi – Beyond
(Reviewed by Kai Horsthemke/ November 2008)

Lovingly produced and orchestrated by long-standing friend and multi-instrumentalist Dave Reynolds, ‘Beyond’ comprises ten previously unreleased songs/ tunes Gito Baloi had recorded over the years. The selection itself must have been extremely difficult, since Gito left behind virtually hundreds of unfinished works, demos and snippets. Dave used Gito’s bass and vocals as the framework, and invited many musicians with whom Gito had collaborated over the years, to develop, rework and refine the pieces. What has emerged is an album that must rank with Gito’s finest, albeit one that features him less as bassist than as singer and composer.

‘Queremos viver em paz’ is a gorgeous opener, one of my favorite tracks here, with Tlale Makhene’s conga groove setting the pace for this paean to peace, and McCoy Mrubata’s soprano sax underlining and setting exclamation marks behind Gito’s extraordinary vocal performance. Also featured here are former Tananas collaborators Steve Newman and Ian Herman. I feel that ‘Sinto Me Bem’ would have benefited from the addition of backing vocals to soften what is a fairly ‘hard’ and ‘dry’ vocal track. Dave has nonetheless produced an impressive track, enlisting Nibs van der Spuy and Graeme Sacks on guitars and Frank Paco on drums, with Dave himself playing steel pans, congas, acoustic guitar and additional bass, but this is probably the piece I like least here. ‘Mina Nawe’, like the previous track a compositional collaboration between Gito and Dave, features Dave on pan melody, percussion and additional keyboards, with riveting solos by Vusi Maseko (organ) and Paul Hanmer (electric piano), and a drum track provided by Bernice Boikanyo. This is firm favorite, with all kinds of tricks and twist in the harmonic department. Again co-composed by Gito and Dave, ‘Todos Dias’ is a sunny, gentle major-7th oriented song that features a tasteful bass solo, with the late Moses Khumalo on alto sax, McCoy on flute, and Dave on guitar, additional bass, drums and percussion. ‘Sol’ is essentially Tananas, with Dave contributing pans and wave basket and Eliot Short on violin. It’s one of those minor-key, balladic folk pieces on which Gito simply soars. The hook for the bridge and instrumental/ solo sections is completely captivating. ‘Uma Mensagem’ is sung in both Portuguese and English, an optimistic reggae-flavored number, with Hanmer, Short (violin and mandolin) and 340ml members Pedro da Silva Pintio (vocal), Rui Soeiro (bass) and drummer Paulo Chibanga. ‘Proteção Deste Mundo’ is Gito’s moving appeal for global ecological sanity: McCoy is on tenor sax, Tony Cox on acoustic guitar, and Dave provides tasteful string and vocal effects. ‘Matikweni’ works off a vocal sketch Gito left behind. Dave plays bass here, with Hanmer on electric piano, and Herman and Makhene supplying drums and percussion parts, respectively. The penultimate track, ‘Over the seas’, is another firm favorite – an instrumental on which Gito is joined by Paco on drums and sometime-Tananas-collaborator Deepak Ram contributing gorgeous bansuri, as well as Dave’s jaw harp and percussion. ‘Feeling Good’ reprises the second track as an instrumental and, to my ears at least, works considerably better than ‘Sinto Me Bem’. Dave plays lead steel string guitar and pans here, working off the bass and Graeme’s electric guitar – in a fitting closing tribute to their long-time and sorely missed friend.

In sum, this is a labor of love that is rich in detail and emotion – and that reminds us just how devastating the loss of Gito as musician and person was … and continues to be.

Kai Horsthemke interviews Dave Reynolds
[Kai] Dave, how did you go about selecting the material? [Dave] Well, logistically, quite simple: I spent two weeks all day everyday listening to what was on Gito’s hard drives. Artistically and emotionally, though, a little more mysterious. I think the tracks mostly selected themselves – had something about them that said, “Knock-knock, I’m ready now, can I come out?” How did they say this? I’m not quite sure, but I’d guess that in most cases a lot of this came from the vocals. Some tracks I listened to were really well-produced-final-take-stuff (since this is a musos’ forum, you want juicy details, right?), with harmonies and voice doubling in parts and all the production stuff. It’s as if Gito was really putting down vocal takes for his next album, not just documenting the composition. But having said this, when Gito laid down vocals he laid them down good and solid. No matter what mic, what room, what recording engineer, his vocals always had that haunting beauty, unique signature and the execution [would be] impeccable. (Sorry geeks, no auto-tune or melodyne was used in the making of this one, no EQ on vocals either, just good singing.) [Kai] Given that the CD weighs in at an LP-friendly 42-plus minutes, does this mean that there was no other material that could have been chosen for inclusion here? [Dave] Aw no, there’s piles of stuff. I like your term “LP-friendly”. I grew up on friendly LPs which meant 4 or 5 well produced tracks per side. A good listen is two halves of twenty minutes each. Most people, I think, can’t concentrate much longer than 40 minutes anyway. When CDs came along every album soon became what we used to call a double album (2 LPs, 4 sides) – but without flipping weighs in at, say, 67 minutes in one listening session. And with all the other forms of audio and visual distraction these days, I think folks don’t listen much from tracks 11 onwards – they may leave the music playing but thoughts or conversations or the telephone or Facebook pull their ears away. So if you’re still hungry when the album finishes, start from the top and listen again ’til you’re friends with every note! [Kai] What struck me, listening to this album, was the consistency in level/ output – in fact, the high audio-quality of the recording. Did you have to do a lot of tweaking? [Dave] Well, high audio-quality is one of the Gods we serve, right? Like good performance, good song writing etc. I personally don’t do much tweaking for this kind of music. I start with quality input and end with quality output, with not much in between. Here’s my producer’s secret to quality input – three things: (1) good instruments, (2) good players, and (3) good microphones, (4) good sounding studio room. So how do I get amazing nylon string guitar on track one? Get Steve Newman playing a Mervyn Davis axe in my studio, put up a stereo pair of Neumann KM184s and an AKG C414, play him the tune once so he can noodle along, then repeat from the top, but this time I press “record”. Now watch this space, I’ll win a SAMA award for “best engineer” in May next year! [Kai] When you went through the material, were there some gems that you hadn’t been aware of?

[Dave] Well, I spent a lot of time with Gito over the ten years we worked together and most of this was hanging out in his studio. So I had heard a lot of what he’d done. Some tunes like “Matikweni” we’d even played live since the early days (1994), but it had never been released. Others I was acquainted with but didn’t know that well (like “Sol”). But there was one gem that I’d never heard and knew from the first 20 secs that it had to be included – “Over the Seas”. Boy, when I found this one I couldn’t sleep for days I was so excited. It was just Gito playing bass – and that signature style of his … using the open strings to accompany him while fretting the melody higher up. I even considered putting it out as I found it, but then a few niggles crept in … there was no solo, the tune was short, so I immediately thought of a duet with Deepak. Then it was crying out for some kind of (modal) groove. I thought of a didgeridoo, and then tried a jaw harp and it worked! Then Frank came and lifted the whole thing with drums – giving the listener what I guess I was filling in my head – the light and shade, the climaxes and the emptiness. So in the end it became slightly more textured but retains, I feel, the simplicity of the original gem – a solo bass composition at heart. [Kai] Please tell me a little bit more about the previously unreleased Tananas tracks here. [Dave] Oh sure – track 5 called “Sol” was a tune that Gito began writing ten years ago, then jammed with the Tananas trio (Steve Newman on nylon string acoustic guitar & Ian Herman on drums/ perc). Peter Pearlson did the initial tracking on it, but it wasn’t released. All I did was transfer from 2-inch to digital, and then added a wave basket (perc) for extra mood and steelpans in the chorus (for support), then Eliot did his kind of Eastern thing on the fiddle, and I mixed.

“Queremos Viver Em Paz”, track one, sounds like it could be the same but we recorded it from scratch, with a definite Tananas reference in mind though … Latin groove, minor-to-dominant-flat-nine progression etc. Funny, Paul was so reluctant to play piano on this track – he was convinced it would spoil it. I tricked him with oldest trick in the book – promised I’d mix him right down, and play him the mix and if he wasn’t happy then I’d remove him. That’s why we love Paul so much because his hearts so big he allows himself to fall for the music every time. But what’s supercool is the way his determination not to “spoil the track” resulted in him playing a very minimal role – the classic less-is-more that is often so hard to achieve.

[Kai] ‘Beyond’ is evidently a very emotive compilation and a very moving tribute. Was there ever a time when you thought, ‘No, I can’t go through with this’? Or were you ‘on a mission’ from the very outset? [Dave] Well, yes, there were quite a few times when I thought that (I guess I’m human, after all). One of the main stumbling blocks was keeping the thing independent at some executive level. I really felt that this had to be a not-for-profit venture, most importantly so that the GITO BALOI MEMORIAL TRUST would benefit, but also because otherwise something sad would happen, like I’d be forced to cut corners and make a bad album for R40k or I’d spend my whole life wanting to do it and waiting till I had R420k to do it justice. So in under two years (with many healthily sleepless nights) R420k’s worth of donations in cash and kind have given us something world class, something that will be still be fresh and inspiring sonically and musically twenty years from now, and something that an artist of this caliber deserves. [Kai] I really liked your liner notes, Dave, especially the account of Gito’s reason for never having returned to live in Mozambique. [Dave] Well, ja, I actually didn’t write that. It was already there the way Gito said it and all I did was get together with his widow Erika and work out how to sing the song in 299 words. We tried to include anecdotes that folks may not know about … hey, this guy was the kind that gets born perhaps every few hundred years – lives an extraordinary life with a strength and determination way beyond what many of us could imagine. [Kai] Perhaps, finally, a question that will have been on the minds of a lot of us: can we expect another album like this in the not-too-distant future? [Dave] As you know, no two (good) albums are ever the same, but if I have anything to do with it, I’ll give you my word that I’ll apply myself as fully as I can and aim beyond what’s been done before. For Gito. [Kai] Many thanks for sharing, Dave.

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