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For the Love of Music

Charles Leonard
Photo from Tsotsi film website.

Not even a knife-wielding tsotsi can keep Leonard away from his reggae supplier.

One of my best mates, At, and I, have been lusting after some decent reggae for a while now. Even the better-stocked mainstream music stores in Johannesburg have always let us reggae fans down miserably with their paltry offerings. About five years ago our savior came, dressed in baggy tricolor Rastafarian garb, with mature dreads and a scraggly beard circling his open face. There are many African rastas, which is perhaps not surprising seeing that the faith originated in our fine continent. One of them, a South African called Jah Crucial, became the crusader for the rights of a group of young Rastas in his local black township east of Johannesburg. The youngsters were expelled from their high school because they refused to cut their dreadlocks. Jah Crucial took their plight to some sympathetic media like myself where I was working as news editor at a TV station, and with our help and his energy � not blunted by copious amounts of some of Johannesburg's finest herbs -- got them re-admitted to their school.

Now normally, the news editor acts as a desk jockey and assigns stories to the reporters working under them. But this was a story that I couldn't resist. I joined Jah Crucial and a cameraperson to cover the story on the young Rastas, and their version of "War Inna Babylon" (Max Romeo's song had to do with political violence in Jamaica, but for these young people their right to grow their dreads is considered a vioilation of their political rights in a country where the constitution also guarantees religious rights). With the unwanted media attention we gave them, the school authorities backed off and our young friends' locks were saved.

After my story Crucial considered me a "bredda", and invited me to his reggae shop in downtown Johannesburg. Now "down" is a very appropriate way to describe that squalid part of our city. If it has an official name, not many people know it -- everyone just talks about "The City", referring to what used to be the central business district. Since the early '90s when changes started happening and more black people started moving into the high-rise apartment buildings, most major corporations and businesses have moved out the office blocks to the wealthy northern parts of Johannesburg.

Now that the city authorities couldn't charge their high rates and taxes, they started taking their maintenance and cleaning duties less seriously. Slumlords took over some buildings and rental rates dropped, allowing for poorer people to move in. Some people even started occupying office blocks, and some buildings have a combination of business and residential occupants. With the authorities losing their appetite for this part of our city, crime has been sky-rocketing, leaving people who live there and those who still work there very vulnerable.

Fortunately, in the last few years our more progressive city authorities have started encouraging business people to return to the city. Crime prevention has improved with cameras monitoring most streets in this area. The murder rate has dropped, but brazen thieves, often the small timers who are no less brutal than more serious criminals, still prey on anyone walking the inner city streets.

But the city is cleaner -- there was a time when pungent rubbish was left uncollected for weeks on city street corners -- but the grime doesn't get wiped away or washed off that easily. Some buildings, especially those owned by unscrupulous slumlords, are in such a terrible state, that they look literally and most probably are unsafe for human habitation. Recently there have been a number of fires in this part of the city, and a lot of lives have been lost.

Many of the people who are exploited by these slumlords are refugees, often economic ones, from the rest of Africa. They come to our country desperate for survival. They're mostly illegal immigrants and are without official "papers", and are thus at the mercy of corrupt cops or, of course street thugs.

Jah Crucial's shop was in such a dilapidated business-residential-mix type of building where the elevator hadn't worked for years. You have to climb piss-stained, unlit stairs and pass suspicious-looking characters to Jah Crucial (the name of both the owner and the shop) on the second floor. But you don't need to ask directions when you get to that floor. Even with a heavy cold clogging up every nerve ending in each nostril, your nose will take you straight to the hazy, sweet-smelling little shop where Jah Crucial will be waiting with a lazy smile, a fat doobie dangling from his lip, and like a transplanted Jamaican sound system some LOUD yet blunted reggae beats fatter than a Sumo wrestler's ass, languorously vibrating from the speakers.

"Irie Jahman," I'd greet him with my fist rubbing his fist knuckle-on-knuckle and then tapping the folded fingers side of my fist twice over my heart. "Not today thanks, Jahman," I'd decline his offer of a drag on his joint -- it's never necessary because purely by breathing in the little shop, you inhale enough of the potent stuff to soon start giggling happily along.

Jah Crucial laughs at the fact that pot-smoking is illegal in this country, as do his chuckling customers, he-he-he... And his stock ranging from old school roots to the latest dancehall through to Blood & Fire, Soul Jazz, or Wackie's freshest releases get me grinning without any stimulation. Along with my head floating a few inches higher than the rest of my body, I always leave Jah Crucial with a much flatter wallet, but reggae-wise, at least, I'm so much richer.

Not being a selfish type, I missionary-like told other reggae-philes about Jah Crucial and his shop. Recently, a fellow fan told me old Jah Crucial had been kicked out of his shop, probably because he couldn't pay his rent. Word had it he was now selling his cornucopia of CDs on the sidewalk outside his old building.

So on a day off at the end of last month, when I gave At a call to say "Let's go searching for our old mate, Jah Crucial," there was no hesitation. "Pick me up in front of my place in 15 minutes," he said. Never a fellow to take chances, he'd quickly smoked himself a fine spliff to be ready for Jah Crucial's vibes, because, see, he's no longer in his shop and a man has to go prepared "What do you mean?", I asked, "Hey don't tell me you've forgotten the secondary herbal high you'd get from breathing in Jah Crucial's shop," he said, giving me a red-eyed wink as we drove into town. Now that Jah is working at sidewalk level, maybe he won't be brazen enough to puff a splif in public.

One of the country's finer electronica artists, my doobie brother, At, was jabbering on about his plans for buying a new video camera to shoot his own music videos, while we were negotiating our way through hawkers on the bustling downtown sidewalks selling anything from cheap sweets to vegetables to fake sports shoes. I bet even the potatoes are fake imports from China.

There's a bustle and energy in this part of town with people from every part of Africa selling their wares, speaking in strange accents, chatting away in French and languages foreign to our South African ears tuned to our own English, Zulu, Sotho, Afrikaans and other local languages. They're dressed in a colorful range of clothes advertising the African continent's lovely sartorial diversity. Even though undoubtedly most of the people are friendly and chatty, there is an underlying feeling of menace, forcing you to be alert to not become a victim of a quick and probably violent crime.

Not too many people, black or white, who don't live in the city go there unless it is essential, like in our case: we needed to buy reggae music. To call this part of town "dodgy" is to state the obvious. Closed circuit cameras have have helped to bring down violent crime, yes -- but it hasn't eliminated it. There's still a lot of armed robbery, carjackings, and even murder going on in this area.

As the only two pale people in this 'hood, we obviously attracted attention, especially from people with ill intent. They watched us, licking their lips like lions eyeing a juicy young antelope. No doubt they mistook us for foreign tourists, lost and far from glitzy Sandton or Rosebank with their designer label shops and boutiques selling curios costing nearly the equivalent of the amount a small African country owes the greedy IMF.

I looked over my shoulder and saw that At was having a chat with some shifty-eyed dude who was selling "Pooma" and "Nicke" shoes at this stall. He was saying something about how wrong it was to sell stuff at handsome prices to unknowing customers, while at the same time purporting it was the real deal. I was worried that we still hadn't found Jah Crucial. I instinctively felt where I put my wallet and cellphone in my pants' front pockets. Mr Fake-Goods' stall was at the beginning of a part where the cluttered sidewalk narrowed to about a half of its width for the next 10 yards. At that moment, like any street-wise Johannesburger, I tasted that instant mouth-drying shit as it's flying towards the fan.

As I moved forward towards the end of this narrowing, a man with a nasty face shouted behind me: "Stop now, this is a fucking robbery!" Things happened very quickly, but it felt stripped down like a dub track. No extra stuff, just bass, drums, and snippets of vocal. It's a set-up! He's distracting me to set up a trap ahead, I thought to myself. Fuck! I thought sounding like one of those dubby bellowing cow sounds in my head. Stripped of superfluous people, noise, and other distractions like my best King Tubby minimalist track, I noticed three guys "closing the gate", blocking my way at the end of the narrowing. They'll have guns, a knife, or a sharpened screwdriver to puncture me. Then they'll steel my money destined for Jah Crucial's sidewalk store.

Bastards! But I stayed unbelievably calm, like in that seemingly long but actually short gap between the dub beats before the musical elastic snaps back. No "Armagideon Time" for me! "I will stand up and fight," like Willi Williams sang, doing both fighting and fleeing as I shoulder-charged the three little fuckers out of my way. The dub track was over and my effective shoulder charge that sent the thugs flying was like that Fatboy Slim "Fuckfuckfuck!" moment before it explodes into sped-up ecstasy euphoria.

At caught up with me, walking like people in those old black and white movies, at that speed just before you burst into a jog. "What the fuck happened there?" he said, trying to keep up with me. "I think we'll skip Jah Crucial today," I said, after I explained to him what had happened literally a few yards ahead of him. Still moving fast, we started to giggle. Yes, that's possible because no blood was spilled. "That was going to be damn inconvenient for me," I said chuckling. "I have to pick up both my kids from school, because my partner is out of the country."

As we reached my car, At gestured towards a cop car parked about 20 meters behind us. "Why don't you tell them?" he asked me. "Nah, let's just get out of here," I told him, as I unlock the car. Do I feel like going back there, to talk with the cops? Will they catch any of those guys? Will it make a difference? I asked him in the car as we drove off. I sounded like the three-word title of one of my reggae favorites, by Dawn Penn, as I answered the three questions myself: "No, no, no."

Later that same afternoon South Africa's minister in charge of the police announced in parliament that murder and most other violent crimes had fallen in our country. From April 2004 to March this year almost 19 thousand people were murdered in the country, a decrease of 5.6 percent from the year before. Attempted murder cases fell 18.8 percent and the number of car hijackings, common robberies, commercial crimes, burglaries at business premises, and robberies with aggravating circumstances also showed significant decreases ("Fall in crime may lift investment hopes", by Ernest Mabuza in Business Day, 22 September 2005).

But the same day's Business Day also reported that South Africans still feel unsafe, in fact twice as unsafe as they did in 1998 because of the high levels of violent crime, compared to other countries. The reason why people feel unsafe is because most have experienced, or witnessed, violent crime. They know other people who have been victims and read about violent crimes in the media literally everyday. This crime affects people from all walks of life. The cold statistics, even though they tell you crime is down, won't wipe out the fear that kind of first or third-hand experience puts in citizen's heart.

The next day I went to see the excellent new South African feature film, Tsotsi, which means "street thug". Nominated as our country's entry for the best foreign film category for the upcoming Oscar, this powerful film is a non-glamorous yet human and very realistic look at how a Soweto shantytown gang-leader founds redemption by being reminded of his abusive childhood and then taking a decision contrary to his existence as a brutal thug. With no name, no past, and no plan for the future, he exists only in an angry present.

Tsotsi heads up his own posse of social misfits, Boston, a failed teacher, Butcher, a cold-blooded assassin and Aap, a dim-witted heavy. Their first bit of "action" in the film, where Butcher brutally stabs an upstanding citizen in a full train with a sharpened screwdriver, and lets him die as his friends "give a hand" by keeping the victim standing until the train has emptied of passengers, before they drop him in his own pool of blood. A cold shiver went down my spine -- that could have happened to me yesterday, I thought.

Adapted from an Athol Fugard novel also called Tsotsi, the film then shows Tsotsi reconnecting with his troubled childhood after kidnapping a baby. By taking the baby in a shopping bag back to his shack with him, he is forced to look after the baby and not behave like his abusive father when he was a child I'm not going to spoil the plot here, because I want to urge everyone to go and see this movie when it goes on circuit next year. Well, it'll probably only on the arthouse circuit, but it's worth taking the trouble for. This is an exceptional film, which puts a human face on both the victims and the perpetrators of violent crime, and it is ultimately a story of hope and a triumph of love over rage.

Thankfully I didn't make it onto next year's crime statistics. I could succumb to the chattering classes' favourite dinner party topic, namely crime and how the government is failing its people. Yes, that's the easy option and then move on to how great Australia, New Zealand, or the United States is compared to here, and agree that one should join the mainly white (but with many black professionals now joining the queue, too) exodus to any of these places. I may believe that the South African government is failing its people in some ways because it's not doing enough to redistribution of wealth and create jobs. As a government, it is at least achieving some success in the fight against crime (more than some people can say about their government's alleged "war on terror"). I believe this downward trend in violent crime in South Africa, albeit from a high base, will continue.

The other day, I woke up with a start in the early hours of the morning. I'd just had a far too vivid dream about the man who shouted that it was a "fucking robbery". His large, wild eyes were burned into my mind. When I realised where I was, safe in bed, a line from Willi Williams of "Amergideon Time" fame's other great song with the same drum and bass track, "I Man", started playing on my mind's internal jukebox: "I man got righteousness on I mind / that's why I man is feeling fine." So I man is currently looking hard for Jah Crucial's cell number to find out where his shop is now. When I've traced him, I will go back with my mate At, of course avoiding the narrowing of the sidewalk. We shall buy the latest righteous reggae -- no knife-wielding tsotsi is going to keep me away from my favourite music.

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