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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Memories of Jimi Hendrix from a far away land.

Jimi Hendrix died tragically 40 years and one day ago, a true rock genius taken from us when he was only 27 yet the body of his music has endured like few others. (excuse the 'one day late' memorial but Yom Kippur and fasting yesterday is the reason)

His music touched me, even living in far off oppressive Apartheid era South Africa where I grew up. I was a rock n' roller long before I graduated high school in 1969. From pre Beatles days I lapped it up despite limited exposure on the two government owned radio stations and the ban on television. I lapped up music in every way I could, listening to the BBC World Service on short wave radio at night to hear the latest top 20 hits from London back when the hits of the day really mattered.

By the time I went into the army in 1970, for my year of compulsory military service I owned most of Jimi Hendrix's records. He died when I was at the tail end of my service in far away Namibia, (the called South-West Africa). I forget when or how I heard but it affected me in much the same way John Lennon's death did later.

The following year I was a student at the all-white but liberal University of the Witwatersrand at a time when Apartheid dominated and when black protest and the ANC were almost completely stifled. What little voice of opposition came from the
English speaking white universities. I immediately immersed myself in a world of protest, rock n' roll, drugs and sex with academics little more than an afterthought.

Despite censorship that banned Rolling Stone magazine, Playboy and Karl Marx among other things there were anomalies. Das Kapital, a turgid polemic against the capitalist systems was banned but 'Steal This Book' by Abbie Hoffman, slipped by the censors. It influenced our radicalism far more than an economic polemic ever could. Guerrilla theater became a tool we used to stir up complacent white South Africans.

When film director Costa Garvas's "Z", a political drama set in a fictional Mediterranean dictatorship slipped by the censors we were outside the theater handing out fliers to moviegoers comparing the film to life in South Africa. Suddenly a car pulled up in the front of the theater and two men, dressed in black suits, white shirts, black ties and sunglasses, the classic outfit worn by BOSS (Bureau of State Security) agents, ran up to the doors and dragged two of the students handing out fliers into the the car and took off. Living proof South Africa was the fascist state we claimed it to be. The moviegoers were stunned; we weren't. It was all a set-up, guerrilla theater at it's best. Not that BOSS agents didn't come to haul people off at any time.

What did all this this have to do with Jimi Hendrix? Not much on one hand and everything on the other. Rock music was our fuel, our way of expressing our rejection of the staid norms that governed white South African society. Jimi Hendrix encapsulated that feeling better than most. He was black, he was cool and his fingers created pure magic on guitar. He broke all conventions. To us he was a prophet. We were inspired by the student revolutions in America and Europe in latter half of the sixties, fueled by the war in Vietnam and the counterculture in general. It took a little while to reach South Africa but it took root in the early seventies.

The movement was small in numbers in South Africa but in the void created by a lack of much else, we were very vocal and very noticeable in the larger urban and more liberal English speaking cities.

Around that time a cinema in Hillbrow, the only part of Johannesburg with any nightlife, started showing a film about Hendrix every Friday night at midnight. It was part performance, part interview with the people who knew him. For us it was the closest we could get to real rock music, other than our precious record collections. A horde of us would descend on the cinema, sit back and watch his magic on the big screen, The prerequisite LSD we all took before each showing fueled our absorption. Before long, we knew every word of every interview, knew every not of the live footage but still went back for more.

Not all the student anti-apartheid troops staddled politics with rock and drugs but enough did to infuse the movement. On a Friday afternoon in 1973 the police invaded Cape Town Cathedral where students were holding a silent vigil agsinst Apartheid. Students were beaten with batons amongst the pews. We knew we would be hitting the streets on Monday. We spent the weekend cutting up pieces of cloth for the inevitable tear gas, making placards and banners denouncing evil in all it's forms. Fueling our energy and commitment was a non stop rock soundtrack, with Jimi Hendrix getting more play than anyone else.

Not that his music spoke directly of protest or revolution. He was revolution personified.

We battled with police for the next week in and around campus. By Friday government decree and a final invasion of plain clothed police with batons beat us into submission, hauling a few hundred off to prison. Things quieted down but our passion didn't. We did more than protest. We went out to rural areas and built one and two roomed classrooms for black children who had no direct access to education. We organzized, we exposed and we wrote.

As part of the editorial staff of the college newspaper I was eventually charged by the government with 32 counts of obscenity and defamation. By most standards it was neither obscene or defamatory but in the authorities eyes we had gone to far. Charges were eventually dropped against me and all but two others and we made the first story on the national news for some fleeting fame.

I moved on after college and settled in America in a new era. The battle in South Africa intensified as the black majority revolted. A few of my friends from that era died later on at the hand of government assassins, many others died in the violence that lasted from 1976 to 1990. By comparison, the police handled our samll but passionate band with kid gloves. The worst any of us received were some welts from police batons. Even white radicals received some level of protection from the Apartheid regime.

Apartheid was eventually beaten. It took the black majority population to rise up, giving their lives if necessary, a commitment I could never reach. I played a small role in that, it was the best I could do, but it changed me forever.

Everything has a soundtrack and the music of that time in my life featured Jimi Hendrix's music above all. His star shone so bright, it seemed he was always destined to leave us far too early.

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