A fine cab and some odd memories of 1974

Not fancying an evening of Abdullah Ibrahim on an empty stomach, we looked around for an early quick fix of food and wine. The concert was at the Cape Town Convention Centre so the Grand Westin Arabella hotel was handy, and we found a bar-bistro place with the soulless, expensive bleakness you expect at this sort of hotel. Also to be expected, I suppose, was that the food was adequate in quality, ungenerously proportioned and vastly over-priced.

The wine-list matched, but was even more outrageously exorbitant. We selected Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 – our only good idea so far. We decided to forget  the fact that, at R350, the mark-up was about 300 percent (uncompensated for by the lacklustre glasses and by being served too warm), and just enjoyed it. Immensely enjoyed it. It’s a particularly fine example of  serious modern Stellenbosch cabernet: ripe but not overripe, well-balanced and firmly structured but happily approachable in youth (should be even better in a few years, though, I think), and desirably delicious.

Sipping and supping, we saw through the plate-glass windows a bus-length limousine pull up outside the Convention Centre. Abdullah Ibrahim himself? Unclear, but it seemed likely – and suddenly I recalled when I had once before seen the great musician in a car. A noisy little Volkswagen beetle it was on a that occasion, 37 years ago. What’s more, I was in the backseat of the car, with him in front, and driving it was someone set to acquire in time renown (of a type!) nearly matching his own.

In 1974, Ibrahim was still Dollar Brand. He’d returned to South Africa for the first time in many years, to perform at a concert at Wits University, as part of the Release Political Prisoners campaign that was being run by the then rather radical NUSAS, the National Union of South African students.

Getting Dollar Brand to break his exile was a coup, but we student politicos (I was then, I think, editor of the campus newspaper, Wits Student) were pretty cool ourselves, didn’t even consider hiring a limousine, and sent to pick him up at the airport one of the few of us to have a car. I and a friend tagged along. The driver and Volksie-owner was good-natured, fat Craig Williamson, member of the SRC and later to be fully revealed as a particularly foul police spy.

All I can recall of our famous and unceremoniously-treated passenger, regrettably, is that we thought him odd, unlikeable, and probably high.

This all came back to me while waiting for the auditorium doors to open. In South African wine terms, 1974 is far distant, but because it was a famously good vintage some wines from that year – Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon, for example – are still drinking very well, if you manage to find one. The founding of Waterford Estate was well in the future, and Waterford winemaker Francois Haasbroek also unborn (though cellarmaster Kevin Arnold was). All are nicer to have in the country than amnestied Craig Williamson.

As to Abdullah Ibraham – well, I think I prefer the sounds he was making back in the 1970s with Robbie Jansen, Basil Coetzee et al, to the fine, smoother stuff he’s producing with his New York band, Ekaya.

We drained the last drops of Waterford Cab, and went to listen to the music.


First published in Mail & Guardian, 25 February – 3 March 2011

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