Mac McKenzie and the penthouse goema suits

Mac McKenzie and the penthouse goema suitsThe ‘Genuine” Mac McKenzie
by Iain Harris

Mac Mckenzie (above) at the Cape Town Festival 2002 and Hilton Schilder, also at the Cape Town Festival 2002

I wasn’t around during the time of the Genuines and I never saw Namaqua perform. So up until meeting Mac McKenzie this year, my knowledge of him and these two bands was compiled from other people’s takes on him. As a young music journalist exploring Cape music I’d heard a lot about Mac, but always in fragments – and always in suspicious tones.

From the fragments I got I conjured this image in my head of a short, round 50 something malletjie – a goema Danny Devito, all fast talking and manic with a sly eye. The image was partly right, I discovered when I worked with him to produce the performance of the New Orlean’s Male Choir for the Cape Town festival in March. He’s far from short and round: in fact he’s lean and tall and even though he is fifty something, he looks like he could be in his thirties. But he’s fast talking and manic alright, and there’s definitely a sly on-the-make look in his eye.

I come from a frontier township,” he shouts with with a mock-defensive laugh and a mouthful of black tea. In the background shouts of `conundrum’ come from that Jeremy Mansfield hosted word-game show on TV. “Bridgetown was one of the first townships on the flats. It was like a coloured wild west here. There was violence everywhere. While my parents were fighting, the people in the house behind us were killing each other, the people next door were taking each other apart, around the corner an ambulance was fetching another couple. We faced violence in every shape and everywhere we turned. Our nerves were always fried. I’d visit friends in Grassy Park where the `uppity’ mobile coloureds lived, and it’d be birds singing and tea with milk and cake at a diningroom table. I thought I was in heaven!”

Ja, and music was part of that violence,” Mrs McKenzie picks up. “There was music everywhere in Bridgetown back then, but as much as you loved it, you could never be a musician. My husband’s first wife was music. He worked during the day and played music by night. But you couldn’t be a man and be a musician. The system didn’t allow for it. Work was life, music came second and wives were way down the line.”

So when Mac told his father – who is considered one of the most extraordindary guitar and banjo players this country’s ever had – that there was no way he was going to be a labourer, that music was his fulltime calling, his response was violent. “You want to be a musician!?” Mr Mac exhorted. “I`m not going to have a musician living in my house!” And Mac was kicked out of the house into a world where to survive as a musician you had to be mad and dangerous.

Looking at pictures of a young Mac, he certainly looked dangerous. “People saw me as a bit of a Mohamed Ali,” he half-brags. “I was in with the gangsters because I was big strong and could pack a punch, and I lived hard. “And the girls went mad for him,” Mac’s first wife Beryl tells me. “He had this great body, this mysterious and manic energy, and girls wouldn’t leave him alone.”

With Hilton Schilder, that manic energy and hard living turned their band The Genuines into a cult outfit, reminiscent of the Sex Pistols with their anarchist attitude to everything possible. Part musical brilliance, part theatrical indulgence. “We just did exactly what we wanted,” Mac relishes. “And people loved it, both here and in Europe.” Just read old Cape Times and Argus stories – as well as clippings from Dutch newspapers – and you get a picture of the impact the Genuines had, and the energy of innovation they brought to the music scene.

After the Genuines came Namaqua, with Mac switching from bass to guitar. I remember one of the first times I heard Mac’s name, was in reference to his Namaqua album, when Cape Town historian Vince Kolbe said `If I ever have to hear Stella By Starlight again I’ll strangle Mac!”. The Namaqua album featured a variety of cheesy classics like Stella on guitar, with some originals thrown into the mix. But the magic in the Namaqua concept wasn’t the album, it was the touring band which featured Ready D on decks scratching up old goema vinyl, and BVK’s Mr Fat as MC. It brought a vital new edge to both goema and hip hop.

Mac’s been silent for quite a long time now, focusing on being a solo guitarist. He’s recorded independently a solo guitar album called Cybergriot which is brooding and sibillant – no sign of chaos or madness. He’s also been working – like his father did – in the Malay choir world, performing with the New Orleans Male Choir and bringing an inspired new edge of musicality to a world that is musically stagnant.

And now with Hilton, he’s reconstructing an evolved form of Namaqua, featuring trumpeter Alex van Heerden and DJ Hamma, and as guests Liz Brockhart and Valmont Layne. It’s going to be more subtle than the original Namaqua outfit, more layered and complex he tells me, playing both old Namaqua compositions as well as new material.
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