Back in 1991, we had just embarked on that thing of change we have still not even halfway finished. Censorship and segregation were being formally dismantled. Artists were technically free to perform what, where, and with whom they liked.
But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Many venues remained entangled in apartheid-era audience expectations, genre chains and avarice. It was six years before broadcasters would be subjected to even minimal local content quotas. The only concession record labels made to greater openness was the exhortation to artists across racial boundaries to “try to sound more like [insert international name]”.
Artists might have been freer, but they lacked platforms. Audiences might have been freer, but they lacked knowledge of who was playing.
Individual beacons shone in this darkness: inspired broadcasters, columnists and, of course, Kippies at the Market. One shone brighter than most: Peter Makurube and his Monday Blues session at the Cotton Pub in Hillbrow.
Monday Blues was the über jam session. Ignoring categories, community boundaries, genres and expectations, Peter brought together an unpredictable mix of everybody who had ever jammed in his kitchen, brought him a cassette (it was that era), or been recommended to him by somebody else whose taste he trusted. Mostly, it was music; but sometimes there would be a poet, or a comedian, or a performance quite impossible to classify – which, these days, would probably be confined to some new music clique at Wits or Goethe.
Those categories never mattered to Peter. His inquisitive open-mindedness – rooted in an unapologetic political belief that freedom was vital – was one of the three strong foundations on which the Monday Blues phenomenon grew. The second was his encyclopaedic knowledge of culture: traditional and contemporary, in Africa and the rest of the world. Finally, there was his huge and constantly expanding circle of friends and contacts. Pity the newcomers to a Monday Blues session because Peter would mark and corral them, and by the end of the night he would have biographies, contact details, cultural vision – and pledges to attend this, that or the other cutting-edge event he just also happened to have information about. And, of course, to come back next week.
Some of that is the stock-in-trade of any journalist, and Peter was a very good one. His knowledge and contacts were certainly built during his stint as a very popular Radio Bop DJ in the late 1980s. But he took the contact building, research and bridge building further than anyone might expect. It was his vocation, and it kept Monday Blues (as well as a number of other important cultural activities) going for 22 years.
During that time, the circles of friends and contacts, as well as the respect, grew exponentially. But as fast as Peter made friends, there were mainstream figures who decided his frank talk, impatience with bureaucracy, and reluctance to suffer fools gladly were too bothersome to work with. Monday Blues, the most interesting cultural showcase of the period, never received the media showcasing it merited, while its historical significance has never been adequately acknowledged.
Cotton Pub, even in its heyday, was disorganised and cramped. Monday Blues lasted less than a year there before starting the peripatetic rest of its life. Over subsequent years it travelled to countless restaurants and clubs, from the city centre to the northern and western suburbs. It was occasionally on some other day of the week, though the session title remained. Partly, that was a response to the vagaries of the industry, but often it was a quite deliberate mission to take new sounds to new audiences and keep the project fresh.
But by 1992, when Monday Blues was making its very first move, the word that interesting gigs could be found in the city had already prompted the Jungle Inn and Sof’town (with another legendary jam session for a while) to open. Two-Tone in Vrye Weekblad documented some of what Peter was presenting. Radio spaces opened up slightly more. Two years later, the Sheer Sound independent record label was founded.
Monday Blues was the very first spark of the Joburg music renaissance of the 1990s. The list of artists who got their breaks there over the years stands testament to the breadth of Peter’s vision: from Simphiwe Dana and Blk Sonshine to Die Antwoord. But if there is one artist who typifies and demonstrates his contribution, it is the late Moses Molelekwa, who got his earliest exposure at Monday Blues and began his international success with Sheer Sound. Some late nights in the 90s, you’d catch a young Molelekwa, keyboard under his arm, footing it from some other gig into the wilds of the CBD. “What are you doing?” you’d ask. “Don’t you know you’re going to get mugged?” The answer was often the same: “No, but if I rush I can catch Monday Blues. Peter says he’s got so-and-so performing, and I need to be there.”
Gif Credit: Moses Molelekwa, who got his earliest exposure at Monday Blues: by Lloyd Gedye