Musicians who’ve stood the test of time


Musicians who’ve stood the test of time

Grateful Dead were much more than just a rock band, writes ALI VAN WYK about his recommendation of a music documentary series. Meanwhile, CHARLES LEONARD offers a handful of the songs he packed for a road trip.

  • 10 May 2024
  • Lifestyle
  • 5 min to read
  • article 12 of 16


Ali van Wyk's recommendations

Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead 

Musical documentary
Prime Video | Six episodes
Director: Amir Bar-Lev

This is not a new documentary series (2017) but it's one of the most remarkable and complete records of a cultural project over the last 70 years. Grateful Dead, the band from the 1960s, were much more than a rock, psychedelic, country or folk group. They were a cultural phenomenon, a travelling LSD circus, an anarchic mobile town and a thorn in the authorities' side. They were also serious musicians.

And they were the only hippies who persevered with free living when all other hippies had more or less gone home to take a shower in the stormy 1970s, throughout the glamorous 1980s and into the 1990s when designer hippies were rediscovered. Then they were simply back in fashion without needing to buy new clothes.

If you weren't there but want to understand something about the cultural revolution of the Sixties, watch this series. The frontman, the legendary Jerry Garcia, is just as important a figure of the period as his friend Ken Kesey, the lead dancer of the Merry Pranksters and their colourful acid bus, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and The Doors. The documentary is also a cruel reminder of the toll that rock 'n' roll as a lifestyle takes on great artists.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

American Fiction

Director: Cord Jefferson
Script: Cord Jefferson, Percival Everett
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz

The Oscars in 2024 had an amazing collection in the best picture category. A movie like American Fiction, director Cord Jefferson's debut, didn't really stand a chance against the studio films with their 10-times bigger budgets and big-name directors.

However, in other years it would have been able to walk away with the golden statuette. It has a smart and witty script (it did get the Oscar for best adapted screenplay), good actors — especially Jeffrey Wright (also nominated for an Oscar) — and a director who makes you look forward to his future work.

It's based on Percival Everett's 2001 book, Erasure, and tells the story of a black American literature professor and author, Thelonious “Monk" Ellison, who writes novels based on classic works and doesn't pay much attention to racial issues. He is annoyed by the success of black literature that appeals to outdated stereotypes of how black Americans speak, act and live. His own novels get little attention.

As a bitter joke, he writes a novel under a pseudonym in the idiom he hates, which his agent sends to a publisher, who, of course, loves it. It becomes a big hit and Monk is reluctantly obliged to play along.

An American movie has not worked on so many levels for a long time. It is really funny, it has light and dark humour, it is satirical, but it is also a sincere and subtle drama with tenderness and warmth.


This week, Charles Leonard, arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, shares five of the 80 seven-inch singles he listened to in his car on a slow tour to the Cape and back to Johannesburg.

Last weekend, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival made its return after Covid. For Charles, alongside the National Arts Festival and a few book festivals it is one of the most important events on the arts calendar.

He is also a record collector and amateur vinyl DJ. As someone with a greater eye for a gap on that front than Lukhanyo Am on a rugby field, he collects singles on vinyl.

Jazz is mainly issued on albums, but as someone who likes a challenge this does not deter him. It also gives him an excuse to order a few more discs from England. Luckily DHL is reliable — flippin' expensive but fast.

Here are his five.

#1 Archie SheppAttica Blues:
It's a protest song and the title track of avant-garde saxophonist Shepp's 1972 album. This refers to the previous year's Attica prison uprising against terrible conditions, in which 43 people died. The song is bitterly funky, groovy, but still deep jazz, with Shepp intense behind the sax, combined with the best in black gospel-type vocals.

#2 Marlena ShawCalifornia Soul:
It was composed by Ashford and Simpson (remember their hit song Solid?) and covered by quite a few soul artists. My favourite and the most famous version is Shaw's, which appeared in 1969. She died in January at the age of 84. Her record company, Verve, rightly described her as “a wonderful singer".

California Soul has just been reissued as part of a mini box set and I can't wait for mine.

#3 Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of BreathMRA:
The song comes from the Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath album of the same title, released in 1971. It's also my celebration of South African jazz. Pianist McGregor and his black comrades, the Blue Notes, were in political exile from the 1960s in England, where they were influential on the jazz scene without losing their South African flair. Brotherhood was his larger ensemble and MRA confirms that nothing is as deliciously danceable as our own jazz.

#4 Letta MbuluWhat’s Wrong With Groovin’

Hugh Masekela composed the song but Mbulu made it her own on this 1967 release. If I had to choose between her and another favourite South African music legend, Miriam Makeba, Mbulu would win by a whisker. That's how much I love her.

’Struth, this:

What is wrong with grooving? / Can't a girl just have a little happy? / Without any hide and seek / What is it they're asking for?

#5 A Tribe Called Quest — “Sucka Nigga"

A favourite DJ party trick of mine is to play a song (it's usually soul or jazz, but Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side has also been used intelligently) and follow it with someone who samples the original. The brilliant hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest are masters of surprising and creative samples. With Sucka Nigga they use Jack Wilkins' jazz number Red Clay. I have a single that was recently released with the two songs on sides A and B respectively. I'll have to spin the record quickly during my DJ session for my trick to work. 

Charles Leonard is arts editor at the Mail & Guardian, a podcaster, record collector and DJ.

♦ VWB ♦

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