New hub a hive of musical hopes
A government-run centre in Joburg aims to nurture talent and showcase SA’s legendary artists
In 1926, at the age of 21, Eric Gallo became the exclusive agent in SA for Brunswick, a US record producer. It was the start of an empire.
Gallo became swept up in the recording boom after the Second World War. In 1949, he established Music Publishing in Africa, SA’s first music publishing company and constructed the first record-pressing plant.
By 1951 the plant was turning out 1.5-million long-playing records (LPs) annually.
In the late 1960s, cassettes started replacing LPs. Gallo kept pace with the technological changes and continued to expand, building SA’s first cassette pressing plant in 1971.
In 1978, the company bought the Downtown Recording Studios, a five-storey building on the corner of Fox and Nugget streets in Johannesburg.
Eddie Veale, a master acoustician from London, was brought out to design the studios, complete with customised woodwork and lead mirrors that survive to this day.
Veale was renowned for, among other things, collaborating with Jimi Hendrix on the second phase of his Electric Lady Studios and setting up John Lennon’s home studio, where Imagine was recorded.
Downtown Recording Studios became a breeding ground for some of the world’s finest music producers.
Grammy award-winners Eddie Kramer and Robert "Mutt" Lange, South African Music Awards lifetime achievement winner Koloi Lebona (who died in 2013) and Iron Maiden producer Kevin "Caveman" Shirley all cut their teeth at Downtown.
The studio also has a legacy of great musicians who recorded there. Its GM, Darryl Heilbrunn, was employed in 1988 as a sound engineer, the year in which compact discs (CDs) started replacing cassettes.
"Downtown was a haven where musicians — regardless of their political stances — could be freely creative in the studios and make music with political statements," he recalls.
Reggae icon Lucky Dube was the most prolific musician at Downtown and kept a permanent office in the building.
His album, Respect, was the last major project for the studio. Dube was murdered in 2007.
"This was a building that was built around Dube to a large degree. He was one of the major spiritual influences to abound here," Heilbrunn says.
The studios also hosted massive international acts such as Simply Red, U2 and the Hothouse Flowers.
When digital music arrived and put pressure on record labels to downsize, Gallo was forced to dispose of all its assets. Its catalogue went to Times Media and Downtown Studios was put on the market in 2007.
The minister of arts and culture at the time, Pallo Jordan, saw an opportunity to reinvigorate SA’s music industry.
A white paper that drew on input from experts such as Glen Mosokoane and Zwelakhe Mbiba proposed a national music hub that would support provincial music hubs and could reach deep into the rural areas.
Downtown Studios was bought in 2009 by the Department of Arts and Culture and was renamed the Downtown Music Hub.
It was intended to be the centre for a network of recording facilities including Music House KZN, The Miriam Makeba Centre for Performing Arts in the Eastern Cape and Cape Mic in the Western Cape.
The purchase of Downtown Studios was a complex matter for the government, as the department was not accustomed to investing in industrial infrastructure. But in 2009 — under then arts and culture minister Lulu Xingwana — a board was established to run the affairs of the building. The Downtown Music Hub finally had its public launch last year.
“Reggae icon Lucky Dube was the most prolific musician at Downtown and kept an office in the building.”
"We were created to support entrepreneurs in the music industry. Musicians are sole proprietors. They run a business," says hub CEO Chola Makgamathe. "This is a multibillion-dollar industry and can make significant contributions to GDP."
The Downtown Music Hub supports musicians through education, incubation and intervention in production, publishing, distribution, broadcasting, manufacturing, packaging, education, training and development and heritage.
The bottom floor of the building has been converted into the first South African music museum. Vusi Mchunu, a heritage practitioner and founder of the House of Memory, was tasked with creating the permanent exhibition for the museum.
Entitled Glimpses of South African Music, it celebrates many of the hundreds of musicians and producers who made international careers during the Gallo era.
There are displays of historic recording equipment, landmark recordings and life-size models of legendary musicians in a hall of fame.
As Mchunu says, "We want to give visitors the opportunity to get up close to this special caste of people called musicians."
In SA, music is a catalyst for social change.
"Music in SA has been very important for maintaining identity during a time when colonial, and other forces, sought to eradicate and erase the cultures of the peoples," says Mchunu.
"Music is so central to the African system. Music includes language and poetry — it is all one thing."
The hub is creating a seamless relationship between live, recorded and documented music. The National Lottery Commission has committed funds for it to record and document 10 indigenous music groups during 2017.
“Music is so central to the African system. Music includes language and poetry — it is all one thing.”
It is also engaging with the Department of Arts and Culture’s Living Legends Legacy Programme "to formalise something for our music legends so they are celebrated while they are alive", says Makgamathe.
The programme is meant to foreground the much neglected wisdom economy and seeks to ensure experience and legacy are given due value. Through nationwide workshops and performances, the programme promotes elder South African creative workers.
It is expected that the rejuvenation of the building will spark the establishment of a vibrant music district in the Johannesburg CBD.
This would make sense, given the centrality of its location (directly between the Maboneng fashion district and the Absa banking precinct).
The City of Johannesburg is investing in the area as part of its Industrial Development Zone programme and private property developers are also taking an interest in converting derelict buildings into accommodation.