Heady days: Brad Holmes poses at the famous statue of Brenda Fassie in front of the Bassline. Picture: TSHEKO KABASIA
Heady days: Brad Holmes poses at the famous statue of Brenda Fassie in front of the Bassline. Picture: TSHEKO KABASIA

David Coplan and Óscar GutiérrezJacana MediaStruan Douglas

Set in the golden era of 1994-2003, the "honeymoon decade" when South Africans united for the first time in centuries, the story is told of the Bassline, one of Johannesburg’s best live music venues at the time.

The venue’s founder Brad Holmes had magnetic energy that changed the suburb of Melville. "You were all there," he said at the book launch, referring to the crowds that jam-packed the small Seventh Street venue during its 10-year life span.

The Bassline became a home, a fountain of inspiration and site of transformation for musicians, journalists, activists and audiences alike.

In the foreword, Sipho Sithole refers to the Bassline as "a chapter at the dawn of a new democratic dispensation", with "a new nation ready to dance to the song of freedom".

The decade following 1994 was a time of idealism in which people could wear their hearts on their sleeves and work shoulder to shoulder to build a new and better society.

SA was open to the world and there was a brain gain. The book’s author and its photographer arrived in SA during the election hype of 1993.

Oscar Gutiérrez, previously a photo editor at St Mary’s University in Texas, came to SA to cover the elections "and let his hair down", as he put it.

David Coplan, originally from New York and exiled from SA for 14 years, took up a post at the University of Cape Town in 1993 to "be there for SA’s greatest excuse ever for a party", as he writes.

In 1994, Johannesburg needed a jazz venue.

With two brothers in the restaurant industry and much experience in management and waitering, Holmes rented a small venue on 7th Street, Melville, and began building the Bassline from scratch. He opened on the first Saturday in September 1994.

Coplan writes: "Bassline was a make-or-break creative enterprise, succeeding against seemingly impossible odds, with a fabulous cast of truly impossible characters."

Having grown up in the Afrikaner stronghold of Krugersdorp and after being exposed to the power of music to bring people together at venues such as Jameson’s in Johannesburg and the Free People’s concerts at Wits University during the 1980s, Holmes built the Bassline on a strong ethic of racial integration and equal opportunity for musicians.

The Bassline was a pioneer of entrepreneurship and music promotion.

It provided an impetus to break free from the past and for people to work together. "It was part of the Afrikaans youth transitional movement," shareholder Frank Opperman recalls.

"The venue knew no borders with its antixenophobic stance and multiculturalism," Coplan writes. The late journalist and actor John Matshikiza said the club was "an inseparable part of Melville, a changing suburb at the heart of a major city in transition". People bought or rented houses in Melville to be close to the Bassline.

With the growing enthusiasm and a funky street life made all the more attractive by the Bassline’s formidable cast of regulars, Melville earned the label "trendy suburb".

Holmes took the mission of racial integration beyond the venue, starting a Bassline stage at the Oppikoppi festival near Sun City.

Bringing established black music performers to white audiences became a pioneering action in the transformation of the traditionally white rock festival into the multicultural musical adventures they are nowadays.

"Madiba was the wind in our sails," recalls Rebecca Waddell, heiress to the Oppenheimer fortune, who with Opperman invested in the venue and funded it to the next level. The Bassline was relaunched in 1998 with a new paint job, a bar, additional seating for 100 people and professional sound equipment.

South African-born superstar Dave Matthews celebrated his 31st birthday at the venue. It resulted in an invitation for pennywhistler Big Voice Jack Lerole to perform and film abroad and collaborations and record releases with Vusi Mahlasela. Mahlasela’s golden voice, deep sincerity, gentle humility and "message of hope and reconciliation", as patron and shareholder Lance McCormack put it, "was perfect for the time".

His duet with Zimbabwean guitarist Louis Mhlanga was the most endearing sound to come out of the venue. The album Live at the Bassline sold 20,000 copies. The Bassline benefited significantly from "Johannesburg lady luck", as Coplan terms it. Paige Dawtrey, a waitress at a restaurant on Seventh Street, walked into the venue at the end of the 1990s and saw to its further improvement.

She bought the Waddel-Opperman 50% share in the business. When the growling bass of Sipho Gumede entertained them one night at the venue, she and Holmes discovered true love and got married.

With a funky street life and the Bassline's cast of regulars, Melville became a ‘trendy suburb’

The Bassline brought together a long list of great entertainers who embraced, welcomed and grew with a very enthusiastic audience, in what pianist Paul Hanmer termed "a miracle SA vibe thing".

Journalist Darryl Accone described his experience of the venue as "hearing heroes from the ringside".

However, Moses Molelekwa’s tragic death in 2002 at the age of 27 started an exodus of many regular Bassline musicians, all of whom are well remembered in the long list of tributes towards the end of the book.

The original Bassline venue closed in 2003.

And with this experience of "the best of times and the worst of times" as Can Themba once quoted Charles Dickens, Coplan draws a parallel between the Bassline and Sophiatown of the 50s.

"Sophiatown’s culture was freedom’s song imprisoned … The Bassline wanted that song unearthed, rehearsed and freed," he writes.

Last Night at the Bassline traces the story from when Holmes was a little child to the closing of the venue in Melville.

Holmes kept all his diaries detailing exactly what happened every day at the business. He met Coplan every Monday evening for a number of years to piece together the story. Coplan is a veteran of African jazz, with an early career in SA as a percussionist with Philip Thabane between 1975 and 1977.

In 1996, he became professor of social anthropology at Wits, a post he still holds.

He is the author of the jazz history book In Township Tonight! His knowledge and personal experience adds valuable titbits and historical padding to Last Night at the Bassline, making it not only a great story, but an important resource.

The Bassline brand continues. It has become a multigenre multiexperiential music festival brand with products including the annual Africa Day festival.

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