Jenny and the Jameses: Give that band a Guinness

Jennifer Eaves, James Hall (on fiddle) and James Harvey (on accordion) might make you want to jump up and do an Irish jig.

I found myself in Obs yesterday with a bit of time to spare and so wandered into Recreation Records, which is one of a handful of good second-hand vinyl stores in Cape Town. Idly flipping through the jazz, blues and South African music crates in the hope of finding a rare gem at a steal, I came across a Hotline album. It was quite a trip.

Hotline was fronted by PJ Powers and back in the officially segregated, hectic mad fucked up ‘80s they, along with bands like eVoid and Bright Blue, were whities crossing the culture line into Afro-pop in a bid to break the apartheid stranglehold, and ocassionally got banned for it.

Trying to do so now would likely get you slammed for cultural appropriation, like Anita Ronge, aka Kasi Mlungu, but back then, those whities crossing racial and cultural barriers were slammed by the kragdadigheid state, which made them anti-apartheid heroes in their own small way. Which is also why my dinner table position on Kasi Mlungu is that the insistence on putting her back in her own little Benoni box mirrors the old Nat segregational thinking. Anyhow.

Although the crazy ethno-bongo fashion sense of Hotline and the likes that somehow got mixed in with ‘80s flourescents and New-Wave androgyny is hard to look at now, those musos gave young, white, culturally-starved English-speaking liberals sick of Euro-pop rip-offs like Pierre de Charmoy something homegrown to hold on to. Something that at least had more colour in the sound. But did we really wear shit like that?

PJ Powers and Hotline. Some of us really did wear shit like that.

Anyway, Hotline, and later, when the Voelvry movement proved to us that not all Afrikaaners were autocratic arseholes, gave many of us confused teenagers besieged by Botha’s total onslaught a musical identity that rejected the idea that our pop should sound like the Brits or Americans.

Thirty years later I’m still leery of South African musos, especially white musos, who follow and anglo-american musical paradigm. Think Arno Carstens, for instance (Springbok Nude Girls at least had that brass reminiscent of a punked-out Kippie or Mankunku), copying Coldplay when we have such a vast and rich trove of local and African musical heritage.

Really, I don’t care if a local band plays punk, rock, jazz, blues, whatever, but I’m looking for a sound within it that indicates they come from here, the southern tip of the African continent. Not finding it made me dismissive of Hatchetman at Fringe two years ago, possibly unfairly so, and also had me disappointed in Jenny and the Jameses at the Alma Cafe last night.

But, shit, just ‘cause my African references weren’t met doesn’t mean they’re not impressively accomplished musicians with a repertoire of original, often quite poignant songs. Sure, I wouldn’t choose to push an Irish folk-music tradition but then I struggle to strum a G-chord on a guitar, much less tjune the damn thing.

And to give them their due, the self-absorption that got me down on Hatchetman is not evident in this trio, there’s no stroking their own pain. I even found my feet guiltily tapping away on one or two of the Irish reels and vibing, along with the rest of the (all white) crowd on their energy. The one James can certainly play a mean fiddle. His rendition of the traditional Orange Blossom Special would make a few of those ol’ bluegrass southerners pretty green, and the other James on accordion could give some Northern Cape rieldansers a run for their money if he chose to change tack. Jenny’s vocals and deft guitar work drove a Lady Gaga cover that almost popped a tear there.

So hey, if you enjoy damn-well-played Celtic folk and don’t share my hangups, you’ll probably really dig this threesome, even if they do seem a bit disconnected from the landscape we all live in here in Mzansi.

Jenny and the Jameses gig on the Cape Town Fringe at Alma Cafe in Rosebank today (Friday 22 Sept) and again on Thursday 28 September. Book here. 

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