Friday, December 3, 2010


As promised, here are the other 10 albums I'm grateful for/ couldn't live without/ would take on a desert island with me/ am jealous I didn't write/ that make me want to keep writing/ I own 3 copies of. The first list seemed to have been fairly well recieved, and I may have turned one or two of you on to things you hadn't encountered yet. The joys of blogging.
 OK, without further ado:

1. Groove Armada - Vertigo (1999)
I heard this at a soundcheck on a beautiful summer morning on the south coast of England, just after it'd come out. I was newly married, touring England playing music, the sun was shining, and on came "Chicago", Vertigo's opening track. A moment in time. GA have never really equalled this.

2. Chicane - Behind The Sun (2000)
Staying in chilled ambient mode, this was Nick Bracegirdle's finest. Pop dance, to be sure, and not for purists, but still great in its own right. I remember listening to this on headphones in California. A perfect record where every song means something to me. Even the one with Bryan Adams on it.

3. Fleetwood Mac - Tango In The Night (1987)
"Big Love" got me first, and then the eerie opening notes of "Little Lies". Another pivotal time in my life, and after 20+ years, I'm still listening to this from beginning to end. Lindsay Buckingham: the hidden punk in the FM machine? Definitely a genius. I'm still searching for "You and I (Part1)".

4. Bob Marley and the Wailers - Kaya (1978)
I'm a fairly late convert to Bob. It took me a while, but I'm a believer. I went from not even owning "Legend" to owning everything, on CD and wax, even the obscure pre-Chris Blackwell, pre-Lee Perry productions. I love all of it, especially "Natty Dread" (his first 'solo' album) and this one. This one wins though. Don't know why, it just does.

5. Prefab Sprout - Jordan: The Comeback (1990)
Paddy MacAloon is one of the greatest British songwriters of all time. To me, he's right up there with Pete Townsend, Ray Davies and XTC's Andy Partridge. This Thomas Dolby-produced masterpiece was the one that made me a fan, and a soundtrack to my last year of school and my first real girlfriend. Heady days, gorgeously odd music, the Sprout's finest hour.

6. Depeche Mode - Violator (1990)
The Mode were always too dark for my Beatle-infected young mind, but "Enjoy The Silence" and "Policy Of Truth" finally got to me, and this is another album from my last school year that fit a lot of moods perfectly. Ominous and gloomy as only DM can be, it fitted my late-teen angst and it still sounds like it was made yesterday. Not even DM themselves have bettered this one. It was their last before Dave  Gahan went off the proverbial deep end.

7. Midnight Oil - Diesel And Dust (1987)
It was 1987, South African civil society was on the brink of exploding, the State of Emergency was not even a year old, and along came a song called "Beds Are Burning". I'd never heard of Midnight Oil before, even though they'd had a fiercely productive decade prior to this, their mainstream breakthrough. They refused to allow this album to sell in SA, they were tough, socially-conscious Aussies, they played guitars, and they were undeniable. One of the soundtracks of my life, this one.

8. Katrina and the Waves - Katrina and the Waves (1985)
Another unforgettable record for me. Did you know that this was their third album, consisting of re-recorded older songs, that they had more hits than just "Walking On Sunshine", and that they made at least two more great albums? No, probably not. They looked like a real band to me (turned out they were) and I learned every song on the record.

9. Coldplay - A Rush OF Blood To The Head (2002)
Remember when Coldplay were still vaguely an indie band with street cred? This was the beginning of the end for them, because it was so consistently good it couldn't be ignored, and it turned them into the globe-spanning corporate behemoth they are now. Intense time in my personal life (is there any other kind of time, really?), and this album gave me a lot of courage.

10. Muse - The Resistance (2009)
Thank the Good Lord for Muse. We need a band like this we can believe in. Makes us Nickleback-haters feel like we're right! This album was on repeat for months in my car. They've just gotten better and better as songwriters, and this is sophisticated genius.

What, no Rage Against The Machine? No Queen? No Stones? No Nirvana? No Sinatra? No Mellencamp? No Kinks? No Talking Heads? I love all these people, but these last 20 albums have been my personal journey through music. And countless others, I'm sure. I'll have to write a Top 20 Greatest Hits band blog now...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Album. Record. Call it what you will, it's almost extinct. Listening to 10 or 12 songs in a row by one artist or group, let alone from the same recorded source, is so yesterday. In fact, listening to a song past the first chorus is too, but that's for another discussion.
I remember listening obsessively to full albums, lying in a state of rapt bliss while an artist took me through his or her or their Grand Vision. There was a beginning, a middle and an end (or two of those whole processes if you consider listening to the A and B side of a vinyl record). The record was a journey, and for me, some of those journeys were worth going on over and over again.
So, for what it's worth, here are the first ten (of 20) most obsessed-over, repeatedly-listened-to albums of my last 20+ years, in no real order. The list, of course, reveals a lot about me, some of which I'm not too sure I'm happy with, but there's no accounting for taste.
Is there, Sting?

1. U2- The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
U2 was my magnificent obsession from 1987 on. They aren't anymore, and I plan to blog about that next. But this album, their one-before-fame, was dark, mysterious, glorious, unprecedented and supernatural.

2. The Beatles- Beatles For Sale (1964)
My other maginificent obsession, this one from earlier in my life, and one I'm happy to say is still as strong today as the day I first heard them, in 1983 or so. Of all their records, this one just made me consistently happy. A rare thing in music these days.

3. Bruce Springsteen- Tunnel Of Love (1987)
I love Broooce, his new stuff's amazing, but this one had 'Tougher Than The Rest', 'Brilliant Disguise' and the title track. For an increasingly confused teenager, this soundtracked an unforgettable space and time.

4. The National- Boxer (2007)
I had this on repeat throughout 2007. Melancholy but tough, mysterious and familiar. It just made me feel not so alone, and it was musically innovative enough for me to admire as well as love it.

5. Ron Sexsmith- Retriever (2004)
Of all Ron's beautiful albums, this is one I just had to listen to from beginning to end. Some of these songs, especially 'Not About To Lose', became anthems for me at a particularly unhappy time in my life.

6. Crowded House- Intriguer (2010)
I've loved Crowded House from the beginning, especially their second record "Temple Of Low Men". This one, their second after their 2007 re-formation, just struck me like none of their others, all at once, as a whole work. On repeat for weeks. I got to tell Neil Finn that to his face too, at their Durban show a few weeks ago.

7. Bob Dylan- 'Love and Theft' (2001)
This is the first Bob album I ever bought the day of its release. And what a day. Tuesday, September 11 2001. I was in New York City, too, and I walked up to HMV on 5th to get it while all around the world was changing. The rest of that Fall, this was my soundtrack.

8. Tom Petty- Full Moon Fever (1989)
The Traveling Wilburys led me to this. When I saw the video for 'I Won't Back Down', featuring George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Jeff Lynne, I was hooked. I'd like Tom from afar before ('Don't Come Around Here No More' etc), but this album turned me into an obsessed, life-long fan. I own everything he's ever done, but this is The One for me.

9. The Police- Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)
'Don't Stand So Close To Me' and 'De Do Do Do' were ubiquitous in 1980/ 1981, but I only discovered this album as a whole for myself in 1996. It opened up a world of music-making possibilites for me: a three-piece rock band, with all the space and mystery of reggae, and the accessibility of undeniable (but still slightly odd) songwriting. Of all their 5 records, this described The Police for me. Oh Sting, where is thy sting?

10. Metric- Fantasies (2009)
Didn't really get this Canadian band till this one came out. 'Help I'm Alive' got me first, and this album stayed on for months. I'm pretty sick of it now actually, but it's one of those albums, like all in this list, that I know every note of.

Ok, the next 10 soon.
Feel free to add your thoughts, similar obsessions, or violent disagreements. Nothing incites hatred, condescension or out-and-out vilification like one's music preferences, just as nothing bonds like a shared love of some obscure 80's one hit wonder.
I have a lot of those too.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Further along the road less travelled:
Re-reading my 'Competitive Music' blog, I realise that, caught up as I was in the throes of maniacal ranting, I left out a few things about the competitive nature of modern music.

Ever heard of SoundScan? If you're merely a music consumer (sorry, fan) you probably won't have, but if you're in any way involved with making and selling music in the US or Canada, you live, move and have your being with SoundScan. SoundScan (just made a typo there... wrote SoundScam and had to correct myself, but what a Freudian slip that was) is 'the official method of tracking sales of music and music video in the US and Canada'. In other words, there's a score-card of every CD or DVD that gets sold, and as an artist you can track your impact on the market week-by-week by checking the SoundScan reports.

On one hand, that's merely an efficient system-within-a-system. It's definitely a lot more accurate than Billboard's old way of doing things, which was to call up stores across the US and enquire about sales quantities. On the other hand, it can lead to something I experienced first-hand in Nashville: feverishly checking SoundScan every week, phoning the record label obsessively for the latest scans, and comparing the latest scans to other artists' in the hope of having outdone them.

What the hell is that all about?

A good friend of mine put out his third album in early 2007, and his website was full of news items about the latest scans. "Good news, fans", he crowed, "our scans are up to 15 000 in the first week! Awesome!!" I also had festival organisers refusing to include us because our scans didn't match some of the other bands.

Popularity is now a quantifiable commodity, and if it doesn't look good on paper, it won't even merit a listen. It really doesn't matter anymore how good or bad the music is on its own. It's all about how many truckloads of shiny plastic discs (or, more recently, mp3's) you can sell to as many consumers.

I sound grumpy. Angry. Sour-grapey. I know it. I just wasn't cut out to compete to the death. I make music because I was just born to. Commercially-viable or not. I don't wield my talents like a weapon over the heads of my music-making colleagues, much less the people most musicians have all but forgotten about: other people. 

More 'Competitive Music' soon. Thanks for listening.
And thanks SoundScan for helping me be better than those other crappy bands.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


As legendary 80's Saffa band No Friends Of Harry so memorably sang (albeit in a faux-Goth accent), "it's a raw deal, for the competition rules". Granted, that's probably out of context, but it helps me make the following claim with a certain amount of grim satisfaction: modern commercial music is actually nothing more than a blatant trade in commodities, and worse, it's starting to sound like it.

We've all known for decades, of course, that music in the West ceased being music somewhere around Bing Crosby/ Frank Sinatra. It went the way of everything pure and free and natural and good (especially post-WW2): it became a consumable commodity. Elvis was the apogee of that process, and it's all been downhill since "That's Alright Mama".
The Beatles perfected it, and there's a straight line to be drawn between their epoch-changing Ed Sullivan TV appearance in February 1964 and Lady Gaga in a meat dress in 2010.


One of the many anti-music skills I was told to learn during my years making music in Nashville was how to shrink-wrap songs. Music labels have staff-writers (they have for years) whose sole function is to sit in a room and craft hit songs for artists. That's called a laboratory in other fields of human endeavour.

And in the studio, giant leaps in technology have brought the process of sound recording into our bedrooms: everyone and their dog can buy a laptop and a version of Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase or the like and be uploading their 'songs' to myspace in a matter of hours. This democratization of the music-making process is a great thing, by the way, but that's for another blog.

Modern Top40 commercial radio fodder (this morning: Rihanna, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Usher, Ke$ha) blatantly sounds like what it is: jingles for products. You could have made a case a few years ago for Eminem being worthy of some kind of genius, but not anymore. And I don't think I'm being old-fashioned grumpy bastard: when the Beatles were brand new, at least they could actually play real instruments, really sing, and write their own songs.

We just listen passively to test-tube music now. Lady Gaga (sorry to keep going on about her, but she's truly a new frontier) is selling Lady Gaga, not CD's. All artists are brands. The music is competitive: each artist competing for rapidly-disappearing chart space, WalMart shelf-space and Twitter followers in a war of popularity attrition, like some kind of never-ending audio Pop Idols.

It's becoming like listening to ad jingles all day, and it will eventually drive us all insane.

So, viva indie music, indie labels, bands with guys with beards and girls who don't give a shit, great songwriters who've never had a Top40 hit, kids learning guitar in their bedrooms because they love it, people who make music because they absolutely have to.

And death to Top40 radio!

Friday, October 8, 2010


I  recently started teaching an English & Communications class at the Durban University of Technology (DUT). I always try and engage the students outside of the textbook, because it's such an amazing opportunity for Previously Advantaged White Suburban Boy to swap ideas with young African and Indian students. There aren't any white students anymore, but that's another story.

So this morning, I had a class of Electrical Engineering (Light Current) students, made up of young Zulu men and women, and during our customary Veering-Off-Course, I happened to ask the class who thought ANCYL president Julius Malema was a good leader. I was shocked (although I was careful not to register it) when most of them said yes, he is. A few were particularly adamant that Malema's "calling a spade a spade" was the thing that made him great.

I pointed out to them that already, not even having completed their first year of technology-based tertiary education (which most of them are failing), they are better-educated than Malema. That didn't phase them. "You don't need education to be a good leader", one of them said. "Look at Zuma", another one agreed. Look at Zuma indeed.

The final straw came when one guy said to me, "Malema is a great leader, just like Mugabe". I wasn't sure how to respond to that. When I told them a few Zimbabwean Horror Stories, they all agreed that no, Robert Mugabe had made a mess of Zim, but that nevertheless, Malema is going to be president of South Africa one day, and he and Mugabe have much in common.

These are fairly intelligent, urbanised young South Africans.

They completely believe this.

Nkosi sikilele iAfrika.
Because nobody else will.

Monday, October 4, 2010


I recently had the dubious pleasure of judging auditions for a Gospel singing competition. I say 'dubious' for two reasons: 1. it's heart-breaking to say no to people who are giving their all, and b) what are we doing asking people to out-Gospel each other in the first place?

I don't know if I would've said much about this episode in my life, apart from the fact that the 2-day auditions were held in Umlazi, a massive sub-city outside Durban, and that I was exposed to a huge slice of humanity that I usually don't get to encounter, being a white suburbanite and all.

About 300 entrants came through the doors, and one by one they stood in front of myself, Deborah Fraser (a South African singing legend and shoe-fetishist) and Siya, a well-known DJ from Durban's Gagasi FM. Out of my depth? You bet! The other two judges weren't too sure who I was or what I was doing there, and neither did I.

A quick briefing didn't prepare me for the depth of talent I was to encounter over those 2 days. I had to be ruthless, apparently, but each entrant was better than the last, and I had the privilege of hearing some of the most powerful singing voices I've ever heard. Choirs, trio's, duo's, solo singers, keyboardists... KwaZulu-Natal (my 'province') has it all, and I was dumbfounded.

We managed to choose two finalists (picture below), a young guy named Sakhile who has possibly the loudest voice my guitar amp-addled ears have ever heard, and a trio of young ladies who called themselves the Divas Of God and who possessed the honeyed tone of the Andrews Sisters. It was incredibly difficult; you could see the hope people arrived with, and the crushing disappointment when our judges' lack of consensus meant 'no'.

Two things struck me: South Africa is alive with musical talent. We've always known that, but we tend to forget. These spine-tingling voices seem to emerge from the bush and disappear back into anonymity, and no-one is any the wiser. The other thing: talent competitions suck, especially the ones where people of faith are involved. Their faith isn't the thing in question, it's not on the table, and yet they are encouraged to compete with others of like-minded faith for decidedly earthly rewards. I know I'm being a bit 'bah humbug', but there's just something tacky about the whole idea. Pop Idols For Jesus.

Well, I'll try not to do that again in a hurry. I'm not thick-skinned enough. I was impressed by everybody, gobsmacked by more than a few, and mindblown by at least 25 or so entrants. South Africa is crawling with music, and I had a front-row seat.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Somebody, more than likely Elvis Costello, once said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture". A hotly contested opinion, the point is obvious: music criticism a pretty futile endeavor. Kind of like Richard Dawkins writing about religion, or Julius Malema saying, well, anything. The best response to critics is usually to ignore them. When it comes to criticism, however, all people involved in artistic creation have two things in common: we love a good review, and we hate a bad one.

So what was I to do when I came across a confusing review of "Come Out Fighting" in local SA rag Locally Whipped? Normally I'd cut it out and file it away with my accumulated press clippings (to 'ignore' in the future, of course), but this one made me think. Here's why.

Despite a strange assertion that "Own Way Home" has a very evident 'Nashville sound', the short review seems to be in favour of my record until the last sentence: "All in all, Ellis has made a great debut album and hopefully he won't get lost in the array of solo artists out there in South Africa." So far, so ok. Then, "If you like solid, feel good music, then give this a try but nothing extraordinary has been laid down on this album."

At the risk of sounding sour-grapey, here's my problem: if there's anything I've ever tried to steer clear of in my life as a songwriter, it's 'solid, feel-good music'. This is not a feel-good album. If anything, it's a feel-pissed-off-let's-do-something-about-it kind of record. Then, to go from 'great record' to 'nothing extraordinary' in a few words sounds like another reviewer wrote the end of it. A consistent opinion would have been nice. Most of all though, the words 'nothing extraordinary' made me think. Was I trying to make 'extraordinary' music? No. Am I trying to be an extraordinary artist? No. Is extraordinary even possible these days? How can you really compete with Lady GaGa in a meat dress? I don't think we'd even raise a bored eyebrow if Jacko came back from the dead and made a better album than Thriller and played all the London dates after all. We live in super-hyped, over-exposed, technologically-enhanced times, and nothing, and I mean nothing, surprises anymore. Tiger Woods? Oh well. Wayne Rooney? Yawn. Meat dress? Wow! Oh, it's just a dress...

I got a three-fingered review for my un-extraordinary, feel-good record. It's wise to ignore criticism, good and bad, but it's also nice to give a one-fingered response sometimes.

Post Script: "Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk in order to provide articles for people who can't read." Frank Zappa

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Two things I'm really enjoying at the moment: playing music with my old friend Jon 'Scoop' Randall, and deconstructing my songs with acoustic instruments. I'm rehearsing the new material acoustically, for shows like White Mountain at the end of September, and the songs reveal new aspects of themselves in an acoustic setting. Even rockers like 'Rant'! Sidney Rash, a young Durban drummer, is extremely talented, and the combination of stripped-down drums and percussion, with a little double bass and acoustic guitar, make for an interesting new musical side-path.

Scoop and I have been friends for over 15 years. We started a fledgling Tree63 together with my brother Antony on drums, and Scoop went on to play on all the early Tree63 'hits' like Treasure and A Million Lights. He's a great bass player, but more recently he's come into his own as a talented studio engineer. He helped me demo four songs before I went into the recording process for 'Come Out Fighting', and we've had a great time in the last few years playing music together again.

So, all in all, a busy musical time, although I'm not playing live as nearly as much as I'd like to. trying to fix that, but it's a mystifyingly slow process. So in the meantime, I'll be bringing John Ellis and the Woodshed Ensemble to a coffee bar near you! Book us at!

Thanks for listening.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


It’s been a few weeks now since That Interview was published in South African newspapers and online. To some degree the storm has abated a little and I thought it might be a good opportunity to throw my hat in the ring, for what it’s worth.

Where to begin? The article itself? The article’s unfortunate title? The variety of comments the article inspired? What about the level of hatred and condemnation thrown at me by incensed Christians? The smell of burning Tree63 CD’s wafting across the hills and valleys of Christendom?

The response the article generated showed me a few things: firstly, that people are starved for intellectual debate. Human beings long for a reason to rip out the drip feed of modern media and lunge with their brains at each other. Secondly, there are many, many more disenfranchised, disappointed ‘Christians’ out there than the modern church would like to acknowledge. George Barna was right, after all. Thirdly, judgemental, self-righteous hatred knows no bounds in the modern church. I’d momentarily forgotten how ugly Jesus’ ‘followers’ can be, and boy was I reminded. Fourth, the general populace is less and less able to read critically as the years go by. Status updates will be the death of the human race. Oh, and lastly, it seems that the most vitriolic amongst us always sign our names ‘Anonymous’.

I laughed a lot at some of the comments the article received online. The guy who said, “Christian singers are traditionally poor spokespersons for Christianity because they are biblically illiterate and theologically naive… Ellis proves that point. Ellis' BA thru UNISA won't help him a bit as UNISA is so far left of the truth that they couldn't find their way back to the truth if they had a GPS lead them out of the morass of philosophy”. (That was a BTh pal, from one of the most highly-regarded theology programmes on the planet). Or the person who decided that the article was some kind of ‘publicity stunt’ to sell more records.

I cringed with embarrassment too. The average response from Christian readers was a condescending “I’ll pray for you”, as though I’d fallen off some great height and was lying in traction somewhere. I was accused of being “asinine… pathetic… deceived… Bono”. Bono?! One ex-CCM American person even decided to remind me how unsuccessful Tree63 really had been in the U.S., just in case I actually did think I was ‘the poster child of Christian rock’. Non-Christians wading through this morass of invective were noticeably puzzled by it all. “Aren’t you guys all Christians?” someone asked, as though that would somehow automatically curb infighting.

There was good news though, as there always is. Firstly, the positive, affirming, supportive responses, from Christians as well as non-, far outweighed the negativity. I had not set out to hurt anybody, and most seemed to have been able to take it for what it was: a shock-journo improving newspaper circulation. Sure, I was a little stung by some of the comments, but overall I ended up feeling supported, encouraged and more than a little strengthened by the majority of responses. That’s a gratifying feeling when the flames are licking at your feet. Secondly, the article inspired people to think, weigh in, contribute, and talk. That is what I’m most excited about: stirring up debate that requires people to at least think about these important issues and be prepared to discuss where they stand on them. We don’t need mindless vitriol and knee-jerk ugliness, we just need to be prepared to think as individuals and toss ideas back and forth as we all walk that dusty road to or from God.

So, to those encouraged: thank you, it’s going to be an exciting journey. To those who were hurt: cut off the headline (it’s hilariously outrageous!), re-read the article, and read it carefully this time. You might find some surprises there.

Right, now for round two:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I’m very excited. I’ve just been commissioned by ANC Youth League President Julius Malema to write songs about politics. There I was, wondering how the recent tirades on my debut album would come across, when all of a sudden, Bra Julius opens the floodgates! Last week, he addressed the Southern African Music Conference in Johnnesburg and all but handed me my manifesto. “Never dissociate music from politics”, he said; “Music is politics”. Wow! Is that permission or what?

     During the apartheid years, most political protest music was made, understandably, by black musicians. Sankomoto, Lucky Dube and Hugh Masekela, to name but a small few, expressed their frustration and rage outstandingly. There were significant contributions from Whitey, too: rock bands like Dog Detachment, Bright Blue and Tribe After Tribe also gave voice to white indignation, for what it was worth. Anti-apartheid music was, however, the black musician’s domain, and to a huge degree, rightly so.

     Fast-forward 20 years, and what does Bra Julius see? “Bling”. Lots of it. “All of you grew up dedicating your life to bling”, he told his young, star-struck audience. “We must be like Venezuela, where there is a hit song about Che Guevara. We must be more like South America”. Yes, Julius, yes! At last, an inclusive statement from one of the most racist politicians South Africa has ever produced! OK, fair enough, he’s not exactly talking to Rich Suburban Whitey, he’s talking to his Peeps. What do I have to protest about anyway? I benefited from apartheid, I vote white liberal, I live far from a disgusting township, I can emigrate when I want to, and my skin colour is wrong.

     Well, Bra, let me tell you. This is a democracy now, which means everyone, and that means everyone, has a voice. I agree with you, Comrade, that politics and music are a potent mix, however ineloquently you phrased that. Watch out, though, that someone, regardless of his or her skin colour, doesn’t come along and turn that pointed finger back in on itself. This isn’t ‘us vs. them’ anymore, it’s ‘us vs. YOU’. You Glorious Victorious Revolutionary Leaders are answerable to us now, and so far, we’re not happy. That ‘us’, by the way, is comprised of all South Africa’s skin colours. It’s no longer Moral High Ground Black pitted against Evil Racist Minority White. The ANC is in charge, and so far, despite Madiba’s outstanding example, you have failed everybody and broken every promise you made. And damn right, we’re gonna sing about it. Be careful what you encourage, Bra, you might just get it.

     Oh and Comrade, one more thing: you’re the first target. Check out the 7th song on that John Ellis guy’s “Come Out Fighting” album. ‘Champagne revolutionaries’ indeed!

(With thanks and apologies to Carien du Plessis’s article, “Make Political Music, Not Love”, published on July 8 2010 in The Star).

Monday, July 5, 2010


I think I may have glimpsed the future of South Africa last week. If I sound uncertain, it’s because I am. As Leo Di Caprio told us in his pretty-accurate best-Rhodesian, “T.I.A.” This is Africa, pal. Nothing is ever certain, from one day to the next.

     Nevertheless, a glimpse is as good as a wink to a blind bat, and I got mine at a youth camp near Spion Kop. In the shadow of one of the most famous battle sites of the Boer War, forty or so young South Africans un-self-consciously (and unwittingly) created the next phase of South African democracy, and it rocked. It also bobbed, weaved and heel-tapped, because they were doing the Diski, the famous Made-For-FIFA soccer-inspired dance created by Sowetan choreographer Wendy Ramokgadi. The 43-year-old dancer created more than he bargained for: it’s become a sublime nation-building ritual, and I saw it with my own eyes.

      I spoke and played a few of my songs for the kids, and we had a good time, but afterwards the pantsula came out and the bussed-in locals showed the private-school fortunates more than a thing or two about grooving. And suddenly, unobtrusively, there it was: a roomful of black, white, Indian, and coloured kids, all doing the difficult moves the Diski requires, oblivious to each others’ skin colour, teaching and helping each other, laughing with each other, all grooving.

     I instinctively knew that a corner had been turned, and maybe only in my own understanding of things, but a corner nevertheless. When I was 16, things in South Africa were way different, and you would never have seen suburban white kids dancing with so much abandon with kids of other races. I’ll unfortunately always see race as the elephant in the room, because that’s how my all-knowing, all-wise National Party leaders trained me, but post-1994 kids (heck, post-2009 kids) are dancing to a different drummer. 

And it’s definitely not Sepp Blatter.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Those of us still hanging on to the idea of ‘God’ in the onslaught of ‘The New Atheism’ are having a tough time of it, and that’s not because of the atheists.

Let’s face it, atheism is as much of a belief system as any other. It takes a lot of faith to insist that there is nothing rather than something, because as much as there may be no scientific evidence of the existence of God, there’s rather a lot to the contrary. But this is not about atheism and atheists. It’s just nice to dispense with them as summarily as they dispense with us crazies.

No, us ‘believers’ are having a tough time hanging on to a relationship with God primarily because modern religion, and modern mainline Christianity in particular, make it so.

Here’s my how-dare-he statement: Church has as much to do with God as FIFA has to do with soccer.

“How dare he!”

Actually, how dare THEY. All forms of spirituality have at their base a fundamental desire for humanity to connect with something or, dare I say it, someone larger than it. Jesus of Nazareth, a historically-verifiable dirty-footed impoverished Jewish woodworker, pretty much wrote the book on that relationship. He also had some pretty good things to say about how to treat each other too. All we have to do, he said, is realize God actually digs us, and spread the love around a little bit.

Not too hard.

Fast forward 2000 years, and we have multi-million dollar corporations having us jump through theological hoops to try and please an already-pleased and, I would imagine, an increasingly-exasperated God.

By corporations I mean ‘churches’, of course.

My belaboured point is that church is often just about Church, just as Christian music is about entertainment, just as FIFA is about money. The plot has been jettisoned long ago. FIFA was initially a global effort to glorify soccer. Remember that? Music used to be about music, radio used to be in the public interest, medicine for the public good, democracy for the people. Etcetera etcetera ad nauseum.

If I sound disaffected and, well, pissed off, that’s because I, well, am. Jesus was about freedom. Modern Christianity is about church. That’s why so many ‘believers’ are breaking away and trying to figure out for themselves why some of the arguments of atheism are so telling. How dare human beings stand between the rest of us and God and try dictate the rules and regulations?

There’s definitely a modern trend (‘revolution’, if you will) toward a more authentic expression of faith in Jesus’ way being Quite A Good One. Its naughty cousin is the ‘New Atheism’: always in the corner with a smirk on its face.

Now, if only we could see a similar trend in soccer, dammit.

I await the howls with eagerness. 

Thursday, April 29, 2010


1. A Zulu-speaking former teacher recently wrote an opinion-piece to the editor of one of the big South African Sunday papers, complaining about the amount of homework his child was being sent home with from school. In his opinion, modern South African school children are being over-burdened with ‘unnecessary’ homework, and they’re so busy trying to achieve school deadlines that they’re no longer able to just be ‘normal’ kids. In his opinion, children can learn more from life attending a Kaizer Chiefs match than sitting home doing school projects about the migratory patterns of European swallows. Now, is it just me, or is there something slightly… I dunno, whinging, about this guy’s attitude? Granted, I didn’t read far enough into his letter to see whether he was going to finally drop a “ha ha only kidding” toward the end. I just couldn’t believe it. South Africa’s modern education system is severely compromised to be sure, but as far as I can see, any homework means that teachers care enough to hang around and at least throw some learning at children. Should the ‘previously-disadvantaged’ be complaining about ‘too much education’? To this ‘previously-advantaged’, um, no.

2. A friend of mine in Durban got herself involved in a project that draws talented artists together to benefit an orphanage on the Bluff called Shepherd’s Keep. This particular charity has taken on the mind-numbing responsibility of finding and saving the thousands (yes, thousands) of discarded babies all over the city. New-born babies are found in trash bags in the middle of freeways, in gutters, under bushes with their umbilical cords still attached and even in dustbins, and Shepherd’s Keep tries all it can to simply rescue them. My friend recently found herself in the small town of Drummond and spotted a cosy-looking art gallery. Assuming she’d find willing local arty-types inside to rally to the cause, she entered and approached the gallery owner with her card. Midway through her spiel about the babies, Shepherd’s Keep and the contribution artists around the world were already making to the cause, the man stopped her and asked brusquely, “what colour?” Angela, paused, dumbfounded, and said, “Colour?” Gallery owner: “Yes, what colour are the babies?” Angela: “Well, they’re mostly African babies…” Gallery owner, handing her card back: “Sorry, I’m only interested in helping white babies”.

3. My Zulu friend Futhi and I are always talking about the status quo. It usually involves a lot of head-shaking, incredulous laughter and tsk-tsking, as South African conversations often do. Yesterday she happened to mention the general attitude of impoverished Zulu’s in her township to the recent murder of Eugene Tereblanche, the disgraced leader of the white supremacist organization the AWB. According to her, the murder and its attendant media storm only served to remind South African blacks how racially unequal South Africa still is. “Why should there be so much fuss over one beaten white man,” she said, “when black farm workers are treated like that every day by white farmers?” You could argue that Tereblanche’s profile as AWB leader made his a special case, but there’s an element of truth in her observation: blacks are just anonymously un-newsworthy, and life in Africa has different grades (or skin-tones, if you will) of value. Abuse continues, thirteen-year-old boys are branded with hot iron to prevent them from stealing from the baas… but that’s not going to sell newspapers, now is it?

 4. On Tuesday 27th April 2010 South Africa acknowledged the 16th anniversary of the day South Africa became a democracy. The next day the Times’ headline read “We are not yet free”, and reported on various South African responses to Freedom Day. The accompanying picture showed president Jacob Zuma and Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane guffawing in plush leather armchairs, no doubt while loyal subjects cavorted onstage for their pleasure at the Freedom Day celebrations at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The average response of those surveyed by the Times was, “nothing has changed, and Freedom Day is an insult”. Nothing new there. But JZ’s speech contained a quotable quote, unusual for a man whose oratory is eye-peelingly bland. “In four years’ time”, said JZ, “we will have been free for 20 years. We will not have much sympathy for any reasons advanced to explain the failure to make a difference in the lives of our people.” In other words, explained the Times, South Africa has only four more years to blame apartheid for its present ills. We’d better get a move on, quick! As soon as the expiry date runs out on apartheid, we’ll only have ourselves to blame! And we can’t have that. Why, the brave comrades, cadres and veterans of the struggle have the moral high ground in perpetuity, don’t they? 69-year-old Triphina Radebe of Orange Farm, south of Johannesburg, says it best: “We are not free at all, we still live in hardship and even Zuma has never come here to see how we are struggling”.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Why do I feel like the only person NOT rejoicing over the imminent rape of the Beloved Country by FIFA? I turned the radio on this morning (something I always regret doing, since Durban doesn't get 702 or Radio UJ) and every second ad is "it's almost here!"; "party of the decade!"; "how awesome!" etc. The official line is, the 2010 World Cup will bolster South Africa's rep far and wide, boost our economy, expose SA's burgeoning creative talents to the world, and even resuscitate our national soccer team, who just happen to be the lowest ranked African team in this year's Cup.

Under the surface, of course, it's a different story. Local musicians are up in arms over the fact that despite the R170 Gazillion allocated to the cultural face of the World Cup, literally none of it is being spent on music. The opening ceremony ("it's almost here!!!") features paltry international acts like John Legend, Alicia Keys and the Black Eyed Peas, and a sprinkling of SA's also-rans get to play from 2 till 4 with half the PA, or something demeaning like that. The legendary Sipho 'Hotstix' Mabuse is incensed that SA's music has been ignored and plans to hold a "Fuck You FIFA" event on the same evening.

And that's not all. Local artists of all mediums have been told they can expect to make a fortune selling their soccer-related artworks to the millions of glazed-eyed first-time-in-Afrika Europeans who are even now shipping vast quantities of Euro's in containers from the Continent in order to snap up authentic soapstone renderings of Nelson Mandela with a football on his head or Desmond Tutu in goal. Every relevant artwork gets an Official FIFA Stamp to prove its authenticity. Heck, every authentic South African (especially the dark ones) can apply for an Official FIFA-Approved Authentic South African Hologram Badge to place between his or her eyes for the weeks of the World Cup...

OK, I'm ranting. That's what blogs are for, right? The bottom line for cynical me is, the World Cup is a product, people are the consumers, and wherever there is a mass of excited people, there's money to be made. Sure, the 2010 World Cup will have a positive impact on many aspects of South African society, I'm not totally naive, but still, the World Cup is about FIFA, not about soccer. Even the players are mere pawns. Why should talented, beautiful South Africans (or even the ugly ones, for that matter... yes, Mike Sutcliffe and Julius Malema, that means you) be told they are worthy or unworthy of the world's attention  based on FIFA's recommendation? FIFA stands to make a shite-load of cash off SA, and what will we be left with? Innumerable white-elephant stadiums paid for by hard-pressed tax payers, social conditions as they were the day before the World Cup, land-fills full of spent vuvuzela's... a blighted landscape, people. Even as I write this, I'm being sued by FIFA for using the words "soccer", "World Cup" and "2010" in the same sentence. I'm not kidding.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Lying around, rewarding myself with a well-deserved mid-week afternoon nap, as you do, when my rather odd brain decides I should be doing something more constructive. Like blogging! Because everybody wants to know what John Ellis is doing all of the time! Then I think, well, I tweet constantly, and I update my facebook status all the time, so what's really to blog about? Immediately I realise that condensing your observations on life into 140 characters IS the new blogging. Paragraphs and coherent sentence structure are out, passe, so last century. And as for narrative arc, well, ha. So, how about collecting all my recent tweets into one place and letting them tell the story of my recent excursions, instead of having to be bothered with, I dunno, the formalities of language? This paragraph alone is already redundant. In an age where kids text each other without using a single vowel or 'proper' spelling, hr's mi nu blg, composed entirely of this week's tweets. I think you'll agree, this is pretty sad. Ok, here goes. My week in tweets. Mi wk in twts.

  1. I need a life.

    Birthday party!!!
  2. This just in: Nescafe Gold not as pleasantly fake as other instant coffees.Ok, 6 songs down, 2 with cowbells, 5 to go. Powering through. Don't want it to end, but can't wait for it to be out.
  3. All I can say is, thank heaven for anti-frizz shampoo.

    Vintage Fender Rhodes and a bit of tremelo. What better way to start the day?
  4. Voltaren injection in the buttock. Feeling great. Viva chemically-induced relief viva!
  5. Just been aquitted of that little incident in Milwaukee all those years ago. Yes! O Justice, where is thy sting?

    Neck muscles in spasm. Carrying heavy guitars through airport. No-one cares. Life hard. Self-pity kicking in.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Today I launch myself out into the wide blue yonder with the 'release' (an old-fashioned music industry term which no longer really applies in the terra incognita of the digital age) of my debut solo single, "Own Way Home". It's a weirdly exciting and anti-climactical experience. In the Good Old Days of record companies and a quantifiable music industry, the first single of a new album would 'drop' or go for radio adds on a given day ('street date', the Old Ones called it). Now, songs just quietly appear out of the ether on to peoples' desktops, laptops, cell phones, homepages and inboxes. No fanfare (well, unless you have a dedicated army of Comrades dedicated to The Cause, beavering away on a thousand machines to alert the rabble they will not be able to survive the coming week without THIS new song), no print media, no TV ads, no minions wearing "Available Now!" T-shirts around the city. That's the name of the new game, and for artists like me who are used to the former way of doing things, it's a bit unnerving. But it's ok, I'm cool, I'll get with it. Just a few minutes of regret for the old ways, you know.

Now, whinging over, what about this new song? Well, it's entitled "Own Way Home", as in "Find My", as in "I'm ok, thanks very much, I'll go on without you." The 'you' in question is the subject of many blogs, and we'll get there one day, probably. Until then, I make my first foray into the world as a solo artist with this song. It's a flag-waving statement of intent, and as manifesto's go, it's not a bad way of saying hello world. I've recorded it three times and mixed it 87, so I'm far too close to it to say how I feel about it anymore. I wish it luck as I smash a bottle of cheap champagne over its bow and watch it slide down the slipway into the shallow harbour at the edge of a limitless ocean of ones and zeroes, there to sink or swim. I just hope you like it and it means something to you and you tell your friends about it and buy/ download the full as-yet-untitled album when it's ready in May. That's all a solo guy can ask for, right?

P.S. you can listen to it on mySpace (johnelliscoza) and my facebook fan page, for now. Let me know what you think. Thanks for listening.