Saturday, December 30, 2023

Heidelberg Tavern Massacre

We'd passed the tavern on the same night
   but decided to go somewhere with more color
We woke in the morning to hear on the shortwave radio
   about an overnight massacre

As a good journalist,
   Mum grabbed her microphone and tape recorder
As a journalist's son,
   I made sure to grab my notebook and camera

No breakfast, we made our way to the scene
   from the university guest house
Checking the maps, we parked the rental car
   as close as the police allowed

The news didn't make for the best start
   to tomorrow's New Year
Ominous really, indeed,
   the country was in a state of suspended fear

It wasn't how we were planning to spend our short vacation
But the journalistic impulse is a lifetime occupation

Then again it was South Africa, forever on the verge of doom
There were elections planned in April, 1994 loomed

Heidelberg tavern massacre Cape Town

The BBC didn't have anyone in Cape Town,
   no boots on the ground
For things had not been as heated there as in KwaZulu-Natal

But now we could see the commotion,
   the heavy police presence
Flashing lights, weapons everywhere,
   and the sounds of sirens

Truth be told, it really felt as if we were in the middle of a war
Darn it, I had run out of film.
   Luckily, I spied a convenience store

Walked in briskly and asked what kind of film they had
Noting that I preferred Fuji but would gladly take Kodak

Taken aback, the shopkeeper,
   it felt as if I was integrating the shop
Ah right, should have known better,
   they'd never served black people before

The way he was startled, as if I had come in the wrong door
Was in the wrong place, an affront, and sullying his shop floor

It was so over my head.
   Had they really never been ordered around by my kind?
Well anyway, their countrymen would soon be doing the same,
   it was about time

"Where are you from?",
   a latter-day attempt at small talk over the counter.
"I'm on holiday, Sir. Came from the States.
   But I'm originally from Ghana."

"Ghana." "Yeah, West Africa."
   Rands proffered gingerly, patterns of exchange
I picked up water and a Twix bar.
   I told the owner to keep the change

Dad used to regale us with stories
   about his cohort of African diplomats
Integrating New York right after independence.
   This country was a throwback

I loaded the roll of film,
   would the memories I'd record be paparazzi gold?
Well it was South Africa, 1994 beckoned.
   Who knew what life would hold?

heidelberg tavern massacre - mum

Mum had already walked up beyond the security cordon
Her microphone a kind of spear that opened all doors

Looks of grudging respect from the soldiers and police officers
Badged as she was as a live representative of the foreign press

There was a local journalist on the scene
   who seemed to appreciate a colleague
It's not everyday that this kind of carnage
   comes to your quiet streets

It was only as she drew nearer
   that it struck me that it was a near miss
That it was only a matter of luck
   that we weren't yesterday's victims

This was the enlightened part of town
   where races supposedly mingled every day
Surprising really that the tavern would be singled out,
   a real case of dismay

An hour away, Khayelitsha had been rough,
   but this was quite different
This was the day, I guess,
   that Observatory had lost its innocence

Elsewhere, of course,
   Buthelezi's people and the ANC were going at it
That was the background of disquiet
   that was giving most of us fits

True, there were rumors of the apartheid death squads,
   the rearguard action
By and large however, on the ground
   there was a lot of empty posturing

Albeit we were learning the vocabulary of bloodletting
The country at large becoming connoisseurs of necklacing

But this was a terrorist attack plain and simple
Shooting up a bar out of some misguided principle

Students and others winding down the year
   with music and alcohol
Left for dead, maimed or injured,
   and now a cautionary symbol

   it's not that I'd discounted her war stories about being shot at
   even as I was well aware of journalists' occupational hazards

This was the new South Africa
   whose leaders were lawyers who spent time debating
At inordinate length, the finer points
   of the mooted constitutional provisions

heidelberg massacre - mum inspects damage

"It's bad." Onlookers murmuring, sidewalk symphony
"It's bad. They seemed to have shot up outside."

She gestured for me to come past the police tape.
"Come, you're my photographer."

"It's bad." What a refrain
"Oh it's bad. Damn." "It's bad." A chorus of pain

"Three dead at least." "How many?" "Three at least"
"It's bad. We don't know if the others will make it."

"It's bad." "What a shame."
"No responsibility declared." No one to blame.

"I counted ten, oh god. What a scene, it's bad."
"They found a bomb, it could have been even worse."

"Bomb squad was here. It didn't detonate. It's clear now"
"They say... You don't want to see inside. Believe me, it's bad."

"Come closer, take some photos."
   Not quite as intrepid, I was staying behind the tape.
Unabashed, she came and lifted the tape,
   pulled me over to the front. "Go on"

"Right here in Obz". Afrikaner accent
"Terrorists. I can't believe it."

"They should clean up the blood. It's bad, it's upsetting."
The broken glass dispersed, shards everywhere.

"It's bad. Oh, it's bad. I tell you. It's bad"
"Station Road. Right here in Obz. Oh, it's bad."

"Who was playing last night?" "Josh... so sad."
"Is he okay? I wonder." "Oh, it's bad"

There was blood on the ground and this was the aftermath
"Oh, it's bad", I couldn't help but join in with the refrain.

heidelberg tavern capetown

It took hours to interview everyone and talk to the police
Bystanders and witnesses, shocked
   yet wearing that mask of normalcy

Later we went to SABC, to the main studio, to call in her report
Filed for the African service, and then filed another for Focus

We weren't sure how the story would go over,
   the party line from Bush House
The news cycle doesn't afford the complexity
   that a long report allows

This wasn't the kind of story that anyone wanted to receive
No hearts would be warmed
   by this tale of blood on New Year's Eve

We decided to not get the film developed.
   Her copy would have to do.
By the time we finished reporting,
   it was late afternoon

We'd been so caught up that we'd forgotten to eat
   and now we were hungry
Thankfully I remembered my Twix bar,
   the cheap snack came in handy

We drove past the tavern again
   on the way back to the guest house
Canceled any nominal plans for the night,
   we'd had more than enough

Back in our rooms, it was time for some quiet reflection
   We were shaken by our proximity to this unseemly action

Cape Town devoid of music, and turned into a place of hurt
Pain unbounded, the whole country holding its breath

The broken glass at the Heidelberg Tavern,
   death at the barrel of a gun
We would bring in the New Year very quietly that night,
   mother and son

heidelberg tavern cape town

Soundtrack for this note

The great guitarist Josh Sithole was holding court as ever at the Heidelberg Tavern on the night of the massacre. He was lucky to escape with his life but some of his audience, and someone from the next door checking in on what was happening lost their life. Casualties of a senseless deed.


Thirty years ago, I filled my notebook with some of the above impressions, I had yet to take everything in. I am still to write about the rest, what I later learned about the victims, the families and indeed the perpetrators. Having published my photos of the tavern online, I was often contacted as the legacy of the trauma was debated and processed over the years. All in good time, I suppose.


Lost in Obs is an artwork commemorating the tragic events.

See previously: Truth and Reconciliation

Next: Bound Together (a surprising aftermath)

I nominate this slice of life for The Things Fall Apart Series under the banner of The Rough Beast, which asks: who is writing the script?

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Writing log. Concept: December 31, 1993. February 3, 2022

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

To Hunt the Wren

The Wife and kids will occasionally catch me enthusiastically singing a quite eccentric song, To Hunt the Wren.

It seems to tickle their funny bone as it's quite a bit different from my usual soul/jazz/blues/hip-hop fare but, well, there's a story there...

To Hunt the Wren is an old English folk song that is typically sung on Boxing Day as it commemorates a tradition where townsfolk would gather in the morning around Christmas to go hunting the titular wren - wrens being those cute (and tasty) little birdies.

The lyrics, as I recall, are:

Where are you going?
To hunt the wren
This Christmas morning calls for hunting them
How will you kill him?
With sticks and stones
Hatchets and cleavers honoring his bones
And so forth.... The bloodthirsty quotient quite accentuated by repetition

Anyway... people who attended my boarding school might well recall choirmaster's Alan Vening's arrangement that the whole school would spend a entire term practicing, I believe we had a school-wide Christmas performance; To Hunt the Wren was a big feature during my time there.

I guess it was a combination of the striking lyrics and the inspired arrangement that caused the song to be so firmly imprinted in my mind.

(Or perhaps it was the savagery of those English tribes that the song laid bare)

The felicitous way the tongue curls around "Hatchets and cleavers" is satisfying in its own sweet, merry way. In it, we can hear the deep origins of Maxim guns and future paeans to Rule Britannia.

The verve of the call of response too was fitting and had some swing to it. You wouldn't guess how often the "How will you kill him? / With sticks and stones" refrain is heard in our household, thirty odd years later.

Still the kids are quite blasé about the troubling lyrics - I suspect early exposure to such things fortifies the soul readying them for this neo-feudal world of organized gleeful violence visited on a (mostly) defenseless wren.

The imbalance of power. Peace starts at home.

To Hunt the Wren does have a certain incongruity in its imagery. For one the fascination and flair it finds in the act of killing. This is plainly a hands-on affair albeit with sticks and stones.

And then there is the fact that it is a single wren that is being hunted by the gathered crowd. Communal catharsis, perhaps, in the ceremony of blood. Is this a kind of Sussex scapegoating at work? Stonehenge atavism? Middle England savagery? Who knows?

The hunt of the wren does takes place after all on Christmas morning just days after the winter solstice. A celebration of harvests to come, the depths of these dark times, the light ever increasing going forward. I suppose you can deconstruct further meanings from the tune.

The web being what it is, you can hear the song for yourself. Sadly the online versions will never approach the melodious peaks that stay in my memory. The lyrics and arrangements are quite suspect, says this expert. Trust me, you'll have to come my way to hear the real thing

I notice that Natalie Merchant sings a version in her latest album!

These takes are far more mournful than what I grew up with. Interesting an Olde English sense, but they don't quite spark joy in the same way. Where is the joy, I ask?

So imagine, if you will, me crooning the peaceful coda on this Boxing Day morning
Yay and so amen
Yay and requiem

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Writing log: December 26, 2023

Tuesday, December 19, 2023


Places are a part of you, they leave their imprint
As they burrow into your pores, piercing your second skin
Slowly at first, then, before you know it, you're a local
Affecting the manners and outlook, and reciting idées fixes

The fabric of nostalgia is connective tissue to time and place
That, even as your body faces the present, your soul lingers
Tracing invisible boundaries in sand, affirming kinship
Even at a distance, you can't suppress the great longing

Phantom organs whose purpose is revealed on later reflection
Their notional contribution is to supply a sense of balance
Their stamps of indelible ink are charged with memories
Such are the identity markers of modern travelers

You touch, tentatively, as if to revive that feeling of old
The sound of the streets you roamed, that playground you owned
Grasping to decipher the messages weighted with meaning
The lost stories are outlined faintly in the veins of belonging

stamps african countries collage 3

Places, a playlist

I give you 120 or so neighborhoods of the mind, a musical journey around the world (spotify version)

This internal displacement is part of a series: In a covidious time.

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Writing log: February 27, 2022

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

In a Moment

I. Solidarity

Without a common language, all we had was a stare
Yet a mere head nod opened an entire conversation
In the silent gesture there was the keen recognition
Of a fellow traveler, badged with the burden of loss
The sour journeys we'd taken to get to this place
The consolation of each other's presence assuaged all
We looked around at the others,
We realized: together we would stand.

II. Seduction

Without a single word, we reached an understanding
Intertwined with searching glances
Imperceptible pursing of lips
Involuntary flicks of the tongue
We would soon be wrapped in each other
Without a doubt
The rest was waiting
We looked at each other,
We realized: the game was on.

kagyah dancer

In a Moment, a playlist

soundtrack for this note. (spotify version)
See previously Close Contact

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Writing log: February 21, 2022

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Forgiveness and Love

Scars unforgotten
Marked the liminal landscape
Monuments of loss

We sought redemption
Escape from the memories
Refuge in the hills

Out there at night time
Relief in the melodies
We sang without end

Nature's comfort suites
Sleeping chambers of welcome
Forgiveness and love

aburi carved tree detail sculpture carving

Soundtrack for this note

See previously: Bloodbath, South Carolina and Until Such Time

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Writing log: January 16, 2022