Bright Blue (left-to-right): Peter Cohen, Dan Heymann, Tom Fox and Ian Cohen

November 2001

Anyone who has been following the career of seminal South African band, Bright Blue, for the past 17 or so years, will know that it's entirely appropriate that the release of their long-awaited retrospective set comes with the title, 'Every Now And Then (The Best So Far: 1984 - 2001)'. For everything about Bright Blue has always been fluidity; about blurring the edges of what is expected of a band in the conventional sense ("We release music sporadically and intend doing it forever" announce the band) and, of course, extending that into their music which wholeheartedly defied the boundaries of the time becoming a forerunner of the "rainbow nation" sound.

With a name that reflected the paradox of being bright in a very blue time {actually, it was also a tribute to Chelsea FC - Sporting Ed.}, Bright Blue created a sound that - through recordings and a raucously rocking live show - organically fused the lilt and lurch of township jive and the harmonies and rhythms of mbaqanga with a solid rock musicality and smatterings of pop.

What's more, the band - at first brothers Peter and Ian Cohen, Tom Fox and Robin Levetan (now a Cape Town-based architect) and Dan Heymann - flew the flag of protest and liberation in astute songs about the contradictions of a life of white privilege that were, on first experience, uplifting and positive (perfectly matching the band's paradoxical name). This was no mean feat in apartheid's final, dark decade which was marked by the apartheid regime's unrelenting oppressiveness; the spectre of an uncertain future; war raging in the townships; and a military call-up that many white youths found morally reprehensible.

And although a handful of other groups dipped into South Africa's broader musical well, few did it with such infectious results and quite in the winning way that Bright Blue managed. This they achieved by unleashing several fine recordings (among them two full albums, 'Bright Blue' and 'The Rising Tide'- both still unavailable on CD) gaining some significant radio play (with tracks like 'Window On The World', 'Weeping' and 'Second Avenue') and moving from campus to campus, club to club, bringing their live show to staunch fans all over the country.

A mid-80's shift to Johannesburg pushed Bright Blue to new heights and greater exposure. Reflecting on the time, Ian Cohen said: "Moving to Jo'burg felt like we had arrived in New York City - we were real small town boys in the big smoke. But it gave us a chance to be amongst and play with some great musicians." Among these were Louis Mhlanga, Simmi Zeko, and Sipho (Scorpion) Mandono, all of whom added to the unique sonic swirl that Bright Blue crafted.

The band's strong connection to the anti-apartheid movement of the time is evidenced by the song 'Weeping', which was penned by Dan Heymann (although in typical Bright Blue democratic style, they are all formally credited with its composition). As Heymann recalls: "In 1986, responding to the Apartheid Government's clamp-down on the media, I wrote the words of 'Weeping', over a piece of music I had composed more than a year earlier, while I was stuck in the Army".

The song was originally recorded in 1987, at Orange 338 Studio in Orange Grove, Johannesburg, by Phil Audoire and Daved Moloele. In a mad burst of creativity, Bright Blue recorded two songs in one night ('Yesterday Night' being the second) pausing only at about 2am to dash off to the Market Theatre to pick up the late Basil Coetzee to blow his magnificent horn on this track.

At that time without a deal (the first album, 'Bright Blue', was the extent of their recordings for Trutone, though an EMI deal was soon to follow), the group pressed up 500 vinyl singles, featuring a black and white cover shot of Bright Blue sitting outside the Imperial Café in Cape Town. Astonishingly, 'Weeping' soon made it onto the national airwaves, despite the fact that it quite clearly contained a section of 'Nkosi Sikelel I'Afrika', which was then banned by the Nationalist Party government.

'Weeping' has been extensively covered since then, most notably by the Soweto String Quartet and Vusi Mahlasela. A particularly poignant moment for Bright Blue was playing the song live at a Mitchell's Plain concert for returning exiles, attended by former President Nelson Mandela soon after his release from prison in 1990.

To date however, the only Bright Blue material available on CD (besides 'Weeping' being included on many SA compilations), was the 'Open Your Eyes' CD single from 1996. Which makes the release of 'Every Now And Then (The Best So Far: 1984 - 2001)' such a welcome event for Bright Blue fans. The compilation includes songs like 'Who's The Enemy', 'The Rising Tide' (a tribute to jailed SA conscientious objector David Bruce), 'Living In Africa', 'Yesterday Night', 'Window On The World' and, of course, 'Weeping'.

The album also features two new tracks, 'World Turns' and 'Can You Feel It'. 'World Turns', is vintage Bright Blue, with just enough sonic twists and threads to ensure the track resides firmly in the 21st century musical terrain. Penned jointly by the group's remaining three active members (Ian and Peter Cohen and Tom Fox), 'World Turns' pivots on Fox's distinctive yet subtle mbaqanga-influenced guitar piece and the chilled rhythm section provided by the Cohen brothers. But the musical ante is upped by the inspired use of gorgeous, jazz-influenced keyboards (played by Mark Goliath) and some elegant sampling.

'Can You Feel It' is as joyous a new slice of sound as you will hear emanating from South Africa this year. Fast moving and showcasing Bright Blue's feel for a groove and a blasting horn section, this is uplifting stuff that proves just how relevant the group still is today. Adding to the quality of the new material is the input of life-long friend and colleague Johan Griesel (who has been handling live sound for the likes of Steve Winwood and Jeff Beck recently) who assisted Bright Blue in mixing the two new songs.

The 1990's saw Bright Blue moving in a new direction as the political situation in South Africa changed. After a decade of writing, practising, recording and touring, Bright Blue became a looser set-up, with the band members engaged in other pursuits. Peter Cohen worked with Mango Groove, and Tom Fox, alongside James Stewart, Yoyo Buys and Paul Tizzard, produced some excellent BB-influenced sounds (and three strong albums) with Cape Town band, The Usual.

But Bright Blue never "broke up" as such, and we can expect even more musical magic from this hugely-popular band in the future. Dan Heymann has expressed interest in recording with the group again (properly via the Internet). Heymann currently resides in New York, working as a computer programmer. Until September 11th, he worked on the 96th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Fortunately, Heymann arrived at the WTC subway station just after the first plane had crashed into the towers on September 11, and the area had already been cordoned off.

Music continues to dominate the lives of Peter Cohen and Fox who worked under the Bright Productions banner, crafting music for soundtracks and commercials (often with Ian's input when time allowed). Ian, meanwhile, continues to create music from his home studio, and he recently composed and performed the soundtrack for 'Main Reef Road', Nic Hofmeyer's upcoming film about Johannesburg.

"Music is still a powerful part of our lives" the group attests, "We want to be releasing Bright Blue stuff when we are sixty. We've found a way of working that works for us all; that suits our requirements and with the availability of digital methods of recording, we hope to keep creating far into the future".