Steve Fataar: Outside The Machine

The first time I met Steve Fataar I was 16 and he was a legend.

Wearing a long multi-coloured patchwork leather coat and boots, he held my hand for a long time in both of his and looked down at me, saying nothing.  That first encounter – which impressed me though few words were spoken – lingered as a lesson in what it meant to have presence.    The shimmering star-flooded sky seemed an apt backdrop, that Durban night at the Open Air Theatre as Steve and his band played Jackson Browne’s Everyman building up the mesmerising rolling thunder of drums to the final crescendo.  The song’s momentum pulled the crowd into a vortex of sound that kept us all in breathless suspense until we exhaled as one into wild applause.

Today, almost 40 years later, he’s standing at my gate.

‘I don’t breathe too easy anymore,’ he says as he hands me his heavy guitar case so I can carry it inside for him.  It has cost him to walk from the car to my gate. He smiles, ‘but hey, I can still sing!’

He’s here in Cape Town for a number of gigs and he’s invited me to sing with him, a song we’d performed often together several decades ago –  Dylan’s Mozambique.

Steve Fataar Durban KZN campus c 1981

Nina & Steve singing Mozambique at KZN University Concert c. 1981

 In the mid-70’s Steve traveled to Mozambique on a road trip with friends.  They slept on beaches, playing their way across the border and through road blocks.  On one of their adventures, they came across a fortress-like crenellated building with barred windows.  Curious, they looked for a way in – and discovered they were trying to enter a prison.   The guards had long since fled, believing Frelimo was on its way,  but the two remaining prisoners continued to lock themselves dutifully back in after going out for supplies, taking care of the place, not realising the war was over and they could go home.

Dave Barkham

The Prison in Mozambique Photo: Dave Barkham

In those days Steve wore an iconic bright red poncho and he shows me a recently discovered photo of him wearing it, guitar slung round his back as he’s peering into one of the windows of the jail.  Now 50 years later he says, someone remarked the photo would make a great album cover.

‘I like to think,’ says Steve chuckling ‘that somewhere on one those beaches, there was a young Jewish man writing a song about Mozambique the same time we were there.’ (Dylan first released the song on his album Desire in 1976)

We’re sitting in my lounge and as we talk, Steve’s idly pulling a tapestry of tunes out of his favourite battered nylon string acoustic guitar. I’m remembering playing music in Durban decades ago; Rapson Rd, Overport  Rd and attending word-of-mouth  impromptu concerts in the Valley View house.  Those houses are now long gone.

Practice sessions were ramshackle as the commune houses themselves, wreathed in the earth-smoke aroma of cigarettes, marijuana and rooibos tea brewing on the stove. If my memory of those times is a pleasant drifting haze, there were vivid and sharply lit moments too. The astonishing never to-be-repeated guitar riffs, ringing vocal harmonies that hung like bright resonating bells riveted in the air, a staccato muttering drum sequence that kept everything stitched together.  It was a kind of loose spaciousness that Steve created which allowed music to move through freely, while at the same time stay held in place by a collective desire to capture it alive.

Memories of Steve’s younger brother Issy surface in the melodies Steve’s threading together.  Issy’s sheer wizardry, the way he drew enchanted chords out of his guitar with that wide-eyed smile of surprised delight at his own genius  is what we’re both remembering – both missing –  right now.  Issy and I had done a couple of our own shows too at the time. The longing is ephemeral, hollow as the feeling of empty space, a silence that shouldn’t be there. Issy was just 44 when he died of leukaemia.

Issy Fataar

Issy Fataar c.1981

‘And Abby?’ I ask ‘what became of Abby Joyce?’ Abby and I had sung a couple of soulful songs together with the band then.   I had had a huge crush on the beautiful young Sydenham man with a voice that ripped my heart out every time he sang. In my fantasies, with all the privileged blind arrogance of a white girl, I carelessly shrugged off the hazards of South Africa’s immorality act. This was traumatic territory Steve and his girlfriend Marianne were traversing themselves at the time.

Now Steve tells me Abby had become well known as a performer in Melbourne until he too died in 2008.

Zane Adams?  Is he still around?  Zane with his soaring vocal showmanship, his sexy-sleek elegant stage strut.  Steve goes quiet. I thought you knew.  Mark Park, Charl Phyfer, the list goes on of people we once knew. Now gone.

steve Fataar, Issy Fataar

Steve, Zane, Issy

But we’re still here.  And it’s time to rehearse.

‘I’m gonna have to learn this song all over again!’ laughs Steve as he searches his guitar, looking for old chords, excavating the tune.  He comes upon it suddenly, stumbling on it like an ancient seam of gold, the old familiarity of it gleaming.  We fall easily into the harmony, the words coming back to us, returning verse by verse like slightly forgetful migrating birds.  We go through it just once, no repeats or bridges.

‘That’s it!’ exclaims Steve. ‘We got it down.’  Really? After going through it once? I’m left unsettled.  Too much uncertainty for me.

He hands me his guitar so he can take a call.  It feels warm, used, loved.  I start playing a few chords, riffs my fingers remember all on their own. I haven’t picked up my guitar in 2 years.  Once he’s done with the call, we talk about me doing a song on my own.

‘How about the one you’re playing right now?’ says Steve. ‘It’s beautiful! In fact, I’m gonna ask Errol to play it with you.’

Right then and there he calls Errol Dyers.

‘Hey Errol! You know this song….?’

He holds the phone in front of me. ‘Sing a few bars, Nina…’

I’ve heard of the guitar maestro Errol Dyers of course, but I’ve never met him.  I play the opening and sing a verse of Manhattan Transfer’s Scotch & Soda into Steve’s phone.

‘You got that?’ he asks Errol. All I can hear is muffled static in response.  ‘Yeah, Errol says he already knows the song … ok great…. We’re gonna do that one too.’ It’s rehearsal Fataar style – riding the wave that’s here now, a singular trust in the inventiveness of the moment.

Now Steve’s playing an eloquent dark chord sequence, elegiac, somehow wrenching.   ‘Here’s a song I wrote in 1969. I dunno why I never recorded it. And now I quite like it. All those years I coulda been playing it.  It’s called Dove.’

Dawn sees a dove

lift its wings to the sun

While a leaf gently glides

to the ground

 Love lifts her head

Smiles a smile and sighs a sigh

While the dew on the grass

goes to sleep

Why do I suddenly want to weep?   The way the melody cuts open my chest is like surgery.  A clot of emotion that needs release.   Steve’s chortling quietly to himself. ‘It’s about an accidental acid trip I went on. I was in California in some house we visited. This woman just popped something in my mouth saying, here, you’ll enjoy this. Turns out it’s Orange Sunshine. Suddenly the world came alive in a whole new way…. But man, after 18 hours you’re kinda longing for it to stop, y’know.  Like the stairway to heaven has turned into the road to hell.”  Even as he speaks, Steve’s listening to his own playing like there’s a message hidden inside. His head tilted to the side as if maybe listening at just the right angle of obliqueness will give him the answer he’s been waiting for.

It’s a conversation and the part I can’t hear is the part I feel.

A week later I arrive at the Alma Café at the appointed time ready to do a sound check. But the doors are locked and through the windows I see the chairs still piled up on the tables.   I briefly wonder if I have the right night. I wonder up and down the road and a while later a young woman arrives, cigarette in hand.  She lets me in and I tune my guitar while she energetically sweeps and then washes the floors, cigarette now clamped between her lips as she works. The minutes tick by.  My mouth is dry. She’s taking the chairs off the tables. It’s just an hour until show time.   I have no idea how this evening is going to work out and no one has arrived.  I’m clinging to the idea that at least Errol knows the song I’m about to play with him without a single rehearsal.

It’s only later, when I’m already on stage in front of a full house that I find out the truth. I’m telling the story of how I came to be playing with Errol when we’ve only just met for the first time.  I get to the part about Steve asking Errol whether he knows the song after I’d played him the first verse over the phone.  And Steve interjects with “Yeah, and then Errol said to me ‘Well I do now!’ ”

Not that I need have worried. Errol played seamlessly, with an attentiveness to the shape of the song that was not so much embellishment as a fresh restructuring, his guitar revealing new arrangements I could never have imagined. Even as he played, I was aware of him listening intently. Not to me, but to the idea of the song.  Reinventing what he heard through his guitar.

The least trustworthy part of the whole thing was me.  We could have had any number of rehearsals and that would always have remained true.  Where Steve and Errol were fluent deep-diving inhabitants of that soul-sea of sound, I would always be one who’d just learned to swim on the surface. In these waters, my classical training kept me afloat, it didn’t teach me how to ride the unpredictability of waves.

Nina & Errol Dyers at The Alma Café Nov 2016 Photo: Alex Boyle

Nina & Errol Dyers at The Alma Café Nov 2016 Photo: Alex Boyle

That evening, Steve’s friend Dave Barkham had arrived with a painting tucked under his arm.  The background is a muted whitewashed wall. In the foreground, a man wearing a red poncho, Gibson slung around his back, is peering  into a jail-room window.  The words ‘Knocking on Heaven’s door’ in pale blue cursive written alongside.  When the time comes to sing Mozambique,  it’s this story of a painting of a photograph that stands on stage in silent chorus, the whole room echoing with history.  It had been Dave who’d taken the original photograph and he’s gifted Steve with the painting.

Steve Fataar Dave Barkham  

The original photograph of Steve in Mozambique Photo: Dave Barkham


Painting by Dave Barkham

Painting by Dave Barkham

From the moment I saw that painting, I wanted it,’ says Steve when the song is done. ‘Thanks so much Dave.‘

‘That’s ok,’ replies Dave from the audience. ‘It’ll just cost you an album.’

The past has a way of claiming its dues from the present. The songs are waiting.  The cover is done. And it’s a fitting image: a man with a guitar looking through the bars of a prison window from the outside. Steve was never inside the machine.

Whether or not the album ever becomes reality is immaterial.  It’s by living from this place of freedom that Steve Fataar will always be legend.

Steve (Abduragman, Marnie) Fataar,  together with his brothers, Ricky and Edries (Brother),  was one of the founding members of the band The Flames (aka:The Flame formed in 1963) which became one of South Africa’s most famous bands of the 60’s and early 70’s recording a total of 5 albums and 15 singles.  

 The Flames were “discovered” by Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys while performing in Blaise, a London club in 1969. One of the first bands to be signed to the Beach Boys’ label, Brother Records, The Flames recorded their first internationally-released album, The Flame, the following year.  

 The Flames disbanded shortly afterwards with Steve and Edries returning home to Durban, South Africa while Ricky and drummer Blondie Chapman joined the Beach Boys’ touring band.  Steve went on to build a music career playing gigs collaboratively with a host of well-known South African musicians around the country. Today at 74, Steve feels deep gratitude for being able to continue doing what he loves best, playing live music with other musicians for audiences who love and appreciate the magic they create together.

Purchase albums here.

searching for a new land

It was shocking and the last thing I expected to see in a church.

Directly juxtaposed in front of the crucifixion of Christ, she hung naked and obese, crucified on her own flesh: Die Christin (The Christian Woman) an installation by German artist Beatrix von Bock.

die christin- beatrix von bock

The artist had built the 2 metre figure out of shattered glass, painstakingly reconstructing it into a mosaic of pink flesh – a woman hiding inside her own grotesque body yet also unbearably put on view.  There was shame in the turn of the woman’s head, as if she wanted to avoid not only the appalled gaze of the viewer, but also catching sight of her own intolerable flesh.

Beatrix von Bock at work on Die Christin

Perhaps what I found so disturbing was that just the previous day I had visited Aachen’s wonderful hot spring spa and seen variations of women’s naked bodies which did not look so very different.  These were women who had bodies that were other than mine only by degree; but I was uncomfortably aware that what I most wanted to avoid was seeing any similarities. Likewise, this hanging woman had surely nothing to do with me.  There was a shrinking pathos in the nakedness of the figure, as if she wanted to disappear into her own massive bulk.  And yet this artwork was unavoidable, it could not be unseen.

Inspired by an obese woman she had seen at a church function, Beatrix von Bock had observed how this woman’s work went unnoticed, how not only was she reduced to her outward appearance, she was also made invisible by it.  Despite the robustness of the woman’s huge dimensions, what the artist saw was her inner fragility, her breakability; which she expressed so perfectly in her use of broken glass. This is where the artist catches us in her mirror. In looking at this naked woman, if we can tear our attention away for just a moment from the outward grossness of her flesh, we will glimpse her inner vulnerability – and see ourselves.

In the accompanying written piece, she describes how it is ordinary women who create and uphold the community life of the church, through their tireless work in church bazaars, arranging flowers, preparing food, organising events.  Yet they remain in the background inconspicuous and well-behaved, unwanted in the forefront of the church, unable to claim a place.

Die Christin was part of a 5-woman art exhibition held in the Aachen City Church.  The theme was Neulandsuche (In search of a new land) and was part of the Aachen Heligtumsfahrt (holy pilgrimage) celebrated in June this year.  At the exhibition event, the artist was inundated by eager people 3 deep wanting to discuss her work, intrigued by its provocativeness in the context of the church.  But it’s a piece that’s not easy to like.  When I spoke to her, Beatrix admitted that when she first conceived the idea for this work she was nervous about whether the church would find it acceptable.

I wondered whether a different statement would have been made if the naked woman had been young, shapely and sexually appealing.  Would that have made it less or more acceptable in a church? Perhaps beautiful women are equally crucified by their own desirability, pinned into place by how the viewer interprets their flesh.

die Christin Citykirche Beatrix von Bock

When I asked Beatrix what would become of her new work after the exhibition. She shrugged and then smiled ruefully.

“I don’t know.  I mean, this isn’t exactly the kind of art someone would want to buy to  hang in their home!  I would like to hope I’ll be invited to show it at another exhibition.”*

It requires a brave work of art such as this to get our attention, to make visible what we don’t want to know, forcing us to see parallels and connections when we’d prefer separation and distance.  But the best place to view this particular work is in the context of a church where it can break new ground.  It belongs there, awkward and difficult though it may be, just like the women it speaks for. Giving them space.

*Note: as it happens, once the exhibition was over, Beatrix von Bock was asked to leave her installation in place for an indefinite time. She says that having the work displayed on its own makes for an even more powerful impact.

Friday Fictioneers: free time

Dammit, I’m addicted. Two weeks in a row and I just can’t help myself.  So here we go again with another flash fiction story challenge courtesy of the wonderful Rochelle Wishoff-fields (her story is fab, by the way!) and her ever-inventive story-telling band of Friday Fictioneers (going to check them out here just as soon as I’ve posted this) The challenge as always: using the picture prompt, write a 100 word story with a beginning, middle and end. Here goes:

Thief of Time

Now the school has closed, Alice thinks back.  Remembering how each event of the day was heralded by the bell;  how even before it was a school, the cloisters had rung with its compelling voice, calling the nuns to prayer.

Her phone chimes once.  A reminder.

It chimes again, this time two short pings. Her daughter Melissa, exhorting her not to forget her appointment.

Alice sighs. It seems her life is still regulated by bells after all.

The bright flowers outside grow wild, following their own rhythm.  Dropping her phone into their blooms, she knows they won’t be listening either.

Friday Fictioneers: the colour of memory

Friday being valentine’s day, it seemed impossible not to weave the theme of romance into this week’s Friday Fictioneer challenge.

Go here to find out more about Rochelle Wishoff-fields and her Friday Fictioneers.  Read all the other entries here.  In brief, the challenge is to write a 100-word story with a beginning, middle and end inspired by a picture prompt. The restriction is strangely addictive!  Here’s my story below:


They’re celebrating my exhibition in the gallery next door, laughing as they drink Zednya’s famous fruit punch. She’s skillfully showing the collectors around, telling them about each Memory Painting. How like apparitions, they flash into my mind when I’ve forgotten everything else, even my name.  All I remember are those vivid images just before the explosion, tormenting until I finally release them onto canvas.  Then they disappear, no longer troubling me.

Except this one.

Zednya believes she’s just another ghost from that time. Girl Unknown.

I think about her crushed strawberry lips.  Wondering if she survived somehow, remembering her dress.

Andy Couturier: A Different Kind of Luxury

If you have a nagging disquiet in you which senses there has to be an alternative to this life of stressed high pressure, wired yet numbing pursuit of status, income and possessions driven by the pressing need to make a living instead of a life, then this book: A Different Kind of Luxury written by Andy Couturier is for you.

Chris Morrison writes an excellent review that captures beautifully the essence of A Different Kind of Luxury. What he says resonates with my own experience, both because I happen to be re-reading the book right now, and because I have personally met 7 of 11 people profiled in the book while travelling around rural Japan with a small writing group led by Andy. I’m concurrently reading Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything by F S Michaels, her brilliant but disturbing analysis of how the economic narrative is the story which permeates every single aspect of our lives – without us even realising it.

This turns out to be perfect reading companion for A Different Kind of Luxury lending it even greater authority as a satisfying antidote to the monoculture of city life as we know it.

Thirty-Two Minutes

A Different Kind of Luxury coverAndy Couturier
A Different Kind of Luxury
(2010, Stone Bridge Press, 316 pages)

Many of us know at least one person who is resistant to the attractions and complications of modern, frantic, high tech, commercial life. Some people take action – small, achievable steps like growing some of one’s own food, joining a food co-op, riding a bicycle or walking to work, using less electricity, and so on. A few go even further in taking themselves “off the grid.” Subtitled “Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance,” Couturier’s lovely and valuable book – based on articles he wrote for The Japan Times – profiles eleven men and women who have given up contemporary Japanese urban life and found more sustainable alternatives living in the countryside. Most of these eleven people share characteristics, aside from the fact that most of them know (and, in a couple of cases, are married…

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junk detox

“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside which holds whatever we want” Lao Tzu

“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside which holds whatever we want” Lao Tzu

To the friend who sent me these words today, being in the same boat:
the first step to getting what you want is having the courage to get rid of what you don’t

You said it reminded you of some advice I’d given and I want to say I’m sorry.
About the advice I mean. It was a glib show;
dressed up in the satin-slippery glamour of poetic quotes
it got in the way of nakedly saying I don’t know.

For the state I’m in right now lends itself to purging
In between bouts of nausea I’m prowling madly through the house, making a mess
as I dig like a dangerous animal searching for prey
killing anything that doesn’t give me beauty, joy or usefulness.

All these corpses. It’s not just objects past their goodbye date I’m hunting down;
I’ve unhooked myself from every online magazine self-help program and blog
business or otherwise I’ve collected over the years
sick of their reproachful unread status cluttering up my inbox

I want surfaces. Space. Emptiness.
Sell up. Sweep out all the stuff inside my head I think I know
and start all over again. Beginner’s Mind.
It’s all marked down. Like those huge sales where everything must go.

Being empty I’ll have no more advice to give
nor can it come regurgitated from the mouth of social media, a thousand-fold said
I’m blocking those channels; trading aphorisms seems a poor exchange
when something risky, still unspoken, intoxicating could be said instead

So it’s quite uncanny you sent me what you did
for it’s only from this newly spacious mind that I can say
how much I like it that someone on the other side of night
thinks of me in the emerging light of day

Making me wonder
what I want to make all this space for

Friday Fictioneers – Taken Apart

Today I was in the mood for an inspiring challenge that was also fun.

And it arrived. Click here if you want to find out more about Friday Fictioneers and read all the other entries here. Briefly the challenge is to write a 100-word story inspired by a picture prompt. Here’s this Friday’s prompt and my story below:

Copyright: Sean Fallon

Copyright: Sean Fallon

“Jesus Miles!” his wife laughed.  “You run just like a girl!” She and Sally exchanged amused glances.  Bruce grinned.

“Well done, old boy!”

Miles, breathless and puffing, felt himself go red.

Wordlessly, he handed his wife the soft pink scarf the wind had snatched from her neck.  Philippa had shrieked and Miles had immediately raced after it – rescuing it from the wind’s grasp, bringing it back to her like a prize.

She accepted it graciously. “Thank you my precious sweet! ”  she said solemnly and patted him, smiling at Bruce.

Everyone liked Philippa. You couldn’t fault her.  She was so disarming.

What needs saying

When I first encountered zen gardens during my time in Japan, I never quite ‘got’ them. On the surface they appeared boring, they lacked sensory appeal and they spoke in a language peaceful yes, but strangely dull to me.

It was only years later that I began to catch a glimmer of understanding; how their quintessential ‘changelessness’ is a key to grasping their true value. While the landscape around them blossoms into spring,  turns ravishingly beautiful in summer, falling into the glory of autumn and then the austerity of winter, the zen garden remains seasonless, still, everlastingly the same in the midst of change.  And so it is when contemplating the deeper truths of life in the midst of the chaos and churn of every day living.

What follows is not a poem inspired by zen gardens; but it seemed to share a similar feeling in its landscape, mood and intention as I wrote, puzzling over a life problem which could be seen to have its roots in Japan.

Zen garden 800 x 661

From my personal photos: Ryogen Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto

Silence has many tongues
all untranslatable
I can no longer find you
in the mapping of words

Your silence says everything
and tells me nothing
transparent as a veil, unforgiving as stone
both mute and eloquent
in ambiguity
sealed in the armour
of staying unknown

So hard to know then
what really needs saying
and right now I can’t find the words
but I can search in two possible places

One is my heart
long unable to mend
the other my soul which in daily rebellion
kicks at how language
can’t hold us together
just this silence
which binds us invisibly as surely as love would have
if we’d been able to trust where it took us

So I search in the breaking
which grieves the unfinished
the squandered awakening
the reunion undone

and I still see so clearly
the greater intention
not this fugitive love
which cannot give more than

this silence for silence
which seems like an ending
but is really a listening
a dowsing for stillness
in this landscape of words

And out of the stillness
words rise to the surface
massive like islands
to say what needs saying

They rise up to answer a call from the future
a freshly made country not yet known or mapped out
with the naming of words

It will wait

And how we next meet will find its own way
like a mysterious traveller speaking in tongues
who returns to your doorway delivering a message
steeped in a language vivid with meaning
but which cannot be heard or translated
except by a much larger love

Not yet here

the zoo of the unknown

This is altogether darker territory; a realm where animals are cyphers for what we don’t want to know.

Photo: Mike Visagie ©

Photo: Mike Visagie ©

you visit the zoo of the unknown
those clawed and fanged things you captured wild
and dragged in one by one to be caged.

Today you feel strong enough
to eye them through the bars
and the soundproof safety glass
that stops you hearing them wail and howl
hunting for their freedom

You survey the broken ground
they’ve been digging tunnels, breaching underground  places
sniffing out all that buried shame
that tamped down stench of hidden pain
no one faces

Thwarted by his resentful mate
the wildcat is crimson furred, electric with hate
It’s feeding time; silently they fling themselves at your passing shadow
hungering for your recognition.
Isn’t that why you’ve come?
Guiltily you turn away.
You’re only here to check the security

Something sorrowful lurks, you haven’t spotted him yet
And he’s harmless anyway but those hyenas now
jostling doubt and futility between their jealous jaws
they look at you with sly desire
urge you to join them in their game of back and forth
an endless  distraction
you slide past them uneasily
nothing to do with you

fear slithers beneath your feet making you unsteady
You tremble and the wild things stir within
flexing their wings, their claws, their long insinuating tongues

Predatory. They keep to themselves what they know.
That they can take you where you need to go
but only if you meet them in the wilderness
let them razor you open, leave you gutted
your heart excavated
then go riding their backs
to get a bird’s eye view

finding the lions

Perhaps we give nature its human voice when we allow it to enter us through the poetic imagination. Here’s the 2nd poem in a series of 3:

Photo: Mike Visagie ©

Photo: Mike Visagie ©

I wake to find a lioness has crept into my limbs
She stretches, rolls and purrs
lies waiting, distantly alert, expectant
and watches her mate stealthily
through sleepy-slitted eyes.

We’d searched all day for the lions
and finally found them sunning themselves
in the late long afternoon grass, these wild royals
stately and languorous, so lavishly amorous.
He courting her, his great tongue licking her neck.
She biding her time; letting him wait.

When he placed his massive paw onto her back
and gently pushed her down
she submitted graciously, one feline glance
cast back at him as if to idly check
she really had secured him. Her satisfied indifference
in the moment of his culminating snarl.

They were rarely seen the ranger said.

And so I am surprised to find them once again this morning
with an air of predatory relish
reclining in our bed.