Stranger

Stranger

In 1984 I wrote a song called Stranger. It took no more than 5 minutes and I kind of wrote it as I played it for the first time. In the key of E, with a similar chord progression as Dylan’s ‘Just like a woman’ although that was just coincidence. I was thinking at the time about the terrible hardships imposed on the racially disadvantaged majority in the South Africa I had recently left behind for my new life in England. My father in law at that time, Bernard Smith was senior in the Mining business and I had some insight to go with my considerable concern over that particular line of work. The South Africa I grew up in was at the time the worlds 3rd richest economy, underpinned by its Gold production, which in the 70’s was around 85% of the worlds supply during the era where currency markets were measured by a Gold standard.

On the one hand I knew the mind set and the ethical standards of my former father in-law and on the other I had met and smoked weed with musicians in South Africa who had experienced working in the Gold Mines. For an entire generation of Blacks, dating back to that most odious of exploiters of both humanity and Africa’s mineral resources, Cecil Rhodes, the relationship between minerals, mining and white exploitation is well established. It was Rhodes who upon learning of the rich Diamond deposits in Kimberley, contrived the cost effective remedy for getting men to work for free digging deep holes, by enforcing what was to become one of the pillars of Apartheid, the Group Areas act, which prevented Black labourers from leaving their low paid work in his mine by restricting their movement from the area by legislation. Imagine how effective a business model this really was. Pay the labour force nothing, basic food and water and basic housing, prevent them from leaving by drastic legislation effectively imprisoning them in the area, allow for a reasonable mortality rate on the job without any worker protection standards and then make them work in life threatening hazardous conditions to extract diamonds, which you then own outright. Rhodes happily donated the largest of these to the Queen of England, for use as a Crown Jewel, and the relationship between the elite of England, Africa’s mineral wealth and the exploitation of its Black population as an unpaid workforce was established.

The Gold mines were even worse. Entire generations of Blacks migrated to the City of Gold in search of work where they worked the deep gold mines, ‘facing a poverty you’d never understand’.

What struck me on the songwriting day in London when reviewing the miners and their sorry lot in life, is that they were completely disempowered by the process of an entire working life spent as virtually unpaid migrant labour and made strangers in their own land. With no political rights and no economic possibilities for upliftment.

The song is written in the first person as a character who has experienced this alienation from nationality and personality and is left wondering ‘who pays the piper’ now that the past has traveled to the present and the exploitation of the miners is effectively illegal, what with minimum wage making it no longer cost effective to get gold out from so deep under Johannesburg.

After several generations spent their entire lives as slave labour in ‘bleeding sweat to free the golden dust’ the character speculates, quite rightly that ‘They took it all and left nothing for us.’  He inquires. “I want to know who pays the piper, for what’s been taken away.”

The issue of accountability for those lost generations forgotten in every way while the inheritors of the perpetrators, from Rhodes forwards continue to enjoy the sparkle of the profits that came form the bleeding sweat of the miners. Born as strangers in a foreign land. Both metaphorically by way of economic division, as well as by colour.

One day in 1987 I decided to spend £1,000 to make a professional recording of the song and during this time I was doing many gigs, at various times with Ken Ganpot, Chris West and Ronnie Johnson.  I booked Dave Mackay’s lovely studio in Woldingham, where I had just finished producing a commercial recording and we spent a lovely day joined by Geoff Dunn on drums and Phil Mulford on bass. On that day Ken brought his son James to the session, a cheerful ten year old, who was happily singing along through the preparation for the song, where it became clear hkenis voice on the very high note of ‘What’s been taken away’ added a powerful emotional layer to the musical content. I always smile when I hear that note.

The recording was made live in one take, the second run through of the day and Kens vocal was more or less one take as well. Chris and I mixed the track that same afternoon and that was my thousand pound day at Dave’s studio.

Ronnie and Geoff would go on to spend many years playing and recording with Van Morrison, Phil Mulford is still a leading London player and Ken still lives in London although I remember well his promise to one day return to the Caribbean. I have never tired of his amazing vocal on this song made in the days before auto tune and cut and paste composite of multiple vocal attempts. That’s one guy singing from beginning to end while the band play live around him.

I carried on playing the song in my set for many years and so did Ken, but the song never achieved any commercial interest and so many years later, prompted by a request from someone who remembered it from my gigs, I put the track on YouTube and from there I had several emails asking how the song could be ordered, so finally, almost 30 years after our day in Woldingham, I ran the old DAT master though a Logic Mastering program, added some soft Tube compression to the stereo pair and for the first time, you can buy ‘Stranger’, more or less exactly as it was recorded on the day.

MP3 of Stranger performed by Ken Ganpot for $2.49.

STRANGER  sung by KEN GANPOT.

Available for the first time now on http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/kenganpot2

Featuring:
Organ and Voice: Ken Ganpot
Guitars: Ronnie Johnson
Drums: Geoff Dunn
Bass: Phil Mulford
BV: James Ganpot – aged 10.

Written by Andrew Brel (1984)
Recorded and Mixed by Chris West and Andrew Brel.
www.andrewbrelcom

Stranger (Brel)

Its not far away I once was told
there’s a city that’s paved with gold
Not far from where I am to where ill be
so put a ticket on and rescue me

I took the train to see what work id find
managed ten years down a working mine
Bleeding sweat to free the golden dust
They took it all and left nothing for us

Born as a stranger in a foreign land
I must accept conditions I cant understand
I’m told its treason if I ever can
say I believe, I am my own man.

My independence is a travesty
of any human rights once due to me
My life’s a circle and in every way
I watch it growing tighter every day

I’ve seen my closest friends go overnight
across the border to take up the fight
I’m not a violent man, so I stayed home
The way its going who knows for how long

Born as a stranger in a foreign land
Facing a poverty you’d never understand
Id go to prison in this foreign land
to say I believe
I am my own man

Who pays the piper
when the song draws to its close
I d want to know
Who pays the piper
for what’s been taken away

My stories told each day ten thousand times
In different places, with different rhymes
If there’s one lesson my life has shown
Its that two rights don’t correct one wrong

Its only love I’ve come to understand
offers salvation to this race of man
We have no wisdom with which to explain why
we make the same mistakes again and again

Born as a stranger in a foreign land
Facing a poverty you’d never understand
Id go to prison in this foreign land
to say I believe
I am my own man

As an aside, soon after this, I made up a story for the Sun and Ken agreed to act along with Audriene to play the part of ‘Phil’ which involved a handsome payday for Ken, but that is a different story

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