1969 – 1971 (2 years)
Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
There are two artists with this name. 1) A South African rock band. 2) An American jazz/drum and bass band.
1) Abstract Truth (they shunned the prefix of "the" because they didn't want to sound dogmatic) was the brainchild of one Kenneth Edward Henson (dubbed Ken E Henson by David Marks).
The band Abstract Truth existed only for a very short time, but it was a time of super-creativity. They exploded on to the Durban music scene early in 1969, released 2 studio albums during 1970 (as well as a compilation in the same year!) and, after numerous line-up changes, imploded in 1971.
Henson had been the guitarist in a band called the Leeman Ltd, which had formed in Durban in 1965. In 1966 he and the enigmatic Ramsay MacKay got together with ex-Navarones members Colin Pratley and Nic Martens to create Freedomís Children, arguably South Africaís greatest rock band. Clive Calder, who signed Abstract Truth to EMI in 1970, said recently that Freedomís Children in his opinion "was then and probably still is today (over 30 years later) the only SA rock group that, given the right circumstances in the right geographical location, could have become an internationally successful rock band just by being themselves and doing what they did."
Henson was involved in the early single releases by Freedomís Children, which were unbelievably credited to "Fleadomís Children" because the government of the time considered the word "Freedom" as unacceptable! Henson then left Freedomís Children to join The Bats for a six-week sojourn.
In 1969 Henson and sax-player Sean Bergin were in a jazz group called The Sounds. Henson says, "In February 1969 I was approached by the owner of a local hotel. He had heard that I played the sitar and asked if I could get together an exotic/Eastern-sounding outfit to back a belly dancer in the hotelís disco/pub." The pub was called "Totum" and was situated at the Palm Beach Hotel in Durbanís Gillespie Street.
Robbie Pavid, who had played drums for The Mods in 1967, remembers: " wanted a backing band for a belly dance act that would attract customers to his cocktail hour. Ken got hold of Brian Gibson who would play bass, formerly from the British group the 004ís, Sean Bergin who would play flute and sax, myself on percussion, who was with the band The Third Eye, and Ken on lead guitar and sitar. I was playing in The Third Eye at the same time as Abstract Truth (whose gig at "Totum" was a 5 to 7 cocktail hour gig) and would then rush off to The Third Eye gig…. ahh, what you can do when you are young!!!!"
A quote from a 1969 poster sums it up: "swing to Abstract Truth every night at Totum in the Palm Beach Hotel from five oíclock to seven."
"To fill out the evening after the belly dancer had done her thing," recalls Henson, "we started playing a hybrid of jazz standards, folk/rock and Eastern-type jams. We soon replaced the main attraction and the belly dancer was no more."
"The music seemed to connect and flow from the very first night," says Pavid, "so the belly dancer was duly dismissed and the band employed to continue in the very different style that evolved. Most evenings were packed out with young people eager to listen and experience the free form of sounds that flowed from the long improvised songs."
Reporter Carl Coleman described their sound in a news article at the time as "totally unlike any other young group around Durban. They are probably the most advanced group in the country. Their music is exotic, progressive, and not commercial."
"I suppose weíre something new musically", said Henson in the same article. "Basically our sound is free-form music ñ we use the melody line, but improvise on solos. Itís really a fusion of blues, folk, jazz and Eastern music."
Hensonís self-taught playing of the traditional Indian stringed instrument, the sitar, further enhanced the Eastern feel. "He plays this immensely difficult instrument with comparative ease", said Coleman.
Brian Gibson came from Wales where he had started in cabaret. "I was into pop for two years then came to South Africa with a group known as the 004ís".
Future Bats guitarist Pete Clifford was also in the 004ís and the band released a few singles and an album titled ëItís Alrightí in the mid-60ís. On the b-side of one of their singles was a version of boogie-woogie pianist Mose Allisonís ëParchman Farmí, which was later reworked by Abstract Truth and released on the ëTotumí album. This is not the same as Bukka Whiteís ëParchman Farm Bluesí, which was recorded in 1937, though it does cover a similar theme.
The album ëTotumí was recorded in Johannesburg over a single weekend using a 4-track machine. The album was released in early 1970. "According to todayís standards itís pretty rough," says Henson, "but I guess it was an honest interpretation of what we were doing."
In another newspaper review Coleman had this say about the release of Abstract Truthís debut album: "Sean, Brian, Robbie and Ken have lifted South African pop from the syrupy blare of bubblegum music to new heights of progressive pop. What an achievement!"
The Freak Emporium online store has this brief review of ëTotumí on their website: "Excellent early '70s melodic wistful freak rock blends with African sounds featuring assorted instruments: keyboards, flutes, electric guitars, saxophone, percussion, etc. A refreshing approach."
Most of ëTotumí consists of unusual reworkings of jazz, folk and blues songs. The only band composition is the sitar-drenched ëTotal Totum/Acid Ragaí. Donovan, Dylan, Gershwin, Simon and Garfunkel and others all get given the special Abstract Truth treatment that is reminiscent of early King Crimson in places.
3rd Ear Music had been involved with Abstract Truth from the beginning and mainman David Marks remembers that he had driven down to Cape Town to fetch Sean Bergin and George Wolfaardt to join a new Abstract Truth line-up. "Sean had been in the original band from mid-1969, but had returned to the Cape. Robbie Hahn had taken over - in what seemed to be a loose manager/friendís role for Abstract Truth (before Big B Brian Pretorius was appointed manager.)" says Marks on the 3rd Ear Music website.
Brian Gibson left the band to go solo and then became a well-known gospel preacher. Gibson recorded a gospel album in 1981 entitled ëSpecial Agentí, which was released on the Revelation label, distributed by WEA Records and co-produced by Hawkís Dave Ornellas.
"The music of Abstract Truth was quite unique at the time as the line-up was totally different to what was generally happening," remembers Robbie Pavid. "For me it was one of the best and most rewarding times of musical exploration and satisfaction. Playing with Ken especially was rewarding as we seemed to connect and go places musically." Pavid then left Abstract Truth to devote his full attention to The Third Eye with Dawn and Ronnie Selby and they released three prog-rock albums between 1969 and 1970, but thatís another story.
David Marks takes up the story again: "Brian and I wanted to get our musician friends Mike Dickman (acoustic guitar and vocals) and Pete Measroch (piano and vocals) - two born-and-bred Northern Suburbs Johannesburgers - down to stun Durban."
"I'd heard George playing with a three-piece Jimi Hendrix look-alike outfit in Cape Town ," said Mike Dickman in July 2001, "and so, when Dave Marks happened to be going down there for some reason or another, I said to him: ëLook - there's this guy called George who plays the bass there. If you come across him, tell him we need him here…í Oddly enough he did, and in the meanwhile we'd contacted Sean, so - in a single weekend - the band expanded. The band shifted quite rapidly into a fairly Zappaesque mode, which wasn't where I was headed, so I left, probably stupidly…"
"Mike Dickman couldn't handle Durban," says Marks, "he stayed for a gig or two and then went missing to re-surface in the Golden City back to his solo and wandering ways. Mike emigrated to France in 1985 - with French wife Vera - still playing guitar and translating Buddhist verse into French and English."
A number of other musicians have played live as part of the ever-changing Abstract Truth line-up (Henson being the only stable factor) including Ian Bell, Eric Dorr, Harry Poulos, Ramsay MacKay and Brian Alderson. In late 1970, however, the line-up that recorded the superb ëSilver Treesí album was Ken E Henson (guitar, vocals), Peter Measroch (keyboards, flutes, vocals), Sean Bergin (flutes, sax) and George Wolfaardt (bass, flutes, drums).
Music collector and Abstract Truth fan John Samson wrote in the SA Rock Digest e-mag in 2002: "This is somewhat psychedelic prog that is full of swirling organ, steady rhythmic bass and loads of flute. In fact 3 of the 4 members of the group are credited as playing flute and it this that gives the album a lightness to it. Also of note is that there is only one song over the 4 minute mark, an unusual trait in a prog-rock album. The long song is the title track that features some awesome guitar from Ken E Henson and intricate organ playing from Peter Measroch."
"Another interesting touch," continues Samson, "is the African jive sound on the opening track 'Pollution' and the harpsichord on 'Moving Away', the former placing the album in Africa, the latter placing the album in Medieval Europe, both giving the album a sense of timelessness and universal appeal. It's this wonderful brew of psychedelic, rock, jazz, classical, blues, funk and jive that makes this a special album that should be sought out, and with the wind instruments playing a major role on the album, this could make a really good (Retro) Fresh Flute Salad."
"íSilver Treesí was an attempt to record our more structured, self-penned songs," remembers Henson, "to make us a bit more accessible to the record company/record-buying public." Unlike ëTotumí, ëSilver Treesí features no cover versions and all the tracks were composed by various members of the band. The title track was co-composed by Mike Dickman, who had already left by the time this recording was laid down.
Peter Measroch has some interesting memories about the making of the album cover for ëSilver Treesí: "The story behind that fuzzy looking cover is that the photo was shot by a Swiss photographer who was in South Africa for a while, Teak Glauser, I believe. Teak had been part of the group that had looked after Timothy Leary in Switzerland while he was on the run at one point apparently.
Anyway, he had come up with a photo technique where on a colour photo everything would appear normal except for objects that moved - these would get a rainbow aura around them, really trippy stuff. So the album cover was shot making sure that we all moved at the critical moment. EMI however refused to spring for a colour photo so it ended up just looking blurred in black and white. Oh well … the good ol' bad ol' days…"
Shortly after ëSilver Treesí, EMI compiled an album called ëCool Sounds For Headsí which featured tracks off both the ëTotumí and ëSilver Treesí albums and also included a previously unreleased track, ëMy Back Feels Light/What Can You Sayí, which was probably an out-take from the ëSilver Treesí sessions.
The ëHistory Of Contemporary Music Of South Africaí by Garth Chilvers and Tom Jasiukowicz, published in 1994, has this to say: "Abstract Truth produced ëhead-musicí (i.e. inventive, mind-stimulating music) and were one of the most progressive groups in South Africa. Unfortunately not too many other heads were into their music and so, a group which could have gone on to better things broke up in 1971."
Abstract Truthís recorded output and short life span as a band is far outweighed by their willingness to stretch boundaries and the fondness with which are they treated by old and new fans alike.
File them under "Classic South African Rock" along with Freedomís Children, Hawk, Suck and Otis Waygood.
A final word from Ken E Henson: "The group is dear to my heart as my ultimate musical experience. I would love to have us get together after 35 years and see what transpires musically."
Cape Town, July 2005.
Ken E Henson: Guitar, vocals
Peter Measroch: Piano, organ, flute, harpsichord, vocals
George Wolfaardt: Bass, flute, drums, vocals
Sean Bergin: Flute, saxophone
2) The musical group Abstract Truth released its debut CD "Get Another Plan" on Streetwave Music on March 1996. The origins of the group go back to early 1994 when the group's founder, Dana Vlcek, directed a weekly jam session at the Copacabana, playing with DJ Swingsett. From there, members Vincent Chauncey, Jephté Guillaume, Guy Daniels, and Pete Mark went on to develop and perform original compositions which are now part of the band's repertoire. The group performed at a variety of New York venues including The Cooler (w/ Giant Step), The Knitting Factory, Nell's, New Music Cafe, AKA, SOB's as well as appearing at The Central Park Summerstage in August 1999. In the winter of 1995, singer Monique Bingham joined, followed by trumpeter Ravi Best in the summer of the same year. They then went on to release a follow-up single (We Had) "A Thing" to worldwide acclaim in 1997.
The music of Abstract Truth is based upon a contemporary mix of Jazz aesthetic and harmony with the visceral drums and bass of underground culture. The addition of intelligent vocals put the group in the vanguard of the international Acid-Jazz scene. The creative thrust of the group has been to invent original compositions in this new genre as opposed to recreating vintage or "rare grooves". The combined background of the members puts it in a unique position to chart new territory and to make a lasting impression on the world of music. The group has developed a wide-based critical acceptance in NYC over the last year, and the release of their forthcoming CD will establish their importance on an international basis.
The evolution of Abstract Truth can be traced back through more than a decade of experience. Dana Vlcek, sax/flute-leader of the group, played with the Lounge Lizards on their first European and American tours. He went on to create the group Konk and produced the groundbreaking 12-inch singles "Konk Party" and "Your Life". (Many consider these records to be the template for the Acid-Jazz sound.) Since then he has produced, engineered, and mixed some of the most significant underground re-mixes of the last decade. Vincent Chauncey, french horn, has a profound connection to contemporary Jazz having toured with the Sun Ra Arkestra for more than five years in the 70's. He has also been a member of Paul Winter Consort and Carla Bley band, and has won a Downbeat Magazine Critic's Poll Award. Pete Mark, drums/percussion, also a coveted session player, has performed with Milo Z, Spy vs Spy, and Dennis Leary on MTV. Ravi Best, trumpet, an up and coming trumpet voice, has worked with Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles, and The O'Jays. Monique Bingham, a recent college graduate and playwright, was discovered at a background vocal session for "Like Water" from the EP. Since then she has become an essential element in Abstract Truth.
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