It was 50 years ago, round about this time, that acclaimed South African band Abstract Truth released their debut album, Totum. Before the end of 1970 a second album and a compilation had been issued. And then during 1971 the band imploded.
This is their story.
Adapted from the sleeve notes for the RetroFresh CD release, July 2005
The band Abstract Truth existed only for a very short time, but it was a time of super-creativity. They played a fusion of blues, folk, jazz and Eastern music and lifted South African pop of the early 70’s from the syrupy blare of bubblegum music to new heights of progressive rock.
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 onto 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 Freedom’s Children, arguably South Africa’s greatest rock band. Clive Calder, who signed Abstract Truth to EMI in 1970, said in the early 2000s that Freedom’s Children in his opinion “was then and probably still is today (over 30 years later) the only South African 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 Freedom’s Children, which were unbelievably credited to “Fleadom’s Children” because the government of the time considered the word “Freedom” as unacceptable! Henson then left Freedom’s 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 hotel’s disco/pub.” The pub was called “Totum” and was situated at the Palm Beach Hotel in Durban’s Gillespie Street.
Robbie Pavid, who had played drums for The Mods in 1967, remembers: “[The club owner] 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 004’s, 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 o’clock 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 we’re something new musically”, said Henson in the same article. “Basically our sound is free-form music – we use the melody line, but improvise on solos. It’s really a fusion of blues, folk, jazz and Eastern music.”
Henson’s 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 004’s”.
Future Bats guitarist Pete Clifford was also in the 004’s and the band released a few singles and an album titled ‘It’s Alright’ in the mid-60’s. On the b-side of one of their singles was a version of boogie-woogie pianist Mose Allison’s ‘Parchman Farm’, which was later reworked by Abstract Truth and released on the ‘Totum’ album. This is not the same as Bukka White’s ‘Parchman Farm Blues’, which was recorded in 1937, though it does cover a similar theme.
The album ‘Totum’ was recorded in Johannesburg over a single weekend using a 4-track machine. The album was released in early 1970. “According to today’s standards it’s 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 Truth’s 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 had this brief review of ‘Totum’ 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 ‘Totum’ consists of unusual reworkings of jazz, folk and blues songs. The only band composition is the sitar-drenched ‘Total Totum/Acid Raga’. 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/friend’s 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 ‘Special Agent’, which was released on the Revelation label, distributed by WEA Records and co-produced by Hawk’s 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 that’s another story.
David Marks takes up the story again: “Brian [Finch] 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 [Wolfaardt] playing with a three-piece Jimi Hendrix look-alike outfit in Cape Town [Elephant with Richard Black and Savvy Grande],” 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: ‘Look – there’s this guy called George who plays the bass there. If you come across him, tell him we need him here…’ 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 Zappa-esque 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 ‘Silver Trees’ 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 South African 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.”
“‘Silver Trees’ 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 ‘Totum’, ‘Silver Trees’ 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 ‘Silver Trees’: “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 ‘Silver Trees’, EMI compiled an album called ‘Cool Sounds For Heads’ which featured tracks off both the ‘Totum’ and ‘Silver Trees’ albums and also included a previously unreleased track, ‘My Back Feels Light/What Can You Say’, which was probably an out-take from the ‘Silver Trees’ sessions.
The ‘History Of Contemporary Music Of South Africa’ by Garth Chilvers and Tom Jasiukowicz, published in 1994, has this to say: “Abstract Truth produced ‘head-music’ (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 Truth’s 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 Freedom’s Children, Hawk, Suck and Otis Waygood.
In July 2005, Benjy Mudie from Fresh Music re-issued most of the tracks off Totum and Silver Trees on a single CD and on iTunes.
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.”
Unfortunately this will now never happen as Henson sadly passed away on the 24th May 2007.
Brian Currin, July 2005, updated March 2020
Photos courtesy of 3rd Ear Music website, thanks to Dave Marks, June 2005.
Musicians (at various times):
- Ken E Henson: guitar, vocals
- Peter Measroch: piano, organ, flute, harpsichord, vocals
- Mike Dickman: guitar, vocals
- Robbie Pavid: drums, percussion
- Ian Bell: flute
- Brian Gibson: bass, vocals
- Sean Bergin: flute, saxophone
- George Wolfaardt: Bass, flute, drums, vocals
- Brian Alderson: keyboards
- Harry Poulos: guitar
- Eric Dorr: flute
- Ramsay Mackay: bass