Alistair Izobell tells Gasant Abarder about his journey that has been filled with celebrated mentors, events that happened “by design” and how he’s paying it forward. [VIDEO]
Driving home from the shops on Easter Sunday, ahead of a lunch for close friends, I heard a familiar voice on Lunga Singama’s Sunday Lunch show on Heart 104.9 FM.
My suspicions were soon confirmed: it was indeed Alistair Izobell introducing a new song he had written and produced for Nur Abrahams.
When I heard the opening lines of Nur’s How Do I Breathe?, played on radio for the first time ever, I have to confess that I punched the air victoriously in the car.
For one, it was about time Nur got the recognition he deserved as an unmistakable and rare musical talent. But the other satisfying realisation was how it made perfect sense that it was Alistair who was behind Nur’s new song.
As if he knew I’d been listening, Alistair tweeted me a video preview of his new show, called The Man Behind the Music, the next day.
I then decided not to tempt fate and promptly called Alistair. By Tuesday, we were in the empty theatre at the Baxter – the very stage where it all started for him as a nine-year-old, playing newspaper seller Broertjie in David Kramer and Taliep Petersen’s District Six The Musical.
“This is home,” he says amidst a hive of activity of stage and lighting crew.
“This very theatre we’re sitting in now was my first walk on to the professional theatre environment. I walked in saying, ‘Argie – Late! District Six declared white!’ Those were my first lines.
“I had one week of rehearsals and from that moment I guess it was by design. I don’t profess to be religious but I do have a very solid foundation of faith.
“I think I’ve moved to understanding how things are by design, how God places certain moments in your life and it’s for you to decide what you are going to do with that.”
Just three years later, Alistair would perform as a member of Ricardo and Friends, sing with Stevie Wonder and Basia.
“At 12 years old – what an enormous and overwhelming experience.
“I grew up in Mitchells Plain in Westridge and my brother was a DJ. I used to walk around with an orange brush in our house in a maisonette in Westridge and sing I Love You, Daddy, sing Basia’s Promises and sing Stevie Wonder’s Part-Time Lover.
“Then I met and worked with Stevie Wonder. I met, worked with and became very good friends with Basia, and I became very good friends and part of Ricardo and Friends. So those things were dreams and then became a reality.”
Now at 40, Alistair has found his purpose and has become, quite literally, the man behind the music.
“I do believe in things happening by design. I’m now very fortunate to have a grip on my career, where I don’t believe in fame. I believe in the longevity, creating a footprint and all I want to do is make sure I create the opportunity for young people to experience this enormous gratitude of an audience that is completely appreciative of what one does.”
Creating a platform for young talent is in Alistair’s DNA. It was something mentors David and Taliep drummed into him. “When I reflect on it now, especially the last couple of months writing Remembering the Lux with Lara Foot, the CEO of the Baxter Theatre, I’ve been very fortunate to sustain my role in the industry and also to become a lot more diverse in what I do.
“The respect I have for this institution, or any theatre, is that it allows us the platform to tell our stories and also create opportunities for others because (David and Taliep) created an opportunity for me. It was organic that I became what I am now, that I’m blessed enough to create opportunities for other people.
“It was a constant lesson by David and the late Taliep that it’s important for us to take the baton. I hear it on a daily basis – that I am the next Taliep, and I don’t want to be seen as the next Taliep.
“I am enormously grateful for the lessons because they were invested in us. We were their laaities. To David, I am still his kid. I’m in my 40s and he still sees me that way.
“When I’m dealing with their music, which I’m very respectful of, I am enormously aware of the fact that I need to do justice to it because they wrote songs that became healing processes for people, not only District Six.
“I embrace what they had both given and I think it is so important for me to hold on to what they have taught me and go beyond what they had taught me.”
But the next journey for Alistair in showbusiness is to develop new talent and help incredible talents like Nur reach their full potential. Emotions get the better of him and he is close to tears as he describes his new path.
Alistair has had incredible success as the producer of Remembering the Lux at the Baxter, a nod to the performers who graced the stage of Wynberg’s legendary Luxurama theatre. A total of 28 000 people attended the run.
He also gave Zayne Adam a fitting tribute at GrandWest’s Grand Arena before the icon’s death last year. It was a rare occasion when a locally produced show could draw the kind of numbers to GrandWest usually reserved for international acts. It was to pave the way for other local shows at the venue.
Recently, he was the musical director of District Six Kanala.
Alistair was fortunate to have an education from the likes of Alvon Collison, Sophia Vorster, Terry Fortune and Basil Apollis, along with Taliep and David.
“When you look at a song like Seven Steps of Stone, it speaks to the heart. If it is completely sincere, it’s a hit. How they make hits now is push it into your face all the time.
“Often, South Africans artists in particular don’t have the opportunity to have people absorb or embrace their music. I no longer write for commercial use or value. I write because I want to hear Nur sing How Do I Breathe? I want to hear Karin Kortje sing Let’s Make Music.
“I’m busy working on Nur’s album now, writing a lot of the material. But I want him to be part of the creative process because it’s got to be about your soul, your journey.”
For Alistair it is also about carving out sustainable careers rather than the instant fame that a short-lived career in music is so often about.
Recently, a YouTube clip went viral featuring a pair of buskers from Ocean View. The duo – a singer and a keyboard player performing at a train station – got thousands of online hits and were soon featured on radio.
Alistair encountered the singer, Morné Holland, during a rehearsal at the Baxter and set him on a spectacular course.
“I walked into Jonathan Rubain’s show because he was using my sound system. That space, the theatre stage, is sacred for me. Morné was standing there and I’d heard about this, but hadn’t given it my attention because I don’t like sensationalism.
“It doesn’t work for me. It distorts people’s reality and it’s dangerous because once the sensationalism is gone, what have we done for these people?
“I had no idea who he was… I had heard about these buskers, but didn’t know this was the guy. He started his rehearsal and I went wild at him and asked: ‘What are you singing? Why are you singing it? Tell me about the lyrics.’
“I went bedonnered and then came down to the auditorium and asked for a blue light for some ambience.
“I went back to him and told him: ‘You’ve got to tell me the story of this song. I want to feel what you are singing. I want to listen to the lyrics. Do you know what you are saying?’
“I chatted to him for about two minutes and I came back. He absorbed it immediately. I came to sit in the auditorium and he started singing.
“I wept like a baby, literally wept. I realised this young man has enormous talent. I took him outside and asked him about his story. He told me who he was and I understood. He had R12 on him, had three kids and this was a whole new journey for him. He didn’t know what was going to happen.
“I knew instinctively he had a choice to continue with this sensationalism, or he can have a career. I spoke to him a couple of times over the telephone to hear where his head was, where his soul was, because there is nothing worse than working with someone who has bought into the madness.
“I took him to Plett and worked with him for a few hours over a few days. Because I have the greatest respect for David Kramer and what he has given to us as a country, I decided to introduce him to David because we needed a swing for District Six Kanala.
“He auditioned and again, we realised he understands direction and how to do things. He was offered the role of the swing in the show. He is now in my show Rocking the City with PJ Powers, Nur and the Rockets at GrandWest.
“His life has changed, purely because he is not going to have one month – he is going to have a career. That to me is more important: to make him understand that your life can change if you embrace the change and respect the fact that you now have a great new journey that is ahead of you. I cannot take ownership of any of these things because I’ve just been instrumental in their journey. It’s what they do with it.
“Morné is a success story already because he is no longer a busker. He is in the mainstream industry.”
Alistair is on a pluck. He might be reluctant to wear the tag “impresario extraordinaire”, but he is well on his way and filling a much-needed void in a local music industry that lacks mentors and leaders.
The Man Behind the Music is yet another chapter in Alistair’s impressive and ever-unfolding book.
“There is a great new season for local artists and people are going out to see the work. They want to hear the stuff that is from a heritage point. They want to belong to that sound.
“It’s going to be two nights of songs I wrote that they didn’t know I wrote – letting them know so they take ownership of what I’ve written.
“It’s a showcase. This is literally taking my work and letting others with magnificent talents reinterpret it. I will be performing… but it’s about empowering them and letting them take their own power, and letting them enjoy the glory of an appreciative audience.”
* Gasant Abarder is the editor of the Cape Argus.