Master musician Robin Auld is a storyteller too. He has also served his time as a pop star, rock star, shop assistant, local hero, guitar shredder, mystery expat troubadour, surfing waterman and more.
He is also a white South African from the coastal provinces, so his musical and lyrical output reflects those cultural influences too. They are on warm and groovy display on the latest Robin Auld album, Back Of The Line (Free Lunch).
Robin Auld has walked a fascinating journey from the wilds of Zambia, where he was born, to the Cape Town surf culture, to the city’s rock scene to the dizzy heights of SA pop stardom, such as it is.
Apparently those heights are so dizzying that in the Eighties you could have a radio number-one, five hit singles and your album could still only sell 600 units. At least that’s what RA’s record company tried to tell him.
Disillusioned with the miserable wages of fame, Auld left SA at the peak of his acclaim and travelled to the UK and Ireland. Here he played and toured relentlessly. He discovered a love for Celtic music, and ironically, also African tunes. Lucien Windrich, of mbaqanga-influenced SA band eVoid, turned him on to the likes of Soul Brothers and AmaSwazi Emvelo and the Robin Auld sound began taking on more of an African flavour. “That warm-blooded thing,” as he calls it.
But go read his version of the story here. Like I say, he’s a storyteller too. He has published two books – the novel Tight Lines and Kelp, which contain poetry and short stories and are available fur purchase on his website.
Robin Auld began his career as a lead guitarist. So it must not be overlooked that the man can totally shred! Hy gooi daai buck, as they say. Live, when he’s not playing solo, he fronts a power trio that evokes Jimi Hendrix with its raw power and gentle, melodic vocals.
But the production on his albums sometimes veers towards being too clean. We always prefer the rougher, raw stuff that approximates the wilder live sound of Robin and his band, with him running through the classics and getting out there with some solo-guitar exploration.
Besides all this, after almost 40 years in the game, Robin Auld is a South African cultural asset, a national key point. His Best Of Vol. 1 album should be required listening for anyone trying to chart the evolution of South African popular music. Sadly, it’s probably out of print. There’s one on kalahari.com for R35, though.
Like his contemporary Johnny Clegg, he has created a fusion of western and African music styles. But Robin’s personality and personal journey have fashioned a unique version of that cross-pollination. It’s coastal, Cape Town-y, Celtic and informed by a virtuoso axeman’s ability. It’s also undeniably African without being overtly so.
On the new album, the track Say The Word exemplifies the Robin Auld sound and deserves to be added to that body of classics alongside Southern Cross, Sesheke Town and The Girls Cried. It has that elusive rawness, a full-band sound and the hard-to-nail afro-rock fusion.
Other highlights are the title track, which alludes to the experience of being buzzed by a shark while out the back surfing. It betrays a laid-back philosophical outlook. “If it’s my time then it’s the right time. I can’t cry that I never got to roam.”
Roam he has. From the banks of the Zambezi to Nashville Tennessee to London to False Bay. Along the way, he has picked up a unique set of influences and built a vast body of work, ill served by its progenitor’s unassuming manner.
Robin Auld is a living legend, but he wears it so humbly that it’s easy to miss. Also, the man ages like Chinese jade. He looks like he’s easing into his late thirties, but he’s a couple decades deeper into the game than that.
Having learnt early that no one else is going to shepherd him to to success, Robin runs his own record label, Free Lunch Productions. By travelling and managing his own business, RA has given himself the the kind of longevity the true greats attain.
The DIY ethic is admirable, though it involves compromise. Things like production quality, music videos, design and repro can come out well, but not great. Corners need to be cut, favours are called in and pragmatic choices are made in the interests of getting things done.
But the shining, positive, brilliant, gifted optimism of the artist shines through.
On this, something like his 20th album, the elements have been distilled into something relatively easy on the ear. But repeat listens reveal the subtle shades the distinguish this quintessentially South African artist. Blues,
These days he’s doing what all the jazz greats do at this stage in their career. Revisit their back catalog. Do some standards. Keep writing the new stuff. Whatever they feel like. Robin Auld has earned the right to self-determination. Also, he’s lived in the industry, and he know how to get what he wants out of it.
This is a South African musical legend doing what he does, at the peak of his powers. It’s worth paying attention to.