MATTERS OF OBSESSION
Leon Bosch on music, roots and the double bass
South African double bass player Leon Bosch launched a new album, called ‘The South African Double Bass’ – an ode to his home country.
Abdi, which was composed for film and concert, Grant McLachlan, is part of Leon Bosch’s latest album The South African Double Bass. The piece is “quite atmospheric, but relaxing, and beautiful … evocative of the place we call home,” says Bosch.
“(The album) acknowledges my South African roots and celebrates the excellence of South African music. It is also a signpost to the future and provides the foundation of a uniquely South African school of double bass playing… There’s a kind of complexity of African rhythm. And that resonates with me. And every time I play the piece, it connects me to home… 6,000 miles evaporates when I hear the piece,” he adds.
This album is marked by Bosch’s desire to dive a little deeper into his roots and explore a musical path he hasn’t really pursued in the past.
“I had no music in my repertoire that acknowledged my South African roots,” he says.
Their house was often raided and his father subjected to banning orders and arbitrary detentions.
Bosch then commissioned pieces, as well as partnering with the Romanian-Nigerian pianist, Rebeca Omordia, explaining the collaboration because “her musicianship is characterised by a curiosity, energy and fearlessness that compliments my own sense of musical enquiry and adventure”.
The result – an album with eight new pieces and one transcription – reflects the musician’s “own experience and understanding of life. It encapsulates my life experience. It is also a confident expression of hope, for a more just, equitable, fulfilling, dignified and meaningful future for all my compatriots”.
Born on 7 July 1961, Bosch grew up in the township of Bishop Lavis on the dusty Cape Flats. His parents, both school teachers, were politically active and members of the Teachers Union and Unity Movement, which also meant that the family remained under constant surveillance.
In August this year, Bosch gave a talk at the London concert venue, Wigmore Hall, and explained how one of his earliest memories was of the South African Police – also called Special Branch – men in dark suits, standing in his bedroom, searching for banned literature. Their house was often raided and his father subjected to banning orders and arbitrary detentions.
Despite the external pressures on the household, Bosch received an excellent education, with a strong focus in music. His father bought a Yamaha piano, a hi-fi system and some 2,000 records from a record shop that was going out of business. The family would listen to symphonies at night and discuss them. The house was stocked with books – dictionaries, classics, novels – and Bosch read voraciously.
His father wanted his children to have a fully-rounded education, often taking them to concerts and theatre performances. His father’s love of music, Bosch presumes, came from his upbringing in Genadendal in the Western Cape, where a tradition of brass bands and choirs existed in the town. His father ensured that the children received music lessons, first locally at their school and later at the University of Cape Town’s Junior String Orchestra programme.
“They introduced music into my life and made grievous personal and financial sacrifices to enable my musical education,” he says.
In 1976, following in his parents’ footsteps, Bosch became embroiled in politics. The chairperson of the student council at Salt River High School, he, along with a group of students, marched to the Athlone police station, protesting against the apartheid regime.
The police fired tear gas at the protestors and the student next to him was shot dead – it was a turning point for the young musician. He then helped to organise another march, this time on Parliament, leaving from Salt River High School and gathering students and textile factory workers along the way. The protest swelled to thousands. Then, again, the police viciously attacked the protestors with live ammunition, rubber bullets, dogs and tear gas. Bosch escaped into the General Post Office, hiding in a telephone kiosk, with tear gas burning his eyes. He was eventually driven home by a teacher who saw him next to the road. However, a few days later, on 26 October 1976, ten students of Salt River High School were arrested – he was one of them. Bosch was 15 at the time.
Bosch recalls how the police physically and mentally abused him – using traumatic methods and threatening to assault members of his family. He was released, only to be rearrested – a psychological game inflicted by the security service at the time – and jailed with the nine other students.
Dullah Omar, who was then a human rights lawyer and a family friend, and would later go on to serve as Minister of Justice in the first Mandela cabinet, took up the defence of the group. They were charged with various crimes, including malicious damage to state property, public violence and illegal gathering – all of which carried hefty prison sentences. They were kept in a cell for ten days until bail was granted under stringent conditions.
After several months, the trial began. On his first day, his mother and father attended court with him for support, only for his father to be arrested by the Special Branch during the lunch break. It was one of the last times Bosch saw his father, who spent his last five years underground. At trial, Omar brilliantly cross-examined state witnesses, many of whom were friends of the accused who had turned on them – eventually Bosch was acquitted.
He was so inspired by the legal defence Omar had shown him that he decided to pursue a career in law, although at the time, people of colour had to have a permit to study at the University of Cape Town, and his application for a permit to study law was rejected.
And so music became his second voice – and a powerful one.
He eventually applied to study music and, to his surprise, was accepted. Life at the University of Cape Town was still marred with racism and injustice, with Bosch finding solace and support in the one lecturer of colour, Neefa van der Schyff. He started out on the cello, switching to the double bass in his second year and describing his relationship with the instrument as they were “meant for each other”.
“My journey from zero to world-class in four years would not have been possible without them… without that critical time at the University of Cape Town,” he says.
And so music became his second voice – and a powerful one.
“In apartheid South Africa, people like me were not entitled to have, let alone express an opinion, or to speak up for ourselves. Kids like me, from the townships, were figures of fun to our well-heeled and privileged counterparts. I fought back through the medium of music – the double bass spoke for me, all I had to do was to play. And success was going to be my revenge.”
He left South African for the UK in January 1982 on a South African Airways flight after he obtained a letter of consent from the British High Commission in Cape Town as he was to study with Rodney Slatford, then a professor at the Royal College of Music in London and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, whom he had corresponded with via letters prior to moving to the UK.
His first audition was for the Scottish National Orchestra in 1985, for which he was offered the job – but Bosch had to apply for a work permit, that was refused on the basis that there ought to be locally qualified candidates. The British Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, who served under Margaret Thatcher, decided that Bosch should be deported. A cabinet reshuffle that had Douglas Hurd becoming Home Secretary allowed Bosch to be granted refugee status in the country.
“Why would the Home Secretary take an interest in the case of a nobody music student? I always pondered that. But I came to the conclusion that it was because of my political history,” he notes.
Bosch eventually returned to South Africa in 1990 to see his father, who died only a few hours after his son arrived. Again the security services were there, questioning Bosch’s father on his deathbed. Bosch would not return to his home country until after the 1994 elections.
Back in the UK, he became the principal double bass player of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in London, a position he held for almost 20 years. In 2014, he resigned from the orchestra, citing a need to step away and craft a new identity, away from the institutional structures of an orchestra.
When asked whether he has found this new identity, Bosch says: “Yes, and although this is still a work in progress, I know what the respective components are that will constitute this new identity – it is a complex cocktail of many disciplines.”
Bosch now teaches double bass, coaches chamber music and conducts youth orchestras at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and in masterclasses around the world, including in South Africa.
“Sharing the wisdom which we have been privileged to acquire is a fundamental responsibility, and every successive generation ought to stand on the shoulders of those who preceded them, in order to see a little further. We forget, or ignore, this at our peril,” Bosch says.
Through therapy, more regular visits to South Africa and his latest album, the musician finally began making peace with South Africa.
“The first and most important lesson that I learnt from therapy was that it is not necessary to suffer in silence, and that doing so is in fact detrimental … and although it is impossible to erase that chapter completely, it no longer exercises a deleterious effect on my present or future.”
He also bought a flat in Cape Town.
“Apartheid may have hounded me out of the country, but I am back. Buying a property in a Cape Town suburb from which I had previously been deliberately excluded, asserts my inalienable rights as a citizen. Enjoying the Cape sunshine and an uninterrupted view of Table Mountain also reminds me that however far or wide one has travelled in life, it is impossible to cut away one’s roots.
“Visiting and engaging with South Africa as often as possible has also helped me to redefine that previously tortuous relationship with the country of my birth, and it remains a critical part of the solution.”
Now, the musician’s career, which was like many others, disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, is being shaped slightly differently: he completed online courses in mathematics and finance, read books he never had the time to do, commissioned more new music, spent time writing non-fiction articles, taught online and served in a jury for competitions and music awards.
“Why would the Home Secretary take an interest in the case of a nobody music student? I always pondered that. But I came to the conclusion that it was because of my political history.”
His music publishing company, I Musicanti, has been adding extensively to their collection and Bosch is planning a musical festival in the town of Tring in the UK. If that’s not enough, he has started a career in radio broadcasting for the BBC as guest contributor.
And, on a personal note, he is in the process of renovating his home, constructing a music studio and an office for himself.
“The only problem I continually encounter is the limitation of the 24-hour day,” he says, adding that “a substantial proportion of the next chapter of my musical life will be expressed from the podium, as conductor and soloist or director”.
He also intends to keep playing the double bass and bring the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra to London to perform in the BBC Proms.
Through it all, music, he reminds us, “has the power to change lives, and to transform societies”. DM/ML
‘The South African Double Bass’ can be purchased online here for about R265, excluding shipping.
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