Gideon Bendile, 60, does not look like a man who was arrested and tortured for defying Apartheid South Africa, who toured the world playing with legendary musicians like Redd Foxx and Sammy Davis, Jr. Instead, Gideon looks like a fresh-faced 40-year-old, albeit with a few stories to tell.
“When I grew up, we had to fight. We had to do something,” said Gideon, who was born in Soweto, a segregated township of Johannesburg. “A lot of people died. I lived, because I did music. I was not a radical fighter. Music was my way of fighting.”
Gideon is familiar with oppression and violence on a scale unimaginable to the audience that pours out to see him and Zulu Spear perform around the Bay Area. When he left South Africa in 1975, his mission was to enlighten the Western world about the everyday atrocities in his home country.
“A lot of people were dying at that time, and I was just a young kid making music. We were all harassed, because most of our message was against apartheid. [traditional South African music] was banned in South Africa, and they didn’t play it on the radio.”
The son of a man who rose from the gold mines to become a nurse, Gideon was taught the traditional music of the Xhosa tribe. He formed a group called Ipintombi, or, “Where are the girls?” Part music and part theater, Ipintombi told the story of a young man from a village traveling to the city, where he becomes shocked by the hardships of city life. The young hero then returns home to his village. “The story line was very little. It was mostly singing and dancing.”
Gideon took his act to England in 1975, where he played in London, the British Isles and Ireland. They even gave a performance to the Queen at Royal Albert Hall. When the group traveled to Broadway, other performers told them that they were being exploited by their management.
“People were so smart in New York. Our managers and producers were from South Africa, and they were not doing well by us,” Gideon said. “The music was ours, but they took everything. In the show it was only [the manager] who appeared as writing and directing the show, and the music was [credited] as by her daughter. They were raking everything, and we were getting peanuts.”
Ipintombi left their management and, along with his partner, Sechaba Mokoena, Gideon formed Zulu Spear, an Afro-beat and roots band. Zulu Spear was signed by Capitol Records, and toured across the United States. They performed on the Las Vegas Strip with legendary performers Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dave Brubeck, Redd Foxx and the Neville Brothers. “Zulu Spear was very big here. People knew us,” Gideon said.
But, as Africans, Gideon and his band mates were outsiders in the African American community. “It was a long process. A lot of the people who accepted us here were white people. They were curious, and wanted to know about our culture,” he said. “The black Americans were checking us out. They couldn’t understand us, and didn’t know anything about Africa. Someone would say, “Oh, I have a friend in Nigeria,” which is very far away from South Africa, so we had to explain every time. They thought we spoke ooga-booga language.”
Gideon took it as his mission to educate African Americans about their roots, and about the plight of South African blacks. “It gave me a chance to teach the black American about apartheid, where we come from, and music facilitated our speaking to them,” he said. “We told them that we are real people.” He spoke at various colleges in Berkeley and San Francisco to raise awareness about apartheid. Zulu Spear even performed for Nelson Mandela in Oakland, after he was released from prison in 1990.
Gideon has made several trips back to South Africa to see his parents and sisters. His father, who passed away in the mid-1990s, saw the rise and fall of apartheid firsthand. “He died having voted for the first time,” Gideon said. “He said, ‘I’m so happy I voted before I died.’” Due in small part to Gideon’s father, Nelson Mandela became the first South African president to be elected in a fully representative, democratic election.
The band dissolved in 1994, after Gideon’s partner succumbed to drug addiction. “He was a good man, but the demons of drugs just came into him, and he became someone else,” Gideon said. “It took over his life, and he died early.”
After 17 long years, Gideon revived Zulu Spear in conjunction with a new group, “Kalahari”—a truly unforgettable blend of traditional storytelling and a capella music. “The Kalahari is a desert where the bush men started, and we are all descendents of bush men,” Gideon said. “We can break ourselves into two, with Zulu Spear being a kicking band, and Kalahari, where we tell the audience stories about what South Africa is about. We also have wedding songs, songs of sadness—everything in a capella.”
The Kalahari Experience: Voices of South Africa, with members of Zulu Spear, is performing on August 13 at 8 p.m. at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center. Tickets can be purchased online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/185181, or by calling (415) 488.8888.”