South Africa’s Led Zeppelin: Let Hawk Regale You With Tales Of Brave Hunters From A South Africa Long Lost

Photos courtesy of Fresh Music. Article by Kyle Findlay 

What do you get when you cross Cream with traditional African tribal vocals and the deep baritone of a master storyteller? Or, what would it sound like if Led Zeppelin swapped out tales of Gollum and the evil one in the depths of Mordor for yarns about brave hunters and village-attacking elephants? It would sound something like South Africa’s Hawk (also known as Jo’burg Hawk). In truth though, even trying to draw any such parallels falls flat for we have never before or since seen the like of Hawk. Their contemporaries were bands such as Freedom’s Children, The Otis Waygood Band and Abstract Truth, all legends in their own right, but no other band flew as close to the African sun and captured its glorious warmth as Hawk did.

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With a deep humanism and a rasping, storybook voice, lead singer, Dave Ornellas, regales the listener with tales of Africa by digging his fingers deep beneath its ochre soils and lamenting its many tragedies and beautiful contradictions. In the short time they were active in the South African music scene, Hawk created a truly South African sound through an inclusive mixture of white and black musicians and a melding of musical traditions that has seldom been recreated.

Arriving on the scene in the early 1970s, Hawk’s unique mixture of progressive, psychedelic rock was informed by a deep reverence for their African roots, with African storytelling made their sound unique even today. In a social milieu that saw many of their contemporaries emulating the music scenes cresting in the USA and UK by tuning in and dropping out, Hawk chose to draw its inspiration from more familiar surrounds – the African bush and the complexity of South African life. Like the best tribal storytellers, allegory and metaphor were their tools for painting escapist tableaus of a South Africa that no longer exists. Coupled with a live show where Ornellas was often draped in animal skins, their image was electrifying to the youths of the day.

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Their far out stage show was especially unique in uptight, white South Africa, where repressed youth were just waiting to bust out. Upon stumbling across Hawk’s second (and final) album, Africa She Too Can Cry, from 1973 and proudly presenting it to my mother and uncle as a lost treasure from their era, out came the story of how they had snuck out to a Hawk gig in their early teens. They told their father that they were visiting a friend’s house and instead hitch-hiked to the centre of Pretoria to see Hawk live, and they were not disappointed. Hawk was the band to see for a time in their youth. The gig left a lasting impression on them as I am sure it did on many who saw them during their brief period of activity from 1970 to 1974.

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Where does one enter the experience that is Hawk? A good entry point is their magnum opus, the 16:30 minute ‘African Day Suite’ from Africa She Too Can Cry. This track actually commands pride of place on both their studio albums. The second iteration further improved on an already great track though. Starting with the deep bass hum of African talking drums (themselves a lost art) that would not be out of place as the intro to a psychedelic trance song today, the multi-part medley washes over you in many stages. It tells the story of a village ravaged by a destructive elephant, the ensuing hunt to bring it down and the rejoice at its eventual killing. Needless to say, this was all an elaborate and skilfully hidden metaphor in which the Apartheid system was the elephant. In the oratorical words of Ornellas, “This elephant must die, must die. It is of great importance”.

That was Hawk; full of allegory and metaphor but never for a moment detached from the realities of their beloved South Africa.

According to the South African Rock Encyclopedia, “The ‘African Day Suite’ is a re-recorded and extended version of the side-long epic which originally appeared on ‘African Day’. It tells the story, in spoken words, lyrics and music, of a rampaging”.

After you’ve experienced ‘African Day Suite’, I suggest following it with the subtle, life affirming beauty of ‘Look Up Brother’ from their first album, African Day (1971). It acts as a beautiful counterpoint to the drama that has just unfolded.

“Look Up Brother” from Hawk’s first album in 1971 was originally a poem that Ornellas set to music according to this snippet from Dave Marks over at 3rd Ear Music ¹

After releasing their two studio album and a live album, Live and Well, in 1974, Hawk all but disappeared. This was a common phenomenon amongst South African bands at that time as they quickly over-played every venue that the isolated local music scene had to offer. Hawk’s extended band relocated to the UK for the next stage of their career but it never took off in the way they had hoped and the band slowly dissolved, with most members returning to their homes under the African sun. If you would like to know more about Hawk’s final days, South African music industry legend, Benjy Mudey, actually wrote an article on this subject which you can read over at Fresh Music’s website here.

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Shortly after the dissolution of Hawk, Ornellas turned to religion and went on to become a pastor, including an extended stint as a senior pastor at a church in Mitchell’s Plain in Cape Town. Sadly, he passed away in 2010 but the legacy that Hawk built deserves to live on. They are the closest that South Africa has to its own Led Zeppelin. If you are a fan of psychedelic and progressive rock or even if you just love South Africa and its music, you owe to yourself to give Hawk a listen. We’d never seen their like before and we haven’t seen it since.

Who were the band?

The constant members across both albums were Dave Ornellas on vocals, guitar and percussion, Mark “Spook” Kahn on guitar and Braam Malherbe on drums. Added to this was a great roster of collaborators covering a broad array of instruments, including Richard Johnson on Bass, Keith Huthinson on sax, glute, piano and organi, Les “Jet” Goode on bass, Julian “Ipi” Laxton on guitar, Alfred “Ali” Lerefolo on African dums and vocals, Billy “Knight” Mashingo on percussion and vocals, Audrey Motaung on vocals and Pete Kubheka on vocals. For their live album, they were further joined by Ivor Back on drums and Julian Bahula on pervussion and vocals.

Where to get the music

Hawk’s albums are distributed through the Fresh Music Retro imprint. You can contact them directly here:

Or you can order CDs from Takealot and Kalahari:

http://www.kalahari.com/Music/African-Day_p_48321763

http://www.kalahari.com/Music/Africa-She-Too-Can-Cry_p_27544513

http://www.kalahari.com/Music/Live-And-Well_p_38045111

http://www.takealot.com/hawk-african-day-cd/PLID28062155

More info

For more information on Hawk, I suggest taking a look at their entry on Rock.co.za.

The folks at websites such as Rock.co.za, Electric Jive and 3rd Ear Music are keeping our musical legacies alive on our behalf so check out their sites for dozens of hidden South African gems like Hawk.

Cited Works

  1. http://www.3rdearmusic.com/hyarchive/hiddenyearsstory/hookupbrother.html
  2. All images courtesy of Fresh Music

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