A soft-spoken man. At 68 years old there was still a sparkle of boyhood mischief about him. His face spoke of hardship and yielding to pleasure all at once. On stage his voice soared and he became way larger than his five foot frame. Wherever he went Zayn Adam carried half a century of South Africa’s music legacy with him.

When the Cape Town music legend, Zayn Adam, passed away last week he was buried according to Muslim Rites in a small cemetery on the slopes of Table Mountain. The internet, the chief modern archival resource, tells us more about foreign artists who have visited South Africa than this musical pioneer. With Zayne’s passing a piece of our history went with him.

His death at Groote Schuur Hospital, after undergoing an operation, came as a shock to family members, friends and fellow musicians. They recalled his performance at the Baxter Theatre just recently. Condolences poured in from musicians, friends and politicians including Cape Town’s Mayor, Patricia De Lille who referred to “his mesmerising, soulful voice”. She acknowledged Adam’s contribution to “Cape Town music and its rich history”.

The Give a Little Love singer was booked for a reunion performance with his 70s band Pacific Express. He was also expected at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival later this month. It was the first time in 16 years of the Festival that he had been invited to perform. There should be more than a bit of discomfort in the ranks of the ESP Afrika organisers that he died before he could make use of the Jazz Festival opportunity that finally came his way.

One of Adam’s contemporaries performer Terry Fortune, recalled the man behind the music:

“We met when I was about 21… Zayne was very charming. He was warm and loving and kind. He went through a hell of a lot of things in his private life. I remember on one occasion he went through some personal trauma and the newspapers reported the whole thing. Zayn never complained. He went to work, got on stage, did his gig. He was a pro.”

True Gentleman

Vicky Sampson, of My African Dream fame, remembered Adam as ‘good natured’ and a ‘true gentleman’. They met during a musical production titled Johannesburg Pops’ in the early 90s.

“He would get so nervous before he went on stage. We would have a little moment, hug each other and say ‘lets just go out there and give it to the people tonight’. He was just such a beautiful human being and he always gave me a tight hug, a smile and a little joke. Zayn loved the ladies, you know, he really did,” she said with a laugh.

“He was a crooner, a real Cape Town crooner. Until the very last weekend before he passed Zayn was still singing those beautiful ballads,” said his producer and friend, Alistair Izobell.

Born in Salt River in 1947, Adam grew up in a musical family. He started playing guitar at the age of 11. His father and brother headed up The Celtics Singkoor, a Cape Malay Choir. Zayn was a child star but his career really got off the ground when he joined Alf Herbert’s Golden City Dixies, a long-running variety revue show.

The annual Cape Town talent contests at the Woodstock Town Hall or the Luxurama Theatre invariably ended in a tie between the artistry of Zayn Adam and his main rival, Taliep Petersen. When promoters like Tony Naidoo entered the local fray with huge sponsorships from tobacco or wine companies he would award prizes to one of these two singers almost every year.

In the 70s Zayn’s career took a new turn when he became the frontman for Pacific Express. The band was sometimes referred to as ‘Cape Town’s Earth, Wind and Fire’. The jazz-rock band took up their residency at the Sherwood Lounge in Manenberg during the golden era of jazz.

Hip Cat

The city’s most popular entertainment page at the time was a column called Hip Cat, written by journalist Warren Ludski. Late last year Zayn Adam and some of the original Pacific Express band members were invited to Australia for a reunion gig. Guitarist Issy Ariefdien, pianist Ebrahim Khalil Shihab, drummer Jack Momple and Zayn Adam appeared on stage again for the first time in more than 30 years.

Quoting Ariefdien, Warren Ludski who has since emigrated to Australia wrote in his blog:

“The moment we started up, the crowd came forward to the stage. It was phenomenal, it was such a buzz. There was a lot of hugging, and backslapping afterwards. At 71, I was the oldest of the original band, the others are not far behind me. To get that reception made us all feel pretty good.”

In the Warren Ludski blog Issy Ariefdien said he was looking forward to more Pacific Express reunion gigs.

Said Alistair Izobell:

“[They] created what we know as the sound of the Cape Town performers… the late Taliep Petersen, the late Robbie Jansen and all the others, they moulded the sound of Cape Town jazz which is not fusion but the real Cape Town Jazz sound”.

The sound of the city is a melting pot of musical blends after centuries of indigenous influences have blended with the music of the world. Slaves were brought to the Cape where they encountered the Khoi-San Goema beat, the deep Xhosa rhythms, the colonial military drums. The list is long.

The Sherwood

“We always talk about how exciting our youth was,” said Fortune. ”You had the Sherwood, there were a number of clubs in Athlone, The Naz in Woodstock, the Ambassador in District Six, and The Goldfinger Lounge in Athlone, there were clubs in Retreat, in Grassy Park. So for us, people like Zayn, myself, Taliep [Petersen], those were the times in the industry when we worked with amazing musicians, guys like Ibrahim Schilder, Robbie Jansen, Ian Smith. Live music was big”.

And at the epicentre of that vibrant, emerging live music culture was the balladeer Zayn Adam. At one time when he was the lead vocalist for Pacific Express the other band members included Robbie Jansen (trumpet) Paul Abrahams (bass), Basil Coetzee (sax and flute) Chris Schilder (composer), Vic Higgins (percussion), Issy Ariefdien (guitar and vocals) and Jack Momple (drums). This collection of stellar music talent released their debut album, Black Fire, in 1976.

Pacific Express“When Zayn joined Pacific Express that was when he had the opportunity to find his own voice. But it couldn’t have been easy because the promoters ripped them off. There were very few artists at the time who could actually make a living performing their own works. They were also dealing with apartheid laws, going through back doors and sleeping wherever they could find a place, in their cars, on the road for days on end with very little money,” said Vicky Sampson.

The government made it illegal for interracial bands to play together and on one occasion Pacific Express was asked to leave the stage of an international tour by the Australian artist, John Paul Young because the band was mixed. The incident was reported in the Australian media.

In addition to racial oppression, violence was a constant threat.

Raids & Bannings

“There were riots in the 70s. People would talk about car bombs and kids being beaten up by the police in Thornton Road and the security police would watch us, even in clubs like Montreal,” said Terry Fortune.
Apartheid era henchmen raided venues, harassed musicians, destroyed instruments and banned albums or lyrics they deemed ‘political’.

“Throughout all those apartheid years and all the negative effects it had on our society, music flourished. And, it was also used in music venues to conscientise, to tell people we can’t take this kak anymore,” said Fortune.

“During the times of turmoil, wars and things like that, entertainment tends to flourish. The music kept people going and musicians like Zayn, Robbie Jansen, Ezra, Winston and all of them, they would call their sessions a ‘cultural event’ to circumvent the laws that existed at the time. It was a very active time for singers and entertainers because people needed, not escapism, but they needed the music,” said Fortune.

Legend In Name Only

“As much as we are celebrating Zayn as a legend, it’s sad that he did not see the fortune of his hard work. It’s wonderful to have the title, but that’s all it is in this country. You become a legend in name and title only, and afterwards you have to have a benefit concert for the family that stayed behind. It’s a sad thing that our legends are not treated as legends when they’re alive. They become legends when they die,” said Sampson. She pauses and adds, “Zayn was a beautiful soul, his voice will live on in my memory and my heart will always be sore because he’s gone and he’s never had the benefit of living like the giant he was”.

In 2012 his fans packed the 7 000 seater Grand West arena for a show that celebrated half a century in show business for Zayn. The organisers said at the time they could have sold three more shows of that size easily. And yet the scant details of his life on the internet – dominated by his financial troubles – bears testimony to the many gaps in the South African story… two decades after we’ve said goodbye to apartheid.

Zayn Adam is survived by his wife Yadeemah and children.

Images courtesy of Mary-Ann Dougan