The blighter was obviously drunk as a skunk. He kept making a grab for the mike so he could scream abuse at the band more effectively…
Atwell Jansen held the mike beyond the rowdy’s reach, shooing him off the stage while the rest of Heritage began packing up for the night. It was about 3 a.m. Another heavy gig at Cee Jay’s – one of KL’s clubbier watering holes – over and done with. Phew. What was that all about? Pre-election fever? Another outbreak of rabies on the estate? Wife done a runner with the meter reader?
“We didn’t play any of his requests,” Atwell explains. “Usually we try to oblige. But some people don’t just request – they DEMAND!”
When you’ve played Johnny B. Goode for the 5,000th time in approximately 17 years, this kind of hassle is something you take in your stride. Heritage has been around all right.
It must have been 1977 or thereabouts when I first caught them at the National Theater near the Van Kleef Aquarium in Singapore. The theater has since been demolished. Structural fatigue, I’m told. And a lot of the other hot groups that used to share the stage with Heritage have succumbed to time’s ravages. Yet Heritage keeps going – and they’re getting tighter all the time. In fact they’ve gotten so good I keep wondering when the rest of the world will discover them.
Heritage is essentially the Jansens. And the Jansens are sort of like the Osmonds or the Jacksons minus the milky smiles and the Mickey Mouse gloves. They also happen to play some REAL music.
Ashley, 41, is the band’s musical guru and bassist. He looks like a funky archeologist or some doomsdayer on the dole. His is a quietly groovy, enigmatic presence – almost like a permissive but protective mother who’s happy to see her kids doing well and having a good time. All through each session Ashley just stands there nodding his venerable head to the music while he lays down some solid basswork in his effortless, laid-back style.
Atwell, 38, used to be a journalist. Now he plays electric violin (“An original Barcus-Berry,” he says with pride), concert flute, harmonica, kalimba (African finger-piano), and he carries most of the vocals. He looks like a cross between Jim Morrison and Joe Cocker – and he sounds like it too. As a musician, Atwell is extraordinary.
Gordon, at 33, is the most energetic and inventive drummer I’ve seen (and heard) in my life. He combines Ginger Baker’s diabolical stamina and intensity with the incredible precision and percussive subtlety of a fine jazz drummer like Billy Cobham or Dave Weckl. Hunched over his kit like a highly-educated mutant dung-beetle, Gordon’s enthusiasm on the job verges on mystical ecstasy.
The group has featured a number of superb lead guitarists since brother Bill dumped his axe and took up law. Shah Tahir played with Heritage for years till he took off on a solo career as hotshot producer, sound engineer and sessionist. Chris Ong took over with his jazzed-up Jimmy Page guitar sound and some slick showmanship. Mr Cool himself these days, Chris used to really ham it up as the chrome-and-leather guitar hero, sometimes grinding out an electrified orgasm or two while writhing around on the stage floor. Time has fleshed out his lean jeans somewhat but his guitar is as mean as ever.
Heritage do high-energy covers of old favorites by Cream, the, Doors, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Hendrix, Dylan, the Beatles, Santana… good organic pre-industrial stuff. But what they do best, and the reason I really respect them as musicians, is their own material. Much of it is instrumental, atmospheric, exploratory, rhythmically intricate. The influences I detect include early Mahavishnu, Jethro Tull, Genesis – and there seems to be recurring references to Irish and Scottish folk modalities.
Stranger In Town, for example, opens with an Irish-sounding jig performed on the violin. A strong Celtic flavor pervades Together Again. However, on Boy Becomes Man and I Don’t Know, they go absolutely African.
On something called The Easterner they go the whole hog with Javanese, Chinese, Indian, and Middle-Eastern motifs exotically beaded together. Heritage is one of the few bands with the intelligence and taste to swing this sort of pan-ethnic fusion successfully.
Their mastery of the mixed musical metaphor comes across on epic compositions like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – which begins as a jazzy ballad and then transforms itself into hard, hideous rock.
The number of bars allocated to solo improvisations varies with the mood of the band and their audience’s receptivity. On a good night the solos stretch to five minutes or more. Gordon, when the energy’s right, can easily sustain a 20-minute percussion interlude without losing his audience for a second.
How do they work out new material? Is it all written out? Heritage compositions are notable for their sophisticated structures and tempi.
“Well, I do read,” says Atwell with an earnest grin, “but not fast enough to be comfortable with scores. So we work everything out on tape. Everyone contributes his own ideas. After you’ve listened to the practice tapes a few dozen times the music gets kind of absorbed into your system.”
In this manner Heritage have generated intricate Mahavishnuish pieces like Wheel of Life and Worlds Within A World, both highly engaging exercises in contemplative funk, as well as folk-rocksy numbers like the Legend of the Headless Horseman – according to Atwell, “a galloping instrumental.”
The Horseless Headman? That gets a chuckle pout of Atwell: “Yeah, sometimes it turns into that.”
The band must get pretty tired of playing in noisy pubs, to pretty much the same crowd every week.
“Three months is a bit too long,” Atwell admits. “But long stints also give us time to experiment. We just wrote a new one while we were in KL. It’s called Second Wind. Actually, we really like our Malaysian audiences so far. They seem a lot more adventurous musically. I’m surprised when people actually request Nexus – make sure you get the spelling right. It’s a spooky avant-garde piece and the Singapore pub crowd didn’t seem to like it – but in KL they actually stop talking and listen. Yeah, we’d play KL again anytime.”
Why not try Australia next? Or Europe?
“Sure… but how? We have no contacts there. We don’t even have a manager now.”
That’s the problem. Heritage badly needs a video. They deserve one, dammit – they’ve paid their dues.
27 January 1990