Billboard Magazine

Hennie Bekker

Bekker Explores New Age Styles

Zambian-Born Artists, 64, Thrives As Soloist
By Larry LeBlanc

TORONTO - At an age when many of his peers are either retired or sharpening their golfing skills, 64-year-old Hennie Bekker has developed into one of the most prolific and successful figures in contemporary Canadian pop music.

The Zambian-born multi-instrumentalist has lived in Toronto for a decade and has been nominated for a Juno Award this year for top instrumental artist of the year.

‘I’d love to just travel and work when I feel like it,’ he says. ‘That time will come when it’s ready to come. Now, I’m never out of the studio. I feel the same (about music) as I did at 20.’

After several decades as a session musician, arranger, and composer in South Africa, England, and Canada, Bekker became a new age solo artist four years ago with the melodic ‘Kaleidoscope’ series, released by Holborne Distributing Co. here.

The series includes ‘Summer Breeze’ (1993), which has sold 125,000 units to date in Canada; ‘Spring Rain’ (1993), 230,000 units; and ‘Winter Reflections (1994), 30,000 units, according to Wayne Patton, Holborne VP of business affairs and music publishing.

Two additions to the series are ‘Lullabies,’ released Jan. 28, and ‘Autumn Magic,’ to be released later this month.

Holborne also distributes Bekker’s world beat-styled ‘Tapestry’ series, including three 1995 releases: ‘Silk & Satin,’ which, according to Patton, has sold 12,181 units in Canada; ‘Vivaldi,’ 17,000 units; and ‘Temba,’ 100,000 units. Last year, Holborne also released Bekker’s ‘Christmas Spirit’ album, which has sold 25,000 units, and ‘Classics By The Sea,’ 12,000 units.

Furthermore, Bekker has recorded a TV-marketed ambient-music series, ‘Tranquility,’ for Quality Music here. This includes the albums ‘Tranquility, Vol. 1′ (1994), ‘Awakenings’ (1994), ‘Classic Moods And Nature’ (1995), ‘Christmas Noel’ (1996), and ‘Transitions’ (1996). Quality Music declined to give sales figures.

‘There’s a lot of that type of (new age) music around, but Hennie’s recordings are exceptional,’ says Paul Richards, PD/music director at CHAY Barrie, Ontario. ‘His music is very distinctive, melodic, and so well produced.’

In addition to his solo work, Bekker has been a member of Quality Music’s pioneering techno trio BKS for the past five years. The group, which also features Greg Kavangh and DJ Chris Sheppard, has released three albums: ‘For Those About Rave . . . We Salute You’ (1992), which had sold 30,000 units in Canada, according to Kavangh; ‘Dreamcatcher (1993), 35,000 units; and ‘Astroplane’ (1996), 30,000 units.

‘Hennie plays the role of genius well in our group,’ says Sheppard. ‘He understands (studio) technology, and he’s a perfectionist. When we’re doing a big concert with thousands of people, I’ll look over at him; he’s just having the time of his life. The kids get a kick out of him being 64.’

Adds Bekker, ‘With friends, when their kids discover I’m with BKS, they just can’t believe it.’

Bekker was born in Nkana, Zambia, and raised in nearby Mufulira, which he describes as ‘a little town just 10 miles south of the Congo (Zaire) border, where (producer Robert) ‘Mutt’ Lange also grew up.’

At 15, Bekker began playing piano in a Bulawayo Zimbawbe-based band called the Youth Marvels. This was followed by stints in several other local bands until he formed his own jazz outfit, Hennie Bekker Band, in 1959.

Bekker says that period was a turbulent time to launch a musical career in Africa. He recalls a six-month stint in an Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), Zaire, nightclub being cut short in 1961 due to a revolution in which Katanga attempted to secede from the Congo. ‘War broke out, and we had to flee through the bush to Zambia,’ he says.

With no work and no money, Bekker went on to Johannesburg, where he soon became a staff music director and producer for Gallo Records. There, he began performing on, and then writing and producing, commercial jingles.

‘With all my bands, I used to arrange (the songs),’ says Bekker. ‘I never studied music. I picked it up as I went along. For a couple of years, I was working like a dog, day and night, in the studio. Apparently, I was very successful, because I kept getting more work. I was earning so much money that eventually I left Gallo.’

Except for periods spent working in London in 1969 and 1978-81, Bekker spent the next two decades in South Africa, scoring countless radio and television commercials, a dozen television series, and several films.

‘I always liked the idea of putting music to pictures,’ Bekker says. ‘The challenge of that is to say or let the viewer feel deeply what’s going on visually and to do that with music.’

Bekker’s accomplishments in Canada are all the more remarkable because, due to restrictive currency regulations, he had to leave South Africa without any money. However, he did bring with him many of his instruments, including his Synclavier and grand piano, as well as the recording equipment he owned.

Troubled by ongoing racial tensions in South Africa and uncertain of any future work there, Bekker moved to Canada in 1987 with his wife, Jacky. ‘What really freaked me out (about Toronto) was that there were no walls around the houses,’ says Bekker. ‘I thought, ‘What a civilized society.’ ‘ Yet, Bekker says, ‘moving (to Canada) at age 54 is probably the most traumatic thing that has happened to me. I was very scared because I didn’t know anybody here and I had no work prospects.’

Working on commercials and film and television scores had been Bekker’s trade in South Africa, but in Toronto, he found it difficult to find similar work. A friend in South Africa suggested that he contact John Parry, who operates Parry Music, a Toronto-based television and film music library. Bekker played Parry some music he’d written and was asked to score and produce music for the company.

In the next three years, Bekker made six instrumental albums for Parry and 10 instrumental albums for Sound Ideas, another stock-music company here. ‘Those albums kept us alive,’ says Bekker.

It was Parry who suggested that SolitudesTM Ltd. here hire Bekker to combine music with Dan Gibson’s wildlife sounds. The project eventually led to Bekker’s own new age recordings with Holborne, which was then distributing SolitudesTM Ltd. Starting with ‘Harmony’ in 1989–which has sold 400,000 units worldwide, according to Gordon Gibson, co-owner of SolitudesTM Ltd.–Bekker has recorded 13 nature sounds/ music albums in the ‘Solitudes’TM series, all done with Gibson. On Jan. 10, SolitudesTM Ltd. released a Bekker new age album, ‘Mirage,’ on its Avalon Music label.

According to Bekker, scoring the ‘Solitudes’TM recordings was one of the most difficult endeavors of his career. ‘It was challenging because the focus was not on the music, but on (Dan Gibson’s) nature sounds,’ he says. ‘Dan gave me those in-and-out points for where the music had to be and told me what was happening. He knew exactly where the frog was, what time of the day it was, everything.’

Bekker says his goal with his solo projects is to ‘have different series I can feed (music) into. I’m scared of being labeled as only being able to do one (musical) thing.’

(c) BPI Communications, 1997