Sydney Banda Blows New Life Into Pennywhistle With Groovin'

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I don't indulge in cross-posting too often, so I'm hoping that you'll forgive me for shamelessly copying a post I wrote for my other (equally neglected) blog. Not because I think it's particularly well-written (please, I wish! I'm still me, no matter where I blog!), but because my subject is a dear friend who has just released a CD and I'm trying to do whatever I can to drum up some support for him. He absolutely deserves it!


It was a summer night in Washington, D.C. during the late ‘90’s when I met him for the first time.


Some of the other South African Au Pairs and I were in the Zoo Bar – a joint so named because of its proximity to the National Zoo, and not merely because the patrons had a tendency to behave like animals after knocking back a few. The tiny space was air-conditioned and we sidled in deeper, past the rest of the Friday night revellers, seeking liquid confidence and respite from the sticky and oppressive humidity outside.

Despite the blast of refreshingly chilled air enveloping us inside, the crowd was positively cookin’. A swinging jazz band was performing some cool, foot-tapping covers. A lifelong lover of jazz, I craned my neck from where we had managed to inch our way closer to the bar counter to try and get a better view of the musicians.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the sax player. He was playing a solo and getting increasingly lost in the music – venturing to that other-worldly plane where people travel to when they are engrossed in doing what they were absolutely BORN to do. With his head thrown back, eyes closed, fingers darting lightly across the keys; his passion for his instrument was evident, surging through his entire body. “Wow, he’s goooooood,” I thought to myself, thoroughly impressed.

A few lively tunes later, he leaned towards the mic and said: “Thank you! We’re just going to take a short break. We’ll be right back.” I perked up immediately. That accent… it was unmistakable. But I asked the bartender anyway, just to be sure. He confirmed with a cheerful shout: “Hey Syd! We have some more South Africans in the house over here! And they’re all prettier than you!”

When Sydney Banda warmly shook our hands that night – fellow countrymen from diverse backgrounds thrown together by happenstance on the other side of the world – I had no idea that this extremely kind and remarkably talented guy was to become one of my dearest friends and that our friendship would span across years and continents.

A few days ago, I opened a parcel postmarked Washington, D.C. and squealed with delight. It was from Sydney and it contained his long awaited CD, Groovin’. I couldn’t open it fast enough to play it, but had to pause when I saw that he had kept a promise he had made me a long time ago: in a sweet and touching gesture, he had inscribed and autographed the inside cover of the sleeve for me.

The road to this glorious moment, of having an actual 12-track CD filled almost entirely with his own music (only two of the twelve tracks on the disc were not composed by him), has been a long and often difficult one for Sydney.

His musical journey began in the dusty streets of his childhood hometown, a township in KwaZulu-Natal called Enkukwini. In that township, located near a small town called Stanger, six-year old Sydney found music when he began making and playing rough, homemade guitars hewn out of petrol cans with strings fashioned from fishing line. “At that time,” Syd writes in an e-mail to me, “every township kid had or played a homemade guitar.”

When he was nine years old, he switched from playing homemade guitars to a red plastic pennywhistle, an instrument he showed a natural talent for by mastering it within three months.

“At age eleven, my aunt bought me my first Bp Horner pennywhistle. I taught myself how to play it and at the age of thirteen I had my own pennywhistle band called MawMaw.”

MawMaw played kwela and jive – lively, traditional music with a jazzy twist. They performed on street corners until the police came and chased them away. Eventually the police stopped shooing them. Not because they had given up, but because by then, the music and the skill of the young musicians had won them over. “Finally they ended up enjoying it too!”

Around 1959/1960, young Sydney got his first big break when he was invited to play with the Can-Can Jazz Band at the Stanger Town Hall.  “That was my first time performing with amplified musical equipment.  I got my first publicity, with my picture appearing on the front page of the local newspaper.”

The band master for that performance was a local police officer called Mr. Sibiya. He invited Sydney to his house in Tshlenkosi township and there, Syd first encountered the instrument which was to become his meal ticket: the saxophone. Over the next two months, Syd walked 11 kilometres to Mr. Sibiya’s house and, once again, taught himself to play another instrument.

Sydney’s skill on the sax has served him well. It supported him through years in Malawi and later also in the United States – still his home today. In the States, career highlights have included playing at President Bill Clinton’s Inaugural balls (both in 1993 and 1997), performing for Prince Charles and Camilla when they paid a royal visit to Washington, D.C. and performing for other big name celebs such as Naomi Judd (yes, indeed, mother of actress Ashley and singer Winona) and Dame Helen Mirren.

With Groovin’, Sydney has decided to strike a sentimental path, revisit his youth and return to his original musical roots. Although he can be heard playing the sax, this album is entirely devoted to the pennywhistle. He still has the original Horner Bp pennywhistle given to him by his aunt, which can be heard on a number of tracks on the album. In addition to that pennywhistle, he also plays a Horner C and G on the CD.

The album is marketed as World Music, but it has an unmistakable Afro Pop flavour. The only two covers on the track are Red River Valley and a gorgeous arrangement of the Irish classic Danny Boy. Sydney chose Red River Valley because it was one of the first songs he played professionally. Danny Boy was added at the request of a friend, who (correctly) thought that it would sound great on pennywhistle. The rest of the tracks were all composed by Sydney.

To sample all the tracks and buy a copy of Sydney’s album, visit the CD Baby website

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2 Comments

the Duchess said:

Hi Red!

I didn't realize you spent time in D.C. too!? I was just there over the summer last year caring for an ill relative. And funny enough, met my editor one day (one very HOT, Humid D.C. mid-July Summer day) for a drink in a cafe bar near the zoo! I was living right between The National Cathedral and American University, I think it's called Friendship Heights or Tenley - that area.

So funny. I feel like I've been and experienced many of the things you describe (only you did them much cooler and with more style!).

Cheers dear!

Redsaid Author Profile Page said:

Duchess, yes, I actually lived there for a number of years before moving to Baltimore. D.C., however, is where a huge chunk of my heart will always remain, because it was my introduction to the States. So I love that city like few other places. I had some of my happiest moments there, before things went frightfully awry...

So you were a fellow Washingtonian for a while, huh? Wish it had been a few years earlier, so that I could've met you in person! Imagine how we could have chilled out at the Zoo Bar! Oh, I LOVE the neighbourhood where you stayed. When I first arrived, I lived just further down Wisconsin towards Georgetown. (More or less behind Embassy Row.) Anyway, I hope your relative completely recovered. If you ever go back that way again, let me know and I'll tell you about a few of my other old haunts you can visit.

And speaking of A.U.... I just remembered: I had a brief, non-liaison with a jazz pianist who was a student there. Aaah, the fond memories! (This one so long buried, it was almost forgotten.) He played me a gorgeous rendition of "My Funny Valentine" over the phone, once. Corny, perhaps, but at 22-years old I was almost impressed enough to agree to go out with him!

Haha! Don't be fooled for a second! I'm neither cool (nor hot, for that matter), nor stylish! YOU, on the other hand, seem to be plenty of both.

By the way, sorry I haven't responded to your mail yet! Impossible as it is to believe, I actually write for a living, which is why I'm so downright lazy to do it after hours. I will though, I promise!

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is a South African girl living in South Africa. That doesn't sound very original, we know, but you might find it remotely interesting when you learn that she has only recently returned to South Africa for the first time after a nine year, one month and two week (non-stop!) stint in the United States where she accidentally became an outlawed alien (also known, especially in immigration circles, as an 'illegal immigrant.' We prefer the term 'outlawed alien' ourselves). During her reversed exile from her homeland, she kept herself occupied by winning this website (but only after shamelessly bribing the judges) and thus being unleashed on the web where she slowly, leisurely became the World's Laziest Blogger; by being a nanny and by attending sci-fi conventions in search of other aliens. In the US, she also made her sailing debut, her international acting debut, tried and failed to learn the piano, and never learned to cook. She is hopelessly addicted to coffee, dogs (especially Labrador Retrievers), how-to books (with a particular fondness for her copy of the Time/Life A - Z Medical Encyclopedia), and she tends to grossly overuse parentheses (we're not kidding) during her attempts at writing, which you may - if you really have masochistic tendencies - subject yourself to by reading the words to the right of this column. If you REALLY and truly STILL want to know more, you can read her C.V. here.
Or you can stalk her send her some love via e-mail at: redsaid[AT]gmail[DOT]com

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  • Redsaid Author Profile Page: Duchess, yes, I actually lived there for a number of years before moving to Baltimore. D.C., however... [go]
  • the Duchess : Hi Red! I didn't realize you spent time in D.C. too!? I was just there over the summer last year c... [go]
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