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14 Nov 2016

Canamii “Concept” 1977 South Africa excellent Symphonic Prog Rock

Canamii “Concept” 1977 South Africa excellent Symphonic Prog Rock
‘Concept’ is a pretty obscure offering from South Africa that was the brainchild of EMI studio engineer Philip Nel and technician Claire Whittaker. Apparently Nel fancied himself another Alan Parsons and since he had ready access to a quality studio and a large variety of keyboards he decided to crank out an album in the late seventies. Whittaker was chosen for her vocals and because she and Nel had formed, as is explained in the liner notes, a “musical and emotional bond”. Right.
While this record was actually released in 1980 it clearly bears marks of very heavy seventies influence which, to be fair, Nel and Whittaker readily admit to. Whittaker claims to be inspired mostly by Annie Haslam and Kate Bush. You can certainly hear a lot of Haslam’s vocal mannerisms throughout including the tendency to articulate a lot of vocal strength and emotion, but within a relatively limited octave range. Bush was quite different from that of course, and Whittaker doesn’t have anywhere near Kate’s range although you can hear a touch of inflection that calls Bush to mind in the middle of “Come and Fly” and the beginning of “Feelings”, and Whittaker seems to be attempting the same sort of syncopated, almost percussion-like singing on “And the Moon be as Bright” that Bush would master on 'The Dreaming’. Claire’s voice is a bit wispy at times and she certainly is not in a class with either Haslam or Bush but she is very competent and at times manages to even form her own style on tracks like “Children” and “Jester” (although on “Jester” she does manage to remind me just a little of Clare Grogan of Altered Images). She’s also been compared to Sonja Kristina of Curved Air but really I think that’s more a reflection on the compositional style of the music than her vocals.

Nel names ELP, Yes and King Crimson as his main influences. That doesn’t mean anything really except that it marks him as a student of serious seventies prog since just about every serious student of seventies prog claims to be heavily influenced and inspired by ELP, Yes and King Crimson. I personally hear almost nothing that sounds like Crimson on this album, but the lengthy and rather ambitious keyboard passages could easily be attributed to listening to too much Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman as a youngster. “Come and Fly” in particular has grand ambitions but like all the rest of the songs on this album ends far too soon to be a proper progressive work and reinforces an impression that the band had great ideas but not quite enough musical talent to explore them fully. Check out “The Phantom Players” for another example where the band just starts to get going around the 2:30 mark before inexplicably fading to black right in the middle of what should be a transition into a lengthy keyboard/guitar instrumental passage.

The other artists on the album are friends of the band, local Johannesburg artists who were asked to help flesh out various tracks although Paul Woodley does appear on every song and was apparently asked to be an 'official’ part of the “band”. I say “band” in quotes because again Nel fancied himself another Alan Parsons and ended up never leaving the studio, so this group would disband not long after the project and never appeared as a live act anywhere.

As far as the music I would be inclined to file it in a large pile of other b-list progressive rock acts from the seventies who had access to studio time, instruments normally reserved for much more well-heeled bands, a little time on their hands and dreams that exceeded their abilities. I would do this, except that these guys hailed from South Africa and at the time that country was a bit of a musical incubator, definitely fostering life but in a way that tended to insulate it from the rest of the musical world owing of course to the apartheid movement and fairly universal ban on touring both inside and outside the country. As a result just about anything that came out of South Africa from that era came out in small quantities with no promotion, and tended to sound somehow just a little different than anything else at the time. The same is true of Freedom’s Children and Hawk, the only other South African bands from the same general era. Because Canamii aspired to emulate some of their musical heroes but ended up doing it in a pretty different way than the other seventies prog clones, I’m going to say this is a very good record worth seeking out, a high three out of five stars and recommended if you can find it… ClemofNazareth …..
Now this is the kinda crossover prog I can wrap my arms around and warmly embrace. Canamii’s Concept lives up to its title by unashamedly representing the size, breadth, ambition and absurdity of longwinded, high-envisioned rock. Founded with thick walls of synths and organs and sporting Claire Whittaker’s spritely voice ~ South African and bearing the dated “AfroProg” label ~ it is (or was) a thing to behold.
Almost ceremonial in tone, this rockestra manages to do what so few actually did in the Prog Era: produce a genuine concept LP in all its distended pomp and overdone flash-bang atmosphere without taking it too seriously. And why not; Begun in 1977, finally released in '80, it was still an acceptable time to do this kind of thing without being laughed out of most venues (though time was running out fast). Not that I know or care what the “concept” is– with an album like this, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is the project itself: the album is the concept, and that’s what counts. 'Afrock’ bubbles-up gurgling, congested cataracts of Korgs; 'The Phantom Players’ reminds of Electric Light Orchestra, Styx, and even Babe Ruth now & then; 'Spiral’ baroques a bit and a distinct David Bowie influence begins to show in Tim Kensella’s singing and the sultry use of saxophone. 'Rain’ is negligible but okay folky romance, 'Come and Fly’ backs it up with a well-timbred Folk lament, and ELP’s 'Toccata’ is attempted. 'The Duel’ is an interesting look at hand-to-hand combat from a female perspective, and 'Tri’ finishes as a desert-roving instrumental with a bit of Latin heat.

I don’t know if I’d recommend this one, maybe because I don’t know who I’d recommend it to. But it sounds great, the leaders having had full access to EMI’s vast playground of sound sculpture, and the luxury to take their time which may’ve been an advantage. On the other hand, rock tends to blossom when conditions are less than ideal. It is what it is… Atavachron …..
The name Canami was derived from the star signs of Phil Nel (Cancer) and Claire Whittaker (Gemini).

Both Claire and Phil worked for EMI as engineers Claire being a tape mastering engineer and Phil being a studio engineer. Phil went on to become chief engineer of EMI (SA) and chief engineer at Downtown studios (Gallo Africa).

Canimi Concept was inspired by Abby Road (EMI) engineer Allen Parsons (Allen Parson Project) where studio musicians were used instead of a dedicated band. 

Although not originally part of the initial concept Paul Woodley was asked to join the project because of he’s jazz/rock influenced guitar playing as can be heard on the tracks Afrock, Phantom Players, And the Moon Be As Bright. Claire’s vocal style was very much influenced by Annie Haslam from the band Renaissance. Claire also had very strong 70’s folk influence in her vocal style.Phil’s forte’ was in programming synths such as the Synclavier, Fairlight, Jupiter 4, Korg, Moog, RMI and the ARP.

Phil also has grade 8 classical piano (Royal Schools of Music) and he’s major musical influence was Emerson, Lake and Palmer, especially ELP’s LP release Tarkus as can be heard on the Canimi Concept tracks Toccata and Tri. Phil’s other influences were Rick Wakeman, Yes and King Crimson along with the Russian classical composers such as Rimsky Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Khachaturian.
Tim Kensella, a long time friend of both Phil and Claire was asked to do the vocals on the track Spiral. This track also features the RMI synth. Short of one track to complete the LP, Phil, Claire and Paul spent an entire night in EMI studios and wrote the track Children, using just guitar, a Jupiter 4 synth and the Dr Rhythm drum box.

Claire remembers: “In the bad old days of the 80’s I was incredibly inspired by music – writing lyrics, creating songs, my heroines were Annie Haslem and Kate Bush, I believed that lyrics, like poetry, told a story, more lofty than that of mere words. Music to me lifted me high above the normal realms of thought into a place where colour and light merged, this is the picture I aspired to create for the listeners of Canamii … Phillip Nel, an incredibly accomplished keyboardist and I created many pieces – only a select few – where chosen for the album. He also taught me sound engineering and mastering of cassette tapes. He and I worked for EMI in those days. Paul a super guitarist brought a great sound to the mix and together, Canamii was born. Which actually came from “Cancerian” Phillip’s star sign and Gemini – which is my own star sign. Can-(a) – mi (i) I loved the studios – the soft lights, ambiance, plush carpets and incredible reproduction of sound. The control rooms were perfectly and scientifically balanced. A place where the softest or loudest notes were played back at you with clean clarity. I actually wished that I could have a sound system in exact replica built in my lounge.”
“I loved the creation of the pieces which used to start with a simple rift which would just take on a life of it’s own, almost a personality, music made me come alive – I was never the same after that.”

Paul recalls: “I met Philip through Claire, my sister in law. Phil had a home recording studio and he and Claire had formed an emotional and musical bond. Claire had mentioned to Phil that I played guitar. Philip invited me around to listen to their works. I was impressed and jumped at the opportunity to add my musical flavour to their creation. Phil got a job as an engineer with EMI in the Joburg city centre and was given free rein to record and experiment in order to grow his knowledge. We started the whole Canamii project from scratch in EMI’S Studio 1. We tackled the project with enthusiasm and spent almost every night and weekend recording. It was a great experience recording on a sophisticated desk and in a world class studio. We had no time and cost restraints which was a pleasure. The project took many months to complete. Several accomplished South African musos were involved in the project, Ashley Kelly bassist, Tony Moore drums, and a few more guys who’s names have slipped my mind.

We were delighted with the outcome of the album which brought a new flavour to South African music. Unfortunately we never got to perform live, but we all continued our musical careers separately thereafter. It was a great experience that I will not forget, my first recording which resulted in an incredible work of art.”………..

Philip Nel — keyboards
Paul Woodley — guitar
Claire Whittaker – vocals
Mickey Woitynek — guitar
Ashley Kelly – bass
Tim Kensella – vocals
Herman Eugster, Kendall Kay, Tony Moore – drums

01. Afrock — 3:31
02. The Phantom Players — 2:54
03. Spiral — 3:18
04. Rain — 4:00
05. Come And Fly — 3:55
06. Toccata — 4:52
07. And The Moon Be As Bright — 1:24
08. Children — 3:34
09. Feelings — 2:45
10. The Jester — 4:01
11. The Duel — 2:17
12. Tri — 3:06 

johnkatsmc5, welcome music..





Cassete Deck

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