t is 1971. South Africa is struggling with a myriad of political and cultural problems. Mandela is in jail and the United Nations has declared it supports isolating South Africa for its apartheid policies, requesting that other nations “suspend cultural, educational, sporting and other exchanges with the racist regime and with organisations or institutions in South Africa which practise apartheid”. The state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation has an almost complete monopoly on what is being played on the radio, and the advent of television wouldn’t be seen in South Africa for another 5 years as such things are seen as a threat that would undermine the proud Afrikaans tradition and spread communism and immorality. The stain of apartheid also means that most of the music being aired on the radio comes from exclusively white artists and the majority of accessible music comes from the States and the UK, with many people not realising that local exports like Manfred Lubowitz (later known as Manfred Mann) actually come from South Africa.
This is the setting in which a band with the unusual name of Humphrey is born.
On a Sunday night in a suburb of Johannesburg, then husband and wife duo, Lisa and Robin Hogarth, find themselves at a friend’s soiree. A multitude of musicians is in attendance, including Lisa’s brother Zane, who is entertaining guests while tinkling away on the ivory keys. But it’s the guitar noodlings of one Robbie Kallenbach that they find themselves drawn to. His chord combination, “just an idea I’m fooling around with,” inspires Lisa (who had previously recorded a successful solo album under her maiden name - Lisa Spencer Look out for Lisa 1965) to pen some lyrics right there on the spot. She writes, Robbie plays, Robin joins them on his guitar, and within literal minutes, the song In The Morning is written and promptly performed to the other party guests.
It seems the synergy isn’t a one-time fluke. The three of them get together regularly to jam and find that the music flows and the songs keep coming. Sonically, the three distinct voices of Lisa, Robin and, Robbie; whether solo or in glorious harmony, layered over the duelling chord progressions of the two men create something that sets them apart from what is the norm in their local scene - and so the band is born.
Humphrey plays out at various venues and starts to build a following. Folk is the “in” thing at the time, and Lisa Hogarth later suggests that their particular style being “folk-rock” is what separates them from the norm; but on contemporary listenings, this doesn’t account for the psych elements, hypnotic melodies, and hazy dreamscapes that infuse the band’s only album.
Although the Anglo-American folk, pop, rock, and psych influences on Humphrey are undeniable, something about these influences finding a voice at such a particular time and in such a particular place makes this album truly unique. The record seems almost polarised in nature, the saccharine melodies of the harmonized vocals and the band’s pop sensibilities are kept from becoming throwaway bubblegum tunes by the songs unexpected psych elements, chord changes, and arrangements that bring a touch of darkness and mysticism — like a dangerous current running beneath the waters of a gently flowing stream.
The people that came together to make Humphrey — the band themselves, Billy Forrest, Zane and his arrangements — all went on to have long careers in music, or are, indeed, still playing to this day. And while Humphrey may have just been a blip on their respective musical radars, on hearing this slice of early Seventies South African Pop Psych, all of us at NOAJ reckon you’ll be delighted it’s getting another chance to shine.