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South African band Henry Ate (now based in Miami, FL) was formed accidentally at a music festival. Julian Sun, a member of Urban Creep, spotted Karma-Ann Swanepoel, an old school friend, in the audience and invited Karma onto the stage to sing with him. The audience was initially stunned into silence, broken by spontaneous wild applause.

At first, Henry Ate was just two voices and two acoustic guitars, going by the name of “Karma and Julian”. Karma wrote a song, Henry, telling the story of misfit Henry who “ate his way to the moon and back”. The name “Henry Ate” stuck and fortunately survived a record company’s intervention to alter the dynamic and release their second CD under the solo name “Karma”. But that’s jumping the gun somewhat. Let me regress.

“Karma and Julian” added other musicians and toured Johannesburg as Henry Ate. When they had established a few songs and a bit of a following, they decided to lay-down their first CD.

“Produced on a shoe-string budget in a quaint little house in Yeoville, the album captured that wide-eyed innocence of a precocious talent. During the recording, we made it up as we went along and pretty flew by the seat of our pants. The mixing desk was located in the lounge, the guitars recorded in a bedroom and the vocals in the kitchen! If you listen really closely to “Waves of Salt” you’ll be able to hear the sound of birds singing. This was completely unplanned because, truth be told, we forgot to close the kitchen window before we rolled tape.” Julian Sun, in the biography he wrote on the Henry Ate website (http://www.henryate.co.za).

The first single, Henry, was playlisted on national radio (5fm) and sparked a nationwide interest in the band. Follow-up singles, Hey Mister and Just reached #2 and #1 on the radio station’s charts respectively. The band went on national tours and became celebrities, with Karma constantly being recognised in Johannesburg.

While Henry Ate was hogging the airwaves, Karma went on a little sortie to London. Her father had told her to visit the university of life, as she’d just completed her degree in English Linguistics and Philosophy at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). “I wrote one song while drinking a Dr Pepper, its got absolutely nothing to do with the drink, but it’s been called Dr Pepper as a result.”

Henry Ate opened for Skunk Anansie when they toured South Africa in 1998. Karma, a charismatic entertainer, basked under the spotlight. Aided perhaps by line-up changes, Karma soon enough became synonymous with Henry Ate. Primedia Records were attracted to the light and signed the band. They tried to wave the record company magic wand and churn out an international success called “Karma”.

The name change did not go down well with the locals, who had been following Henry Ate for so long. It was handled badly, and people were confused, unsure whether Karma had dumped her band, or what was going on. For this reason alone, One Day Soon, released in late 1998, did not live up to expectations.

Julian Sun continues on the website: “By taking on the responsibility to produce the record herself, she felt compelled to make a success of the project. It was hard to watch, as her drive for perfection was relentless and tiring, painful not only to those around her, but ultimately to herself.” As the sole songwriter in the band, the main creative force behind the music, and now the name of the band as well, it was pretty intense for Karma. “The critics didn’t help either as the Karma’s and Just Jinger’s of this world became the best thing to deride.”

At some point, Karma’s recreational drug use began to escalate. She landed up in a rehab centre. Diminutive and elfin, she’s also feisty and determined. She survived and matured and the change she went through as a result of her experience shows in her music.

Whether the band dumped Primedia or if Primedia dumped the band I do not know, but they signed with EMI to release the third album in 2000. A far cry from the house in Yeoville, Tattered and Torn was recorded in a studio over four months. The lyrics are bare, introspective, stark and honest. Musically it’s more adventurous as well, with acclaimed Jazz/Blues guitarist Louis Mhlanga collaborating on one of the tracks. Now established band members, Max Mikula and Brendan Ou Tim, are also by joined other musicians, including old friends Julian Sun and Kaolin Thompson.

EMI seem to have justified this expense by re-releasing the debut album, Slap in the Face, with some digital remastering. I hope they didn’t remove the birds from Waves of Salt, and it’s one of the first things I’ll check when I return to London!

I have seen Henry Ate at Up the Creek and in London, billed alongside the Springbok Nude Girls and Just Jinger at the Ambala Music Festival in late 2000. Those performances alone made me hurry to buy Slap in the Face (sadly, the remastered version). Henry Ate returned to London in summer 2001, playing pubs to predominantly South African audiences. Here, Tattered and Torn was snapped up by the crowd, myself included.

The style of Henry Ate is best described as folk/pop, although they can rock a bit harder at times. The songwriting and lyrical content is what sets them out from the pool of average musicians in their genre.

Do not expect the music to be experimental. At the last gig I went to, joined by a few members of The LED who were insanely jealous that it was not them up on the stage, Johan and Peter were rude enough to accompany Karma’s vocals on Just with the opening lines from Glycerin. The tunes may be similar (quote Peter: “well, lots of songs sound like Glycerin so why can’t she have one too?”), but I like Karma’s lyrics better.

Most information gleaned from the official website: http://www.henryate.co.za. Music available from gigs, or from http://www.kalahari.net. and also on http://www.audiogalaxy.com/

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