Johannes Muhlberg was a talented South African pianist and songwriter. His specialty was clever jazz-inflected cabaret. Beginning in 1968, he began work on a musical theatre project, but abandoned it and never completed it before his tragic death in 1982. He never released a recording.
Almost thirty years later, his son Victor and his family were able to locate the original cassette tapes and sketches for the musical. Victor, a songwriter himself, decided to pick up where his father had left off. When South Africa was locked down in the 2020 plandemic, he decided to change the plotline to a series of reflections on alienation, atomization and loss, told from several points of view.
The new project began to take shape when he teamed up with guitarist Clive Ridgway, who pulled together a diversely talented cast of singers and musicians to bring it to life. The result is Twelve Days of Song, which Victor Muhlberg considers a work in progress rather than a finished album. Fortunately for us, he’s put the songs up as a youtube playlist. With dad’s music and son’s words, it’s a witheringly funny, deliciously transgressive portrait of the here and now. This is not a depressing collection: Muhlberg’s characters stand their ground, resist and have a good laugh in the process.
Roger Maitland sings Valentines Ballad, a chilling chessgame parable set to a slinky noir cabaret backdrop, “On a board captured by silent coup…resistance from those you revile.” Tony Drake swing the piano line; Ridgway adds spare, distantly Romany-flavored guitar.
Bev Scott-Brown takes over the mic with a resolute bittersweetness in I Say Goodbye, a calm broadside against the hated Green Pass vaxxport: “The state will not impose on me its arbitrary goal, nor take me down the wretched road of segregation and control.”
Who Wants to Work, with Godfrey Johnson on vocals, is a slyly amusing, ragtime-tinged look at universal basic income and its sinister implications. Ridgway sings Pipers Tune, a savagely satirical view of “The covidian cult on standby to feed the beast of the noble lie.”
Johnson returns for a duet with Regina Malan in The Circus Show, an irresistibly over-the-top, brassy, Broadway-esque capsule of the clowns orchestrating the lockdown drama. Next, he takes up The Fictional Tale of Mr. Barb, a spot-on, amusing, waltzing portrait of oligarchical greed and technocratic hubris: “I’ve a soft spot for control…as I herd the population, to the cusp of my creation.”
Scott-Brown takes the mic again in I Wonder Why, an understatedly plaintive portrait that anyone who searched for other noncompliant voices over the last 31 months can relate to. Ridgway picks up his acoustic guitar for It’s Just Not ‘Just,’ bringing to mind Phil Ochs with a litany of curfews and mandates and Trojan horses, trace-and-track and endless divide-and-conquer schemes. “Once the prey has made its way inside the trap, it’s unlikely it’s ever coming back.”
Selim Kagee lends his operatic pipes to A Requiem, a sober, baroque-tinged hymn of sorts, reflecting on the victims of the first bioweapon and then the lockdowns. Johnson channels a calm defiance in The Freedom in Me, “A season distorted by digital chime” where “A city so smart has the soul of a robot with steel in its heart.”
Undeniably Mine was inspired by the scientists and doctors who brought their science and sanity to the Better Way conference in the UK. Ridgway builds a spiky blend of guitars and mandolin in Colourful Day, a celebration of the diversity in the freedom movement
Scott-Brown channels hope against hope in Midnight & Moonlight, a gorgeous, starkly fingerpicked guitar waltz in a Cry Me a River vein:
It’s stranger than fiction with danger so grave
Leading the way to the new world so brave
Lies and illusions, perceptions untrue
Breaking the faith of the things you once knew
Muhlberg offers guarded optimism at the end. The playlist concludes with the wedding song When Two People Fall in Love, sung by Penny Radsma. Even more than the music, what’s most inspiring about these songs is that Muhlberg found a talented cast with an equal commitment to freedom to bring them to life.
Thanks to Mark Crispin Miller, whose must-read daily news feed is basically the other New York Music Daily.