Aura Lewis lived a very unusual life, her path as unique as the music she made.
One of a very slim group of African performers that became directly involved in the reggae of Jamaica by travelling to the island during the 1970s, Lewis toured widely with Jimmy Cliff and recorded with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Bob Marley and the Wailers, making an important impact on the predominant roots reggae sound. Something of a nomad, she had a range of musical experiences in different nations on the African continent, as well as parts of Europe and the USA, and was also a community activist, most notably after she was finally able to return to her beloved Johannesburg after decades of exile.
She was born Aurelia Grace Msimang Bormann in 1947, in what was then the Western Native Township, her name and striking looks belying an extremely mixed heritage: her father, Peter Bormann, was part German, part ‘Cape Malay’/Madagascan, and part Khoi; her mother, Noliqwa Msimang, was an ethnic ‘Hlubi’, being the product of a marriage between a Zulu and a Khoi. Aura described both her parents as social activists.
When Aura was only five years old, as South African society was riven by the restrictive policies of the evolving Apartheid, the family was forcibly relocated to Orlando Township (in what would later be designated Soweto), and subsequently moved to the black Four and Six Township in Bloemfontein.
The family fled over the border into Rhodesia at the earliest opportunity, but encountered hostility there under the racist regime of Ian Smith, and were expelled to Botswana. They moved on to Zambia, the Congo and Nigeria, always facing the instability and uncertainty, and finally reached Sierra Leone in 1963, where Lewis’ father began to teach at Njala University. Aura began attending the prestigious Annie Walsh Memorial School in Freetown, and within a few years was performing with a local band called Sierra Success. Though the band never managed to record anything, they gigged regularly during Aura’s tenure, which began in 1966.
After obtaining a scholarship to attend Hunter College, Aura moved to New York in 1968, reaching the city at an crucial moment in the civil rights movement. Since her scholarship only covered tuition fees, Aura soon got a job at Wells’ Chicken and Waffles, a community landmark in Harlem situated across the street from a jazz club where she met the drummer Art Lewis. Aura married Art in 1972, and gave birth to their son, Alpha, the following year.
In 1975 she became involved in CART, the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre, which had recently been established in Brooklyn by Caribbean actors as an alternative space for the dramatic arts. Her work at CART led to a drama scholarship at the Jamaica School of Art, so she placed Alpha into her father’s care in Sierra Leone and travelled to Kingston on her own. There she became friendly with Pamela Reid, an African-American dance student from South Carolina, and the pair started hatching plans to collaborate on vocal work while in Jamaica.
Jimmy Cliff was then based a short distance from the school, and Aura recognised the legendary singer when she and Pamela passed by his front gate one morning, and struck up a conversation, Cliff mentioned that he’d been invited to perform in South Africa, and Lewis advised him not to go due to the cultural boycott then in effect. Although Cliff’s South African concert would not materialise for several more years, he asked Lewis and Reid to be his backing singers on a few engagements in West Africa, and so they began rehearsing with his band, which then included Sly Dunbar, Ernest Ranglin, Chinna Smith, and percussionist Sticky Thompson. Other great figures of Jamaican music were often around, including Joe Higgs, who tutored the Wailers, and Toots of Toots and the Maytals. Unfortunately, Pamela Reid missed the tour as she was travelling to the US to visit family, but Aura made the journey to perform at incredible stadium gigs in Dakar, Senegal, where the band was treated like royalty and feted by traditional stilt-walkers upon arrival.
Requests came pouring in for more gigs in neighbouring territories, but when the backing band had to return to Jamaica for other engagements, Lewis convinced Cliff to use local players. They began rehearsing in Banjul with Farabundu, who backed them in the Gambia and Mali, and for the remaining dates in Sierra Leone, percussionist Francis Fuster put together a band featuring the remnants of Aura’s old troupe Sierra Success. She was able to visit Alpha and her father at the end of the tour, but the country was unstable and Cliff opted to move on to Nigera to meet Fela Kuti while Lewis remained behind.
Cliff and Lewis next travelled to London, where they found Bob Marley working with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry on ‘Punky Reggae Party’ at Island’s Basing Street studio, with an new singer of Guyanese origin, Candy McKenzie, trying to add some vocal harmony. At Cliff’s suggestion, Lewis joined McKenzie to sing in tandem, and their high choral input provided a dramatic contrast to the male voices that occasionally augment Marley’s lead. Listening to the extended 12″ mix, with its wild dub version, is the best way to understand how the two female voices contributed to the song’s success: their chants of “new wave, new craze” give the tune much buoyancy, and their sol-fa scales and wordless warbling really help the tune to fly. They are also present on the reworking of ‘Keep On Moving’ recorded at the same session.
Cliff went back to Jamaica shortly thereafter, but Lewis remained in London for a longer time, interacting with Marley and the Wailers on a daily basis, even considering joining his backing band at one point. But Lewis ultimately opted to return to Jamaica to continue her association with Cliff, with whom she began rehearsing for the upcoming Give Thankx album and tour. At the same time, she and Pamela Reid began spending increasing periods of time at Lee Perry’s Black Ark, where they were working on original material and contributing backing vocals to some of Perry’s own productions, such as a superb recasting of Max Romeo’s ‘I Chase The Devil’, titled ‘Disco Devil’, and some of the Congos’ great Heart of the Congos LP. Soon, Candy McKenzie appeared to start work on a solo album for Island, and Perry suggested she join Lewis and Reid’s female harmony project, now named Full Experience.
The trio recorded an album’s worth of material for Perry and also contributed to his Roast Fish, Collie Weed and Cornbread album (they are visible on the back cover) and Robert Palmer’s ‘Love Can Run Faster’ 7″. Unfortunately, a number of factors conspired against Full Experience, meaning that much of their work has never actually been issued. Disruptive forces came into play after McKenzie became romantically involved with a session musician, and Perry’s unrequited crush on Reid didn’t help either.
Cliff’s outraged response to the project was probably the greatest contributor to its eventual undoing, and after Perry surrendered the master tapes to Cliff, Lewis was only ever able to retrieve five songs, which had not been properly mixed and which suffered from audio degradation. These songs would eventually be issued as an EP on the Blue Moon label in France (and later reissued in Britain), a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. The dramatic ‘Full Experience’ gives the strongest sense of what trio was capable of, while the playful ‘At Midnight’ is a jaunty number that benefitted from Perry’s co-writing skills. ‘Young Gifted And Broke’ re-worked Nina Simone’s ‘Young Gifted And Black’ for empty-handed times, and ‘Nar Soh, So It Stay’ shows the trio as a fully embedded part of the Black Ark sound.
In the aftermath of Full Experience’s unravelling, Lewis travelled for a time between Kingston and Miami, where she taught drama at a crime prevention centre, selling goods in the market to make ends meet. One day, Cliff’s manager appeared at her stall asking her to join him in Jamaica for rehearsals, so despite earlier frustrations, she found herself once again in Cliff’s backing band, which now included a number of London-based musicians, such as the talented Barbadian guitarist Jimmy ‘Senya’ Haynes, and the Ghanaian master percussionist Rebob Kwaku Baah. Aura performed with these musicians behind Cliff in Europe at the start of an extensive tour in 1980, but chose not to join him for dates in South Africa, where Cliff made history for a stadium performance held before thousands of black and white fans in Soweto, a concert which controversially broke the cultural boycott.
Back in Miami, Lewis worked with Bob Marley’s mother, Cedella, on the gospel album Redemption Songs (later reissued as Awake Zion), and when Marley died in 1981, she sang at Marley’s funeral behind Cedella (along with Marley’s half-sister, Pearl Livingstone), certainly one of the greatest honours any singer could ever have experienced in Jamaica.
Ever the wanderer, Lewis subsequently moved to Paris, where she was a regular backing vocalist for popular singer Maxime Le Forestier, and worked with African artists based in the city, including Manu Dibango, Mory Kante and the Malopoets. She married a mechanic, Partrick Berton, but when the couple split, she moved on to Brussels, where she began working on a solo album, Itshe, which featured a number of different styles (more in the ‘world music’ direction, rather than reggae), and which took quite a few years to surface. By then, she had already created the ‘Women of the South’ programme for Oxfam, which enabled her to finally return to South Africa in 1997. She travelled between South Africa and Belgium for a time, but ultimately made Johannesburg her home again, and soon became involved in a number of different youth projects, including one at the Yeoville Recreation Centre and another at SARA, the South African Reward Association. She was also involved in the regeneration of the Rockey-Raleigh area of the city, and was the main catalyst behind Africa Week, a festival of cultural events held in Johannesburg in 2010 and 2011.
Those fortunate enough to know her were inevitably attracted to Aura’s fiery spirit, as well as her good-natured outlook and lively sense of humour. Her unexpected death came a few days after she suffered a stroke in the early hours of Christmas morning, and was particularly felt in Johannesburg, where she still gave tremendous support to social projects, making a real difference in the lives of local youth.