The Beat of Wings

About a year ago, out of the blue, I got an email from Danny De Wet, the veteran drummer who played with so many iconic SA bands, but was also a manager and producer and all round personality on the South AFrican music scene. I knew Danny from the 90s when he ran one of the alternative rock scene’s most popular Jo’burg music venue, Wings Beat Bar, in Braamfontein. My band at the time, Occam’s Razor played there very often as well as hanging out there to watch other bands, many of them friends. Wings was more than a club, it was a community.

Anyway, the point of Danny’s email was to ask me to write a few memories about WIngs for his memoirs, which have now been published as “Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll…. In Africa”. GIving it some thought, the memories of that time came flooding back and I may have gotten carried away. The unexpurgated version I’ll reproduce below, and I believe a chunk of it made Danny’s book – which I plan to get my hands on as soon as copies make their way to the UK.

I have based this ‘mixtape’ on those memories. Here are the bands I remember, Some of them are good friends today, others I still admire from afar, and others I just remember fondly from the time we were all trying to make it on the music scene.

Most of what I have to say is in the text I sent to Danny, but here are a few additional notes: SOme of the bands I mentioned never recorded, but transformed or reformed and did so later. I don’t think Blue Chameleon of 8-Legged Groove Machine recorded, or if they did, their stuff is like hen’s teeth, so I have substituted their later incarnations as Boo! And Wonderboom respectively. Oh, and hippy duo Ocean Road became Qkumba Zoo, and actually had an international dance hit with The Child Inside.

In the spirit of mixtapes from back in the day, this one contains two tracks recorded off the radio – I can’t think where else you’d find the demo singles from Occam’s Razor or B-World today, so both are taped off the Barney Simon show on 5FM (in 1994), and I’ve left in some of the call-ins and banter from Mr Simon.

Two tracks, I taped myself at Wings via the sound desk: The first is Matthew van der Want singing Dying Of Love, and the second is me, with Heidi Bouwer on violin, playing Another Day – both from one of the folk evenings regularly hosted at Wings.

It is an eclectic mix of everything from folk to metal and a snapshot of the rock scene in Jo’burg in the 90s.

“The Beat of Wings”

The early 1990s was a strange and exhilarating time for a young South African rock musician. Freed from the burden of ‘national service’ and, with the release of Nelson Mandela and the anticipation of a brighter future in which we could hold our heads up high in the international arena, anything seemed possible. Except that is, for finding a gig if you were – like my band, Occam’s Razor – playing original music, a bit ‘alternative, and just starting out.

Apart from a few massive bands like Savuka, Hotline, Petit Cheval, eVoid, Mango Groove, and others, who played arenas, the local South African music scene in the clubs and bars had always favoured the cover band, and if it wasn’t blues-rock, it had to be FM radio-friendly pop, or of course, jazz. But the Voelvry phenomenon of the late 80s, built on the alternative scene around Shifty records and the famous Jameson’s bar, had spawned a new generation of young hopefuls even as they dialed back and closed down themselves.

So where was my band of ‘The Velvet Underground meets Metallica’ misfits (a concept so daft that it took Lou Reed himself another 20 years to think of it) supposed to go? Where was “The Scene”? Luckily the incredibly forward-thinking drummer, Danny De Wet, a veteran of at least two of the biggest acts of the 80s, saw there was a need for the burgeoning South African rock renaissance to have a home, a clubhouse, and a stage. And that’s how we found ‘Wings Beat Bar’ in Braamfontein, just near Wits University. There we found our home-base for the next few years, along with so many other bands.

Sadly, the South African record industry was not as quick to pick up on the emerging talent and so many of the bands that strutted their stuff on the Wings stage are now just a memory, remembered only through demos played by 5FM jock Barney Simon (another champion of local music), or self-released EPs and tapes, compilation CDs, bootlegs, and if nothing else, in legend alone. As I think back a quarter of a century, the names of these bands pop into my head like files recovered off a faulty harddrive: The Sarsipians, Blue Chameleon, King Ink, Live Jimi Presley, B-World, Just Encasement, The Kerels, 8-Legged Groove Machine, Albino Tarbugz, 10 Drops of Valium, Damn the Icebergs, Metalmorphosis, and of course, Danny’s own band, The Electric Petals, and probably many more that I will remember if pressed.

And then there were the folkies, Matthew van der Want, Black Paul, and me, and the poets: Alan Finlay, Gary Cuminskey, Roy Blumenthal, and the purveyors of interpretive dance and monologues, who graced the stage of “Odyssey Theatre’ hosted at Wings on a Sunday night.

The soundsystem was thunderous. You could tell this venue was owned by a hard-rocker himself. There were no half-measures, like the clapped-out speaker-box on a beer crate you’d encounter at half-cocked clubs on the road. There was a proper mixer and a PA with headroom to spare so you always sounded great at Wings.

I have more vivid memories of Wings, I think, than any other venue I’ve played since and this was entirely down to the sense of community fostered by Danny and his business partner Patrick. Danny twirling his drumsticks like the moustache of Dali as the Petals showed how it was done, Matthew vd Want singing to a rapt audience about dying of love to a tune borrowed from Jennifer Ferguson, before launching into a blistering and raucous set backed by The Kerels, Live Jimi showing no regard for health and safety regulations as they attacked anvils with angle-grinders and god-knows-what to a pounding beat, Black Paul mumbling mysteriously, getting the funk out with the Groove Machine or B-World, and of course the pizza!

One of the perks of playing Wings was the pizza thrown in the deal. I’m not going to lie and say it was the world’s greatest pizza, but it was the greatest pizza a starving musso ever got! And for the student crowd and the young bohemians who guaranteed an audience on any night of the week, it was probably the cheap pizza that brought them there!

Of course for me, the night I remember the most was the time we got Wings into the Sunday Papers! Occam’s Razor will go down in Wings lore as the band that played a set stark naked. We had written a cycle of songs that saw us festoon the Wings stage with dismembered papier-mache cadavers and spray fake blood as we played exposing both body and soul. To this day I’m astonished that the Wings management let us make this “artistic statement”, but that is why I remember it as more than just a venue. It was a place that encouraged and nurtured artists and artistry in a way than few other venues ever did, and it was a sad day when Wings eventually closed its doors.

But how can you get a little of that Wings spirit today, you ask? Well, there is a dedicated Facebook group frequented by many of the musicians and punters; and there is the music, if you can find it: Matthew vd Want has released several albums which are on Bandcamp and can be found on online auctions shops and 2nds hand CD shops. Wonderboom (some of 8 Legged Groove Machine, with Danny on drums) released several albums which are easy to find. For collectors of CDs, The Electric Petals have an album called “Polynation’ and B-World put out a CD single which is like hen’s teeth, but out there somewhere. Some of the bands, like Occams, have stuff up on Soundcloud, and the absolute best source of Wings bands on CD is a two-volume compilation called “Soda Sex Fountain”, which is sadly hard to find, but not impossible. Oh, and Q-Zoo were originally a hippy-folk duo who were Wings regulars, but I don’t remember what they called themselves then. And Blue Chameleon morphed into Boo!, and they have several albums worth looking for.

At the end of the day, every scene is – to borrow words from Joni Mitchell – ‘a chalkmark in a rainstorm… the beat of wings’. Wings Beat Bar was of its time and place, and – as we contemplate the sterile world of Spotify playlists and ringtone music – I’ll stick my neck out and say, a better time, and a better place. I’ll always be grateful to have been given the opportunity to be part of it by Danny De Wet and his team at Wings Beat Bar. Long may it live on in our memories.

Brett Houston-Lock
April 2021

  1. Damn The Icebergs – Cycad
  2. Squeal – Long Pig
  3. Boo! – Lucki
  4. Qkumba Zoo – The Child Inside
  5. Wonderboom – She Cries
  6. The Electric Petals – Thank You For The Book James
  7. Occam’s Razor – They Can’t Find You
  8. B-World – Walk The Wire
  9. Matthew Van Der Want – Dying Of Love
  10. Brett Lock & Heidi Bouwer – Another Day
  11. King Ink – Wonderful Art
  12. Just Encasement – It Feels
  13. Urban Creep – Tightroper
  14. Sugardrive – Form The Habit
  15. Sarsippians – Crazy
  16. Metalmophosis – Passion Mother
  17. Albino Tarbugz – Motormouth
  18. Live Jimi Presley – Vorhaut Zur Freiheit
  19. The Kerels – U-Turn
  20. 10 Drops of Valium – Never Get Old

Music Remembering Soweto June 16, 1976

June 16th is Youth Day in South Africa, a day which commemorates June 16th 1976, when, on a wintery Wednesday morning, between 10 000 and 20 000 Soweto school children marched against the apartheid government’s decision to force school children to be taught half their subjects in Afrikaans. The police used violence to stop the protest and many students were shot, injured and killed. The uprising quickly spread across South Africa and developed into a protest against Bantu Education in general.

June 16th became a landmark date, after which resistance to apartheid gradually spiralled, despite government attempts to suppress it. Like Sharpeville at the beginning of the previous decade, Soweto June 1976 sent shockwaves through South Africa and the rest of the rest of the world, and musicians wrote songs in protest, in solidarity and in commemoration.

Among the first musicians to respond was South African musician in exile, Hugh Masekela, who penned the powerful “Soweto Blues” (released in 1977). Others who were quick to react included South African folk singer, Paul Clingman, whose commemorative song, “Anniversary Of June 16” was released in 1977, Nigerian Sonny Okosun’s whose “Fire In Soweto” was also released in 1977, South African exiled cultural ensemble, Jabula, whose “Soweto’s Children” was released in 1978, and Edi Niederlander, whose “Bitter Fruit” was written and performed soon after the event, but only recorded when she negotiated her first recording contract in 1985. “Farwell, Embers Of Soweto” by the Amandla Cultural Group was written and performed in the late 1970s but released as part of a live album in 1982.

Many protest and commemorative songs were released over the next few decades. In the 1980s these included Billy Bragg’s moving cover of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Chile, Your Waters Run Deep Through Soweto”, performed for the John Peel Sessions in 1986, Jeffery Osborne’s “Soweto” (1986), Stimela’s “Soweto Save The Children” (1987), “Soweto – So Where To?” by the Mamu Players (From the Township Boy musical, released by Shifty Records in 1987), Super Diamano De Dakar’s “Soweto” (1987) and Max Adioa’s “Soweto Man” (1989).

The K-Teams’ “June 16” was also performed in the 1980s but released by Shifty Records in 1990. Other 1990s releases included Brenda Fassie’s “Shoot Them Before They Grow” (1990), Dolly Rathebe & the Elite Swingsters’ “Blues For Soweto” (1991) and Sipho Mabuse’s “Suite June 16” (1996).

Commemorative releases have continued into the 21st Century, including Baba Shibambo’s “Remember June 16, 1976 (Soweto Uprising)” (2004) and Jimmy Dludlu’s “June 16th (2007). Some of the Soweto June 16th releases from the past two decades have included a comparative dimension, such as Joy Denalane’s “Soweto ’76 – ’06” (2006), Simphiwe Dana’s “State Of Emergency” (2012) and “Uprising 16 June 1976” by OLU8, MXO, SimeFree, Don Dada, Nyiwa and Lady Presh (2021).

In particular, Simphiwe Dana draws a comparison between conditions facing the youth of 1976 and those confronted by today’s youth. Despite the overthrow of the system of apartheid, the current government has let down today’s youth: the public education system is in tatters and unemployment is growing. For many of today’s youth it is a dry black season with little to celebrate. As much as we take pause to remember the youth of 1976, we need to recognize that the struggle continues …

  1. Soweto blues – Hugh Masekela
  2. Bitter fruit – Edi Niederlander
  3. Anniversary of June 16 – Paul Clingman
  4. Chile your water run deep through Soweto – Billy Bragg
  5. June 16 – The K Team
  6. Soweto – so where to? – Mamu Players
  7. Shoot them before they grow – Brenda Fassie
  8. State of emergency – Simphiwe Dana
  9. Soweto ’76 – ’06 – Joy Denalane
  10. Soweto – Jeffery Osborne
  11. Remember June 16, 1976 (Soweto Uprising) – Baba Shibambo
  12. Soweto save the children – Stimela
  13. June 16th – Jimmy Dludlu
  14. Blues for Soweto – Dolly Rathebe & the Elite Swingsters
  15. Soweto – Super Diamano De Dakar
  16. Suite June 16 – Sipho Mabuse
  17. Fire in Soweto – Sonny Okosun
  18. Soweto man – Max Adioa
  19. Uprising16 June 1976 – OLU8, MXO, SimeFree, Don Dada, Nyiwa, Lady Presh
  20. Soweto’s children – Jabula
  21. Farwell, embers of Soweto – Amandla Cultural Group

Post ’94 Protest Music in South Africa

This week marks the second anniversary of mixtapes.ZA. To mark the occasion we have put together a mixtape of post-1994 protest songs, reflecting on how popular musicians have continued to speak out against injustice, despite the toppling of the apartheid government.

South African protest music against the apartheid system is well documented and has been featured in various mixtapes over the past two years. When, in 1994, the African National Congress came to power it was hoped that there would no longer be a need for protest music against injustices. However, extreme poverty and government corruption have continued. As the gap between the rich and poor grew, and public infrastructure deteriorated, some musicians began to protest the ongoing economic inequalities and government corruption through their music. Others also protested the relentless violent misogynist attacks against women which characterize life in South Africa.

This mixtape features a selection of music from different genres which tackle a cross-section of injustices. While there is some debate about what constitutes a protest song, for this mixtape we have selected songs which voice opposition to an injustice. Sometimes the songs are angry, other times they are mournful, and on occasion they are even humorous, when musicians use laughter as a weapon against injustice.

After the initial euphoria that came with the ending of apartheid, musicians began to voice concerns about greed and self-interest in the ANC government. In their 1998 release, “Put Off Saving The World”, Dorp tackled the problem of greed, both in society generally and within the government – “We’ve got inside information; On government masturbation; Don’t need no explanation; To come to a conclusion; It’s a fuct up situation.”

This situation worsened and as the early 2000s set in, service delivery was failing, infrastructure was falling apart and corruption was spreading. In “Potholes And Politicians”, Fuzigish drew a direct connection between government corruption and failing infrastructure: “On my way back home I hit another pothole; The government’s corrupted, the constitution is ill; All I seem to do is pay another bill.” While The A. K. Massive reflected that government lies and corruption put paid to dreams of a better future: “Ahh corruption! No more lies … In a country that teaches you to reach for the future, but be satisfied with less …” Similarly, in “Die Stad Bloei Vanaand”, Johannes Kerkorrel agonizes, “the dream was promised, but just another lie has been sold.”

During the Zuma years government corruption in the form of state capture was so appalling that Freshlyground called South Africa a “Banana Republic”:

All your people dying in freedom
Suffering a profound lack of leading
Are you even there when we call?
Are you a human, man?
Full of lies! Can’t believe what I’m hearing
From your lips a river of scheming
Poisoning all the water we’re drinking
Are we good to go?
Emergency
Discovery
No opportunity
It’s just another day in the Banana Republic
State of emergency!!!!

Freshlyground’s reference to the current situation as a “State of Emergency” especially rankled ANC supporters because it effectively compared Zuma’s abuse of power to that of the apartheid state, who tried to hold on to power through the declaration of a series of States of Emergency in the mid-to-late 1980s. Simphiwe Dana similarly draws a comparison between the two eras – in “State of Emergency”. She protests the way conditions in post-apartheid South Africa mirror the conditions facing the youth of 1976: “Only poverty reigns in our streets”. Lilitha’s “Marikana” also stands as a comparison between apartheid South Africa and the current ANC regime: this time miners shot dead by the new South African Police Services, defending the interests of mining capital.

Johnny Clegg’s “Asilazi” is “about an ordinary person who has to give up power to guarantee
their place in an uncertain tomorrow and the chorus is about those who have been waiting for
so long for this change to take place” (Johnny Clegg). While in “Zabalaza”, Thandiswa
Mazwai considers how those people waited in vain. She laments the state of South Africa and
asks how these atrocities can be happening in her father’s house, suggesting that the
government ought to be the father of the nation, securing everyone’s needs: “Why is it this
way? At my own father’s house; For their blood, sweat and tears; For their struggle and pain;
’Cause they gave up their lives for this.”

“Skunk Atavistic” by Lesego Rampolokeng & Kalahari Surfers is a stream of consciousness type dub poem with moments of bitter protest such as “Amandla for what? Not a fist you are clinching; It’s your sphincter.” Meanwhile in “Politics” Skwatta Kamp overtly and angrily protested the failure of the ANC government to deliver a better society to South Africans:

To me political parties are like escort agencies,
Those that fuck around the most get more money.
Of course they work hard to make their own pockets fat.
They don’t give a fuck about you and me it’s all an act.
Call me ignorant but I know my shit, I got direction.
Why the fuck you think I don’t take part in these elections.
Flabba signing out A-N-C you later.
Skwatta Kamp people’s thoughts are always greater.

Karen Zoid and Kaalvoet Prinses address the most appalling feature of South African society: endemic sexual violence against women. Zoid sings “Justice! Justice! Lock up all the rapists and thrown away the key” while Kaalvoet Prinses (Tremaine Barnes) who champions the Barefoot Campaign which supports victims and survivors of gender based violence, also protests violence against women with her call to action: “Women gave birth to this human race; And a new born girl gets a can of mace …”

Some musicians have used satire, irony and humour to critique human rights abuse and corruption. Witty and biting criticism is able to ridicule those in the wrong, and the subsequent laughter signifies moral triumph over the wrong doing.

In “Die Fokkol Song” (“The Fuck All Song”), Koos Kombuis makes humorous use of the term ‘fuck all” to ridicule and protest the government’s inability to provide South Africa’s basis needs. The song was released prior to the 2010 Football World Cup, and he introduced the song as though it was a welcome message broadcast to tourists arriving at the airport:

“Welcome to the airport, it’s the year 2010, I’m assuming you’re here to watch the soccer games. We finally have a chance to show the world our friendly democracy, so make yourself at home.

Fuck all petrol, Fuck all diesel, Fuck all TV, Fuck all power, Fuck all water in your whisky, Fuck all jokes to laugh about, Fuck all pills at the clinic, Fuck all doctors when you ask, Fuck all people to take the rubbish from your pavement… Welcome to South Africa. Yes, Welcome to South Africa.”

Roger Lucey set his song “Dalai Lama” to the tune of a traditional South African song “Daar Kom Die Alibama” (“There Comes The Alibama”) which apparently commemorated the visit of the warship, ‘The Alibama’, to Cape Town in 1863. Lucey made use of the similar sounding names to sing a humorously cutting critique of the Zuma government’s unlawful (pro-China) refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a South African visa to attend Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations. In “House Of Parliament Blues” Tony Cox uses humour mock the shenanigans which go on in Parliament.

In “Blue Light Brigade” the Kalahari Surfers cut and paste Julius Malema’s outrageous verbal attack against a journalist to both criticize and ridicule his behaviour, which is characteristic of the general arrogance of the ruling party politicians (at that stage Malema was an ANC member), most clearly evidenced in the way they race through the streets escorted by the South African Police with no regard for road rules or the rights of the average citizen:

Blue light Brigade
not another cavalcade
to knock you off your bike
as they jump a red light
or beat you to the ground
like a dog
to the sound
of the sirens
and the violence
unleashed
when you express your outrage

When Justin Nurse’s satirical T-shirt company, Laugh It Off, produced a T-shirt which parodied South African Breweries’ Black Label beer (“Black Labour, White Guilt”), South African Breweries sued them. David Kramer recorded and contributed the song “More Reward” towards a fund-raiser CD to help with legal costs. The song protests South African Breweries’ practices: “As we raise out glasses now that freedom’s here; Does the working man really profit from the beer?”

SOIL 7T7 and Half Price protest racism and capitalism respectively. “Can’t Keep Us Down” by SOIL 7T7 is a protest song by means of mobilising people against racism. They sing, “You can’t keep us down; ‘Cos we are coming around .. And we’re never gonna give it up”. Half Price’s “Guess It’s War” also calls for people to mobilise: “we should fight for our freedom, I think that we should die for what we believe in. If you think that it’ll end up alright. That’s bullshit cause it won’t, no it won’t. Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight.”

What these songs show us is that while there are issues we need to protest, South African democracy allows for such protests to be voiced. Songs like these would most probably have been banned by the apartheid government and/or the South African Broadcasting Corporation. And so, for now, that’s one thing we don’t have to protest.

  1. Banana Republic – Freshlyground (2017)
  2. State Of Emergency – Simphiwe Dana (2012)
  3. Zabalaza – Thandiswa Mazwai (2004)
  4. Marikana – Lilitha (2016)
  5. 41 000 Sisters – Kaalvoet Prinses (2019)
  6. Justice! Justice! – Karen Zoid (2015)
  7. Asilazi – Johnny Clegg (2006)
  8. More Reward – David Kramer (2003)
  9. Skunk Atavistic – Lesego Rampolokeng & Kalahari Surfers (2021)
  10. Blue Light Brigade – Kalahari Surfers (2012)
  11. House Of Parliament Blues – Tony Cox (2016)
  12. Dalai Lama – Roger Lucey (2011)
  13. Die Fokkol Song – Koos Kombuis (2008)
  14. Can’t Keep Us Down – SOIL 7T7 (2003)
  15. Politics – Skwatta Kamp (2002)
  16. Put Off Saving The World – Dorp (1998)
  17. Potholes And Politicians – Fuzigish (2002)
  18. Ahh Corruption – AK Massive (2005)
  19. Guess It’s War – Half Price (2006)
  20. Die Stad Bloei Vanaand – Johannes Kerkorrel (2000)

In The Spirit Of Mixtapes 1: SA In The 2000s

We have been putting together mixtape selections with various themes for over two years, but this is our first mixtape in which one of us has put together a selection of songs in the spirit of the old cassette mixtape: put together for various reasons but most often it was a work of creative passion. Mike Glennon of the School of Creative Arts and Media suggests that the “audio cassette and recordable cassette player allowed amateurs, enthusiasts and consumers to similarly capture, share and reconfigure recorded sound, thus inserting themselves into the production process.” In other words, we used to contemplate all the music we had at hand, and then select just a small assortment of those songs and record them in the order which we chose. In that exciting or special moment that selection of songs, in that particular order, became part of our identities.

Sometimes we made mixtapes for ourselves to play on a car journey or at a party, and sometimes we made them for somebody special. Sometimes the tape had a theme, such as songs with meaningfully chosen lyrics for a romantic partner (or optimistically chosen to woo a potential partner) or sometimes it was a selection of songs recorded from someone else’s record collection just so that we could take them home with us to listen to. I remember two or three occasions when I made mixtapes from records belonging to people for whom I was housesitting. Because, of course, those were the days when many of us had limited budgets for record or cassette purchases and there was no internet, so we had to make do with what we owned, what we could scavenge from others (by means of recording onto cassette) or the radio. And in 1970s South Africa, that pretty much meant middle of the road Radio 5 or some regional radio station like Radio Good Hope. Thus mixtapes were often the cherished option.

There was a lot of skill to making a good mixtape. While some of those skills apply to the modern day digital equivalent: the curated digital playlist, some uniquely belonged to the cassette mixtape. So for example, while in both instances there is a skill to choosing songs which flow exquisitely into each other and which maintain the listener’s ongoing interest, the cassette tape uniquely required a skilful choice of songs which fitted as closely as possible into a (typically) 30 minute or 45 time limit: the length of one side of a tape. I remember many wasted hours spent staring agonisingly at the diminishing amount of tape on the cassette feeder spool, balanced with equally anxious glances at the amount of space left before on the current track on the record as it span around the turntable. Much cursing took place when the play and record buttons snapped up on the tape deck, while the chosen song was still playing. That was the catalyst for a furious search through the record stacks for a song of the required length, most often something short. It was not acceptable to leave a long pause at the end of a cassette tape: it was a waste of precious recording opportunity. When one got it right it was with a sense of immense accomplishment: that moment when the last note of the songs played and then a few seconds later the cassette came to an end. Pure bliss! Another skill particular to a cassette mixtape was ordering the music of the two sides: so that each side had its own particular identity: fast vs slow songs or short vs long songs and so on. Or perhaps it was just a mix of a mixtape which in itself took careful compiling.

This is a bit of a mix of a mixtape. I have selected 20 South African songs from this century which I would like as many people as possible to hear and which in all likelihood would not have been playlisted on regional radio stations (or in fact any radio stations). These are songs I wish had been given regular rotation on commercial radio and which I wish had earned their composers and performers enough money to live off for a year or two, even if modestly. Instead I can only hope that people who listen to this mixtape find a few songs which they like and which in turn motivate them to go out and buy some of this music – in whatever format is available. Or perhaps support them at their next live show.

I don’t want to say too much about the musicians I have chosen. That can be up to you. Some of them are people who have appeared on the scene fairly recently (such as Adelle Nqeto and Madele’ Vermaak) or who have been around a bit longer but whose music I have discovered in the past five years or so, such as Hot Water and Lucy Kruger & the Lost Boys). I am also always interested to hear new music brought out by people whose music I grew up with – before I left university, that is. So on this mixtape that includes Dax Butler (of Nude Red who appeared on the Shifty Records Forces Favourites album), 70s folk singer, Paul Clingman, Bright Blue’s original vocalist, Robin Levetan, eVoid, Jennifer Ferguson, Gary Herselman (with his project, Die Lemme), and Syd Kitchen and Madala Kunene with their project as a duo, Bafo Bafo. Beyond that there’s a mix of people who make exciting music, most of whom have been around for ten or twenty years or more: the Dolly Rockers, Simphiwe Dana, Guy Buttery (with an appearance from Vusi Mahlasela), Amathongo, Nakhane Toure, Laurie Levine, Matthew van der Want, Chris Letcher and Hotep Idris Galeta. Listen, enjoy and find out more!
Michael Drewett

  1. Lovesong – Dolly Rockers
  2. Standing On Air – Die Lemme
  3. You Keep Calling – Simphiwe Dana
  4. Mix It Up – eVoid
  5. Perfect Day – Robin Levetan
  6. Bushfire – Hot Water
  7. Lift Me Up – Dax Butler
  8. Everywhere Everything – Paul Clingman
  9. Werner Meets Egberto In Manaus – Guy Buttery & Vusi Mahlasela
  10. Mlisa – Bafo Bafo
  11. Nozimama – Amathongo
  12. Tabula Rasa – Nakhane Toure
  13. Where Have You Gone – Laurie Levine
  14. Stay – Adelle Nqeto
  15. Empty Hands – Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys
  16. Pocket Full Of Stones – Madele’ Vermaak
  17. God’s Hotel – Jennifer Ferguson
  18. Dream Of You – Matthew Van Der Want
  19. Frail Lib – Chris Letcher
  20. Blues For Mongezi – Hotep Idris Galeta

May Day Songs

The first day of May was chosen as International Workers’ Day in 1889, initially to commemorate the deaths of workers in Chicago who had been protesting for an eight-hour working day. Since then it has taken on much broader significance, with a continuing focus on workers’ rights and ongoing contests over those rights.

This mixtape does not so much celebrate May Day as it does contemplate the situation of the working class in South Africa in particular. Almost everything we do, from driving along a road to eating our next meal, watching tv, and communicating on our mobile phones, is possible because of the labour of workers. These products we use are especially affordable because workers are paid less than their labour is worth. South Africa is among the most unequal societies in the world, which, apart from the greed of the wealthy, is in part because workers are generally paid poorly, a situation which is exacerbated by what Juluka (in “Work For All”) refer to as the “jobless army at my door”. The millions of unemployed in South Africa push down the wages of those who do work, just because of their availability to take the jobs of those who are employed. Thus there are many members of the working class who, as Freshlyground sing (in “Working Class”) “have got no work”. As simply expressed by Bayete, there is often “No Work” for members of the working class. This situation is captured in “Zabalaza” by Thandiswa Mazwai, who describes the desperation of an unemployed mother: “I rise early in the morning; To stand at street corners; With my child on my back; Asking for money.”
A compilation of South African songs about work of necessity includes songs about migrant labour, which was a core aspect of the creation of a black working class in South Africa. Under colonialism, many black people were forced off the land into a migrant labour system which in many ways came to define the racial segregation system which eventually became formalised as apartheid. Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela” is about the trains which came from neighbouring countries, bringing foreign workers to the South African mines, while Sipho Mchunu’s “Jomane” is about the hostel life to which migrant workers were subjected once they reached their places of employment. In this case, Mchunu refers to workers at a hostel in Dube. Amampondo’s “Apha-Egoli” is about labourers in Johannesburg, many of them presumably there as migrant workers. “Gumboot Dance” by Zim Ngqawana recalls the central part which gumboot dancing has played as a recreational activity for mineworkers. The dance is rooted in traditional South African culture, and, was, and still is, tourism spectacles aside, a therapeutic form of unleashing deep-seated frustration and anger at the terrible conditions under which migrant workers live and work.

“Miner Man” by Babsy Mlangeni and Des Lindberg’s “Mountains Of Men” (written by David Marks when he was working on the mines) focus on the miners themselves. The former tells the story of a migrant worker working on the mines in South Africa, and documents the difficult conditions under which he has to work. The latter song considers that the mine dumps scattered around Johannesburg (in the 1960s, when Marks wrote the song) were not simply made of mined ore brought up to the surface, but were symbolically mountains of men who sacrificed their lives and health for mining profits: “Men slaved and died just to build us a dream; Those men in the mines they worked the earth’s crust; So these mountains are priceless, all be they of dust.”

In the 1980s Shifty Records recorded and released songs by trade union singing groups, and this vital archival project allows us to include some worker songs which would otherwise not have been recorded. Here we have included “Mooi River Textiles” by workers at Mooi River Textiles, two Federation of South African Trade Unions celebratory songs: “ Ke FOSATU” by the Brits Metal and Allied Workers Union, and “Siyabonga FOSATU” by the K-Team, and “Hlanganani” by DTMB, in which the union singers remind workers that there is strength in unity.

In contrast to the mostly black anti-apartheid aligned trade unions there were also racist whites only trade unions, protecting the interests of white workers against those of black workers. Corporal Punishment’s “Brain Damage” is a sardonic song about Arrie Paulus, the leader of the all-white Mineworkers Union. Paulus was well known for spewing racist comments about black South Africans, something with which Corporal Punishment take issue in the song.

Steve Kekana’s “Working Man”, Sipho Gumede’s “Working Man”, and Johnny Mbizo Dyani’s instrumental “Song For Workers” are tributes to workers in general. While Davy James and David Kramer wrote songs in which they explore the idea of work and unemployment respectively, through characters in their songs. Davy James, who drove a bulldozer for a living and was a singer songwriter in his spare time, wrote “Ballad Of A Working Man” about the life of the traditional working man: “Wake up in the morning, put my boots on; Start yawning, I got work to do.” In “Dawid Ryk” David Kramer explores the personal dynamics of a poverty-stricken character who finds himself unemployed, battling to provide for his wife and children.

“Woza Friday” by Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu (in their pre-Juluka days) is a different sort of protest song against the hardship of working life. It is a celebratory love song to the weekend: “Come, come Friday my darling, come, come, Friday my sweetie”.

And as we approach this May Day long weekend in South Africa, we do so with the contribution of workers in mind, both past and present, and the terrible sacrifices they have had to make, and ongoing hardships they have had to endure.

  1. Working Class – Freshlygroun
  2. Working Man – Steve Kekana
  3. No Work – Bayete
  4. Work For All – Juluka
  5. Mooi River Textiles – Mooi River Textiles
  6. StimelaHugh Masekela
  7. Zabalaza – Thandiswa Mazwai
  8. Working Man – Sipho Gumede
  9. Siyabonga Fosatu – K-Team
  10. Woza Friday – Johnny And Sipho
  11. Gumboot Dance – Zim Ngqawana
  12. Apha-Egoli – Amampondo
  13. Hlanganani – DTMB
  14. Jomane – Sipho Mchunu
  15. Ke Fosatu – Brits Mawu
  16. Brain Damage – Corporal Punishment
  17. Mountains Of Men – Des Lindberg
  18. Miner Man – Babsy Mlangeni
  19. Dawid Ryk – David Kramer
  20. Ballad Of A Working Man – Davy James
  21. Song For The Workers – Johnny Mbizo Dyani

Poetry In Music

Today’s sleeve notes are are guest-written by poet and anthology editor Alan Finlay.

When Brett Houston-Lock sent me a message asking me if I would like to write this introduction, he also asked if I thought anything was missing from the list of South African “songs based on poems” he had forwarded. It’s a strangely difficult question to answer, not just because it prods the hornet’s nest of when poetry is song and song poetry, but because, off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of any other examples.

What Houston-Lock and his co-conspirator Michael Drewett have come up with is a rich and surprising collection of tracks that straddles genres – country-folk ballad, experimental reggae/funk, techno, electronic soundscape, jazz, choral, goth metal etc. – with three live tracks – by Koos Kombuis, David Kramer and a performance of Paul Mealor’s ‘Invictus’ – thrown in. Most but not all are South African musicians (Mealor is Welsh). Houston-Lock, who formed his band The Sighs of Monsters in the UK and who have recorded a translation of Ingrid Jonker’s ‘Tekening, lives abroad. Except for Mary Oliver, and William Ernest Henley who wrote ‘Invictus’, all the poets are South African.

Not every track here fits the bill of “songs based on poems” – and it’s clearly the intention to test the liminalities of the idea. Some are the result of creative collaborations between poets and musicians (e.g. Lesego Rampolokeng and the Kalahari Surfers, or Robert Berold and Larry Strelitz, who have worked together on and off for decades now). The Buckfever Underground is more like a poet-band project, where Toast Coetzer reads the often meandering and vivid landscapes of his poems to the background weaving of chunky electric guitar and drums, as if the point of the performance is the live search for the moment when the two cross paths. Mzwakhe Mbuli, as far as I know, always performed his struggle poems to a backing track. ‘The Beat’, which was to become one of the mainstays for the anti-apartheid left, was recorded in 1986 in the Shifty studio with amongst others Ian Herman and Gito Baloi, who a year later would form Tananas.

The work of poet-musicians is also included: Abdullah Ibrahim (whose reminiscing in ‘Knysna Blue’ shifts into some interesting, slow freestyle jazz poetry), Koos Kombuis, and the reclusive Gert Vlok Nel, known for coming out of hiding every so often to perform his poems as songs.

Musicians aren’t always faithful to the original poems they use – modifying them in small or big ways to fit the rhythmic needs of their songs, deleting lines, or shifting and repeating them to create a chorus, or for effect. David Kramer makes mostly slight changes to Christopher Hope’s ‘Kobus Le Grange Marais’ – which Hope calls a “satirical ditty” – to suit his characteristic African-infused country Cape carnivalesque style (at one point he goes as far as changing the name of a town, and it would be interesting to known why). I found this annotated version of the poem online, which shows the changes for his performance of the song at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1983. I’ve only quoted from the last two verses, and Kramer’s changes are in square brackets:

From Slagtersnek to [R’]Sonderwater
He smears the Boers’ good name;
And God is still a rooinek God,
Kommandant op [Koppiefontein] {Koffiefontein}:
[And] if what I hear about heaven is true,
[Well] it’s a racially mixed affair;
In which case, ons gaan kak da’ bo,”
Said Kobus Le Grange Marais

“[Now] the times are as cruel
As the big steel wheels
That carried my legs away;
Oudstryders like me
Are out on our necks
[We] {and} stink like the scum on [the] {a} vlei;
And [the] white man puts the white man down,
The volk are led astray;
There’ll be weeping at Weenen once again,
No keeping [those] {the} impis at bay;
(2 times) [And the/ yes, the] {and}tears will stream
From the stony eyes
Of Oom Paul in Pretoria Square:
[For/’Cause] he knows we’ll all be poor whites soon,”
Said Kobus Le Grange Marais

For their version of Mary Oliver’s ‘When I Am Among The Trees’, Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys repeat lines and phrases for effect (also changing ”Stay awhile” to “Why don’t you stay awhile?”) and reorganise the last two stanzas into a kind of chorus to create an hallucinatory sense of the movement and energy of swirling trees. The result is a haunting, almost bewitched soundscape – drawing on a sense that is already there in the poem, but creating something darker, more dramatic.

Koos takes a different approach. They shatter the necessity of the form of Chris van Wyk’s ‘In Detention’ entirely, fragmenting it into a series of rearranged statements and ad libs with the poem as a reference point. It’s a piece saturated with a ‘fuck you’ to the apartheid state and everything that comes with it.

Compare this to Mealor’s ‘Invictus’ – a poem Nelson Mandela read to other prisoners on Robben Island. It’s a choral for a 70-voice children’s choir, composed as the third part to a three-part movement called ‘Spirit of Hope’, and apparently performed in Cape Town (although I don’t know where this recording’s from). Mealor changes the poem too, dropping a stanza, repeating phrases and lines, but, like Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys’ take on Oliver’s ‘Trees…’, is an impressive example of how a poem can be carefully reset to music using precise and articulate phrasing. Henley’s four-beat poem lends itself more easily to this sort of job than, for example, ‘In Detention’, with its modernist energy and form. But it’s worth reading the poem while listening to the recording to see how Mealor does it – never mind the stunning percussive coda to the composition.

‘Sunship’ – a tribute to John Coltrane – is equally careful, with Strelitz’s aching melody following the phrasing in Berold’s poem closely; although I feel that at times Strelitz’s predilection for the blues vocable (the ‘mmm-ing’ and ‘oh-ing) gets in the way of the poem – I wanted to hear it more starkly, the lines more alone.

In counterpoint to Mealor’s composition, Rampolokeng and Ibrahim work organically with different forms – reggae/funk, and jazz – with freer, and ultimately more complex phrasing, but to a different purpose.

These sorts of collaborations (let’s call the use of a poem such as Jonker’s a form of collaboration between the musician and the poet’s work) shift audiences and introduce new ‘readers’ to poems – and maybe the other way around too. It’s a way to wrest us out of our cultural echo chambers. I hadn’t read Christopher Hope’s poem, and didn’t know David Kramer had sung it, and haven’t read much of David Chislett’s stuff. Shannon Hope’s ‘Daylight’ (Chislett) is beautiful and moving, drawing effectively on the universal resonance of its refrain of love and loss: “My love was never going to be enough/in daylight”. Matthew Van der Want’s interpretation of Chislett’s poem ‘For You Or Someone Like You’ closely maps his own concerns in his song-writing, refracting interpersonal exchanges and situations through his complex and layered mix of tracks, effects and rhythms. I also hadn’t heard Edi Niederlander’s electric, energetic version of ‘Come Wi Goh Dung Deh’, which sent me back to listen to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub original.

The list could be expanded. There must be traditional oral poetry in indigenous languages set to music. I’d be surprised if someone like Miriam Makeba hadn’t done this. Johnny Clegg drew on the izibongo tradition and rituals in his music. There’s definitely more that’s gone on in the performance poetry or hip-hop – but you need to be immersed in the scene to know where to find it. I also thought of Maskandi, which the poet Mxolisi Nyezwa is currently exploring as a way to reinvigorate the isiXhosa poetry tradition. But that moves quite quickly out of the more straightforward ‘poem to music’ frame that Houston-Lock and Drewett are using.

As it is, the list is exciting – and I really enjoyed listening to these tracks. That they have taken the time to put this selection together is another selfless act of informal archival work that is the hallmark of their podcast series – a curation and reframing of cultural production in a new and simultaneously historical light. It is exactly how cultures flourish, and, although probably less acknowledged, is no different to the important work being done by institutions such as the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature in Makhanda. It deepens us, and reminds us of the possibilities that are right in front of us.

  1. The BeatMzwakhe Mbuli (Mzwakhe Mbuli)
  2. Toilet PoemKoos Kombuis (Andre Le Toit)
  3. In DetentionKoos (Chris van Wyk)
  4. When I Am Among The Trees – Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys (Mary Oliver)
  5. Come Wi Goh Dung DehEdi Niederlander (Linton Kwesi Johnson)
  6. Kobus Le Grange MaraisDavid Kramer (Christopher Hope)
  7. Die Dans Van Die Reen – Laurinda Hofmeyr (Eugene Marias)
  8. The Desk – Lesego Rampolokeng & the Kalahari Surfers (Lesego Rampolokeng)
  9. Sunship – Larry Strelitz (Robert Berold)
  10. Drawing -The Sighs of Monsters (Ingrid Jonker)
  11. Vyf Lewens – Chris Chamelion (Ingrid Jonker)
  12. Daylight – Shannon Hope (David Chislett)
  13. For Your Or Someone Like You – Matthew van der Want (David Chislett)
  14. Beautiful In Beaufort Wes – Gert Vlok Nel (Gert Vlok Nel)
  15. Invictus – Paul Mealor (William Ernest Henley)
  16. Jy Gee Geboorte Ann Jou Asem – Breyten Breytenbach (Breyten Breytenbach)
  17. The Last Days of Beautiful – Buckfever Underground (Toast Coetzer)
  18. Knysna BlueAbdullah Ibrahim (Abdullah Ibrahim)
  19. December Poems – Guy Buttery (Instrumental)

Alan Finlay is a South African poet who lives in Argentina. He has published several collections of poetry, most recently ‘That kind of door’ (2017, Deep South Publishing), and ‘The cactus of a bright sky’ (2021, Dye Hard Press). He has  founded and edited poetry journals, and co-edited selections of South African poetry and prose. He works on internet and media rights, and part-time at the Wits Centre for Journalism in Johannesburg.

Remembering Sharpeville: 21 Human Rights songs

This week we remember the victims of the Sharpeville Massacre which took place on the 21st March 1960. 69 protesters were killed and 189 injured by the apartheid police, in response to a gathering of approximately 7000 people who assembled at a Sharpeville police station to protest the government’s heinous pass law policy. In South Africa the 21st of March is honoured as Human Rights Day and is a public holiday. For this mixtape we have put together 21 songs which remember human rights abuses, Sharpeville in particular, and which call for (equal) human rights.

We begin with Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Get Up! Stand Up!” which has become an anthem for human rights all over the world, often sung at political concerts with a human rights focus.

Several of the tracks included here refer directly to Sharpeville (sometimes spelt without the ‘e’): Hugh Masekela, Mario Pavone, Big T Commemoration Band, Ewan Maccoll and Peggy Seeger, Black Savage, and Karl Hektor and the Malcouns all recorded pieces which pay direct tribute to the victims at Sharpeville.

The Brixton Moord En Roof Orkes’s “Die Geraamtes In Jou Kas” (“The Skeletons In Your Closet”) and Bester Meyer’s “Die Kind” (“The Child”, based on the famous Ingrid Jonker poem) refer to Sharpeville within the context of the widespread injustices of the apartheid regime.

Miriam Makeba’s “Nonquonqo” (Beware Verwoerd) and Letta Mbulu’s “Nonquonqo” both capture the anti-apartheid government protest sentiments of the post-Sharpeville period. While the former warns Verwoerd’s government of Black protest, the latter grieves the imprisonment of political prisoners after the repressive government’s clampdown in the 1960s.

Juluka’s “Mama Shabalala” and Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” remind us how human rights abuses often take place on an individual level, even while we generally think of human rights abuse on a larger scale. Both songs consider the plight of individuals within an oppressive system, the former a fictional case in South Africa, the latter an actual incident from the United States.

Indeed, human rights abuses occur globally, and the mixtape also focuses on human rights abuses more broadly. Billie Holiday’s iconic “Strange Fruit” laments the lynching of black people in the southern states of the United States, while U2’s “Mothers Of The Disappeared” and Sting’s “They Dance Alone” are tributes to the mothers and partners of victims of government repression in Central and South American countries. The victims had been arrested, killed and ‘disappeared’. U2’s song refers to the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers whose children had ‘disappeared’ at the hands of Chilean and Argentinian dictatorships, and to the Comadres, a similar group in El Salvador. Sting’s “They Dance Alone” is dedicated to women related to the ‘disappeared’ in Chile, referring to the way the women danced the Cueca (the national dance) alone, while holding photographs of their loved ones. Both U2 and Sting were inspired to write these songs because of their work with the Human Rights organization, Amnesty. Another artist who has worked closely with Amnesty is Peter Gabriel, who wrote “Wallflower” as a tribute to political prisoners around the world. Gabriel’s chilling words are both a tribute to political detainees and a reminder of the human rights abuses carried against them:

Hold on, you have gambled with your own life
You faced the night alone
While the builders of the cages
Sleep with bullets, bars and stone
They do not see the road to freedom
That you build with flesh and bone

Though you may disappear, you’re not forgotten here
And I will say to you, I will do what I can do

The mixtape ends with four songs which advocate human rights in one way or another: by Rhiannon Giddens’ version of “Freedom Highway”, Daweh Congo’s “Human Rights And Justice”, “Equal Rights” by Peter Tosh and finally, Laurel Aitken’s interpretation of the USA folk protest song, “We Shall Overcome”.
As we listen to this selection, we are reminded of music’s capacity to mourn and document human rights abuses, and its ability to capture emotional sentiments which in turn can draw people together as they fight against repressive governments the world over.

  1. Get Up! Stand Up! – Bob Marley & The Wailers
  2. Sharpville – Hugh Masekela
  3. Sharpeville – Mario Pavone
  4. Tears For Sharpeville – Big T Commemoration Band Featuring Vuyelwa Luzipo
  5. Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
  6. The Ballad Of Sharpeville – Ewan Maccoll And Peggy Seeger
  7. Ndodemnyama – Miriam Makeba And Harry Belafonte
  8. Nonquonqo – Letta Mbulu
  9. Mama Shabalala – Juluka
  10. The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll – Bob Dylan
  11. Sharpeville – Black Savage
  12. Sharpville Massacre – Karl Hector & The Malcouns
  13. Die Kind – Bester Meyer
  14. Die Geraamtes In Jou Kas – Brixton Moord En Roof Orkes
  15. They Dance Alone – Sting
  16. Mothers Of The Disappeared – U2
  17. Wallflower – Peter Gabriel
  18. Freedom Highway – Rhiannon Giddens
  19. Human Rights And Justice – Daweh Congo
  20. Equal Rights – Peter Tosh
  21. We Shall Overcome – Laurel Aitken

The cover art features an extract of a painting depicting the Sharpeville massacre by Godfrey Rubens which hangs in the South African Consulate in London.

More Music from Makhanda

In our previous mixtape we featured music by musicians who at some point or other have lived in Grahamstown/Makhanda. This time around we focus on songs about Grahamstown, some of which are performed by musicians included in that mixtape. All the songs included here were recorded before Grahamstown became Makhanda, and so we stick with that name when mentioning the place the musicians refer to. Most of the songs (some of them instrumentals) refer to the town in general, including several which are named after the town itself.

Two of the instrumental pieces – David Goldblum’s “New Street” and Nishlyn Ramanna’s “Oatland Road Blues” evidently refer to Grahamstown street names while two of the songs –Barry Gilder’s “Makhanda’s Song” and Roger Lucey’s “You Only Need Say Nothing” relate to the political history of the town. Gilder’s song explores the story of Makhanda himself while Roger Lucey’s song touches on various aspects of the struggle around apartheid, including the fact that Peter Jones was detained in Grahamstown after he and Steve Biko were arrested at a roadblock outside the town in 1977.

The Fishwives and Daniel Friedman (Deep Fried Man) sing lighter songs. “Pied Piper” by the Fishwives refers to a Pied Piper leading rats to a gathering in Grahamstown, while “Stay in Grahamstown” by Daniel Friedman is a satirical consideration about people who settle in Grahamstown too long. It pokes fun at white liberal fears and the ruts that settle in when one stays in Grahamstown too long.

Two of the songs – Lucy Kruger’s “Heart of Stone” and Tim Hopwood and Joe van den Linden’s “Scattered” – do no refer overtly to Grahamstown/Makhanda but were written about the musicians’ personal experiences in Grahamstown, both about leaving, manifestly having taken heed of the warning not to stay in Grahamstown too long.

We don’t want to say too much about the songs featured here, as we want to leave it to you to listen to and explore reflections on the town as these musicians would want you to. Enjoy!

  1. Umsakazo E Grahamstown – Alabhama Kids
  2. G-Town – Eddy De Clerq, Yemu Matibe & Alungile Sixishe
  3. Grahamstown – Zulublue
  4. Pied Piper – Fishwives
  5. Grahamstown – Carl Allen And Rodney Whittaker
  6. Settler Country – Larry Strelitz
  7. Grahamstown Fever – The Sighs Of Monsters
  8. Lekker Sakkie – Hot Water
  9. Stay In Grahamstown – Daniel Friedman
  10. Grahamstown – Decio Gioielli
  11. New Street – David Goldblum
  12. Grahamstown – Philip Malan & Ronan Skillen
  13. Oatlands Road Blues – Nishlyn Ramanna
  14. Grahamstown – Eric Van Der Western And Louis Mahlanga
  15. You Only Need Say Nothing – Roger Lucey
  16. Pondo Fever – Matt Vend & The Tender Ten
  17. Heart Of Stone – Lucy Kruger
  18. Scattered – Tim Hopwood & Joe Van Den Linden
  19. Makhanda’s Song – Barry Gilder

Music from Makhanda

Many a poet, writer, journo, musician, dancer, artist, and even person on the street, has experienced the sort of creative inspiration in Makhanda (and also when it was Grahamstown) which only ever comes to one at the centre of the creative universe. This mixtape celebrates why we think Makhanda is the centre of the South African popular music universe. Given the size of the town it is staggering to hear how much good music has been made by people from here, or who have at the very least stopped in Grahamstown and Makhanda as part of their life’s journey.

This mixtape begins with “Deep Frieze” by Chris Letcher, who grew up in Grahamstown, and attended school and university here. As a student he was a member of Gramsci Beat before going on to much bigger things: with Urban Creep and as a duo with Matthew van der Want. When he finally released his long overdue debut solo album (Frieze, released in 2007) it was critically acclaimed, and “Deep Frieze” gives a good indication as to why the album was so well-received.

Larry Strelitz has been part of the Grahamstown and Makhanda music scene since the 1970s, when he was an active member of the Rhodes University Folk Club. He is a songwriter of note and has performed in various groups and as a solo artist. “Declaration of Independence” is from the early 1990s, and was one of a series of songs based on poems by almost equally longstanding Grahamstonian and local poet, Robert Berold.

Gil Hockman is one of several musicians on this mixtape who passed through Grahamstown and Makhanda as a student. He was a founder-member of The Buckfever Underground (see below) and in 2009 began performing as a solo artist. “A Long Way Home” is taken from his 2013 EP, All The Things.

Lucy Kruger was also a temporary Grahamstown sojourner while she studied Music and Drama at Rhodes University towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s. She initially performed as a solo artist but went on to form Medicine Boy and Lucy Kruger & the Lost Boys. While the former has since broken up she still performs as the latter. Like Gil Hockman, she has since relocated to Berlin, Germany. Here we have included “Half Of A Woman: from her 2019 album, Sleeping Tapes For Some Girls.

Back in the 1950s, when Grahamstown was affectionally known in some circles as ‘The Little Jazz Town” , there were several groups who provided the town with a jazz soundtrack, including the Gaiety Brothers, the Modern Keys, the Jumping Jitt Fives, the Satchmo Heights and the Merry Swingsters, who appear here with Victor Mkize & Joyce Foley performing “Hambela eBhayi”, recorded in 1953. The most influential of the musicians in this circle was Jury Mphelo. He became well known in Johannesburg with groups like Orlando Six and King Jury and His Band. Here he features under his own name performing “Isicatula Boots”, recorded in 1957.

Another prominent South African jazz musician, Zim Ngqawana, studied at Rhodes University in the mid to late 1980s before going on to the University of Natal and a hugely successful solo career. “Gobbliesation (In a Global Village)” is taken from his third solo album, Zimphonic Suites, released in 2001.

Andrew Tracey, most closely associated with the International Library of African Music, is almost as well known for the Andrew Tracy Steel Band, for many, many years a part of the Grahamstown soundscape. Here we include “Chakwi”, recorded in 2004.

Another longstanding local musician, Monwabisi Sabani, achieved a degree of national fame in the 1990s, culminating in appearances on SABC TV. “Ningathengisani” is taken from the “Mnandisa” album, recorded by Mountain Records in 1998.

Leather Omnibus were a mostly student Grahamstown band together with members from Rhini township. The band included Tune Me What’s Brett Lock and Leon Lazarus. Here we include “Neighbours” (1989) with yet another permanent local, Mini Dial, on vocals. The band was short-lived but did land a residency at Jameson’s in Johannesburg in December 1989, featuring Gramsci Beat’s Chris Letcher and Alan Finlay as guest musicians.

James Ribbans was a student at Rhodes University at a similar time to Leather Omnibus and always stole the show whenever he performed. He has continued to make music in London, where he has been based for many years. “Night Painting” (2014) performed with Zhenya Strigalev gives some idea as to what the fuss was all about.

Indicator was a band formed by Sean Hayward also formerly of the late ’90s Rhodes student band, Karmic Drink, with various collaborators. BMG Records Africa offered to sign Indicator on the strength of his album Are Their Spirits Here? , but Hayward opted to try his luck in London, but wasn’t successful. The title track is featured on this mixtape. Now living in the USA, Hayward is still active in the local music scene there. Karmic Drink came second in the 1998 Rhodes University campus ‘Battle of the Bands’ behind winner One Large Banana (see below).

Live Jimi Presley were originally a mid-1980s Grahamstown band called Vader Jakob. They changed their name to Manhole and then to Live Jimi Presley. “Song A” is taken from an album of earlier recordings released in 2016.

Photographer and musician Tim Hopwood has spent most of his life in his native Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha) but spent a few years at Rhodes University in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. He is a regular at local live venues and periodically releases new music. “Revelations” is a Hopwood song, taken from the album, Songs of Love and Death which he recorded with Joe Van Der Linden in 2007.

Madele Vermaak was a friend and musical contemporary of Lucy Kruger, and has performed as a solo artist over the years. This year she released her first solo work, A Pocket Full of Stones, from which “Love Breaks Time” is taken. Vermaak now lives in Vietnam.

Nishlyn Ramanna has a long relationship with Grahamstown and Makhanda, having spent two fairly long stints in the Rhodes University Music Department, where he currently works. “N3 East” is taken from his critically acclaimed debut album, A Thought, released in 2005.

The Nia Collective are a popular current Makhanda band, whose performances over the past decade have been keenly awaited and enjoyed. “Mind the Gap” is taken from their debut album, Acoustic Soul.

The Koeksusters were a mid-1980s Andrew Sisters-styled vocal group comprising four Rhodes University students: Pauline Higgins, Alison Love, Karin Thorne and Tessa Gawith. They never recorded studio versions of their songs although there might be some live recordings lurking around somewhere. They were an End Conscription Campaign aligned band who performed political songs. The version of “Raglan Road” featured here is a live recording taken from the ECC 25th anniversary concert in 2008. It features only Karin Thorne and Tessa Gawith because the other two members were not able to attend.

The Aeroplanes were also a group of Rhodes students from the late 1970s, early 1980s, but they only formed a band after they left Rhodes University and returned to their home city, Johannesburg. Band members included Michael Rudolf (who had featured in various Grahamstown bands while he was a student), Carl Bekker, Gary Rathbone, Robert Muirhead and James Whyle. Their only album, The Aeroplanes, was released by Shifty Records in 1986. From that album we feature the song “National Madness”, a different version of which also appears on the Shifty/End Conscription Campaign compilation, Forces Favourites (1985).

James Phillips was already a fairly established muso when he arrived at Rhodes University to study music in the early 1980s (and his stay partly overlapped with the future members of the Aeroplanes). He had already released an EP with the Springs band, Corporal Punishment. In his short-lived stay at Rhodes University (he soon left to continue his studies at Wits University) he met Lee Edwards. The two later got together to form the Cherry Faced Lurchers, whose debut album, Live at Jameson’s was also recorded by Shifty Records. “Shot Down” is taken from that album, and just as with the Aeroplanes’ “National Madness”, an alternative version of the song was included on the Shifty/End Conscription Campaign compilation, Forces Favourites (1985).

One Large Banana was a late 1990s Grahamstown band including former Leather Omnibus member, Brett Lock. Other members included Jo Edwards, John Taylor and Gareth Sweetman (son of Barry Sweetman – see below). They released the EP Don’t Feed The Animals and won the Rhodes University leg of Battle of the Bands competition in 1997, which allowed them to appear at Oppikoppi later that year. “Leave This Town” from the EP went on to chart on 5FM and Radio Algoa. The band broke up in 1999.

The Kiffness is the stage name of David Scott who studied Music and Journalism at Rhodes, where he played trumpet in a jazz band and DJed at campus bar, ‘The Union’ The Kiffness’s debut single “Where Are You Going?” (featured here) charted on 5FM in 2013.

Radio Kalahari Orkes is a band fronted by former Grahamstownian Ian Roberts, possibly more familiar to the public as an actor. They perform a sort of progressive Boeremusiek-infused folk. Roberts is a graduate of both St Andrews school and Rhodes University, where he studied Drama and Anthropology in the late 1970s. This mixtape includes the song “Kaptein, Kaptein” taken from the Grootste Treffers album, released in 2011.

Barry Sweetman has been a fixture on the Grahamstown local music scene for almost 5 decades. A blues guitarist, he has performed solo and with various local musicians – including his son Gareth. Notably, he has never released an album, but has made a few professional recordings. We feature an instrumental track called “Soul Thing”.

Toast Coetzer was a Journalism student at Rhodes in the late 1990s and was involved in local music promotion and a DJ on Rhodes Music Radio. Together with a rota of collaborations – similar to the ethos of the Kalahari Surfers – Coetzer set his poetry over a bed of ambient music as The Buckfever Underground (founded with Gil Hockman), releasing a number of albums including Jou Medemens is Dood (1999) and Teaching Afrikaans as a Foreign Language (2002). Here we feature the song “Who’s Your Memory”, taken from the former album.

Cassette was a band led by Jono Savage formerly of late 1990s Rhodes student band Karmic Drink, together with Andrew Wessels of the mid-90s campus band Just Encasement (which also featured Gareth Sweetman, later of One Large Banana). Cassette won a “Best Rock Album” SAMA in 2007 for their album Welcome Back To Earth. In 2008, they won an MTV Africa award and they have the distinction of being the first SA band to tour Japan! After Cassette, Savage became a popular radio host and Wessels a film director. Wessels also drummed for Just Encasement, the final band featured which also included Gareth Steetman (later of One Large Banana). They were a popular band on campus in the mid 1990s.

Songs

  1. Deep Frieze – Chris Letcher
  2. Declaration Of Independence – Larry Strelitz
  3. A Long Way Home – Gil Hockman
  4. Half Of A Woman – Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys
  5. Hambela Ebhayi – Merry Swingsters With Victor Mkize & Joyce Foley
  6. Isicatula Boots – Jury Mphelo
  7. Gobbliesation (In A Global Village) – Zim Ngqawana
  8. Chakwi – Andrew Tracy Steel Band
  9. Ningathengisani – Monwabisi Sabani
  10. Neighbour – Leather Omnibus
  11. Night Painting – James Ribbans & Zhenya Strigalev
  12. Are Their Spirits Here – Indicator
  13. Song A – Live Jimi Presley
  14. Revelations – Tim Hopwood And Joe Van Der Linden
  15. Love Breaks Time – Madele Vermaak
  16. N3 East – Nishlyn Ramanna
  17. Mind The Gap – Nia Collective
  18. Raglan Road – The Koeksusters
  19. National Madness – The Aeroplanes
  20. Shot Down – Cherry Faced Lurchers
  21. Leave This Town – One Large Banana
  22. Where Are You Going? – The Kiffness
  23. Kaptein – Radio Kalahari Orkes
  24. A 2 Soul Thing – Barry Sweetman
  25. Who’s Your Memory – The Buckfever Underground
  26. Welcome Back To Earth – Cassette
  27. Just Encasement – It Feels

The Best South African Music – 2021 – Vol.2

2021 was another year hindered by lockdown but many South African musicians and record companies were busy with new releases. This is the second mixtape featuring what we think are the best 30 songs of 2021. This selection is generally more relaxed than the previous one, so sit back, chill and enjoy …

There are a few musicians included on this second volume who also appeared on the first, although not in quite the same way. While previously The Kalahari Surfers performed with Lesego Rampolokeng, here they partner the IKD Band, led by Ivan Kadey, formerly of National Wake. They sing “Moonwatcher”.

Arno Carstens is the lead singer of the Springbok Nude Girls, featured in volume one, but here he appears on his own, with “Reason”, from his 7th solo album, Out Of The Blue Into The Light. Koppies have three vocalists: Victoria Hume, Chris Letcher and Matthew van der Want. Each gives the group a distinct sound. On the previous mixtape we included “# Time’s Up” with Matthew van der Want on vocals. This time Victoria Hume is on vocals, singing the haunting “Hospital Song”.

It has been over a decade since BLK JKS released the album After Robots (2009) and the EP Zol (2010) but in 2021 they were back with a new album, Abantu/ Before Humans, from which we have selected “Human Hearts”. There were also new pieces from two familiar jazz musicians – Bokani Dyer and Bheki Mseleku. Dyer’s “Ke nako” is taken from the compilation album, Indaba Is, curated by Thandi Ntuli and Siyabonga Mthembu. “Cosmic Dance” is from the posthumously released Bheki Mseleku album, Beyond The Stars. The album was recorded as a solo session in London in 2003. The session was set up by Mseleku’s musician and music scholar friend, Eugene Skeef, and it is Skeef who oversaw this release, working with Fred Bolza and Francis Gooding, co-founders of new record label, Tapestry Works.

Veteran South African guitarist Tony Cox released the album The World Went Quiet from which we feature “Bathed In Blue”, and another veteran South African musician, Wendy Oldfield released the album Salt, the title track of which is included here. Lucy Kruger and her backing band, the Lost Boys, entered the South African music scene more recently, although Kruger has now relocated to Germany. In 2019 she released the album Sleeping Tapes For Some Girls, the first in a planned trilogy of albums. In 2021 the second album, Transit Tapes (For Women Who Move Furniture Around), was released, from which we have selected the first single release, “Evening Train”. We look forward to the April 2022 release of the third album in the ‘tapes’ trilogy, Teen Tapes (For Performing Your Own Stunts). Mthata-born Nathi (Nkosinathi Mankayi) has been around for almost a decade, having won several South African Music Awards in 2015. In 2021 he released the single, “iThemba”, featured here.

Singer songwriters Dave Starke, Alice Phoebe Louw, Stanley Sibande, Gaellou, and Sarah Blake are also featured on this mixtape. Dave Starke’s “Burn After Reading” was released in December 2020 but sneaks in because we only came across it in 2021! Alice Phoebe Lou has been releasing new music at a prolific rate lately, with two new albums in 2021: Glow and Child’s Play. The title track of the latter is included here. Zambian-born Stanley Sibande released his debut album, Hopeless Dreams in August 2021. “Lavender eyes” is a single taken from the album. “Language of Kindness” is folk musician Gaëllou’s debut single, released in February 2021. Another debut single in 2021, “Precious Time” was released by Cape Town-based multi-instrumentalist and singer songwriter Sarah Blake. It sees out this mixtape.

2021 was a productive year for South African music. We have tried to capture a good glimpse of it over these two mixtapes and hope it will interest you into following some new musicians. As always, they depend on your support.

  1. Moonwatcher – Ikd Band & The Kalahari Surfers
  2. Human Hearts – Blk Jks
  3. Ke Nako – Bokani Dyer
  4. Cosmic Dance – Bheki Mseleku
  5. Bathed In Blue – Tony Cox
  6. Burn After Reading – Dave Starke
  7. Hospital Song – Koppies
  8. Evening Train – Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys
  9. Child’s Play – Alice Phoebe Lou
  10. Ithemba – Nathi
  11. Salt – Wendy Oldfield
  12. Reason – Arno Carstens
  13. Lavender Eyes – Stanley Sibande
  14. Language Of Kindness – Gaellou
  15. Precious Time – Sarah Blake