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

Capital 604 – The Miss Parade: 1982

There were thirteen South African songs which charted on Capital Radio’s weekly Top 40 countdown in 1982 but for this week’s mixtape we recommend a further 22 songs which we think should have charted on the Top 40 countdown that year. Of these, three are performed by some the 13 artists who charted in 1982: songs by Steve Kekana & PJ Powers with Hotline, Juluka and Lesley Rae Dowling, all of whom were on a bit of an artistic roll at the time.

As with 1981 we see a wide variety of musical styles with the new wave, ska and post-punk sounds of the Asylum Kids, Corporal Punishment, Dog Detachment , Flash Harry, The Gents, Storm and The Usuals. Once again David Kramer was on song with satirical observations about South African life and there were an increasing number of African styled infusions from the likes of Harari, Joy, Juluka, Kabasa, Steve Kekana & PJ Powers with Hotline, the Malopoets, Marumo, High Masekela, Pett Frog, Sakhile and Caiphus Semenye. Ramsay MacKay contributed another quirky pop song while Lesley Rae Dowling and Mara Louw appear with more conventional pop songs, although not in any way formulaicl.

Some of these songs were playlisted on Capital Radio: “Girl Gone Solo” – Asylum Kids, “Shame on you” – Flash Harry “Nobody Nobody” – The Gents, “State of Independence” – Joy, “Can’t stop myself” – Mara Louw and “Angelina” – Caiphus Semenya. In addition, various other songs by these musicians were playlisted in 1982: “Machines” – Dog Detachment, “Mama’s Leaving” – Lesley Rae Dowling (a 1981 song), “Down At Marlene’s” – Flash Harry, “No Going Back” – Steve Kekana and “Without You” Caiphus Semenya.

Once again, huge thanks to Marq Vas for helping us source a couple of hard-to-find tracks.

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Capital 604 – The Miss Parade: 1980

As we researched and then listened to the South African music that charted on Capital Radio throughout the 1980s we were surprised at how many good South African songs did not make the station’s Top 40. We were also surprised at how few actually made the charts at all: there were years when there was on average less than one South African song per month on the charts. So our thoughts turned to a second season of mixtapes in which we offer up playlists for each year which feature songs that we think should have made the Top 40 countdown but which did not do so. This exercise is partly critical of the music management at Capital Radio: those people who decided on what music should make the weekly Top 40 Countdown, but the issue is much broader than that: sometimes musicians recorded demos but record companies were not interested in signing them, other times record companies did not market music as well as they could have done, or perhaps they didn’t release songs as singles which had the potential to be popular amongst listeners.

To be fair, several songs on this ‘Missed the charts’ mixtape were play-listed on Capital but did not make it to the Top 40: the sounds of Baxtop, Dog (later Dog Detachment), Falling Mirror, Roger Lucey, Ramsay MacKay & the Bushveld Pygmies, Letta Mbulu, Colin Shamley and Wild Youth all drifted out of the Port St Johns studio back in 1980 (although not very often). And Harari and Juluka did do very well on the countdown charts in 1980 but with only one song each. We think those songs should have been followed-up on the charts with the songs we feature here.

Also included on this mixtape are songs by musicians who, like Letta Mbulu, were living in exile at the time: Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, both of whom never made it to the Capital charts in the 1980s but who did release music worthy of any South African Top 40 chart. Local stalwarts Blondie And Papa and The Movers who both didn’t survive very long into the 1980s surprisingly also didn’t feature at all.

Fringe artists like Baxtop, Corporal Punishment, Dog, Falling Mirror, Roger Lucey, Ramsay MacKay, National Wake, Colin Shamley and Wild Youth desperately needed extended radio play to become known more widely than in the local areas where they performed and yet they did not receive that support. David Marks at Third Ear Music and Benjy Mudie at WEA were excited by what they were hearing and signed some of these musicians when nobody else would do so, but a record deal needed to be followed by radio play and then hopefully record sales and larger audiences at gigs and concerts. Unfortunately that did not happen and some of these bands imploded, without a viable musical future ahead of them. But in 1980 all the fringe musicians featured here were hopeful that they would get a break. There is an excitement and energy in the music, together with some poignant lyrics commenting on issues of the time. Sadly it wasn’t heard by a wide audience but nevertheless we are fortunate that it was written and recorded and that we can at least listen to it today …

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