Songs About South African Places

To mark Heritage Day we have chosen a playlist of songs by South African musicians about South African places. Something homely to cuddle up with, or if you’re feeling active, to jive to. There are far more songs about South African places than we can fit on one mixtape, but we hope this is a good representation of songs and places. It’s a starting point: there will be more to come in this series where music and places meet.

There are all sorts of reasons someone could write and perform a song about a place. Often it is out of fondness, sometimes out of loathing or frustration, or simply because it is where one happens to be when a moment of song-writing inspiration hits. And at times it could be ironic, out of both loathing and attraction, where one isn’t entirely sure which it is.

The twenty songs on this mixtape begin in Cape Town, with Sabenza’s “CT Blues” and then Dollar Brand’s iconic “Mannenberg”, both of which feature Basil Coetzee. We end our stay in the Western Cape with Hotep Idris Galeta’s “Cape Town Before Midnight” before travelling north east along the coast to “Ebhayi”, as celebrated by Ami Faku. Then it is to the KwaZulu-Natal coast for Trans.Sky’s song about “Durban Poison” and Urban Creep’s “Sea Level”, both of those songs feature Brendan Jury and both are somewhat ambivalent about Durban, as many residents are. In 1977 Rabbitt were asked to write the theme tune for a new tv programme – The Dingleys – about a bookshop in Pietermaritzburg. Although the shop is fictional, Rabbitt nevertheless captured various aspects of Pietermaritzburg which remind us of the city at that time.

Next we move up to the Gauteng region for the remainder of the mixtape, starting with the Radio Rats’ celebration of Springs in “East Rand Town Called Springs” and then onto a series of Soweto-themed songs: “Orlando” by Miriam Makeba & the Skylarks, “Soweto Inn” by the Movers, Sipho Mabuse’s “Jive Soweto” and Tribe After Tribe’s “Suburb In The South”. Just a short drive from Soweto is the southern suburb of Rosettenville to which Van der Want/Letcher pay homage in the satirical “Rosettenville Blues”. The Julian Laxton Band contribute the offbeat “Johannesburg” and the Gereformeerde Blues Band pay tribute to Hillbrow with a classic Voëlvry song of that name. Then on to “Living In Yeoville” by the Aeroplanes, a song which will tweak on the heartstrings of lefties who lived in Yeoville in the 1980s and 1990s.

Lesego Rampolokeng & the Kalahari Surfers bring us back down to earth with “Johannesburg”, a city where dreams come to die. We move north east with Moses Molelekwa’s “Spirit Of Tembisa” and further north east again with Vusi Mahlasela’s tribute to Mamelodi, “Hello Mams”. James Phillips as Bernoldus Niemand ends things with his ironic tribute to Pretoria (as it was then), “Snor City”, about the growth of hair above the lip of every white man who passed him by on the street. As he lamented, the longer he waited, the more his hope diminishes.

Thanks to South African musicians for writing and performing songs that have become the soundtrack of our lives, and for those moments, celebrated on this mixtape, when creativity captures this place we come from.

  1. CT Blues – Sabenza
  2. Mannenberg – Dollar Brand
  3. Cape Town After Midnight – Hotep Idris Galeta
  4. Ebhayi – Ami Faku
  5. Durban Poison – Trans.Sky
  6. Sea Level – Urban Creep
  7. Dingley’s Bookshop – Rabbitt
  8. East Rand Town Called Springs – Radio Rats
  9. Orlando – Miriam Makeba & the Skylarks
  10. Soweto Inn – The Movers
  11. Jive Soweto – Sipho Mabuse
  12. Suburb in the South – Tribe After Tribe
  13. Rosettenville blues – Van der Want/Letcher
  14. Johannesburg – Julian Laxton Band
  15. Hillbrow – Gereformeerde Blues Band
  16. Living in Yeoville – The Aeroplanes
  17. Johannesburg – Lesego Rampolokeng & the Kalahari Surfers
  18. Spirit of Tembisa – Moses Molelekwa
  19. Hello Mams – Vusi Mahlasela
  20. Snor City – Bernoldus Niemand

Censorship – To Get Played On The SABC, Watch What You Say

So far the censorship series has explored how the apartheid state’s Directorate of Publications and South African Broadcasting Corporation censored music in South Africa. This mixtape considers how state censorship in turn placed pressure on record companies and artists to regulate music in the form of self-censorship.

Immense pressure was placed on record companies to ensure that albums weren’t controversial. Failure to do so was likely to result in music either being banned outright by the Directorate and/or not receiving airplay on the SABC and independent radio stations. The buying public would be unlikely to hear the music, almost definitely resulting in financial loss for the record companies. As a consequence of the maze of formal censorship to be negotiated, record companies (especially the majors) were cautious about what they would record and, in turn, placed pressure on musicians to tone down their lyrics if they wanted their music recorded and released.

All the examples on this mixtape are of self-censorship in advance of government or SABC intervention. So we won’t be including instances such as songs left off an album after the album was banned by the Directorate of Publications in a censored re-release of the album, such as happened with Peter Tosh’s Equal Rights album after it was banned because of the song “Apartheid”. CBS then re-released the album without the banned track.

This mixtape begins with a bizarre example of self-censorship, where the South African distributor, Atlantic Recording Corporation, decided that the line “fuck a star” from the Rolling Stones’ chorus for “Star Star” (itself a censored title on the original UK release) could likely lead the album to be banned by the Directorate of Publications. As a compromise they decided to obscure the word ‘fuck’ by adding a drumbeat every time ‘fuck’ was uttered. The result was bizarre , as you can hear. Likewise, when the record company wanted to release Don Gibson’s Sensual Woman album they were concerned that the Directorate of Publications would ban the album because of the word ‘sensual’ (this was the early 1970s after all). They got Gibson to re-record the title track replacing ‘sensual woman’ with ‘beautiful woman’ and they also changed the album title accordingly.

In the case of Roger Lucey’s debut album, The Road is Much Longer, 3rd Ear Music received legal advice to the effect that, in terms of security legislation, some of the statements on the album could lead to long-term prison sentences and/or heavy fines for both Roger Lucey and Dave Marks of 3rd Ear Music. As a result two versions of the album were released. One of two omissions on the commercial release of the album was a verse of “You Only Need Say Nothing”:

There’s teargas at the funeral
Of a boy gunned down by cops
They say there’s too many mourners
And this is where it stops
Then they bring on the boots and the batons
And the blood runs fear and cold
And the moral of the story
Is to do what you are told

In several instances a song was simply omitted from an album in order to avoid possible censorship. In the mid-1960s Louis Armstrong’s “You are woman, I am man” was left off the South African release of his Hello Dolly album, presumably because of the line “You are woman, I am man. Let’s kiss”. For good measure, the first South African pressing also removed Louis Armstrong’s photograph from the album cover, presumably to hide the fact that he was black. This would have been more for sales than censorship reasons, London Records being afraid that (musically ignorant) racist whites would not buy the album if they knew the singer was black.

Jose Feliciano begins his 1969 Alive O album, with a short guitar rendition of “God Save the Queen” which was omitted from the South African release. Teal Record Company was clearly concerned that the British national anthem would irk the South African authorities, just years after the country’s departure from the British Commonwealth. In the 1980s EMI omitted “Burden of Shame” from UB40’s Signing Off album. The song criticized Britain’s supportive role of the apartheid government. In further examples, the songs “Tribute to Steve Biko” by Tapper Zukie and “South African Enlistment” by the Abyssinians were left off the South African releases of the Frontline II and Frontline III reggae compilations respectively. Both song expressed anti-apartheid attitudes. And “Mandela” was one of two songs which Mountain Records omitted from Aaron Davis’ Neon Bible album.

Anticipating problems at the SABC over Mi-Sex’s name, CBS released the group’s “Computer Games” single under the name ‘M.S.’ However, given that the Directorate was unlikely to ban an album on the basis of Mi-Sex’s name, the album Graffiti Crimes was released under the band’s full name. Culture Club’s “The Church of the Poison Mind” was released as a single entitled “Poison Mind” out of concern that the SABC censors would view the original title as blasphemous. When Santana’s Freedom album was released in South Africa the instrumental song “Mandela” was changed to “Mandel” to avoid using the name of South Africa’s most famous political prisoner.

Several South African musicians experienced record company pressure to censor their albums. For example, Neil Solomon, whose debut album The Occupant was released by WEA, changed the song “Strangler” to “Stranger” to improve the song’s chances of radio play. Juluka recorded their first album, Universal Men, in 1979, a few months before Zimbabwe’s independence. When recording the song “Sky People”, the line “The drums of Zimbabwe speak” was changed it to ‘The drums of Zambezi speak’ for fear that the reference to changes in Zimbabwe rolling into South Africa was too overt.

Rabbitt recorded a cover version of Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” for airplay, and changed the line “got him by the balls” to “got him by the horns”. Another Jo’burg Records band, the Radio Rats, were persuaded to change their song “Fucking About in the Dungeons All Day” to “Mucking About in the Dungeons All Day” in order to avoid censorship. Freedom’s Children were persuaded to change the name of the song “The Kid He Came From Nazareth” to the absurd “The Kid He Came From Hazareth” because Parlophone feared censorial repercussions for blasphemous reasons.

Some musicians avoided overt political references by writing symbolically about South African politics. One of the most famous examples was a play on wording by Chicco (Sello Twala) on his single “We miss you Manelow”, a slightly disguised reference to Nelson Mandela which was understood by many listeners.

Joseph Shabalala claimed to have written symbolic songs about the South African political situation. For example, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s 1973 song “Nomathemba”, a song about a girl who Shabalala described as a symbol of hope. Shabalala said he was actually referring to South Africa though: that people should not lose hope and come together.
Equally cryptic was Steve Kekana’s song “The Bushman” about a hunter-gatherer who taught himself to shoot with a bow and arrow:

He lives under a tree
Hides himself and sleeps
His mind is tuned to be aware of danger
He never makes mistakes
Survival is his way
At nights he plays a song an a wooden kalimba
Wo ho the bushman
He fights like a man should do
He strives like a man should do…

These sentiments complied with apartheid notions of blacks as primitive and the song was played on SABC. However, Kekana explained that he wasn’t referring to a real “bushman” but rather to ANC guerrillas.

Nevertheless, the more cryptic the symbolism was, the less likely listeners were to realize there was anything resistant about the song at all, in which case, in terms of political sentiments, the song might as well have been left off the album altogether. The most troublesome aspect of formal censorship then, is the way censors’ actions begin to mess with artists’ creativity, so that they begin to police their own output. When this happens, censors have realized their ultimate goal.

  1. Star Star – Rolling Stones
  2. Mucking Around The Dungeons – Radio Rats
  3. Locomotive Breath – Rabbitt
  4. The Kid He Came From Hazareth – Freedom’s Children
  5. The Stranger – Neill Solomon 
  6. Sky People – Juluka 
  7. South African Enlistment – The Abyssinians 
  8. Tribute To Steve Biko – Taper Zukie
  9. Burden Of Shame – UB40
  10. The Bushman – Steve Kekana
  11. We Miss You Manelow – Chicco
  12. Church Of The Poison Mind – Culture Club
  13. Computer Games – Mi Sex
  14. Mandela – Santana
  15. Mandela – Aaron Davis
  16. You Are Woman, I Am Man – Louis Armstrong
  17. Nomathemba – Ladysmith Black Mambazo
  18. You Only Need Say Nothing – Roger Lucey
  19. Beautiful Woman – Don Gibson
  20. God Save The Queen – Jose Feliciano