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.

South African Road Songs

For many people music and road trips are synchronous. Hardly ever is a road trip portrayed in a film without accompanying music as a soundtrack to the road stretching out ahead into the unfolding landscape. Music creates travel moods which cannot be captured in any other way. It can make one want to go on a road trip or perhaps it’s the other way round: road trips require music. Certainly, for many music lovers a road trip is cause for long deliberations over what music to pack in the cubby hole or add to a digital playlist. In the days when cassette players were regular features in cars, some of us spent ages putting together mixtapes, searching for that perfect road trip soundtrack. We knew to be careful to avoid songs with lots of ultra-quiet segments which were easily drowned out by the hum of the engine, or with volume swings that would necessitate continual groping for the volume control. One could become an expert in the road trip mixtape.

Clearly, car trip mixtapes can include music about anything and which capture any mood. But for this South African road trip mixtape we have chosen twenty songs by South African musicians which specifically refer to road trips in one form or another. From Bright Blue’s reference to “Taking a trip on a freeway, trying my best to escape” to All Night Radio’s song about driving at dusk, “with my windows open wide, lights are getting brighter as the sun is going down. There’s two more hours until I stop.”

Perhaps the song which most captures the spirit of road trips on this mixtape is “Lifetime On The Road” by Josie Field and Laurie Levine. These two singer songwriters formed a duo and promoted their debut and subsequent album by embarking on several road trip tours, travelling from town to town, day after day. The song captures the freedom of the road: “Rolled down the window, turned on the radio”, but at the same it expresses the drudgery of too much time on the road, travelling from gig to gig: “Left a town I barely know … so many places I’ll never call my own. A lifetime on the road.”

The tv show Going Nowhere Slowly romanticised the South African road trip, as the presenters journeyed from place to place, travelling down tar roads and gravel tracks, often to the accompaniment of music. It is therefore fitting that two songs from that programme are featured here: Liesl Graham’s “All Roads” and Seven Day Story’s “Going Nowhere Slowly” both of which capture the feeling of travelling on the road, music in our ears.

Many of the songs featured here use travel and the road as metaphors for aspects of our journey through life. Juluka often sang in metaphors and in this instance Johnny Clegg sings, “Spirit is the journey, body is the bus, I am the driver from dust to dust … Across this distance, this divide, I will be with you forever.” In “The Road Is Much Longer” Roger Lucey also uses metaphors to express his desire to cross the distance between himself and a loved one, although in this instance he is on the side of the road, trying to thumb a ride: “And now the night’s fallen and I’m nearer to home. And I hear you calling are you feeling alone? Well it’s up and down highways always returning.” The Gereformeerde Blues Band and Big Sky also sing about hitchhiking along the road while the unfortunate character in David Kramer’s “Matchbox Full of Diamonds” has to settle for walking along the road for hours, “under a sky that never cries”, yet he is nevertheless “happy as a hotel in the springtime, when the flowers bloom again.”

Also featured on this mixtape are Jack Hammer’s “Stay At The Wheel”, “Automobile” by the Blues Broers, Baxtop’s “Golden Highway”, Falling Mirror’s “Highway Blues”, “Rearview Mirror Blues” by the Radio Rats, McCully Workshop’s “Fast Car”, “Seat By The Window” by John Kongos, “Kelly’s Song” by Bobby Angel, Johnny Clegg’s “Ride In Your Car” and “Padkos” by Tony Cox, which is his acknowledgment of that very South African road trip tradition: of packing or stopping to buy food for the road.

If you can’t listen to this mixtape in your car we hope you can at least grab some padkos, sit back, imagine the road ahead of you and escape into the music.

  1. Window On The World – Bright Blue
  2. Hopetown 1975 (Stolen Gasoline) – All Night Radio
  3. Stay At The Wheel – Jack Hammer
  4. Ry – Gereformeerde Blues Band
  5. Hitch-Hike – Big Sky
  6. Automobile – Blues Broers
  7. Golden Highway – Baxtop
  8. Highway Blues – Falling Mirror
  9. Rearview Mirror Blues – Radio Rats
  10. Fast Car – Mccully Workshop
  11. Seat By The Window – John Kongos
  12. Spirit Is The Journey – Juluka
  13. Padkos – Tony Cox
  14. Life Time On The Road – Josie Field & Laurie Levine
  15. Kelly’s Song – Bobby Angel
  16. The Road Is Much Longer – Roger Lucey
  17. Ride In Your Car – Johnny Clegg
  18. All Roads – Liesl Graham
  19. Matchbox Full Of Diamonds – David Kramer
  20. Going Nowhere Slowly – One Day Remains

Censorship – Watch Your Mouth on the SABC

There were two reasons relating to SABC apartheid-era language censorship. First, the apartheid government’s separate development policy affected radio broadcast. There was to be no mixing of languages in songs played on the SABC. The SABC was divided into numerous stations which each catered for a particular language group. For example, there was an English service, an Afrikaans service and seven Radio Bantu stations, each catering for an ‘indigenous bantu’ language. Even the bilingual (English/Afrikaans) Springbok Radio did not allow the mixing of English and Afrikaans in songs. Second, songs were banned if they included what the censorship committee regarded as swear words, or more broadly, obscene language.

On this mixtape songs banned (at least in part) because of the mixing of languages were: “Uhuru” by Sankomota, “Woza Friday” by Juluka, “Boy Van Die Suburbs” and “Bokkie Bokkie” by David Kramer. In all four instances the songs included the sort of phrasing which South Africans used when talking to each other, throwing in a word or more of a different language to express themselves using the nuances of the different languages they were exposed to. But this everyday use of language fell on the monolingual ears of the censors and all were banned from airplay at the time of their release (there was a relaxing of this form of censorship in the mid-to-late 1980s).

The rest of the songs on the mixtape were banned from SABC broadcast because they included obscene language. In some of the cases here there were further reasons for being prohibited from airplay, for example “Paranoia In Parow-Noord” by Koos Kombuis which was banned for using obscene Afrikaans words such as “Doos” and “Fok” but was also banned for drug reference (“Ek rook zol”) and blasphemy (“Maar dank god”).

“Energie” by the Gereformeerde Blues Band included the line “Selfs al kak jy weens die rente” (“Even though you’re shitting yourself over the rent”). Another naughty word which led to songs being banned from airplay was “ass”, as in “All I wanna do is sit on my ass” in Queen’s “Man On The Prowl”, “And you better get your ass out the door” in Billy Joel’s “Ain’t No Crime” and “I’d say we’ve kicked some ass” in “Kickstart My Heart” by Motley Crue. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts also used the word ‘ass’ in “Someday” with the line “‘I’m gonna spit in your face an’ laugh at your ass” but pushed the barrier much too far by also including the line, “listen to me you son of a bitch”. Another word to be exorcised from South African radio was ‘shit’, included in Joe Jackson’s ‘Friday” (“You’ll take any shit”), Prince’s “Housequake” (“My lord (Housequake); My lord (Housequake); Bullshit”), Monty Python’s “ Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” (Life’s a piece of shit when you look at it”), “Streetwise” by Bros (“You need the shit like a latest trend”) and “Private Life” by Grace Jones (“Attachment to obligation, through guilt and regret, shit that’s so wet”).

If fairly tame words like ‘ass’ and ‘shit’ upset the SABC censors, then more severe words like ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ must have sent shudders through the boardroom table and had the censors scrambling for their heart tablets and crucifixes. “F.R.C.” (Fat Rich Cunts) by the Screaming Jets was banned because of the word ‘cunt’ while several songs were banned for uttering some or other variation of the word ‘fuck’: “Had It With You” by the Rolling Stones (“And I love you dirty fucker’”), “The Kiss” by the Cure (“Get your fucking voice out of my head”), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Crush” (“I can’t stand this fucking rain”) and Soundgarden’s “Big Dumb Sex” with a chorus that goes “I’m gonna fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you, fuck you”.

Reflecting on apartheid state broadcast censorship through the lens of the examples provided in this mixtape, many musicians would seemingly have concluded that the most obscene four letter word was undoubtedly ‘SABC”.

Capital 604 – The Miss Parade: 1989

The eighties ended with a wide variety of South African music making the Capital Radio Top 40 Countdown (14 songs released in 1989 made the charts) and even more which did not chart. Of the songs we suggest should have charted, three are by artists who did make the charts but who had other songs worthy of radio play: David Kramer, Edi Niederlander and Savuka.

In a market where so many South African musicians packed in their musical ambitions after a single or an album or two it was reassuring to see so many musicians who were still releasing music who had been there at the beginning of the 1980s: Johnny Clegg (as part of Juluka), Dog Detachment (as Dog), Sipho Gumede (as a member of Spirits Rejoice and then with Sakhile), David Kramer, Sipho Mabuse (as a member of Harari), Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Sipho Mchunu (as part of Juluka) and Tim Parr (as a member of Baxtop and then with Ella Mental) all released significant music which either charted on Capital Radio in 1980 or which curiously missed out. There were also others who were performing in 1980 who released music in 1989: members of the African Jazz Pioneers, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and Edi Niederlander.

Shifty Records were still releasing poignant music for the times: Johannes Kerkorrel’s Gereformeerde Blues Band and Koos Kombuis, main attractions of the Voelvry Tour, as well as the Kalahari Surfers, Noise Khanyile & the Jo’Burg City Stars and Winston’s Jive Mix Up. There were also good tunes from Cape Town-based musicians, Amampondo and Niki Daly.

We recognise that even in our missed mixed tapes we have ironically missed other songs from the 1980s which you might think were worthy of airplay at the time. Some of these have already been pointed out to us. If you have noticed any songs which have been missed, either by Capital Radio or on Mixedtapes.ZA please leave your suggestions in the comments section and we will do out best to include them in next week’s double missed mixtape!

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Capital 604 – The Miss Parade: 1986

There were just nine South African songs on the Capital Radio Top 40 in 1986, which is remarkable given the wide array of good South African music recorded and released that year. In particular the independent label, Shifty Records, was continuing to pick up on a variety of worthwhile music which nobody else was prepared to record.

Indeed, the idea behind Shifty was to document (by recording) music that reflected South African life – both musically and lyrically – and we have included a variety of their release on the 1986 mixtape: the Cherry Faced Lurchers, Dread Warriors, the Genuines, Isja, the Kalahari Surfers, Noise Khanyile, Mapantsula, Mzwakhe Mbuli, Simba Morri and Nude Red all deserved to be heard by a wider audience. But to Shifty’s and the artists’ frustration, radio stations were not interested. However, it ought to be noted that the Cherry Faced Lurchers (The Other White Album) and the Dread Warriors albums were recorded but not released at the time. We think they most definitely should have been.

Three songs included here – “Don’t Dance”- Kalahari Surfers, “Pambere” – Mapantsula and “Too Much Resistance”- Nude Red – are taken from the anti-conscription Forces Favourites compilation album which Shifty brought out in partnership with the End Conscription Campaign. The album was actually released in December 1985 but released internationally (through Rounder Records) in 1986, which is the year we went with for the mixtapes. In the mid-1980s South Africa was in a state of civil war (and emergency) and many of Shifty’s artists reflected this reality through their music. In fact, Mzwakhe Mbuli’s Change is Pain album was banned by the apartheid government’s Directorate of Publications.

London-based Kintone’s single ‘State of Emergency’ also captured the turbulent times in South Africa, as to a lesser extent did Stimela’s “Who’s Fooling Who”, David Kramer’s “Dry Wine” and (by now also London-based) eVoid’s “Sgt. Major”, a song which could easily have fitted on the Forces Favourites compilation. 1986 also saw the first release from Bayete, who would soon be recording and performing politically astute songs of their own. Other politically relevant new music in 1986 came from Edi Niederlander, who had been performing on the folk scene for years, and Johnny Clegg’s new band, Savuka.

1986 saw the introduction of Keith Berel’s new band, Carte Blanche, Jonathan Handley’s new band, Titus Groan, and Zasha. We also saw the return of Lesley Rae Dowling, Falling Mirror, Steve Kekana, Sipho Mabuse and Zia. All in all a wide and enjoyable spectrum of new music.

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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: 1981

There was plenty of good South African music in 1981. 14 South African songs made the Capital Top 40 countdown and we think there are 21 more songs which should have made the cut. There was also a healthy variety of musical styles, from post-punk, ska, reggae and new wave to folk, pop, rock, funk and soul, very often with a particular South African flavour such as Juluka’s Zulu folk-rock, David Kramer’s Western Cape klopse folk and the township funk-soul sounds of Harari, Kabasa and the Movers.

1981 saw a continuation of the resurgence of original South African music with the alternative scene rooted in punk, ska and new wave continuing to grow. The Asylum Kids, National Wake, Flash Harry, the Lancaster Band and the Usuals had each been gaining a following on the live music scene and now emerged from the studio with songs worthy of radio play. Mara Louw, who had appeared in musicals for years, made her debut solo recording, as did David Kramer, who brought out the album Bakgat after gaining a strong following on the folk circuit, particularly in the Western Cape. The Radio Rats re-appeared with “Erase” after the success of their 1978 hit “ZX Dan” (see Youtube for the video as it appeared on SABC at the time), Falling Mirror followed up 1980’s “Neutron Bop” with “The Crippled Messiah” and Bite released “Loud Radio” after previous singles had not received much attention. There were also songs from a variety of established performers from Harari, Steve Kekana and John Kongos to the Julian Laxton Band, Marumo, the Movers and Neville Nash. And there were interesting new experiments from the Pop Guns (a minor super group comprising members of the Radio Rats, the Chauffeurs and the Safari Suits) and Soweto Soul Orchestra (a studio project put together by Sipho Mabuse).

Several of these songs were playlisted on Capital Radio but did not make the Top 40 countdown: “Schoolboy” – Asylum Kids, “Loud Radio” – Bite, “Modern Science” – Lancaster Band, “Make A Stand For Love” – Julian Laxton Band, “Crippled Messiah” – Falling Mirror, “Shine On (Brightly)” – Steve Kekana, “I’m Dreaming” – John Kongos and “Rules And Regulations” – The Usuals. Furthermore, some of these musicians were playlisted with songs not featured here: Flash Harry (“Hot blood”), National Wake (“Supaman” and “Bolena”), Harari (“Liven up”) and Neville Nash (“Wind Me Up”).

Meanwhile over at SABC’s Radio 5 some of these songs were prohibited from airplay. The entire Bakgat album by David Kramer was not allowed to be played for various reasons including the way he mixed languages (which went against the SABC’s apartheid policy of cultural purity), his use of inappropriate language (slang and obscenities) and his mild criticism of the apartheid establishment. Flash Harry’s satirical protest song, “No Football”, was banned from airplay because it was viewed as blasphemous, indicating that more people watch football “than go to church”. “Crippled Messiah” by Falling Mirror was also rejected because the SABC censors thought it was blasphemous. The Asylum Kids’ “Schoolboy” was also not played on SABC, because it was seen to encourage a rebellious attitude towards school. The SABC were not yet playing Juluka because they mixed languages in their songs and they sometimes took on political themes critical of the government, for example in “African Sky Blue” they note that “Soon a new day will be born” and that “The warrior’s now a worker and his war is underground”. In 1981 Radio 5 was not playing reggae and so the Usuals and National Wake were not considered acceptable. This was especially true of National Wake given their political edge, with lyrics like “Wake up nation, wake up, ‘cause this might be your very last chance, we’re bubbling up in the new time space with the new time people” (“Wake Of The Nation”).

Fortunately some of these songs were heard on South African airwaves thanks to Capital Radio, but most of all we have the musicians and record companies to thank, for writing and recording these songs, regardless of how the broadcasters would react.

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Capital 604 – 1989

We end the Capital Countdowns of the 1980s with a bumper year of South African hits, with no fewer than eight songs making the top 5, four of which went all the way to number 1. In order to neatly round up the theme of South African music from the 1980s charting on the Capital countdown, this week’s playlist includes three songs which entered the Capital Countdown in January 1990 but which were released in 1989.

As we look back on the South African artists who charted on the Capital Top 40 Countdown in the 1980s we don’t see any groups who were around at the beginning of the decade but there were several prominent musicians from the 1970s and early 1980s who charted in 1989: Johnny Clegg began the decade on the very first Capital Top 40 performing “Africa” with Juluka and he was there yet again on the final countdown of the decade, this time with his subsequent group Savuka singing “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World”.

Trevor Rabin, who reached great heights locally with Rabbitt and later internationally with Yes, was still charting in 1989, this time as a solo artists with two singles from his Can’t Look Back album. Neill Solomon began the 1980s with his Uptown Rhythm Dogs, a band that did not survive very long into the decade but he was back in the late 1980s with the Passengers, who charted in 1989 with “Honeytown”. Lucky Dube released albums throughout the 1980s and finally charted on the Capital countdown in 1989 with two songs. Another musician who had been around throughout the 1980s (in fact from the early 1970s), Edi Niederlander, finally made it on to the Capital Countdown with “Dance to Me” from her second album. And David Kramer, who, like Edi Niederlander, was a popular musician on the 1970s folk scene and who had charted on Capital in 1986 was back again with “Matchbox Full of Diamonds”.

As indicated, four South African songs made it all the way to number one where they all spent one week: “Quick, quick” by MarcAlex , “Your Kind” by Pongolo, “Be Bop Pop” by The Spectres, and “Special Star” by Mango Groove (who also reached number 3 – for two weeks – with “Hellfire”).

“Together As One by Lucky Dube spent two weeks at number 2 but he only reached number 12 with his follow-up single, “Prisoner”. “It’s Only Me” by Rush Hour also peaked at number 2. Savuka’s “Cruel, crazy, beautiful world” peaked at number 5 while “Something To Hold On To” – Trevor Rabin reached number 6 and “Honeytown” by The Passengers reached number 8.

Edi Niederlander’s “Dance To Me”, David Kramer’s “Matchbox Full of Diamonds” and Trevor Rabin’s “Sorrow (Your Heart)” all failed to reach the Top 20.

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Capital 604 – 1986

The Info Song (as it was referred to) created strong division in South African musical circles. The government decided to distract people from its politically-motivated deaths, detentions and torture with a song encouraging everyone to get on and work together. To encourage musicians to take part they offered them tempting sums of money. The more politically enlightened musicians refused to take part and warned others not to do so, but there were those who ignored those warnings and got behind the government’s efforts. Musicians from both sides of the divide charted on Capital in 1986: Lesley Rae Dowling and Jonathan Selby (lead vocalist for Petit Cheval) took part, the rest did not.

Taking part was not without its negative consequences. Steve Kekana’s house was burnt down and one of his friends staying there at the time was burnt to death. Others were simply shunned by the musical fraternity. It created divisions within some bands such as Petit Cheval. Selby explained that “there were artists like Steve Kekana, Papa and Blondie and these guys were part of the whole scene, so it didn’t really bother me that much and I really wasn’t tuned into what was going on in the townships, I really wasn’t tuned into the kind of oppression and suppression that was going on. I was raised on Springbok Radio. I was brought up in a protected, middle class Jewish environment. I was more interested in what was going on overseas and trends overseas, that sort of thing … My bent in life at that stage was really exploring myself, my ego, everything was a huge self-centred, I believe a huge self-centred sort of hedonistic journey.” Petit Cheval drummer Danny De Wet noted that Selby’s participation “basically split the band”.

Wendy Oldfield of Sweatband nearly took part but pulled out in the eleventh hour. As she explained:

“When I pulled out I really got a lot of flak from that side. There was a lot of pressure, like ‘Stop, don’t let those lefties influence you’ from that side. And then I had the lefties saying ‘Don’t be bloody mad’. And I was kind of stuck in the middle looking for advice.”

Another of the musicians to chart on Capital in 1986, David Kramer, went further than refusing to take part in the song. He was a witty and insightful satirical singer songwriter but the critique of society within his message was often not detected by a generally conservative audience. Kramer explained:

“I got to a point where I felt quite trapped by my popularity, and by the expectations of what people thought I was going to do and the potential for writing, moving more and more into the ra-ra-ra type of South African song. And I suppose at that point I was becoming quite disillusioned with people misinterpreting what I really was trying to do … and also I got involved with the Volkswagen commercials and I suppose people started seeing me much more as just a comedian. You know, a funny little guy … and I became more and more one-dimensional. And what I was saying there was that I felt people weren’t really listening. And I suppose the edge that I had in the early years – which was very powerful for me – I’d lost that … it was the time of the State of Emergency and the country was really in a bad, bad way – and suddenly I looked at myself and I didn’t like what I saw. This happy-go-lucky guy making everybody feel good, and I decided to try and get back to where I had started. And that’s what led me back to doing Baboon Dogs.”

The Baboon Dogs album included politically overt songs such as a cover of Roger Lucey’s “Dry Wine” and the song which charted on Capital, “Going Away’ which questioned people’s commitment to South Africa. In the process Kramer lost a lot of his conservative fan base but at least this was the first of his songs to chart on Capital.

Of the South African songs that charted on Capital in 1986, “This Boy” by Sweatband reached number 5, “Going Away” by David Kramer reached number 7, “Love Is Knocking” by Petit Cheval,which featured a guest vocal by Lesley Rae Dowling, who also charted this year, reached number 8, where it spent two weeks, and “We Are Growing” by Margret Singana reached number 20. The rest of the songs did not make the top 20.

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