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

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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