South African Women Singers Volume 1

In the last mixtape we commemorated Women’s Day by selecting a variety of songs which focused on women and issues affecting women in South Africa. While working on that selection we thought it would be fitting to compile a further mixtape which features some of the women’s voices which have formed part of the South African soundscape since the 1950s. Our initial aim was to select songs by twenty women singers but we soon realised that our task would be easier if we extended our latitude and made way for two mixtapes, rather than one. So this mixtape features the first 20 South African women singers in this two-tape series.

Songs chosen do not follow any particular theme, rather we chose singers and then selected songs by those singers which we think showcase their voices. We include some early veterans of the South African popular music scene (Miriam Makeba, Nancy Jacobs, and Letta Mbulu) and some who appeared on the music scene in the 1970s and 1980s (Margaret Singana, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Edi Niederlander, Laurika Rauch, Rene Veldsman – of Via Afrika, Lesley Rae Dowling, Brenda Fassie, Tara Robb – of The Spectres, Jennifer Ferguson, Heather Mac – of Ella Mental and Busi Mhlongo).

We also feature several more recent singers, who released their first recordings in the 21st Century: Simphiwe Dana, Karen Zoid, Zolani Mahola – of Freshlyground, Shannon Hope, Tailor (Anna Wolf) and Julia Church.

Enjoy your weekend listening and take time to find out more about those singers on this mixtape who you have not previously heard or heard of. There are some interesting stories to be discovered …

  1. Babhemu – Busi Mhlongo
  2. Isiphiwo Sam – Margaret Singana
  3. Mahlalela – Letta Mbulu
  4. Ndiredi – Simphiwe Dana
  5. Windsong – Sathima Bea Benjamin
  6. Meadowlands – Nancy Jacobs & Her Sisters
  7. Pata Pata– Miriam Makeba
  8. Weekend Special – Brenda & the Big Dudes
  9. Hey Boy – Via Afrika
  10. (See Yourself) Clowns – Ella Mental
  11. Teddy Bear – The Spectres
  12. Aeroplane Jane – Karen Zoid
  13. I’d like – Freshlyground
  14. Shiloh – Julia Church
  15. Ancient Dust – Edi Niederlander
  16. Suburban Hum – Jennifer Ferguson
  17. The Spaniard – Lesley Rae Dowling
  18. Kinders Van Die Wind – Laurika Rauch
  19. Daylight – Shannon Hope
  20. Where The Boys Are – Tailor

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.

Capital 604 – The Miss Parade: 1983

1983 was the year in which the fewest South African songs charted on the Capital Radio Top 40 countdown: only eight songs made it. Yet this week’s playlist reveals that there were many more chart worthy songs. As per usual, there artists who charted but who had further songs that could have been hits, for example eVoid, Juluka and Via Afrika. But there were several others who inexplicably did not chart at all, such as Brenda and the Big Dudes (with “Weekend Special”), Steve Kekana (with “Night Boot Control”), Sipho Mabuse (with “Rise”) and Stimela (with “I Hate Telling A Lie”).

While Juluka had been experimenting with a fusion between western and South African musical styles for several years and Hotline had begun to do so in 1982, 1983 saw such musical hybridity becoming more of a trend than something unusual, especially with the very noticeable arrival of debut albums from eVoid and Via Afrika. In addition, The Dread Warriors and Splash provided a South African influenced reggae sound while The Boyoyo Boys, Steve Kekana, Sipho Mabuse, Letta Mbulu, The Soul Brothers and Stimela performed pop songs based in neo-traditional township forms. Dog Detachment and What Colours released songs influenced by the UK new wave scene and Sue Charlton, Lesley Rae Dowling and The Insisters released more mainstream pop songs. James Phillips, in his Bernoldus Niemand guise, continued the satirical tradition of the likes of Jeremy Taylor and David Kramer by using his voice as a vocal costume, critiquing society from the perspective of what Randy Newman referred to as an untrustworthy narrator.

1983 was also the year in which two members of Splash – Jose Charles and Rufus Radebe – were sentenced to effective four-year prison terms (later reduced to 17 months) for singing ‘revolutionary songs’ at a Wits Free People’s Concert. One of the songs was a cover of Steel Pulse’s “A Tribute to Martyrs”, which included references to Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela. They were charged with promoting violence and supporting the ANC, even though they argued in their defence that they were Rastafarians and as such were anti-violence.

Indeed, it was difficult to perform as a South African musician with left-leaning sympathies in South Africa. Pete Spong of the Dread Warriors noted that it was difficult for a band with a white and black members to travel together, especially when it came to arranging travel documents (including to neighbouring countries). Sipho Mabuse and Johnny Clegg both spoke about being stopped at road blocks and interrogated because of whites and blacks travelling together while touring, with Harari and Juluka respectively (Harari has a white woman manager who travelled with the group).

All the artist here have their stories about how difficult it was to be heard at the time. Fortunately we can give them a listen now.

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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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