In The Spirit Of Mixtapes 1: SA In The 2000s

We have been putting together mixtape selections with various themes for over two years, but this is our first mixtape in which one of us has put together a selection of songs in the spirit of the old cassette mixtape: put together for various reasons but most often it was a work of creative passion. Mike Glennon of the School of Creative Arts and Media suggests that the “audio cassette and recordable cassette player allowed amateurs, enthusiasts and consumers to similarly capture, share and reconfigure recorded sound, thus inserting themselves into the production process.” In other words, we used to contemplate all the music we had at hand, and then select just a small assortment of those songs and record them in the order which we chose. In that exciting or special moment that selection of songs, in that particular order, became part of our identities.

Sometimes we made mixtapes for ourselves to play on a car journey or at a party, and sometimes we made them for somebody special. Sometimes the tape had a theme, such as songs with meaningfully chosen lyrics for a romantic partner (or optimistically chosen to woo a potential partner) or sometimes it was a selection of songs recorded from someone else’s record collection just so that we could take them home with us to listen to. I remember two or three occasions when I made mixtapes from records belonging to people for whom I was housesitting. Because, of course, those were the days when many of us had limited budgets for record or cassette purchases and there was no internet, so we had to make do with what we owned, what we could scavenge from others (by means of recording onto cassette) or the radio. And in 1970s South Africa, that pretty much meant middle of the road Radio 5 or some regional radio station like Radio Good Hope. Thus mixtapes were often the cherished option.

There was a lot of skill to making a good mixtape. While some of those skills apply to the modern day digital equivalent: the curated digital playlist, some uniquely belonged to the cassette mixtape. So for example, while in both instances there is a skill to choosing songs which flow exquisitely into each other and which maintain the listener’s ongoing interest, the cassette tape uniquely required a skilful choice of songs which fitted as closely as possible into a (typically) 30 minute or 45 time limit: the length of one side of a tape. I remember many wasted hours spent staring agonisingly at the diminishing amount of tape on the cassette feeder spool, balanced with equally anxious glances at the amount of space left before on the current track on the record as it span around the turntable. Much cursing took place when the play and record buttons snapped up on the tape deck, while the chosen song was still playing. That was the catalyst for a furious search through the record stacks for a song of the required length, most often something short. It was not acceptable to leave a long pause at the end of a cassette tape: it was a waste of precious recording opportunity. When one got it right it was with a sense of immense accomplishment: that moment when the last note of the songs played and then a few seconds later the cassette came to an end. Pure bliss! Another skill particular to a cassette mixtape was ordering the music of the two sides: so that each side had its own particular identity: fast vs slow songs or short vs long songs and so on. Or perhaps it was just a mix of a mixtape which in itself took careful compiling.

This is a bit of a mix of a mixtape. I have selected 20 South African songs from this century which I would like as many people as possible to hear and which in all likelihood would not have been playlisted on regional radio stations (or in fact any radio stations). These are songs I wish had been given regular rotation on commercial radio and which I wish had earned their composers and performers enough money to live off for a year or two, even if modestly. Instead I can only hope that people who listen to this mixtape find a few songs which they like and which in turn motivate them to go out and buy some of this music – in whatever format is available. Or perhaps support them at their next live show.

I don’t want to say too much about the musicians I have chosen. That can be up to you. Some of them are people who have appeared on the scene fairly recently (such as Adelle Nqeto and Madele’ Vermaak) or who have been around a bit longer but whose music I have discovered in the past five years or so, such as Hot Water and Lucy Kruger & the Lost Boys). I am also always interested to hear new music brought out by people whose music I grew up with – before I left university, that is. So on this mixtape that includes Dax Butler (of Nude Red who appeared on the Shifty Records Forces Favourites album), 70s folk singer, Paul Clingman, Bright Blue’s original vocalist, Robin Levetan, eVoid, Jennifer Ferguson, Gary Herselman (with his project, Die Lemme), and Syd Kitchen and Madala Kunene with their project as a duo, Bafo Bafo. Beyond that there’s a mix of people who make exciting music, most of whom have been around for ten or twenty years or more: the Dolly Rockers, Simphiwe Dana, Guy Buttery (with an appearance from Vusi Mahlasela), Amathongo, Nakhane Toure, Laurie Levine, Matthew van der Want, Chris Letcher and Hotep Idris Galeta. Listen, enjoy and find out more!
Michael Drewett

  1. Lovesong – Dolly Rockers
  2. Standing On Air – Die Lemme
  3. You Keep Calling – Simphiwe Dana
  4. Mix It Up – eVoid
  5. Perfect Day – Robin Levetan
  6. Bushfire – Hot Water
  7. Lift Me Up – Dax Butler
  8. Everywhere Everything – Paul Clingman
  9. Werner Meets Egberto In Manaus – Guy Buttery & Vusi Mahlasela
  10. Mlisa – Bafo Bafo
  11. Nozimama – Amathongo
  12. Tabula Rasa – Nakhane Toure
  13. Where Have You Gone – Laurie Levine
  14. Stay – Adelle Nqeto
  15. Empty Hands – Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys
  16. Pocket Full Of Stones – Madele’ Vermaak
  17. God’s Hotel – Jennifer Ferguson
  18. Dream Of You – Matthew Van Der Want
  19. Frail Lib – Chris Letcher
  20. Blues For Mongezi – Hotep Idris Galeta

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.

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

Special – Gary Herselman Fundraiser

Gary Herselman is a legend of the alternative South African music scene. Recently Shifty Records championed a campaign to raise finds for Gary who, like many veteran indie South African musicians, has fallen on hard times. As Shifty noted:

It has recently come to our attention that notorious (only in the best way) shorts-sporting Kêrels frontman Gary Herselman (AKA Piet Pers of the Gereformeerde Blues Band) has fallen on hard times, within already hard times for him, within what are, as I’m sure you are aware, hard times for everyone. To help Gary out, we have organised a Back-a-Buddy campaign and are working on a compilation album of his best tunes (https://shiftyrecords.bandcamp.com/releases), as well as a few other treats for fans. Visit https://www.backabuddy.co.za/gary-herselman to lend your support .

Gary Herselman is best known for his band The Kêrels, but prior to forming the Kêrels he began his career in the music industry by forming various bands while at school before getting a long-standing job at Hillbrow Records in 1980 and during that time playing in the band Hard Lines (contemporaries of The Asylum Kids) and then the Kêrels. Like many musicians of that time they ended up playing at Jamesons and, also like several musicians of that time, were signed by Shifty Records. In 1988 they recorded the album Ek sê. As Gary remembered:

“Lloyd … came up to me after one gig at the Jameson’s and said ‘look I want to record your band.’ And it took me about eight months to accept that this guy was actually serious, you know, I thought he just was pulling my leg! But eventually I accepted that he was serious and went and make the record.”

The album did not sell very many copies but gained a cult following. Not long after that the Kêrels broke up but a second phase of the group formed in the 1990s and they released a second album, Chrome Sweet Chrome (1995) which met with a similar fate to the first album. meanwhile Gary had formed his own record company, Tic Tic Bang, recording some South African music and distributing both their own and other independent artists as well as licensing overseas music.

Musically, from 1989 until the late 1990s, Gary was involved in other projects, such as being a member of Johannes Kerkorrel’s Gerefomeerde Blues Band for the Eet Kreef (1989) album and on the Voëlvry tour, playing on the Koos Kombuis Niemandsland (1989) album and on the Radio Rats Big Beat (1990) album and also playing with the Radio Rats around the same time. In 1997 the Kêrels played on two tracks on Matthew van der Want’s debut album, Turn on You (1997) and also periodically backed him on stage.

Gary has always been supportive of other musicians and worked with the likes of Matthew van der Want, Jo Edwards and Sue Charlton in recording music in the late 90s/early 2000s period. For Gary, music wasn’t just a serious business, it was a creative calling and fun. Matthew van der Want remembered he and Gary recording the satirical song “The Worst Song in the World … Ever! (Battle of the Bads)”, about a terrible Battle of the Bands competition, where the musicians played their instruments badly:

“It’s supposed to be a dig at crap SA bands: ‘It’s Friday night at half past ten the band’s about to start. Everyone who’s nobody is loitering at the bar. The singer is a looker, she’s invested in her clothes. Isn’t there a law against lyrics like those?’ and behind the vocals, there’s this drummer who keeps playing on the wrong beat and a bass player who is intent on making the song go in another direction. I did the music with Gary Herselman and we were in hysterics while we were doing it.”

Gary’s life has always centred around music and he has been most satisfied when able to make music and make a living from music. Back in 1998 he commented:

“In my books I’ve been successful already. I’ve managed to do exactly what I’ve wanted to do. The music was absolutely without compromise, and there was a sector of the population that accepted it, that really loved it. There was a kind of a feeling that I had there that you either really loved it or you really hated it. So I think that the success in the first time that the Kêrels played was just in making the album. That was the success. I never wanted to be on the cover of Billboard or to change the world or you know … I just wanted to maybe change a few people’s minds and have a bit of a laugh along the way … to me I think the success is in having not made a compromise in that I don’t have to take a job at the OK Bazaars and I’m still working in music and I can record the music that I like.”

Since the demise of the Kêrels and Tic Tic Bang, Gary has battled on, working with other musicians, including co-producing (with Matthew van der Want) the tribute to Koos Kombuis Kombuis Musiek compilation album and periodically putting out his own music, including the highly acclaimed Die Lemme’s Rigtingbefok (2014) album in which he collaborated with several South African musicians and House For Sale (2018).

This mixtape is our attempt to celebrate Gary’s contribution to South African music. From his own work with the Kêrels, as a solo artist, and with Die Lemme to his output as part of Die Gereformeerde Blues Band and the Radio Rats and his collaborations with South African musicians Matthew van der Want, Sue Charlton, Q-Zoo and Jo Edwards. Whatever he has done, ultimately Gary has always played his music on the outskirts of the music industry, and having a hellova time while doing it. As Gary noted:

“musicians … going down, getting their own together with the help of no corporates or no major companies were behind things like the Voëlvry tour. It was an Indie like Shifty who understood what was going on. And it was in fact a case of that: that you just actually took the microphone for yourself rose up and took … the small man rose up and took a slice of the boerewors!”