Niren Tolsi & Lloyd Gedye
“There was something weird about last night,” began the SMS.
It continued, “That the space first provided for a nonracial musical culture turned out to not much more than a bastion for Afrikaner Bohemia and a liberal pathology for denial … or am I just being depressed?”
“The space” the message was referring to was Shifty Records, the independent record label run out of a caravan that documented some of the most fascinating protest music to come out of South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The label was responsible for the first recordings of James Phillips, Sankomoto, Jennifer Ferguson, Johannes Kerkorrel, The Genuines, Koos Kombuis, Vusi Mahlasela and Urban Creep.
The label also strayed into recording struggle sounds like Fosatu Worker Choirs, “People’s Poet” Mzwakhe Mbuli, electronic protest-punk Warrick Sony and a number of compilations in support of the End Conscription campaign.
The “last night” the SMS referred to was the opening of Shifty September, a month-long series of events celebrating the history and legacy of the label.
Shifty September was launched on September 1 with the exhibition titled What You Won’t Hear on the Radio at the Alliance Française in Johannesburg.
The message, no doubt, referred to the paler than pale audience that had come out of the woodwork to revel in the nostalgia of Shifty September.
On the opening night of the exhibition, it felt like the Shifty crowd had retreated into smug middle class South African life, a long way from their days of satire, hedonism and interracial music.
The air was thick with nostalgia instead.
There where balding white men with sparse grey hairs, prone to statements like, “We fought the bastards and we won”, which rationally calls for a counter-response: “Sit down. You played drums in a rock band.”
It’s becoming a worrying trend in South Africa – in the past few years we have been inundated with people claiming they singlehandedly brought down apartheid, so let’s give it a rest.
A letter from James Phillips to Shifty Records’ Lloyd Ross and the demo tape, “James The Boptist”, which you can listen to below.
Now, you could argue the SMS was hypercritical, but there was certainly an element of what he said in the air. The vibe felt a long way from recording worker choirs or people’s poets, if you get our drift.
It was there again on Friday September 5 when the film Famous for Not Being Famous was screened, with a panel debate that felt more like a belated memorial for the great South African songwriter James Phillips.
A few days later on Facebook, songwriter Matthew van der Want, himself a renowned Shifty artist, explained that his song Home was about Phillips.
“Watched James Phillips’ Famous for Not Being Famous again last night at Alliance Française,” read Van der Want’s Facebook post. “I always have to brace myself for that last devastating footage of him just before he died.”
“I put these words in a song called Home in 1995/6 after a heavy night out with him. I was a huge fan of his music and I didn’t understand at the time why he was such a mess. I think I understood why by the time I wrote this.”
I met a man with broken hands /
His glass as empty as his heart /
He got talking about music /
I watched him fall apart /
My hero /
Who lost something on the road /
Light has not followed him home /
As broken as his heart /
Life has not followed him home
Phillips was the one of the central forces in the Shifty story; his music speaks volumes about this deeply complicated man.
As Shifty head honcho Lloyd Ross wrote about Phillips: “James was a complex human being, selfish while showing extraordinary selflessness, giving time and often what little money he had to those in need.”
“He drew people in – everyone was a friend of James. He lived the rock’n’roll lifestyle – his capacity for the jol was legendary and abstention foreign to his nature. But despite his often arrogant and undisciplined way of approaching his life, the legacy he leaves is that of one of the most aware, articulate and passionate artists to have been produced by this strange land.”
Or, as Phillips’ mother recalled he once told her, “I don’t have many words in my mind, just music, and if I don’t get it out it drives me crazy.”
Ross, who started Shifty Records and recorded Phillips, and Robbie Thorpe, who was Phillips’ good friend, spoke and showed clips from the Shifty Records archive, including one funny anecdote where Hannepoort van Tonder plays a riff from a Phillips jazz composition called Picasso Was a Poes.
The one fascinating element of Phillips’ story is how his alter ego, Bernoldus Niemand, was the central figure that led to Voëlvry, the “alternative Afrikaner” movement that made Kerkorrel and Kombuis household names.
As the titled of the documentary Famous for Not Being Famous alludes, Phillips never had any major success, considering his songwriting talents.
The most recognition he ever got was as Niemand, with his iconic songs Hou My Vas Korporaal and Snor City. These tracks would go on to inspire Kerkorrel and Kombuis and lead to them all being united on the nationwide tour and youth culture movement Voëlvry.
On Wednesday September 10, Shifty September turned its focus to the Voëlvry movement with an event titled ‘Voëlvry: The Legacy’.
The panel discussion included Fokofpolisiekar frontman Francois Van Coke, academic and frontman for the Brixton Moord en Roof Orkes Andries Bezuidenhout, Voëlvry veteran Gary Herselman, and Carel Hoffman, the festival director of Oppikoppi.
The discussion was followed by a screening of Ross’ documentary Voëlvry: The Movie.
Examining the impact of Voëlvry during Shifty September has the potential to pull that moment, and what it represented, away from the misty past and its almost chloroformed present to raise relevant questions about its actual legacy in South Africa in 2014.
Judging by the Shifty events so far, there appears to be an understandable tendency to focus on the progressive political consequences of the Voëlvry movement by lefties from the 1980s generation – among Afrikaners and liberals especially.
But this nostalgic political remembrance of their past, ironically, also undermines the very progressiveness they still purport to hold dear in older, more comfortable, less radical middle class and age.
Paradox is inherent in this reductive remembering.
For part of this nostalgic recasting of role is an attempt at a “post-racial” reintroduction – and unquestioning clinging on to – of Afrikaner identity and liberalism.
Excluded from this nostalgic perspective is racism itself.
The purveyors of this revisionism of past and present discard – consciously or unconsciously – “racism” as unnecessary.
If racism exists at all in this narrative, it is only as a notion of a “post-racial” society – one that in and of itself buries much-needed acknowledgment and discourse around a society that, 20 years after the first democratic elections, remains deeply fractured along racial fissures.
In effect, many of the progressive impulses that grew out of Voëlvry are now, in older age, actually reactionary and conservative. The only difference between this subliminal racism and the overt one propagated by the likes of Steve Hofmeyr is that the former is perhaps even more dangerous as it exists under the guise of alleged enlightenment.
University of Pretoria sociologist Andries Bezuidenhout touches on this when considering a more overt version of a reclamation of Afrikaner identity in his paper, ‘From Voëlvry to De La Ray: Popular Music, Afrikaner Nationalism and Lost Irony’.
When considering the resurrection of Afrikaner imagery through the lens of Bok van Blerk’s song, De La Rey, Bezuidenhout noted:
“Nevertheless, it is because the Voëlvry movement has rehabilitated those symbols that their successors can now present their new identity project as legitimate in the realm of popular culture. But this reappropriation of the symbols of Afrikaner nationalism, it seems, has lost all its irony. It is nostalgic, romantic, and deeply cynical at the same time.”
There is, as Bezuidenhout suggests, a perverse consequence of the Voëlvry movement’s rehabilitation of Afrikaner identity, and whiteness, that exists in both its conservative and liberal elements.
Among Voëlvry’s shortcomings, Bezuidenhout noted, was that “it never penetrated the working class, and stayed clear of the townships – physically, as well as in terms of most of its lyrical content”.
“In a sense, the Voëlvry movement provided for an ethnic project without the ethnic politics. Yet, the foundation of this was a critique of what apartheid did to the ‘self’, not the ‘other’, which was present in the lyrics of the movement, but somewhat marginal,” wrote Bezuidenhout.
This sensibility of the “self” still echoes in contemporary South Africa, where the mainstream media exhibits an unhealthy preoccupation with the phenomenon of “poor whites” and constant proclamations that “we are not racist” – both poisonous handmaidens to the concept “we did not benefit from apartheid”.
This is a sociopolitical straightjacket that is far removed from an energetic, contrarian creativity that poet, journalist and musician Toast Coetzer identifies in Voëlvry:
“Because I was too young to have experienced Voëlvry first hand, my association with it is very different. I discovered Randy Rambo, Koos Kombuis and Johannes Kerkorrel at the same time as my ears opened to the first albums by Sugardrive, Springbok Nude Girls, Urban Creep and Battery 9,” says Coetzer, who first encountered the musicians of a previous generation in the mid-1990s as a student at Rhodes University.
“To me, they all represented one big spurt of creativity, of realising that being South African – or Afrikaans – in the new South Africa meant that you could do all these things: start a band, write songs, tour the country. You could be out of line, because enough people were out of line now. It was clear to me at the time that Voëlvry was essential to that second wave of South African music. Voëlvry paved the way in more ways than just a political one. Yes, they were daring in their time, all those artists, by flipping the middle finger to the government and to the establishment. But on another level they were also just daring artists, creating in the face of no commercial prospects at all.”
A Gallery of photos from the Voelvry tour courtesy of the Shifty Archive, click on an image to see them in gallery form
City Press arts editor Charl Blignaut, in responding to The Con’s enquiry about the Voëlvry legacy, described it such: “Today? Just some beautiful white noise from the past.”
If you hear Blignaut tell it, it was indeed a beautiful, noisy, desperate, grimy, self-conscious, awkward, sweaty, paradoxical, human moment:
“In 1989 when Voëlvry emerged as a force, I was matriculating and as we couldn’t afford varsity I was expected to report for the army. I refused and got by studying at Unisa for free for a bit,” he says.
“I was introduced to some of the music by a 32-year-old boyfriend (I was 17, it was Pretoria, queers were illegal). In my matric year he went to an army camp – those who had done their military brainwashing had to return for a few months every few years for refresher camps in killing terrorists. As he was a designer they used him in the ‘art department’. He had to take photos of dead ANC and PAC operatives and make posters of them with cheerful messages like, ‘Merry Christmas PAC terrs. This is what we did to your comrades. This is what we’ll do to you.’
“He’d write me love letters on the back in his gorgeous handwriting. Needless to say, I broke up with him – he didn’t have to go, he could’ve defied the call-up – and after another call-up I fled to Joburg and took drugs, worked as a waiter and then wheedled my way into a job at Vrye Weekblad.
“I lived in Yeoville and befriended Braam Kruger, who helped with the Eet Kreef! cover for Ralph Rabie – Johannes Kerkorrel.
“But by then it was 1991 and a new era was dawning. Voëlvry had an impact on the level of reporting on it – the characters were regulars in Vrye Weekblad.
“Soon enough I joined the list of boys who were bedded by Ralph. By 1991 already he was most regularly booked for gigs in dodgy malls. I would go with him to kak pubs and the mainstream Afrikaners still found him hardcore, but I found him nostalgic. Voëlvry was actually very brief.
“The sex with Ralph was dodgy and the person not particularly nice. I left him too and remained miffed at the movement because of him. I had loyalty to the band Koos, though, and became friends with Marcel van Heerden. Koos taught me getting arrested was a badge of honour, like Steven Cohen did. Voëlvry taught me never to trust a folk singer. But because I was at Vrye Weekblad, this resistance culture became normative and no doubt strongly shaped my cultural politics.”
Those who danced and raged to Voëlvry in the Eighties – as their eyes opened to the South African reality of violence and thought control, and their hips snaked towards awareness – grew up.
From copulating in dingy pub toilets, they couple around middle class dining room tables. They have gone from protesters to protesting about their credentials. In doing so, they appear to be closing the lid on an introspection – of self and a country still divided – that is much needed.
Voëlvry’s legacy is, to a degree, “just white noise”, but it is much less beautiful than it was in the Eighties.
On Friday 12 September Shifty September will be presenting two documentary films made by Lloyd Ross. They are The Silver Fez and Singers & Swenkas. Below is the trailer for The Silver Fez. The screenings starts 6pm at Alliance Francaise.