“Men make their own history,” the Marxist philosopher CLR James wrote in his seminal work about the Haitian Revolution of 1791, The Black Jacobins.
A punk-ish observation that thumps like an Ian Herman beat from the slaves of San Domingo, through the Abstract school of art of the early 1900s, the suffragette and civil rights movements, and all the way to a post-1976 South Africa compelled to resist oppression and thought-control founded on the murder of black people.
Political agency within the country after the killing of schoolchildren on June 16 1976 – contrary to current narratives about iconic leaders and a freedom trickling down to the masses from the top – grew out of an attempt at violent hegemony, and out of a “history from below”.
From the poetry of Mafika Gwala to the mobilisation of the United Democratic Front, sucking in the fumes of necklaced impimpis and spitting out the critical lyricism of James Phillips (aka Bernoldus Niemand), it was a response that was chaotic and contrarian, multi-stranded, contradictory and, very often, very angry.
It was a history from below that appears to be becoming increasingly invisible as successive post-apartheid governments nurtures a narrow revisionism that pays homage to a few liberators and dismisses the thoughts and actions of ordinary foot soldiers and leaders like Steve Biko, for a politically myopic version of the past.
In September we celebrate Shifty Records, an alternative independent record label that provided much of the soundtrack of a different history – from Sankomoto to Mzwakhe Mbuli and Phillips – with a series of events at Johannesburg’s Alliance Française.
Niren Tolsi spoke to Shifty Records co-founder Ross Lloyd about memory and forgetting; about Shifty Records, alternative music, thought and histories.
This is The Con’s first offering in what will be our weekly coverage of Shifty September, where we will be bringing you some fascinating insights into the Shifty Records archive, the people involved and the music they made.
A selection of Shifty Records’ iconic album artwork, click on one of the album covers to see them all in gallery form
What was the mainstream musical landscape like when Shifty was founded in 1983 and what was the motivation or imperative behind the need for Shifty?
It was mainly imported pop or hit parade music, with very little local music. The Afrikaans music scene was outrageously conservative, the really big sellers being the likes of Bles Bridges, et al. The “alternative” to that was Anton Goosen and Laurika Rauch, which was still mostly music about seagulls and waterblommetjies. The black music scene hadn’t really been so affected yet by the Linn Drum or DMX (electronic drum) and the DX7 keyboard, which became de rigueur and, as far as I’m concerned, totally neutered that hard vernacular sound of the 70s. Jinne, I miss those drums and slippery bass lines. The energy of the rhythm section disappeared from popular black music and never fully made a reappearance. There were a few independent record companies then, there and continued to be throughout the Shifty days, but they wanted like nothing else to be exactly like the majors [Like Gallo and Sony Music], so the industry was totally, one-dimensionally, about making money. You had your licensed product from overseas, and your local black hit parade stuff.
Which labels, in your estimation, have embodied the “alternative” in SA music before, during and after Shifty, and what do they exemplify and offer?
Well, Before Shifty – BS – if I may be so bold as to coin that abbreviation, there was 3rd Ear Music headed up by Dave Marks, recording all that stuff in the 70s…first recordings by Johnny Clegg, David Kramer, Roger Lucey et al. But the label had kind of lost steam by the time I came of age, probably for the same reason that Shifty ran out of steam: fatigue in the face of a continual uphill battle to keep the wolf from the door. During Shifty’s reign, there was not much to speak of in the way of kindred spirits with which to form an alliance or network. Mountain Records, run by Paddy Lee Thorpe was the only other record company that could be classified “independent” in the true sense of the word. Paddy was more of a businessman than either Dave or I was, so much so that I think he is still going at it overseas after setting up base in Germany. His repertoire was not nearly as eclectic as Shifty’s, but then whose was? Mostly the Cape Town jazz of Basil Coetzee, Robbie Jansen and their ilk, with a deviation with that pop tart Robin Auld, though I do love him so. Apres Shifty, I would just say Oppikoppi. I am not at all knowledgeable about the scene today, or even soon after I stopped recording properly. What I can say is that I fucking wish that the Oppikoppi “can do” spirit had been sported by someone when we were active. What a difference it would have made. I always felt we were very much on our own, out on a limb, and that’s quite a lonely way to feel, even though we were constantly driven by the idea of bucking the status quo.
Why is the “alternative” – in music, news, art – necessary? Is it necessary?
It is necessary. It’s often where the real advances and innovations in those disciplines are to be found. It is hungrier, leaner and more exciting down there and without it things would move forward rather slowly on their march towards stagnation.
Those in power attempt to control/ rewrite history in a way that is narrow, self-serving and to ensure their continued hold on power. We saw that with the National Party during apartheid, we are seeing that in contemporary South Africa with the ANC (deified versions of Nelson Mandela in history schoolbooks, the dismissing of the struggle role of people like the Pan-Africanist Congress’s Robert Sobukwe or Black Consciousness Movement’s Steve Biko). This appears to be about creating a hegemonic memory, but alternative music or critical arts chips away at that edifice, in the present (through performance and exhibition) and into the future (through archive etc). Can you comment on this with the benefit of your experiences and hindsight?
Writing, or rewriting, or having a preferred version of history is indeed an interesting question. I don’t see deifying as necessarily a bad thing, as long as there is enough objectivity about the choice of person to stand the test of time. By all accounts, Piet Retief was an arsehole and an idiot and absolutely deserved to have been distrusted (from the Zulu point of view) and removed from his leadership position (from the Voortrekker point of view), though, in fairness, probably not with an assegai all the way up his arse. Though, on second thoughts…
Similarly, many of our returned heroes of the struggle were never that, many were just freeloaders with no better employment opportunities on offer. But there were some worthy of deification, Biko, Hani, Mandela. Sure they were human and had failings, but when the sums are done, they were good people with vision and humanity who had the greater good at heart.
It’s the selective remembering of history that irritates me, however. There are examples of this in local popular music, with two notable cases coming to mind: the documentaries Amandla: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, and Searching for Sugar Man.
In Amandla, the director Lee Hirsch consciously ignores any form of protest that doesn’t have a black skin…and this was, after Voëlvry (when the likes of Phillips, Koos Kombuis and Johannes Kerkorrel were picking at the scab of the white South African myth with subversive music that rendered uncomfortable daily actions and thinking by white South Africans), probably the most influential musical occurrence in terms of cause and effect pertaining to a change of attitude and direction in a youth culture in South Africa. To quote Carel Hoffman, Oppikoppi supremo:
“For me, the entire Voëlvry movement was a time of wonder and amazement. We had just finished school and all of a sudden there were these guys out there directly opposing the old regime, and had no qualms about it. Most of it in Afrikaans. And they were young, strong and opinionated. I did not even know that you were allowed to think like that. All of a sudden there was this great sense of freedom, and hope. Best of all was that it had a phenomenal soundtrack, which of course is where Shifty fit in. Without Shifty and the Voëlvry movement, I seriously doubt whether OppiKoppi would exist. That is where the seeds of libertarianism were sown.”
In Sugar Man, the preposterous proposition is that Rodrigues was a political figure to those whities who listened to him, having the effect of helping to bring about liberation. This is, patently, absolute claptrap and is used by the filmmaker as a device to imbue his subject and his film with more gravitas. Both of these are actually good films otherwise, but these selective choices and history rewrites leave one with a bitter taste.
Am I guilty of the same? I have asked myself this question many times these past few months as I go through the Shifty archive with often uncomfortable degrees of nostalgia. Am I guilty of deifying someone like James Phillips for instance, a man that could only achieve sales of a few hundred copies of any of his albums during his lifetime? Maybe.
It is sometimes difficult to tell from the perspective that I have, having been so occupied with the man’s creative output throughout his career. Let’s pull it apart a bit and see: Did he have a unique gift for his craft? Did he have vision? Did he have influence? Did he speak for a greater community? If these are the objectifying factors, I would have to answer in the affirmative to all the above. He was without doubt the greatest songwriter that I ever worked with, and I have worked with more than a few great songwriters: Matthew van der Want and Chris Letcher, Jennifer Ferguson, Vusi Mahlasela, etc.
Did he have vision and influence? Let’s just take one aspect of James’s output, Bernoldus Niemand. It has often been said by those that know, like Kombuis and Kerkorrel, that if it wasn’t for that record, they probably would not have had the gumption to begin writing the songs they did, when they did. Therefore, it follows that Voëlvry wouldn’t have happened – and possibly Oppikoppi either. There is a reason for the James Phillips stage at the festival being called that. Did he speak for a greater community. Yes. In the guilt-ridden, alienated white community, he spoke for all of us.
In my book, the deifying of James can only be a good thing. It draws attention to his art, something that can only be a lesson to most songwriters these days, whose lyrics deal almost exclusively with the personal. James spent almost all of his creative energy (apart from some songs about lurching) on issues of the greater good for his community, producing thoughtful lyrics that were in no way crass or preachy, overlaid on compositions that on their own are impressive, the combination of which often attaining the pinnacle of his artistic discipline.
Are contemporary musicians in SA cognisant of their own musical history, or do you think they are riffing off international influences? How do you think this affects our understanding and construction of self as South Africans?
I think, certainly in the Afrikaans rock, singer-songwriter community, people are conscious of what their predecessors got up to. I am rather proud to say that I was directly involved in this with the Voëlvry tour (let us not say “movement”). Artists like Koos Kombuis and the Gereformeerde Blues Band produced a sea change in the minds of many still playing today. I would say that even a second subsequent generation of Afrikaans musician recognises this. This is certainly the most “well-marketed” of any of the genres that Shifty was involved in, not through any extra acumen on our part, but because it was an idea whose time had arrived. White-English alternative music? We have no unique culture to latch on to, really, so this is always going to be a rather nebulous energy to try and define. I guess when Shifty was active, there was an identifiable common enemy against which to rage, so the outputs of James Phillips, Jennifer Ferguson, Kalahari Surfers, et al do walk away with something of a identifiably SA sound…but it is mostly achieved through the sentiment than the sound. I don’t think any of that, however, has rubbed off on the present crop. I think you would find very few young musicians who would list a local White-English artist as predecessor or inspiration. Popular black music is another whole ballgame of course, because there is an identifiable history of development of sound. Much borrowed from Western pop culture, yes, but the local sound, colour, culture remains dominant to a large degree.
If you want to know more about Shifty September and how you can get tickets for the different events, watch this video below or click on this link: