Warrick Sony remembers the music and politics of 1980s South Africa during Shifty September
‘Many-stringed, curiously tuned instruments, even aulos-makers and aulos players, are to be excluded from the state’ – Plato’s The Republic
‘Never listen to electric guitar. It is a crime against the state’ – David Byrne
In February 1987, the Kalahari Surfers were asked to play at the 17th Festival of Political Song in East Berlin. “Rote Liede” was the title of that year’s effort, and the line-up included artists from all over the world. These were the times when politics was fashionable in popular Western music. It had been 10 years since punk emerged. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev and PW Botha were in power, and many songwriters worked social comment and political satire into their lyrics. In England, left-wing pop stars had formed a movement called the “Red Wedge”, which included people like Billy Bragg and The Communards. Communist chic was in.
I came from a country where a man had gone to prison for having an ANC flag on his beer mug, where the state used its “iron fist” against any form of criticism by regularly banning and detaining activists and artists. My passport had to have a removable page when I travelled to the Eastern Bloc so that the South African authorities would not be tempted to enquire about my goings-on behind the Iron Curtain.
The Kalahari Surfers were a virtual band, a studio project based on access to a 16-track recording studio. Any live work I did had to be done with session musicians. The band I’d formed in London was with British musicians from Recommended Records (the ultra left-wing British record company that released five of my albums between 1984 and 1989).
I travelled to the UK in September 1986 to release and promote my third album, Sleep Armed, and to take a break from the intensity of the Botha regime. South Africa was looking bleak. Johannesburg was exhausting. The state seemed rock solid and able to bat away any obstacle thrown in its path. Violence and brutality were the order of the day.
I had recently played a concert for the End Conscription Campaign (ECC ), during which the police rolled a canister of teargas into the hall, creating pandemonium. That same evening I laid down the vocals for a track that featured a distorted voice shouting “Teargas! Teargas”, over and over, and coughing and choking. It was a performance piece in the studio. Tragic comic – that was South Africa in the 80s. At the time I was working as a film sound recordist to pay off the 16-track recorder
I had bought for the studio I shared with Lloyd Ross.
Lloyd was the producer and founder of Shifty Records, the only record company in South Africa at that time releasing music that was contentious or political, music that would never be played by the SABC. I had intended to release my own work through Shifty on my label, Gross National Products, but I was thwarted by the refusal of EMI to press my first album, Own Affairs. Recommended Records put it out, and I developed a relationship with the studio that still exists.
Just as an aside , towards the end of 2003, Ross made a documentary (for the new SABC) on James Phillips. While he was in the SABC archive he found records with gouge marks on them. As a means of low-tech censorship, someone had carefully dragged a nail across the offending track to make sure no one would play it.
The DIY ethic of punk propelled many of us in the 80s to forge ahead and write songs about the world we knew. A small club scene developed and spread to major cities in South Africa. Bands sprang up all over with names like The Safari Suits, Corporal Punishment, National Wake (the first and only black punk/reggae band in the country), and Permanent Force. Everyone felt a need to reflect the South African experience, to sing with South African accents and be true to ourselves. Songs were about the army or girls from Boksburg or police stupidity or general white fears. Punk was great because it was liberating and it was fun – everyone was in a band you didn’t need to know how to play music. In fact, that was where some of the best music came from –: the everyman’s angle on music. Techno in the 90s was similar in its freshness and new energy that sprang out of new technologies. Today everyone is a DJ. In the 60s everyone wanted to be a hairdresser. So it goes.
Punk came and went with few bands ever making it on to vinyl. But the idea lingered that we could just take our master tapes and a R200 deposit and get a vinyl pressed. It was this ethos that inspired the indie record company that became known as Shifty Records.
My personal weapon of choice was irony, but it was often lost on South African audiences. For example, Esme Everard, on her Springbok Radio programme for the boys in the army, Forces Favourites, regularly played I Love a Man in a Uniform by Gang of Four. It had the line: “The girls they love to see you shoot,” which was much appreciated by the men in the armed forces. This was an embarrassing hit for a group who made no secret of their sympathies for the ANC and other (then) left-wing organisations.
Sampling voices and using excerpts of speeches in music was not common during the early 80s the way it is now. I was very influenced by classical composers of the 60s and 70s who worked with sound as a collage medium.
People like Pierre Schaeffer, Trevor Wishart and Karlheinz Stockhausen had broken new ground in the way tape could be manipulated and electronic devices used to alter sounds. Another composer who made an impression on me was Holger Czukay of the krautrock group Can, whose wonderful album Movies spliced in bits of Hollywood voice tracks to dreamy rhythms.
I spent hours recording bits and pieces from radio and television. The state media machine was like a theatre of the absurd. I used bits of propaganda films in my music: PW Botha’s State of Emergency speech, news broadcasts, even quiz shows. I’d splice together material I’d recorded in the field as a documentary sound recordist for the BBC or Channel4. William Burroughs was the guiding light in splice and paste word/content experiments, and I’d devour anything thing that spoke to me in the ironic voice.
A piece I did called Play it Backwards on my second album used voices from Radio Today (a morning news broadcast in the 80s) discussing the hidden messages in rock music that can be found by playing records backwards. I was intrigued, so I ordered the tape from a guy who made a living from doing this stuff. He’d even written a book, assembling hundreds of examples of these ridiculous messages he’d discovered by playing his record collection backwards!
He later claimed these secret messages could be found on some of Shifty’s releases. We challenged him on this, and by using his same technique I proved that even Christian songs had demonic undertones when I demonstrated that the line “God is in all of our aims” turned into “Satan is in all of our aims” when it was played backwards. He settled out of court.
In 1989, the Kalahari Surfers were invited to play at a festival in Moscow. “Afri Fest” was put together by the city’s Committee of Youth Organisations (Komsomol) and was held at the “Palace of Youth”. Gorbachev was making massive reforms then and the place was in as much a state of flux as South Africa. In the same way you can’t find anyone who supported apartheid in South Africa, I never met a communist in Russia, even though I was staying in the Communist Youth League’s fanciest hotel.
It made me feel, acutely, the distance between foreigners and locals. The haves and the have-nots in the socialist dream. The place was awash with Americans. “Perestroika” and “glasnost” were the buzzwords. I could get three times the official rate on the black market, but money is worthless when there is nothing to buy. Luckily I found out that Melodia (the only Soviet record company) made good vinyl, so I stocked up on hundreds of fantastic classical records.
I was amazed at the extraordinary experiments humanity was attempting. The Soviet Union was beginning to fall, which was the exact opposite of what was happening in South Africa. We were trying to bring all the former homelands under one united South Africa; separate development was a bad idea for us. I had many arguments with Russians over this. Here were a people moving towards democracy, away from socialism, but we still had overtures of socialism – in fact, being a communist in South Africa at that time could have got you killed. To be a rebellious youth in Russia, you’d become a Christian and wear a pendant with a picture of the last czar around your neck. To be a rebellious youth in South Africa, you’d be anti-Christian and wear a lapel badge sporting a hammer and sickle. The Russians never got their democracy and we never got our socialism. Another of God’s curveballs.
South Africa does not have a culture of political song. We have radical poets, we have radical theatre, be do not have a rich history of political songwriting. Foreign documentary makers have on occasion hired me to research music for them, always hoping to be presented with a huge compendium of struggle songs. We do not have a culture of songwriting. The songs of the struggle were for the most part public domain freedom songs sung at rallies and performed by the masses. The kind of sharp political satire and wit that existed in the music from Haiti, for example, simply did not exist in South Africa at that time. There were the numerous well-meaning jazz musicians who would title an instrumental piece “Song for Winnie” or something, but one would have to look hard to find the Bob Dylans or Joni Mitchells. ( Vusi Mahlasela and Jennifer Ferguson were exceptions to the rule.) Most musicians were content to aim for the riches derived from a radio hit, like Supa Frika with the banal Lets Go Shopping. The radical stuff was in theatre and poetry.
Former Mail & Guardian arts editor Matthew Krouse was someone whose work I’d always admired. His Famous Dead Man, with Robert Coleman, was one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre made in the 80s. Krouse urged me to do something with his fellow Congress of South African Writers poet Lesego Rampolokeng, who fused freeform 60s beat and protest poetry with the power of traditional African praise poetry to create a crazed prophetic vision of a twisted planet. His work was dark and painful, splicing up images and juxtapositions that he performed with a sharp, menacing attitude. Here was a man who had been brutalised by the system and had risen to express it in a unique African angst. We recorded End Beginnings, a Surfers and Rampolokeng collaboration, in 1990, although most of the work was done the previous year. It was released in London through Recommended and is difficult to get in South Africa.
The album led to us being invited to a festival of poetry and music in Belo Horizonte in Brazil during the early 90s. It was the dawn of the new South Africa and the two of us had diametrically opposite views on the Rainbow Nation, which dumbfounded Brazilian journalists. I was of the opinion that Hunt Lascaris had done well in selling the idea of a new South Africa to the people, and that the new flag and reconciliation was a good thing. Rampolokeng had many reservations about the ruling elite and their motives, and he took a dim view of it all. I think he’d have preferred a bloody coup in which the old guard were dragged from their posts screaming as they were nailed to rugby posts.
Once when I was visiting Rampolokeng in Diepkloof, I bumped into his stepfather, who was emerging from a marijuana smoke-filled car. He told me he had put “this man” through university by selling dagga, only to have him become a poet. “What for?” he asked. Of what use is a poet, he wanted to know.
One only had to look at the youths in that area and see the awe with which they viewed Rampolokeng to realise how important the culture of the intellect is, and how important it is that there are some among us who have turned their backs on financial gain for their principles. Education is liberation.
As part of Shifty September, Alliance Francaise is hosting an event tonight titled Radio Control:Musical Protest & Politics. Warrick Sony will be charing the panel discussion.
To listen and purchase Kalahari Surfers recordings head to their BandCamp page