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South Africa – Vol. 2

South Africa is currently awash in flags. The country”s multi-coloured banners are flying everywhere, especially on cars. Shops are decorated with flags from the more glamorous nations taking part in the World Cup “” lots of Brazil, Spain, Argentina, France, Germany, Italy, England; not so much North Korea, Honduras and Slovakia. But especially South African flags, which I expect will continue to fly even when the host team’s tournament is over, most probably after the final group game against France on Tuesday.

South Africa clearly is proud to host the World Cup, to be in the world”s eye for a month. There are those who hope ““ secretly or flagrantly ““ that SA will fuck it up, but even if there should be problems, the country has prepared well in creating a vibe. People have been wearing football jerseys to work or school on Football Fridays, the unattractive din of the vuvuzela (the plastic trumpets) has been embraced and even practised by otherwise relatively sane people (and insanely hated by many TV viewers), and people who would ordinarily hate football are liable to shout at random the name of their favourite team. South Africa ““ at least that part of the population that isn”t hungry and freezing in inhumane conditions ““ is having a massive party.

South Africans are very hospitable. Some of our criminals might get violent with the occasional tourist, but generally visitors are safer than locals; and tourists are as likely to get mugged or pickpocketed in Rio, Venice or LA as they are in Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban. We like having guests from “exotic” places overseas (evidently not so much from other parts of Africa, as the xenophobic hate-gangs have made clear). The reason for that resides in the long international isolation under apartheid as well as the geographical distance from those countries with which South Africa would like to measure itself. The World Cup is our debutante ball. Please include us in the community of real nations.

Flag-waving über-patriotism generally tends to bother me. Flags are fun, but they can also be symbols (and weapons) of a dangerous nationalism. It is not a coincidence that the swastika was ubiquitous in Nazi Germany and that it often is the fascist, racist thug who has his flag tattooed on the neck. I find the USA”s obsession with and exaggerated reverence for the Stars and Stripes profoundly disturbing in the way it symbolises a sometimes particularly nasty national chauvinism. And yet, I welcome South Africa”s current flag-waving.

The flag is helping unite a deeply divided nation, much as the 1994 elections, the rugby World Cup wins in 1995 and 2007, and the African Cup of Nations win in 1996 did. Here, the flag is a symbol of what will be a fleeting national unity. But as a symbol of unity, however fleeting, it will serve as a permanent admonition that South Africans can be united. The World Cup may not bring South Africa all the promised material rewards (and we”ll need a collective shower to wash off the praetorian grime of our association with FIFA), and it will not solve all our problems. But as crucial contribution to the on-going project of nation-building, it will prove to be an inestimably valuable exercise.

With that out of the way, here are some more randomly selected South African songs.

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Elias & his Zig-Zag Jive Flutes – Ry Ry (1958).mp3
We previously met Elias “” actually it”s Jack Lerole “” in The Originals Vol. 31 as the composer and original performer of that staple of football grounds, Tom Hark. Ry Ry (which could be translated as “Go! Go!”) was the b-side of Elias & his Zig-Zag Jive Flutes” 1958 hit, for which its writer received a pittance. Another pennywhistle number, it is spirited, if not quite as much as Tom Hark. Lerole was influential in the development of South African music, first in the kwela genre, then in mbaqanga. He abandoned the pennywhistle in the 1960s, as did the other giant of the pennywhistle, Spokes Mashiane. While Mashiane died young, Lerole was an early member of the next group.

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Mango Groove ““ Special Star (1989).mp3
Mango Groove – Dance Sum More (1989).mp3

Mango Groove were not the first multi-racial band in South Africa, nor the first to have hits with a fusion of white pop and African genres. Juluka (up next) and Hotline were the big pioneers in that regard. But were Juluka”s African roots were rural and traditional, Mango Groove incorporated the old urban kwela sounds of Sophiatown (discussed last week) and the townships. And the enjoyed much greater commercial success in South Africa. Jack Lerole left Mango Groove before they had their breakthrough. I think I”ve read once that it”s him growling on the infectious Dance Sum More. The superior Special Star, with Mduduzi Magwaza”s great pennywhistle solos and singer Claire Johnston”s gorgeous vocals, is dedicated to Spokes Mashiane.

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Juluka ““ Scatterlings Of Africa (1982).mp3
Johnny Clegg & Savuka ““ Asimbonanga (1987).mp3

Johnny Clegg had two groups. First there was Juluka, his band with Sipho Mchunu, whom he met in Johannesburg when they were teenagers (apparently one challenged the other to a guitar contest, and they became close friends thereafter). Clegg, who was born in Rochdale, England, founded Savuka after Mchunu decided to retire to farming in the mid-1980s. With Savuka, Clegg recorded the beautiful and haunting Asimbonanga, an anti-apartheid song for the then imprisoned Nelson Mandela, with its roll-call of assassinated political activists. Savuka also re-recorded Scatterlings Of Africa in 1987. I think I prefer that version with its more prominent flute , though the 1982 original with Juluka is equally a great. That version certainly is the South African classic.

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Henry Ate ““ Just (1996).mp3
One of the most popular songs I”ve posted on this blog is Pachelbel by Karma (get it HERE). I”m rather surprised about that. It”s an obscure album track by a South African band whose charismatic singer, Karma-Ann Swanepoel (not much of a rock & roll name), never made her deserved breakthrough as a solo singer. So it must be the exceptional lyrics that caused the track to be so popular. Karma was the alternative name, used for one album, of Henry Ate, a folk-rock group that was very popular in South Africa from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, despite the horribly punning name which they took from one of their songs. The beautiful song featured here is from their 1996 debut album; like Pachelbel, it’s the closing track. Karma is now living in Florida.

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District Six – Shine A Light (1994).mp3
A song from the wildly successful District Six ““ The Musical. I wrote about District Six last week; the musical tells the story of how a tight-knit community was uprooted and destroyed by the racist apartheid regime. The musical gave a voice to the immense pain felt by the displaced people, much as Richard Rive”s excellent novel Buckingham Palace, District Six did. I remember vividly the tears of the Muslim man in the row in front of me when I saw the musical in 1989. Shine A Light, one of several highlights, tells of a doomed interracial relationship; other songs speak of daily life in District Six and its characters, the humiliation of living under apartheid, the helplessness of being forcibly removed, the defiant hope of return. For such sad subject matter, much of the musical is very funny. In one song, characters tell of being chased away from amenities because these are reserved for whites. Then a gangster tells about a dream he had about dying and going to hell. The devil, however, sends him back, because “this place of mine is reserved for whites”.

The musical was written by the very successful, Olivier Award-winning team of David Kramer, a white Afrikaner, and Talip Petersen, who was born in District Six and was classified Coloured (mixed race) under apartheid. Petersen was murdered at his home in December 2006. His wife Najwa was convicted of conspiracy to murder him. The title of the film District 9, with its theme of forced removals, was obviously inspired by District Six.

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Jonathan Butler – Sing Me Your Love Song (1990).mp3
For a country with such a wealth of talent, South Africa has produced relatively few international stars. One who made it was Jonathan Butler, a guitarist who is active mostly in the field of jazz-fusion but had chart success with the soul track Lies on the Jive label (founded by Durban-schooled Mutt Lange). Butler comes from Cape Town (Irish readers will be amused to learn he grew up in a suburb called Athlone), and his large, musical family has been involved in many bands on the city”s live jazz circuit. Occasionally, Butler comes home and records with old friends, as he did with the great Tony Schilder. A collaboration of them will feature later in this series. Sing Me Your Love Song was released in late 1990 on the aptly titled Heal Our Land LP; with its gentle African vibe it appealed to a country that was blinkingly emerging from apartheid.

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Rabbitt ““ Charlie (1975).mp3
While the rest of the world had the Bay City Rollers, South Africa had Rabbitt, whose biggest hits were Charlie and a decent cover of Jethro Tull”s Locomotive Breath. And when Leslie McKeown bailed the sinking ship BCR, the renamed Rollers replaced him with Rabbitt singer Duncan Fauré. But it would be unjust to regard Rabbitt as teenybopper merchants. They were serious musicians. After his three albums with the Rollers, Fauré, Rabbit”s main songwriter, turned to more songwriting and producing, but bandmate Trevor Rabin made the greater impact, first as a member of Yes “” we may blame him for Owner Of The Lonely Heart “” and then as the writer of many scores of hit movies. US sports fans will recognise his Titans Spirit from Remember the Titans.

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Yvonne Chaka Chaka – Umqobothi (1986).mp3

Arguably South Africa”s most popular female singers were Miriam Makeba and Brenda Fassie, one a dignified vocalist and the other lively pop star. Yvonne Chaka Chaka, whose real name is Yvonne Machaka, combines both qualities, and is one of South Africa”s foremost musical artists. Makeba herself described her as “my baby”. Yvonne is an astute woman: her LPs are released on her own label, she is a successful business woman, an activist in areas such as women”s and children”s rights activist and malaria, and an advocate in public administration. Reportedly she teaches adult literacy part-time. My favourite Yvonne Chaka Chaka song, Makoti, appeared on my second Africa mix. This is her massive 1986 hit which featured in the opening of the film Hotel Rwanda. Umqombothi is a home-brewed Xhosa beer, made of sorghum, corn and yeast. The official beer of the World Cup in South Africa, however, is the American pisswater Budweiser.

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More South African stuff

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  1. Paul
    June 18th, 2010 at 12:24 | #1

    I don’t think Duncan Faure was near the dominant songwriter in Rabbitt. He joined at the end of the first album and is credited as a keyboard player. He did take lead vocals on Hard ride. It was the second album where he wrote about three songs – very good songs, but he still played second fiddle to Rabin (and Patric van Blerk). Rabin left and the three continued without him on Rock Rabbitt which is infinitely weaker than the work the Rabin did with Rabbitt.

    I think Rabin’s work post Rabbitt is patchy – but he still managed to create one of the definitive albums of the 80s – 90125 with Yes. They were an interesting match. Faure’s life after Rabbitt is very mediocre – except for the Karu period where he recorded “Where is the music”

  2. halfhearteddude
    June 19th, 2010 at 01:05 | #2

    Thanks for that Paul. I bow to your superior knowledge.

  3. Phil
    June 19th, 2010 at 17:39 | #3

    Thanks for the interesting musical journey. Except for Jonathan Butler, Juluka and Johnny Clegg & Savuka all this music is new for me.

    I also wanted to let you know that the link to the 2nd Mango Groove song is missing an “h” at the beginning.

    Thanks again so much.

  4. June 19th, 2010 at 23:41 | #4

    I was devoted to Henry Ate when I was at university. Loved them.

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