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South African pop for election day

April 22nd, 2009 8 comments

Today South Africans go to the polls to elect their new parliament, which in turn will elect the president. It”s a foregone conclusion that the African National Congress will win a majority; the only question is whether they will repeat their two-thirds plus majority of 1999 and 2004. Of interest will be also how the smaller parties, especially the ANC-breakaway Congress of the People will fare, and whether the ANC will lose, as expected, the regional government of the Western Cape (the province that includes Cape Town).

But I did the political thing on Monday. To mark the South African elections, let”s have some randomly chosen South African pop music. I covered the SA jazz angle a couple of months ago with this mix (did anyone like it?).

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Farryl Purkiss ““ Better Days.mp3
farryl_purkissAn appropriate title for today, even if the certain election of the misogynist homophobe Jacob Zuma is not a cause for extravagant optimism (though he can’t be much worse than Aids denialist, Mugabe-supporting Thabo Mbeki) . I”ve pushed the fare of Durban”s Farryl Purkiss in the past. This track, from his wonderful eponymously-titled 2006 album, is absolutely beautiful, in the singer-songwriter vein. He cites as an influence Elliott Smith, and at times sounds a lot like him, as well as the likes of Iron & Wine, Joe Purdy, Sufjan Stevens and Calexico. I have a hunch that Purkiss might have listened also to “70s folkie Shawn Phillips (who, incidentally, now lives in South Africa) and the majestic Patty Griffin. I wrote about a Purkiss gig I saw in July 2007 (here), where I took the photo on the right; oddly, I have missed all his subsequent gigs in my area. Purkiss on MySpace.

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Josie Field – Every Now And Then.mp3
josie_fieldThe same year, the lovely Josie Field had a radio hit (singles aren”t widely sold in SA, so charts are based on radio airplay) with this excellent song. I”m waiting for Natalie Imbruglia or somebody like that to cover it. Her debut album apparently sold 7,000 copies, which in her genre in South Africa is a very respectable number. With figures like that, I don”t know why anyone with Field”s obvious talent would bother to release albums in South Africa. (Homepage)
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Bright Blue – Weeping.mp3
bright-blueA real South African classic from 1986 which I think had some influence on the anti-apartheid struggle by way of conscientising young white South Africans. The song is about apartheid-era president PW Botha’s antics and features the strains of the then-banned struggle hymn Nkosi Sikelel” iAfrica. Strangely the state-owned radio stations played Weeping prodigiously. Songs had been banned for much less (a year previously, all Stevie Wonder music was banned from the airwaves after the singer dedicated his Grammy to Nelson Mandela).

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Juluka ““ Impi.mp3
julukaJuluka”s frontman Johnny Clegg “” the “White Zulu” “” did a great deal for the struggle by integrating himself into Zulu culture, with sincerity and respect for Zulu culture. His groups, first Juluka and then Savuka, where multi-racial at a time when that was virtually unheard of. I have seen many concerts by Clegg”s groups, including a fantastic one in London”s Kentish Town & Country Club. Invariably, these were incredibly energetic. As a live performer, Clegg was not far behind Springsteen. The highlight always 1981″s Impi, which would send the crowd wild, especially when Clegg did those high-kicking, floor-board shattering Zulu wardance moves.

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Brenda Fassie – Vuli Ndlela.mp3
brenda_fassieRecently a contestant in South Africa”s Idols show was favourably compared to the late Brenda Fassie. Such compliments are not offered lightly, not by sensible people. Fassie was a superstar, throughout Africa. People have compared her to Madonna (minus Fassie”s drug abuse, violence, lapses into madness, financial difficulties, lesbian affairs, and premature death). The comparison flatters Madonna. Fassie was a superstar but yet still one with the people, of the people. She showed that talent and charisma trumps vacant beauty. Vuli Ndlela was Fassie”s huge dance hit from 1998, an infectious number that by force of sheer energy compensates for some regrettable production values.

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Freshlyground ““ Castles In The Sky.mp3
freshlygroundDespite rumours of an impending break-up, Freshlygrounds remain South Africa”s most popular group. The multi-ethnic group transcends boundaries of race and genre. The group”s first hit, 2002″s Castles In The Sky, is a good example of veering between genres. This remixed version received the airplay; the original is a slightly African-inflected pop song which Everything But The Girl might have sung. The superior remix adds to it a House feel which turns the song into a slow-burning dance track. (Freshlyground homepage)

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Niki Daly – Is It An Ism Or Is It Art.mp3
nikidalyIn 1984, artist and author of children”s books Niki Daly had one of the more bizarre South African hits with this song, doubtless inspired by the likes of Bowie, Roxy Music, Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby. A great slice of mid-80s new wave. Like so much of great South African songs, it made no impression on the international charts. At least one of his books, Not So Fast, Songololo, is a children”s book classic. Many of the Capetonian”s books published in the 1980s promoted interracial relations, thereby helping to instil a mindset among those who were then children (and are now young adults) that colour ought not be a social barrier. Read more on Daly”s books.

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Andr̩ de Villiers РMemories.mp3
andre-de-villiers-017I have posted this before, and it proved a very popular song. When the link went dead, I received a few requests to please re-upload it. Memories, by a Cape Town-based songwriter of folk and gospel material, scored a lovely South African TV commercial for Volkswagen, perhaps my all-time favourite ad. I suppose it has special appeal for those who are experiencing the nostalgic musings that accompany middle-age. (André de Villiers” homepage)

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Next week is the 15th anniversary of South Africa”s first democratic election (obviously, racially exclusive elections should not be called democratic). If the above proves to be of any interest at all, I will mark that day with another eight randomly chosen South African songs. And if anyone has tried unsuccessfully to download the Mandela soundclips I posted last July, I”ve reuploaded them.

Mandela is 90

July 17th, 2008 7 comments

In the late “80s, the apartheid Security Branch raided my place a couple of times. That sounds more grandiose than it really was: my part in the destruction of the racist regime was minute. The fact that the SB was investigating at all me shows just how pervasive the bastards really were. I also hasten to point out that by the second raid, they had dispatched the intellectual rejects from the absolute bottom of their inbreds” gene pool. Captain Domgat”s line of interrogation included the question: “Are your friends European?”, employing the popular noun by which the racists liked to describe themselves. I could muster no greater wit than to reply that they were all born in South Africa. Captain Domgat was too feeble to rephrase his question. A fearsome interrogator he was not.

All the while a strong wind was blowing through the window, making the pages of my Marilyn Monroe calendar flutter. That made me nervous, because behind the calendar hung a picture of Nelson Mandela. That was contraband: it was illegal to own images or writings by banned persons, such as Mandela (especially Mandela), and illegal to publish these.

I got away with the pic, but had no such luck with a video film of Mandela”s life. Captain Domgat had instructed me to play all my videos. So by the time I got to the tape labelled something like Uncle Bert”s 60th Birthday Party, I knew I was in trouble. I remembered that last time I had stopped the video, it was at the scene of the Sharpville massacre. So I “accidentally” pressed the fast forward button, hoping to arrive at a non-descript scene, perhaps of Nelson and Winnie tasking a romantic stroll (without being stopped by a stupidly moustached cop like Captain Domgat demanding to see their passbooks). Of course, when I caught my “mistake” and pressed play, the film showed somebody building a bomb”¦ I never saw the video again. But I got off lightly. People were persecuted for lesser things.

All this is to mark the 90th birthday of Nelson Mandela, the greatest man alive, on Friday, July 18. I”ve been in close proximity to Mandela only twice. I”ve met many famous people, but none with an aura like that man. I could almost cut it.

I have written before about the day Mandela was released (link here). Now that he is frail and very old, I dread the day he dies. Not because I expect that his death will unleash a torrent of civil unrest, but because a world without Mandela will be a world diminished. Rarely have the traits of idealism, principle, pragmatism, intelligence, integrity, honour, courage, charisma, charm and generosity of spirit coalesced in one man to such degrees as it has with Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Whatever the man”s personal failings, and he certainly was no Gandhi, his peace building in South Africa was nothing less than heroic.

Sadly his legacy ““ a model democratic dispensation ““ is being distorted and wrecked by his successors in the ANC who display little by way idealism, principle, pragmatism, intelligence, integrity, honour, courage, charisma, charm or generosity of spirit. The current leadership, and that which it has replaced, is by and large morally tainted. What heritage of Mandela”s is being sustained when two leaders undertake to “kill for Zuma” should the presumptive future president of South Africa be made to answer charges of corruption and racketeering in court?

Still, even in this political climate, Mandela remains a hero. Everybody wants a piece of him. Every two-bit celebrity or slimy pol who comes to South Africa wants an audience with him. I suspect that these audiences are contingent on contributions being offered to the various foundations in Mandela”s name. If so, how much did it cost Gerri Halliwell to touch Mandela”s arse? And, speaking of fundraising, what sort of wankwit will shell out $17,000 for a platinum bangle bearing the numbers 46664, Mandela”s prison number which now is the name of his AIDS charity? Charity bling is just obscene. That is not to say that Mandelas”s foundations don”t do good work. But I am alarmed by the apparent commoditisation of Mandela (note that I don”t call him by his clan name Madiba, an overused name which at once indicates affection and lack of respect if not employed by those close to him). Oh, but Mandela has loads of pop pals. Ole Blue Shades is a good friend of Mandela”s too, the ingratiating tosser.

The world would be a poorer without Mandela, but a better place without those ghastly 46664 concerts. Before the first 46664 concert in Cape Town, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics pontificated about how South Africa must address its poverty problem. Of course, being thus put in place by this man of stature and relevance, the government lurched into immediate action. And at a more recent 46664 concert in Johannesburg, Stewart”s erstwhile sidekick, the ghastly Annie Lennox, positioned herself next to Mandela as he made a speech about sexual responsibility as a way to fight AIDS et cetera. All the while Lennox was emphatically nodding her head, as if her consent to Mandela”s words would persuade “the kids” to “listen to this man”. Did that delusional cow think that a sign of her dissent would in any way impair the reception of Mandela”s speech?

I blame Mandela”s people who are obviously so clueless as to think that Annie Lennox or Sting are relevant. They probably are the kind of people who”ll profess a passion for soul music. You know, like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. How difficult is it to round up two dozen authentically relevant acts for those 46664 gigs (if one must have them in first place). I”d be happy to invite Mandela around to my place to give him some guidance on the matter. As long as I don”t have to give money to his behemoth, overstaffed charities.

Here is some music to celebrate Mandela”s birthday. Hugh Masekela”s urgent and danceable Bring Him Back is a live version of his 1987 song (which could not have anticipated that Nelson and Winnie would one day divorce). Brenda Fassie was the queen of South African pop, which did not prevent her from making political statements such as this excellent song about Mandela, released in 1989 when the regime was making its last bitter stand. I posted the Bright Blue track a year ago: Weeping, from 1987, was the first big hit by a white South African group to blantantly criticise the apartheid regime. It features strains of the struggle anthem Nkosi Sikel’ iAfrica, yet it was not banned on state-owned radio. Peter Tosh”s Apartheid, from 1977, probably does not express Mandela”s mind (“You in me land” sounds more like Mugabe”s gig), but it was a popular song among anti-apartheid activists during the struggle. I needn”t introduce 1984″s Free Nelson Mandela (also reposted) or Sun City from the following year.

Brenda Fassie – Black President.mp3
Hugh Masekela – Bring Him Back Home (live).mp3
Artists United Against Apartheid – Sun City.mp3
Peter Tosh – Apartheid.mp3
The Special A.K.A. – Free Nelson Mandela.mp3
Johnny Clegg & Savuka – Asimbonanga.mp3
Bright Blue – Weeping.mp3

The other files are of historical interest. Two files of Mandela speaking, on recorded during the Rivonia trial which sentenced him to life imprisonment, the other from his first speech as a free man in February 1990 (on this clip he restates his iconic manifesto from the Rivonia trial). The other spoken file is the judge, Quartus de Wet, sentencing Mandela and his co-accused (including the saintly Walter Sisusulu). Note his use of the word non-European; perhaps he was Captain Domgat”s uncle. Then there are sounds from the struggle: the freedom song Rolihlahla (Mandela”s Xhosa name), the full anthem (compare to the hybrid version of South Africa”s current national anthem), and a clip of chanting to the wardance-like toyi toyi.

(Links below updated on March 16, 2009)

Nelson Mandela – Demand for equal rights for African People (Rivonia Trial).mp3
Rivonia Trial – Sentencing (Judge Quartus de Wet).mp3
Nelson Mandela – Day of release from prison, Cape Town 1990.mp3

Struggle Songs – Nkosi Sikel’ iAfrica.mp3
Struggle Songs – Rolihlahla.mp3
Struggle Songs – Toyi Toyi Beat.mp3

Albums of the Year: 1987

June 11th, 2008 No comments
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Some time ago I started a series of my favourite albums of the year, starting with round-ups of the ’50s and the years 1960-65. It was a good idea, but the prospect of choosing ten albums from 1966 and writing about them somehow put me off. So I procrastinated in continuing the series. Then, this morning, it hit me: why the compulsion to follow the years in a rigorously tidy chronology? Surely I won’t receive a flood of complaints if I focus on random years. So we’ll continue the long dormant series with a random year, inspired by the album I was playing in the car as I had my brainwave, and which tops the list. A few caveats: these lists represent my top 10 of albums in terms of my own enjoyment and/or the nostalgic bonds they represent. Greatest hits type compilations are not considered (else New Order’s Substance album would have featured). And, no, I never liked The Joshua Tree much, by 1987 I was past my Depeche Mode phase, and never owned Actually.

1. The Jesus And Mary Chain – Darklands
Somewhere I read the Jesus And Mary Chain’s 1985 aptly named debut Psychocandy described as the Beach Boys being played by vacuum cleaners, or a notion to that effect. The description is spot on: the rather lovely tunes struggled to be heard above the feedback. It sounded great, but somehow one wondered how great JAMC might be with a cleaner sound. Two years later the Reid brothers switched off the vacuum cleaner and, Hoover be praised, produced that clean sound. Listen to Cherry Came Too: you can imagine it being sung by the Beach Boys back in the day. Indeed, the Reid boys wore their influences with ease. The dark Nine Million Rainy Days pays homage, wittingly or not, to the Stones’ Sympathy To The Devil. Closing track About You could have been sung by Nico and the Velvet Underground. The title track channels Berlin-era Bowie (but is much better than that). Yet, they could not be accused of plagiarism, as Oasis would be later. The whole thing incorporates earlier sounds without compromising the JAMC’s originality. Two decades later, the album still sounds fresh and exciting. A forgotten classic.
The Jesus And Mary Chain – Darklands.mp3
The Jesus And Mary Chain – Nine Million Rainy Days.mp3

2. Prince – Sign O’ The Times
There probably is a critical consensus that Sign O’ The Times is the best album of 1987. There is indeed much to be admired. The music is great, of course. Provided one is in the mood for it, because it can be a bit tedious. Let it play on a non-Prince day — and surely everybody but the most devoted Prince fan has these — and the whole thing has the capacity to irritate. It is not a pop masterpiece like Purple Rain; SOTT demands that you to listen it, and forgive its trespasses, especially the flab (oh, but if you condensed it down to a single album, which tracks would you cut?). SOTT is to Prince what the White Album was to the Beatles: despite the flaws that tend to be a by product of innovation, a masterpiece.
Prince – Sign O’ The Times.mp3
Prince – Starfish And Coffee.mp3

3. The Smiths – Strangeways Here We Come
A year earlier, the Smiths had released their ageless opus, The Queen Is Dead. Now Morrissey, Marr and chums themselves delivered their swansong. It was not necessarily their finest hour: lead single Girlfriend In A Coma is a lightweight novelty number, presaging Morrissey’s solo career that is riddled with similar witless doggerels. It was a bizarre choice for a single. I submit that Unhappy Birthday might have become a big cult hit on the back of its wonderfully vicious lyrics. A Rush And A Push… and the oppressive Death Of A Disco Dancer are excellent, and Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me is one of the most affecting songs in a canon jam-packed with such things. The line “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head” is emotionally exhausting. It is a great piece of sequencing that this track, a throw-back to the self-pity years, is preceded — at least on the CD, for Last Night… opens side 2 — by a song called Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before.
The Smiths – Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Love Me.mp3

4. Alexander O’Neal – Hearsay
When ’80s soul became unfashionable, O’Neal became something of a reject emblem for the out-of-favour genre. It was rather unfair on the man. He made some classy soul music in his time, thanks to his effortlessly expressive voice and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ sparkling funk-soul-pop arrangements. Hearsay is a concept album, with dialogue intros preceding each song (they tend to grate once the novelty has worn off). The first side is the going-to-a-party section with great funk tracks such as Fake and Criticise, on the flip side things mellow down a bit, though the thing continues to groove, as on the gorgeous duet with the frequent collaborator Cherelle, Never Knew Love Like This. This is one of the great soul albums of the ’80s. Why would anyone want to dismiss Alexander O’Neal? Little known fact: O’Neal was the singer of a group called the Flyte Tyme (with Jam and Lewis). The group was signed to Prince’s Paisley Park label, but after a dispute with His Tiny Highness, O’Neal left the group, which hired one Morris Day and renamed itself The Time, providing the baddy foil to Prince’s flawed hero in Purple Rain.
Alexander O’Neal – Criticise.mp3

5. Lloyd Cole & the Commotions – Mainstream
In a comment to a post in which I featured Lloyd Cole’s best song, Rattlesnakes, Rol from the fine Sunset Over Slawit blog wrote that he “could live inside” that song. I know exactly what he means. Likewise, I could spend a lost weekend (with or without a brand-new friend) in Cole’s Mainstream album. Lloyd’s final album with the Commotions, it did less well than its two predecessors. This is a pity, because — and this may be fighting talk — it is in some ways even better than the debut, Rattlesnakes, and most certainly superior to the sophomore album, Easy Pieces. On Mainstream, Cole and his increasingly distant friends returned to the guitar-based sound of the debut. Lyrically, Cole seemed to be at war with himself, his band and the world. On the side two opener he prnounced himself Mr Malcontent, and on the excellent From The Hip, he declared that he doesn’t care anymore. Oh, but he did. There are a couple of commitment songs, notably Jennifer She Said. That line “her name on you…Jennifer in blue” is a regular earworm, sometimes supplanted by the repetitious “that’s forever she said…”.
Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – From The Hip.mp3

6. Basia – Time And Tide
There is a very good reason why this jazz-pop singer goes by her Christian name. Basia Trzetrzelewska (try saying that after a few pints of finest Hevelius) provided the splendid three-octave female voice on Matt Bianco’s first LP. While I rather enjoyed Matt Bianco, their Get Out Of Your Lazy Bed song used to irritate me when I was still a notorious morning grump. There was nothing aggravating about her 1987 solo debut, a finely judged collection of Latin-tinged jazz-pop which could with ease move the twinkletoed to the dancefloor to do the samba (or its Capetonian cousin, the jazz). The title track and Promises received fairly wide exposure, and are indeed the strongest numbers on the album. But the entire set is strong, with the possible exception of Prime Time TV and How Dare You. Check out songs such as New Day For You or Astrud.
Basia – New Day For You.mp3

7. The Housemartins – The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death
Like an Indie-pop supernova, the Housemartins burnt out after two albums. It probably was just as well: the überanorak shtick was going to get them only so far. So bassplayer Norman Cook became a DJ and then Fat Boy Slim; singer Paul Heaton and replacement drummer Dave Hemingway formed the Beautiful South. Before going their own way, our Marxist-Christian pals left us with a maddeningly uneven yet rather enjoyable album, the title of which was a reference to the royal family. By now the political consciousness started to mingle uneasily with the wackiness. What at first was endearing started to irritate. The single Five Get Overexcited, catchy jangly guitar pop with a message about superficiality though it was, had annoying lrics (“I am mad from Scandinavia, I want a guy in the London area. He must be crazy and Sagittaurus, ’cause I am Leo and I’m hilarious”). Conversely, a serious song about the rotten class-system like Me And The Farmer fails to convey its message thanks to a happy melody (and a very silly video). The People Who… is at its strongest when things are allowed to calm down a bit. And so the stand-out tracks are the quieter Build and The Light Is Always Green. As an opponent of apartheid, I particularly appreciated the inclusion of Johannesburg, although the Housemartins deviation towards jazz was less welcome.
The Housemartins – The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death.mp3

8. Wet Wet Wet – Popped In Souled Out
This may be one of the most unjustly disrespected albums of the ’80s. I cannot understand why Wet Wet Wet have such a poor reputation. Is it because they were initially marketed as the teenybopper group they never could be (I mean, Marti Pellow was good looking, but the drummer and the little one are hardly dreamy heartthtrobs)? Is it because that song from a Hugh Grant movie was so ubiquitous? Was it the name? The answer is beyond me, but it surely cannot have been the music on the Scottish band’s debut album. This is high-quality blue-eyed soul, made by people who clearly understand the genre. The sound draws from ’60s pop and ’70s soul, and Pellow’s vocals settle for a fine balance between soul technique and pop delivery. The songs are very catchy. Strings swell, but never in a corny way. The lyrics aren’t Tom Waits or Patti Smith, but they remain on the right side of pop banality (and sometimes they are pretty good). What, I beg you, is there not to like here?
Wet Wet Wet – Wishing I Was Lucky.mp3

9. INXS – Kick
Let the record reflect that I had no time for INXS before Kick, and none after. And yet, I love this album. It is the most accessible INXS album; the slew of hits that emanated from it testifies to that. It is also their least self-conscious album; Hutchence lets it hang out like Jagger and actually seems to be enjoying himself. On Need You Tonight, Hutchence is sex personified. When he sings “Your moves are so raw, I’ve got to let you know…I’ve got to let you know: you’re one of my kind”, he is having hot ‘n sweaty sex. With you (well, if you happen to be listening to it). I can happily live without a few tracks from Kick, such as opener Guns In The Sky or Calling All Nations, but for all their exposure, I am never unhappy to hear Devil Inside, Never Tear Us Apart, Mediate, New Sensation, Mystify or the song on which Hutchence is having sex with us.
INXS – Need You Tonight.mp3

10. Johnny Clegg & Savuka – Third World Child
I like Johnny Clegg. I like it that an English-born Jewish boy would defy apartheid, which was predicated not only on the separation of races but also of cultures, and assimilate with Zulu culture but not lose the awareness that he could never be a fully-fledged Zulu. His affinity with the Zulu culture is sincere, as was evident in his previous group, Juluka. When Juluka colleague Sipho Mchunu left the group, Clegg founded Savuka. His new group continued in the Juluka tradition; in concerts the setlist included most Juluka classics and the old dance routines with the highkicks. Third World Child was more commercial and polished than Juluka, possibly consciously so as to appeal to the fans of Paul Simon’s Graceland. It was a better album for it, I think. One has the direct comparison of Scatterlings Of Africa, a Juluka single in 1982 and re-recorded by Savuka for this album. The latter version is marginally better. At times Third World Child, like everything Clegg does, is a little too earnest, and sometimes it seems Clegg got bored with an idea before completing its development. But, goodness, when it’s good, it really is great. Apart from Scatterlings, the stand-out tracks are Great Heart and the great anti-apartheid song dedicated to the then still jailed Nelson Mandela, Asimbonanga, with its moving litany of activists who were murdered by the regime.
Johnny Clegg & Savuka – Asimbonanga.mp3

Previously featured:
1950s
1960-65