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South Africa – Vol. 2

June 18th, 2010 4 comments

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

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.