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Any Major ABC of South Africa

Over the weekend, an article on how Malcolm McLaren brazenly plagiarised a South African song from 1977 for his 1983 hit Double Dutch came to my attention. The piece, written by Carsten Rasch and published in South Africa’s Sunday Times, is poorly edited, but it serves as a reminder of the ways in which black artists especially have been ripped off over and over again. At the centre here is how McLaren ripped off a 1977 tune, Puleng by The Boyoyo Boys, to create his biggest hit, the very catchy Double Dutch.

This sorry tale of theft and exploitation echoes the infuriating story of how a South African song named Mbube became a mega hit called The Lion Sleeps Tonight, on which all manner of white people cashed in — but not the man who wrote and first recorded it (and his family had to fight to get crumbs off the table). You can revisit my brief account of it at The Originals: Classics. Or seek out the very good 2019 Netflix documentary ReMastered: The Lion’s Share.

McLaren might have called his acts of theft — he looted various musical traditions — “taking inspiration”, but he betrayed these traditions when he failed to credit them. Before he ripped off the Bayoyo Boys, he plagiarised a tune by another South African outfit, the Mahotella Queens, for the Bow Wow Wow hit See Jungle! (Jungle Boy). Links to both songs are embedded in the Sunday Times article.

These were acts of cultural violence, and of cultural appropriation, though that term was not a big issue when these tunes were whitewashed (except to Peter Gabriel, who called McLaren out on it at the time). Where the lyrics of The Lion Sleeps Tonight riffed on African cliché, McLaren barely gave a nod to the cultural origins of the tune he stole, emigrating the mbaqanga sounds of South Africa’s townships to New York City.

Double Dutch, and other tracks by McLaren, were recorded in South Africa, with South African musicians, produced by Trevor Horn, who is also complicit in this sorry tale. The musicians were paid a flat fee, which in itself is fair practice. But Horn revealed the business ethics behind McLaren’s global raid on musical heritage himself: “The Africans got married on what we paid them. The Cubans charged us a lot of money, they really had their heads screwed on right. The Dominicans charged us a fortune. They screwed us!” That’s what it sounds like when music’s colonialists exploit people. “The Africans got married on what we paid them.” Translation: “These fools should be grateful for what we bothered to pay them.”

The copyright holders of the songs which McLaren plagiarised eventually sued, and the case was settled out of court — but no composer of the song saw the money, or received a songwriting credit for it. White justice!

The writer of the Sunday Times article sums it up well: “Truth is, McLaren and Horn arrived at these shores, and like a pair of modern-day Cecil John Rhodeses, took what they wanted from the ‘gullible natives’ — so grateful to be blessed by the presence of these big white music bwanas they bent over backwards, allowed themselves to be morphed into ‘McLarenettes’ (a contrived group name for the musicians who played the music on the various tracks) — and deprived them of their just composer credits, not to mention money.”

Graceland and apartheid

The question of cultural appropriation brings me to Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland album, which he recorded with a host of South African artists during the time of the cultural boycott against apartheid. These artists included groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Stimela, and local jazz giants like Morris Goldberg and Mike Makhalemele. These musicians suffered under apartheid and opposed it. And the South African musicians appreciated the fair royalties, ethical attributions, and exposure their involvement created. For example, bassist Bakithi Kumalo built a great career as an international session musician on account of that bassline on You Can Call Me Al.

One can accuse Simon of arrogance in not following Harry Belafonte’s counsel to consult the exiled ANC first, but he did obtain the support of the South African musicians’ union — hardly collaborators with apartheid — and the approval of exiled heavyweight like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. Clearly, there’s a world of a difference between empowering musicians living under oppression, and acts like Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart or Queen playing Sun City in contempt of the oppressed. And there’s a canyon of a difference between the exploitation of culture and people perpetrated by McLaren and Horn, and the mostly respectful way Simon treated his fellow musicians.

Though, it must be said, Simon might have included a proper anti-apartheid tune in his set, and his dismissal of that idea was petulant and even disrepctful. You Can Call Me Al’s lyrics weren’t that good to begin with, and its video might have featured the South African musicians who played on it — (Ray Phiri on guitar; Morris Goldberg on pennywhistle, Isaac Mtshali on drums, Ladysmith Black Mambazo on background vocals, and Kumalo on bass) — rather than a pair of middle-aged white American men pretending to play these instruments.

An ABC of South Africa

That article on McLaren’s theft prompted me to complete this mix of Any Major ABC of South Africa — one artist per letter of the alphabet. The timing is appropriate: Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising against apartheid education, a public holiday in the country.

As always, the choice of artist to represent letters is quite random; they don’t necessarily are the best or most representative act for that letter. If that was so, I’d have given the letter H to Hugh Masekela.

This mix doesn’t tell the history of South African music, nor is it complete. But it gives what I hope is a taste of some of the country’s incredibly broad music scene, which ranges from ever-developing township pop styles to jazz to reggae to country to hip hop to indie to rock to gospel to musicals to Afrikaans schlagers (and more).

I was glad to include a few favourites by way of collaborations. The Skylarks were Miriam Makeba’s first group in the 1950s, and on the present song they recorded with Spokes Mashiane, the “King of the Pennywhistle”. Togegher they cover the letter S. Theirs was the sound of Sophiatown, a black neighbourhood in Johannesburg which was ethnically cleansed in the 1950s and renamed by the regime as Triomph (which means exactly what you suspect it does).

A few years later, the regime declared District 6, a mixed-race neighbourhood on the edge of the city centre of Cape Town, a “white group area”. Over the next decade, the entire area was razed, and its “mixed-race” population dumped into far-off townships. One of these is called Manenberg, which inspired a superb jazz tune by Dollar Brand (now known as Abdullah Ibrahim). In the midst of the gangs and poverty (well, geographically at the periphery of it), the late jazz pianist Tony Schilder helped open a sophisticated jazz club named Montreal. The song here is the club’s “theme song”, sung by the great vocalist and saxophonist Robbie Jansen (who appeared, with the above-mentioned Graceland contributor Morris Goldberg, on Dollar Brand’s jazz classic). Montreal, here in its rare 1985 version, also features Jonathan Butler on guitar. It is the sound of Cape Town.

As is Pacific Express’ Give A Little Love. The jazz-rock band — led by Tony Schilder’s brother Chris and whose former members included Jonathan Butler and Robbie Jansen — was having a radio hit with the uncharacteristic soul ballad in 1978. All went well, until the state broadcaster realised that the group was mixed-race and South African, whereupon the video clip of the song was banned from TV.

A couple of songs here are stone-cold South African classics. Mandoza’s 2000 kwaito hit Nkalakatha still fires up parties; it crossed over like no other kwaito hit before or since.

And 1980s Paradise Road by Joy was an anti-apartheid song about interracial love, which was strictly illegal under apartheid. State radio didn’t notice, and the song, with Anneline Malebo’s soaring vocals, topped the SA charts for nine weeks — and crossed the racial divides. Malebo’s story ended unhappily: in 2002 she died in poverty from AIDS-related causes, having contracted the virus after being raped at a party. Shortly before her death, old friends discovered her living in squalor in a Cape Town township, and had her transferred to a hospice where she died in some dignified comfort.

And under B, we hear the Bayoyo Boys with the song Malcolm McLaren stole. Any other day, the late Brenda Fassie would have taken that spot. There is no X… Even so, the mix is too long to fit on a standard CD-R, but I’ve made home-jived covers anyway. The above text is included in an illustrated PDF for comfortable reading and later reference. PW in comments.

1. Allou April – Bringing Joy (2002)
2. Boyoyo Boys – Puleng (1977)
3. Cofield Mundi – Count Me Out (2006)
4. Dorothy Masuka – Khauleza (1959)
5. Emil Dean Zoghby – Won’t You Join Me (1970)
6. Farryl Purkiss – Ducking And Diving (2006)
7. Goldfish feat. John Mani – One Million Views (2013)
8. Harari – Get Funky (1981)
9. Isochronous – The Curve (2010)
10. Joy – Paradise Road (1980)
11. Karma – Pachelbel (1998)
12. Lira – Mali (2011)
13. Mandoza – Nkalakatha (2000)
14. Nancy Jacobs & Her Sisters – Meadowlands (1956)
15. Oskido – Une Mali (2020) [BUY]
16. Pacific Express – Give A Little Love (1978)
17. Qkumba Zoo – Harbour Song (2021) [BUY]
18. Ringo – Sondela (1997)
19. Skylarks with Miriam Makeba & Spokes Mashiyane – Ekoneni (1950s)
20. Tony Schilder with Robbie Jansen – Montreal (1985)
21. Una Valli – Take Me For A Little While (1968)
22. Vusi Mahlasela – Moleko (2006)
23. Wendy Oldfield – Acid Rain (1991)
24. Yvonne Chaka Chaka – Umqombothi (1986)
25. Zahara – Ndize (2011)

GET IT! or HERE!

PREVIOUS ABCs:
ABC of 1950s
ABC of 1960s
ABC of 1970s
ABC of 1990s
ABC of 2000s
ABC of Soul
ABC of Country
ABC of Christmas

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  1. amdwhah
    June 17th, 2021 at 10:50 | #1

    PW = amdwhah

  2. Jens Martens
    June 21st, 2021 at 13:46 | #2

    I always knew that Malcom McLaren and Trevor Horns were clever frauds … but to the extent of wilfully ignoring contributions and songs of active co-musicians … that’s shameless … African music still is a “Buch mit sieben Siegeln” for me, regardless of all the ethno/ World music trends …

  3. roberto barreiro figueroa
    June 25th, 2021 at 21:46 | #3

    Not amazing news if you live in the third world. this is something that happen too much . but the good part is that you did something like this , to know more aobut the sound of south africa

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