A quick overview of 60 000 years of South African music

The history of South African music begins with the release of Hlokoloza by Arthur in September 2011. I’ve only been doing my research on Twitter so far, so I might be wrong. Let me just check some other sources…

Oh, right. It turns out SA music started when Fokofpolisiekar did Hemel Op Die Platteland, at least that’s what I learnt from watching MK.

Or maybe SA music starts with the first time Bed On Bricks played Rocking The Daisies. Or is the 0AD of South African Music the moment Krushed & Sorted first played the Zula Bar?

Maybe South African music started with a shamanic San chant around a fire in the Kalahari…

It’s probably all of the above. For many of us, our love for SA music begins with our first live show. Maybe we heard a song we liked on the radio, and were stunned to be told that, no, the band’s actually South African. And what’s more they’re playing a show in our town.

Sure, we were under age, but if we lied to our folks and pretended we were going to a “slumber party” at our mate Acorn’s house… And then begged a lift with his older brother, who worked for Mr Delivery… And then decanted some gin into this little cooldrink bottle…

It’s a highly personal experience, South African music. And it means a completely different thing to every person.

Where it started, anthropologically speaking, would be around the communal clan fire in prehistory, as small bands of humans danced and chanted themselves into a trance of transcendence.

Assuming music is art, aimed at manipulating human emotions, anthropologists reckon human music would have begun between 60 000 and 30 000 years ago, when we started manipulating each other’s emotions. That’s around the same time we started carving stuff, painting on walls, and saying, “no really, I don’t mind,” when we actually do.

Back then, being a hominid wasn’t the mellow chill-fest it is today. So singing and dancing helped to scare away predators, make boring tasks easier and whip the men into a seething battle trance so they felt neither fear nor pain and could rip adversaries’ lungs from their ribcages without flinching.

Go check a metal show sometime, and you’ll see how that works.

The initial musical instruments were probably voices, stomps and handclaps, employed during physical acts like dance and also during chores like stamping corn, winnowing wheat or gathering building materials.

Traditional chants are still used for these purposes in, for instance Pygmy and Khoi-San societies, illustrating that music has always been participative and inseparably part of lifestyle and culture.

The first manufactured instruments were probably flutes made from animal bone. They’ve found some bone flutes in Slovenia, that musical hotbed, that are 37 000 years old.

From there, humans start getting quite inventive with their musical expression, with Africans not shy at all. Instruments like mbira, djembe, kora, xalam (an ancestor of the banjo), mbila, marimba, kashaka, all had ritual and cultural significance, where music was an integral part of African communities. Song and dance were equally important in royal and vernacular context.

Music developed separately and in parallel in Africa and Europe, so that the minute the two cultures began interacting in the colonial era, both had much to learn from each other.

While undiluted African music culture is hard to identify, a lot of work was done from the 1920s onwards by a man named Hugh Tracey to record it using early technology. His recordings of everything from mine dances to Ganda palace music to Haya zither performances to Chopi xylophones to Zulu mouth-bow hymns are today housed in the International Library of African Music (ILAM) at Rhodes University, Grahamstown. They are available commercially on 215 records or 25 CDs.

Many of these cultures began assimilating and disappearing in the modern era. But in their place there arose vibrant new styles of urban and rural African music.

In the 1800s European music was brought to the South African colonies by military bands and by colourful characters like Charles Etienne Boniface, who was a journalist, music teacher, dramatist and theatre impresario.

Even as white and black communities kept each other at arm’s length, their music was cross-pollinating.
African-American music, itself descended from that of African slaves brought to America, also began to return to Africa after emancipation. Impresario Orpheus McAdoo spent several years touring South Africa in the 1880s with a group of negro singers, The Virginia Jubilee Singers. Their spirituals and syncopated, secular music with close harmonies hugely influenced local black music, as noted by Rian Malan in Resident Alien.

The first recording of “South African music” was possibly the war cry of the 1906 Springbok rugby team, laid down on aluminium disc while the team, captained by Paul Roos, was in London on tour. The chant itself was a bastardised Zulu, embarrassing to modern sensibilities.

Gallo Recording Studios first began recording local artists in Johannesburg in 1932. These were initially performances in African vernacular and Afrikaans, as English-language recordings were easy to source from overseas.

The biggest hit in these early years was made by Gallo employee Solomon Linda with his band the Evening Birds. In 1939 he recorded Mbube, which went on to sell more than 100 000 copies over the next decade.

The recording made it to the USA, where over decades the song was variously adapted, travestied, stolen, covered, interpreted, stolen back and released as Wimoweh and later The Lion Sleeps Tonight. It became probably the most well-known African melody of all time. Behold, The Tokens, the godfathers of African music…

After World War II, as apartheid began to bite, songs by black artists protested the new dispensation, such as on Meadowlands by Nancy Jacobs and Her Sisters, which rails against forced removals. But no comrade really represented the struggle internationally as well as Mama Afrika Miriam Makeba for a good three decades, and consistently as eloquently as this. (And there’s spoken-word poetry, in case you miss that…)

In the meantime, boeremusiek had evolved from its European roots as a fusion of Afrikaans folk song and accordion-driven dance music. It gained in popularity in the lead-up to the Great Trek centenary in 1938, when Hendrik Susan became a star.

Nico Carstens, who played with Susan, later became an even bigger star, having an international treffer with Zambezi.

It was an African title for a song in the European tradition, although Carstens’ music shows strong African-American jazz influences. Watching his performance in the film Stadig Oor Die Klippe is an almost psychedelic funky groove experience.

In hardcore circles, Carstens is not even acknowledged as playing true boeremusiek. He himself has called his style Afrikwela or boereqanga and in later years played many afrojazz and ghoema tunes.
But township music has shown the better ability to evolve, adapt and adopt influences – generally in a more organic, slick way than some clumsy attempts at musical integration from the white artists.

From the piano-driven marabi style of the 1930s, to swing jazz and pennywhistle jive in the 1950s to electrified mbaqanga in the 1960s, jazz-rock, pop and disco in the 1970s and pantsula in the 1980s, South African urban pop has melted and flowed like a stream of musical joy through our troubled history.

But despite all this, South African pop music has remained segregated by style and predilection, if not by race.

White sounds have shown a healthy pop and rock proclivity and we’ve often been recognized on the international charts. Styles-wise, though, the sound of SA rock has generally followed world trends.

So, an admittedly world-class SA psych band like Freedom’s Children sounds a bit like Small Faces, Pink Floyd or Procul Harem. The Bats sound like early Kinks. 4 Jacks And A Jill reminds of Peter Paul & Mary. Rabbitt sounds like Bee-Gees. SA punk band Wild Youth were channeling Sex Pistols. Asylum Kids, The Clash.

South African rock… look, it’s rock, firmly within that paradigm. But, as the documentary Punk In Africa points out, “it’s got a little bit of African… elements in it”. Unlike township musicians, no SA rockers can claim we invented our own style of music.

By the Seventies and Eighties, there were some interesting experiments on the margins of the style. The Genuines made super-fast ghoema rock in between their jazzier excursions. National Wake had an afro-ragga, mbaqanga feel. Harari made a funky kind of Afro-rock. And of course the mighty Juluka of Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu achieved an authentic fusion of Zulu maskandi music with the western pop-rock tradition. James Phillips wrote challenging, sharp, topical, rock tunes.

The Afrikaans pop scene had also undergone changes. Where before the sound had been syrupy ballads or boeremusiek, in the late 1970s singer-songwriters like Anton Goosen, Koos du Plessis and Laurika Rauch began a more thoughtful trend.

In the 1980s, the struggle got more intense and the white government more indefensible. Afrikaans rock took their political consciousness to a new level with experimental art-rockers like KOOS and the Voëlvry movement, featuring Koos Kombuis, Johannes Kerkorrel and Bernoldus Niemand aka James Phillips.

Musically, white mainstream pop was largely derivative. Black pop was innovative and vibrant, but unheard outside SA, save on appropriations by Paul Simon and Malcolm McLaren, both still accused of cultural imperialism to this day.

By the time of democracy in 1994, the South African popular music market was ready for something fresh. That’s what happened, but anyone expecting a joyful coming together of all pop styles in a musical celebration of one-ness for the love of Madiba was going to be disappointed.

What we got was kwaito, the “SA Rock Explosion” and the arrival of rave. All at once. It was quite a time to go jolling in South Africa.

Kwaito, the next step in the ongoing stylistic development of contemporary pop, was influenced by the bubblegum disco jive of Brenda Fassie, who recorded the odd kwaito song with “King of Kwaito” Arthur as well as well by as house, hip-hop, dancehall and traditional African call-and-response vocals.

Also, in the same way as cheap pennywhistles led to kwela and electric guitars led to mbaqanga, the arrival of easily programmable electronic keyboards fuelled the kwaito boom. The easiest thing to program on a Casiotone is a four-on-the-floor, doef-dish loop. Kwaito beats.

Another way to see kwaito is the sound of house with the look and feel of hip-hop. Indeed, as kwaito has evolved, it’s veered between these two poles, getting either more house-y or more like hip-hop.

Kwaito’s lyrical content was free of the struggle, it celebrated ghetto life, fun and dance. Many kwaito tracks came with a ready-made dance to accompany it, particularly if they were by Arthur.

The SA rock scene, perhaps fuelled by a new guilt-free whiteness, and the fact that young okes no longer faced conscription, boomed.

Whereas in the Eighties an angstful 18-year-old white boy had to either go to army, defer it by studying or go hide overseas, post-1994 he could grow his hair, smoke zol and start a band. Many did.

Springbok Nude Girls, Squeal, Lithium, Wonderboom and Sugardrive arose here, influenced by the grunge sound then current. Urban Creep strove for a more afropop influenced sound, in the tradition of earlier, more conscious rock acts like Bright Blue, Big Sky, Juluka and James Phillips.

On the club scene, the lifting of oppressive security laws led to a new hedonism, as the rave movement took hold. The same empowering technology that was driving kwaito also launched a thousand debauched, imported-techno house raves, fuelled by easy dwellies and enthusiastic DJs.

By the time the hangover set in, the rave movement had consolidated into smaller scenes driven by genres like trance, breakbeats, deep house, drum n bass and others.

As the millennium turned, the next wave of rock acts emerged, inspired by their grungy older mates. Irate grungers Seether were probably the most successful of these, going on to an international career and several worldwide hits.

Fokofpolisiekar exploded out of Bellville around 2003, rocking out in Afrikaans in a way their predecessors had not. They spawned a movement of dozens of likeminded bands and gave impetus to MK, the TV rock channel, campus rock radio and several Afrikaans-driven rock fests.

And today, here we are! South Africa’s respective music scenes remain as stubbornly segmented as ever, but no more so than the world at large, where the electronic/urban/rock distinction defines contemporary pop.

But thanks to the empowering internet, any talk of a “music industry” is completely nebulous these days. Music fans can expose themselves to any style of music on the planet at the click of a button, be it Afrobeat, zydeco, bhangra, chillwave, dubstep, J-Pop, nerdcore hip-hop or Viking Metal. They can make that music themselves, record it, produce and distribute it and set up a radio and a TV station broadcast it to the planet. All without leaving their bedroom.

These days artists are distinguished by their marketing as much as by their talent and their style.
And of course, the true energy of music today, as in prehistory, lies in the live performance of it, in being able to participate in the music. There’s still an expectation of artists that at some point they should be able to play their music to a group of fans, so they can maybe dance to it. Or mosh to it. Hlokoloza. Pogo. Codesa. Crowdsurf. Nod. Headbutt each other in the face… as they wish.

And the barriers are slowly coming down.

Zahara’s debut album sold more than five times platinum with an acoustic singer-songwriter style closer to Jack Johnson than urban pop. Joburg white boy Danny K is one of the few guys making a go of an R&B career. Some of our better rock bands these days have been black cats like Blk Jks, BCUC and The Brother Moves On, their music as much ancient as futuristic.

Kwaito is currently in a house phase, unless you count Spoek Mathambo, in which case it’s way breakbeat-y futuristic electro tech. Jozi are sampling mbaqanga, white dudes are playing maskandi, you find the elderly at trance raves, afro-jazz is on Broadway…

Music is a freeform, cross-pollinating freakshow out here. Get into what you dig, or put something else with it. That’s the way it’s always been here on the South African music scene. And that’s how we like it.

This story first appeared in The Big Issue

Writer for television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Editor and writer of books. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). The last whitey at umsebenzi. Latest book 415 Action-Packed Neighbourhood Marketing Tips with Basil O'Hagan, out now. @hagenengler

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  1. Pingback: A quick overview of 60 000 years of South African music | Black In Entertainment

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