The impossible task of a South African music book


The impossible task of a South African music book

A slim new volume makes a valiant effort but there's still no comprehensive and insightful overview of local pop, writes FRED DE VRIES.


SOMEWHERE in the middle of the left-hand shelves in a frighteningly overstuffed place that I call “my office” you’ll find my collection of South African music books. Titles include The Drum Decade, Voëlvry, In Township Tonight!, Music in the Mix by former MK commander Muff Anderson, a slim volume on alternative bands called Stars, Bars & Guitars and the bulky collection Beyond Memory, based on the diary of DJ Max Mojapelo.

Then there’s the jazz: Jazz, Blues & Swing, Cape Town Jazz 1959-1963, Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath, Marabi Nights, Soweto Blues, as well as the beautifully produced hardcover Keeping Time. Next to that you’ll find Fokofpolisiekar and Johannes Kerkorrel biographies and some of the more literary books about the scenes of days gone by, written by Koos Kombuis, Toast Coetzer and Carsten Rasch.

And let us not forget the thoughtful pieces in collections by Danie Marais (he even made me appreciate Bruce Springsteen a bit more) and Rian Malan, who in Resident Alien describes the long and sad trajectory of Solomon Linda’s Mbube, one of the highlights of South African music research and writing. And every time I see this cherished collection I cannot help but wonder why one of the best of them all, Richard Haslop, has never written a book.

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But as you may have noticed: not a single one of the above works offers a comprehensive and insightful overview of South African pop music. Beyond Memory goes some way but the main focus is on black sounds. And then there’s History of Contemporary Music of South Africa, compiled by Garth Chilvers and Tom Jasiukowicz and first published in 1994, which covers 1957-1992. It’s an odd book which includes everything from Bobby Angel, A-Cads and Dickie Loader to Brenda Fassie, Lucky Dube and Asylum Kids. It’s worth owning, especially if you’re a collector. But it doesn’t go beyond the realm of small biographies and overviews of the albums the various artists produced.

So I got excited when I read that the New York publisher Bloomsbury had released a book in its 33⅓ series called South African Popular Music, written by Lior Phillips. I am fond of the 33⅓ series, short, handy books that delve into individual albums. I own maybe a dozen, including ones on records by Dead Kennedys, Black Sabbath, Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, The Kinks and Cat Power. Some are better than others, obviously, but overall it’s a great series, well worth checking out and available locally through It has been going since 2003 and has given us more than 200 mini-books, including sub-series about Japanese, Brazilian and European music.

The South African book falls into the new “genre" category, where it rubs shoulders with “death metal", “trip-hop" and “krautrock". Now I can see trip-hop and krautrock as a genre, but labelling South African music as such is a bit like saying Africa is a country. Also, Lior Phillips was an unknown name to me. I looked her up. According to various websites she is a music and culture journalist and podcaster who was born in Cape Town in the late 1980s and now lives in Chicago. Asked to describe her book in one sentence, she said: “A bold, stereotype-severing and historically immersive collection of scenes across the history of South Africa, exploring the sounds and impact of popular music in all its glorious, evolving genres."

Now that did arouse my interest, so I asked the good people of Bloomsbury for a review copy, which they sent the next day. I finished it a few weeks ago and made numerous notes. Is it interesting? It sure is. Is it good? Hmmm, I’m not entirely sure. Stylistically, it can be a bit exhausting: the use of complex sentences that start with a subordinate clause (as in “While the destruction of Sophiatown began the exodus of black artists from South Africa, the Sharpeville Massacre accelerated it") seems like a writer’s tic that should have been spotted and corrected.

Additionally, there are a couple of mistakes, like placing eDakeni district in the Eastern Cape instead of KwaZulu-Natal and calling Die Antwoord singer Watkin Tudor Jones Waddy (right) and  Watty (wrong). But I am a mess with names, so I happily forgive Phillips and the editors for these errors. Overall, the book is a valiant attempt at trying to capture the complex history of eight decades of South African popular music in a mere 180 small pages (they measure 12x16 cm).

In her introduction, Phillips describes in slightly convoluted prose what she sets out to do: “Rather than any single ‘pop' formula, the line instead traces through the unifying power of musical diversity: from the first available recordings of vocal groups and jazz-adjacent subgenres, to the explosion of international acclaim in the ‘world music' movement, a generation of protest music, and through to postmodern electronic music, every step of the way somehow both influenced by political movements and influencing them."

Her point of departure is well chosen: after an unnecessary mea culpa for being white and privileged, she begins her journey with Mbube, which may well be the Rosetta stone of South African pop. It’s the song that, after being recorded by Solomon Linda & The Evening Birds in 1939, travelled across the ocean to America where it was picked up in 1952 by folk singer Pete Seeger and his vocal group The Weavers, who morphed the title into the made-up word Wimaweh. The next step was a white doo-wop band, The Tokens, who cleverly named it The Lion Sleeps Tonight and scored a huge hit. Over the years the tune has been recorded by numerous artists (160 recordings are mentioned), ranging from Miriam Makeba to British avant-garde musician Brian Eno. And then there’s the story about the gigantic royalties of millions of dollars that Linda and his family hardly saw a penny of. Phillips sums it all up neatly.

In subsequent chapters she writes about Bantu radio and shebeen jazz, providing lots of obscure names and detail, including a short foray into the music of David de Lange and Chris Blignaut. Here she talks to music (and train) obsessive Rob Allingham who moved from America to Johannesburg and worked as an archive manager for Gallo Records, which gave him an encyclopaedic knowledge of South African music. Elsewhere you get the sense that she clearly has done her homework, interviewing a wide range of experts, including Mojapelo, historian Chris Ballantine and a long list of musicians and experts.

We read extensively about the pennywhistle, the affordable instrument for African buskers. Then the story shifts to Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim. New bits of information (at least for me) pop up, like the fact that Masekela played trumpet on So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star by the American folk-rock band The Byrds. Phillips deservedly devotes quite a bit of space to Durban’s finest, The Flames, some of whose members joined the Beach Boys for a while (although she forgets to mention that their Blondie Chaplin also played with the Rolling Stones for 10 years). Then we get to Stimela and Ray Phiri, which inevitably leads us to Paul Simon’s Graceland album. And this is followed by lively pieces about Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Fassie and the bubblegum explosion.

So far so good. But the last third, which includes more recent styles, is less convincing. Kwaito is a hard one but she manages to stay afloat. The chapter on house, gqom and amapiano, however, is messy. And so is her take on Afrikaans rock, where she manages to do away with the essential Voëlvry movement in a single sentence, before giving a lot of space to Fokofpolisiekar. One could easily make the argument that the songs and albums of Johannes Kerkorrel, Koos Kombuis and Bernoldus Niemand were far more important and innovative than anything Fokofpolisiekar or Springbok Nude Girls (they, too, get quite a bit of space) have released. The same goes for hip hop, where the focus is almost solely on Die Antwoord. Truth is, the book is aimed at an American audience, and to them Die Antwoord are more familiar (I vividly remember seeing big ads of Waddy in his underwear in New York) than Brasse Vannie Kaap or Prophets of the City.

The problem, as we have noted, is that South African popular music is not a genre; it consists of numerous genres and numerous strands, which have resulted in township jazz, death metal, weird electronica, bubblegum, reggae, house, boeremusiek, folk and psychedelia and much more. And let us not forget the music that came from the original inhabitants, ghoema, kept alive by the likes of ‘Mr Mac’ Mackenzie, whose music was released by Shifty Records. They do not get a single mention despite the enormous work that Lloyd Ross and Warrick Sony did for non-mainstream black and white music in the 1980s and early 1990s.

This brings me to my major point of criticism: Phillips has ignored important chunks of music. Since the focus is on the American market we get lots of Makeba, Masekela, Johnny Clegg and Die Antwoord. But no mention is made of the equally important and courageous jazz men who went into exile in Europe in the 1960s, in particular the members of the Blue Notes, including Chris McGregor, Mongezi Feza, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo. In London they formed the formidable Brotherhood of Breath and played with the best of the British (and later American and European) jazz scene. Subsequently, some of them formed Assegai, second only to Osibisa when it comes to defining Afro-rock.

One understands that Phillips had to make hard choices, and these focused  on black music (in that respect she covers a lot of the same ground, as Mojapelo did in Beyond Memory), which means there is no mention of the South African beat and folk movement, even though it played a substantial role in rallying university students into an anti-apartheid movement. The progressive and psychedelic era of the early 70s is ignored — not a word about musically and lyrically groundbreaking bands such as Freedom’s Children, Abstract Truth, McCully’s Workshop, Suck and Hawk, even though the last were one of the first rock bands with black members, almost 10 years before Clegg ran away with that idea.

That said, despite all its (inevitable) flaws, this brave little book is a welcome addition to the canon of South African music writing. A lot of diligent research has gone into these pages and the bonus of a Spotify playlist at the end of every chapter is truly appreciated. Let’s hope someone picks up the gauntlet and embarks on a bigger, deeper effort to give all those bands and musicians the place in history that they deserve.

Spotify Playlist — South African popular music

This week I’ve been listening to the controversial Irish hip hop band Kneecap, about whom more in the next column. But here’s a little taste:

♦ VWB ♦

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