Sunny skies and questions about identity


Sunny skies and questions about identity

ANDRIES BEZUIDENHOUT writes an ode to white English South African music, a genre that is in constant tension between native and international.

I GREW up on the same street as Duncan Faure. I never met him, but the local folklore was that the Afrikaans schoolboys would taunt him in the street when he caught the bus to Pretoria Boys High, shouting: “Rooinek, rooinek!"

He eventually became a member of one of South Africa's first successful pop bands, Rabbitt. I remember how their hit song Charlie was used as a TV advertising jingle for a perfume of the same name. Like many other successful English-speaking South African musicians, Faure later went abroad. He now lives in California, where he still has a successful career as a musician; he has written for, among others, Elton John and Madonna.

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In a sense, one could certainly say he made it. South Africa was too small for the type of music he was interested in and excelled at. Quite a few other South African musicians have also ventured abroad to enter the larger English-speaking world, an option that is not available if you primarily create music in Afrikaans or any other indigenous South African language.

Lately, I've been quite curious about white English-speaking South Africans and how they perceive themselves. I think the reason for this is twofold.

First, the history of white English South Africa is so intertwined with the Eastern Cape landscape where I live. I have previously written in Vrye Weekblad about the role of Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries and mission schools in the formation of an educated black middle class in the late 1800s.

Second, I'm quite intrigued by the tradition of white English South African music. It's a tradition that I deeply appreciate, partly because it has had a significant impact on my musical and cultural upbringing.

At the pinnacle of that tradition stands James Phillips, arguably one of the country's finest musicians, who unfortunately — as is typical for rock musicians — met a tragic early death. Phillips and the Cherry Faced Lurchers' album Sunny Skies remains one of the best albums recorded in South Africa, in my opinion.

Phillips was (N)iemand

Phillips, under his alter ego Bernoldus Niemand, naturally also had a formative impact on Afrikaans music. Furthermore, some of the most influential Afrikaans music has been created by English-speaking South Africans — consider someone like David Kramer.

There's also the fact that much English music in South Africa is created by Afrikaans-speaking individuals — I'm thinking here of the Springbok Nude Girls, who continue to be one of the most innovative South African rock bands.

Of course, a lot of South African English-language music is created by individuals whose mother tongue is an indigenous South African language. So, the notion of “white English South African music" is perhaps somewhat unstable, or even a category that may not withstand serious ideological critique.

Nevertheless, the idea of delving deeper into the category of “whiteness" or “being white" is part of contemporary critical race theory, much like how feminist perspectives nowadays are interested in how masculinity is understood and perpetuated.

Men are responsible for their actions

Just as the dismantling of patriarchy involves men taking responsibility for their actions, the dismantling of white privilege partly relies on individuals who identify as “white" undergoing a degree of self-reflection and probably abandoning the concept of whiteness in the long run.

There is an interesting research project at the University of Edinburgh titled “Whites writing whiteness", and its initiator is Liz Stanley, a prominent feminist figure known especially for her work on Olive Schreiner. The idea behind the project is to use the letters and other writings of white South Africans — particularly English-speakers — to try to unravel how they understood their own whiteness.

Historically, white people have studied “other" people as research subjects. Imperial anthropologists were sent to Africa, South America and Asia after missionaries to study so-called primitive societies. Time and again, that knowledge was used to manipulate and control indigenous populations.

What Stanley and colleagues are attempting to do is specifically use the writings of those people — the missionaries and anthropologists — to discern how they understood their own positions precisely because they were writing about other people.

So, if we take a look at the music of white English-speaking South Africans for a moment, what does it tell us about this influential category of South Africans? I won't attempt to fully answer this question — it would require a few books and a couple of doctorates. However, I do want to make a few observations, perhaps as the start of a conversation that can be explored further.

Man on the Moon

Let me share a story at my own expense. As a primary school child, I was crazy about Ballyhoo's Man on the Moon. I think I must have heard it on Radio 5 or one of its predecessors' top-20 shows. I'm not sure if I fully understood the lyrics back then — they're sentimental, and feminists would probably have a field day with them. But I was really into it.

I don't think I knew that Ballyhoo were a South African band. To me, Man on the Moon stood alongside the rest of British and American pop music. These days, I still enjoy listening to it as something nostalgic from my youth, but perhaps also because I now appreciate the distinctly South African English accent.

They say the South African English accent is closest to the accents in England compared to American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand accents. I'm not so sure. Just listen to: “Dear mên on the moon, won't you lend me a hênd…" That's not just a South African accent, it's distinctly Eastern Cape — maybe even East London! So, even though Man on the Moon was recorded in a generic pop style, the accent is still South African.

Of course, there are different South African English accents. People who were classified as white during apartheid and spoke English were always quite diverse. Apart from Britain and other parts of the British Empire, the vine has been grafted with branches from Jewish, Greek, Lebanese and Portuguese trees, to name just a few examples.

Phillips' band, the Cherry Faced Lurchers, playfully imitate some of those accents in their song Toasted. This version was recorded live at Jamesons in Johannesburg.

Musically, Phillips initially drew heavily from British punk. In his later career, his approach relied much more on indigenous South African sounds and jazz. I believe one of the most significant songs ever written about whiteness in South Africa is Shot Down, which was also beautifully covered by Urban Creep. Phillips is here, speaking as part of the Cherry Faced Lurchers:

New morning, new morning
Old ways get away
But here in my cradle
I lie incapable
I’m a white boy who looked at his life gathered in his hands
And saw it was all due to the sweat of some other man
That one who got shot down in the street

Merciless market

So, in contrast to much English music produced in South Africa, which looks elsewhere, there is a tradition that attempts to tap into something local. However, that market is incredibly small and sometimes more unforgiving than the Afrikaans music market. English-speaking South African musicians compete with the entire English-speaking world for the attention and money of their South African fans.

There's still so much I would like to write about. About how English musicians sometimes feature Afrikaans people in their music. About Matthew van der Want — one of the best South African musicians — and the clever name of his new project, Koppies (with Victoria Hume and Chris Letcher). What is more ambiguously South African than the word “koppies"?

There's Jennifer Ferguson, also Syd Kitchen with his song Settler — it's on the playlist that follows. But I have to say something about Johnny Clegg, one of the country's most important musicians, someone who proved that artificial boundaries can be broken down. The best of English-speaking South Africa because it crosses over and unabashedly identifies with the place where we are.

Clegg could captivate international audiences precisely because he didn't pretend to come from England or America. He didn't try to sing with a tacked-on American or London accent. He combined English and Zulu, allowing the folk music of the English-speaking world to engage in conversation with the folk music of South Africa's miners and labourers.

So, what makes white English South African music South African?

There's a certain accent, it builds a cultural bridge between popular English-language music elsewhere and locally, and it exists in a certain tension between oceans. Sometimes it denies the place it comes from, but in better moments there's a deep awareness of what it means to be English and white at the southern tip of Africa.

It's at its very best, I believe, when it crosses over — when it shows that your identity can be open, that you can shift and expand your own identity, despite the limitations it entails.


For those with access to Spotify, here's my playlist of great South African English music. I've named it “I scheme I tune you nooit: Some classic English ones from SA".

♦ VWB ♦

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