Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Starting today... The Swish Guide to South African Pop Music

I lived in South Africa for twenty years. I grew up in the apartheid era; started high school at the time of the Soweto riots; and stayed to see the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Mandela. I lived through the rule of several heads of state: John Vorster, PW Botha, FW de Klerk, Nelson Mandela.

Turbulent times are good times for music. The state of emergency imposed in the eighties meant that any overtly political music was banned. Artists had to be pretty subtle to get messages past the censors. Gradually, as the laws were relaxed and society became more integrated, a unique form of crossover pop ruled the charts, taking the best bits from township pop and rock, merging black and white. Over the next few weeks, I'll upload one mp3 per week of a track I consider key to the development of South Africa's musical identity.

Next week, I'll start in the seventies and follow the development of the two strands development chronologically. But to start us off, I'll jump in with one of the first examples of this hybrid musical form, and certainly one of the most audacious.

"Hey Boy" by Via Afrika - 1983 [download the mp3]

Via Afrika were quite unlike anything I'd ever heard. Or seen. Were they black or white? Were they straight or gay? They caused a great deal of controversy. They appropriated the music, dress and attitude from a variety of African cultures. Multi-ethnic, led by multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist Rene Veldsman, they burst onto the scene in 1983 with this riotous single. A great dirty bassline. Whooping, hollering, whistling, laughing. The lyrics seemed nonsensical, but hinted at sexual shame: "Your uniform is shiny at the knees. Your cheeks go red if somebody sees." Were they making fun of the authorities? The powers that be hadn't the faintest idea, so they resorted to their usual course: they banned it. They looked subversive - they must be dangerous.

Their first album sold well, and Via Afrika performed on Steve Van Zandt's (Ain't Gonna Play) Sun City. The US dance remix of Hey Boy dented the US dance charts, but the band fell apart before they could have any further success.

Let me know what you think of this song. Read more about Via Afrika here. Buy South Africa CDs online at

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