Like trying to remember signs which read “Whites Only”, it is sometimes incredible to recall the artefacts and archetypes which characterised South Africa under apartheid rule.
For a new generation growing up in constitutionally protected freedom, these facets of the past must seem primitive in their basic, unapologetic offensiveness. Yet it was not that long ago that the simple act of attending a concert could constitute a major statement for a punter, and a dangerous career move for a performer.
Rhodes University sociology lecturer Michael Drewett has chosen to focus on the censorship of South African musicians during the 1980s for his PhD thesis. His multimedia exhibition, Cutting Grooves, which opened at the recent Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts, forms the basis of an educational resource based in Grahamstown.
The exhibition contains photographic and video material of musicians who were prominently outspoken against apartheid - like James Phillips, Mzwakhe Mbuli, Johnny Clegg, Sipho Gumede and Johannes Kerkorrel - as well as official lists of “undesirable” LPs, posters, album covers and programmes. A souvenir re-release of the classic A Naartjie in Our Sosatie compilation CD and a special concert featuring Roger Lucey, Edi Niederlander, Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse and Koos Kombuis co-incided with the launch.
Drewett sees Cutting Grooves as an ever- expanding initiative. “The idea just got bigger and bigger as I moved along. I was researching the area of music within the cultural struggle and kept stumbling across actions that were a lot more sinister than just overt repression against freedom songs. These included SABC archival documents ... Publications Board decisions on the banning of albums and many stories which ... music industry people told me.”
The lengths to which the Censorship Board, the SABC and other bodies went to keep “threatening” music under wraps is perhaps a gauge of the national paranoia levels at the time. “Every time I went into the SABC archives or the Publications and Film Board building ... I was acutely aware of a weird time-warp sensation - that 10 years ago this was all ... part of the apartheid vaults that we suspected were there but never really got to see,” says Drewett.
Browsing through the pages of officially gazetted “undesirable” works makes for sobering, bizarre reading. Miriam Makeba, Lucey, Mbuli, Brenda Fassie, Des and Dawn Lindberg and Hugh Masekela were all tucked under the same blanket ruling that declared their creativity “communistic”, a threat, a menace to society.
International stars were also labelled subversive, and they form a surreal counterpoint - Pink Floyd (for The Wall), Peter Gabriel (for the song Biko), Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (for the musical Jesus Christ Superstar).
But the foreign artists did not have their livelihoods endangered - Lucey had teargas pumped into a gig he was playing, Mbuli was detained and tortured, Sankomota was banned from playing live, clubs were raided, patrons were beaten up and band members were arrested.
And it’s this history which Drewett is determined to document, and make accessible to as large an audience as possible. The research not only forms an important part of our complex heritage, but has additional value in its message.
“The educational component of the project explores lessons which can be learned from the cultural struggle. For example, marginalised musicians can overcome their own struggles to be heard by making use of mobile studios, home recordings on cassette or CD, as well as air time on community radio stations.”
Like racist legislation, the era of musical martyrdom is hopefully at an end in South Africa. But it should never be forgotten.
A Cutting Grooves mailing list has been set up to facilitate debate. E-mail Michael Drewett at [email protected]
Robert Kirby is indisposed. Loose Cannon will return next week