It has been an amazing 10 years for South African music. There was a spirited debate when the Mail & Guardian‘s music aficionados sat down to discuss the most important albums to emerge from this country.
Zim Ngqawana’s Zimology sat at the top of the pile for a while (until we discovered that it was released in the late 1990s). Lloyd Gedye picked the BLK JKS album to take the number one spot, but faced objections from colleagues. In the end, Moses Molelekwa’s fabulous Genes and Spirits took home the gong for first place.
KwaZulu-Natal correspondent Niren Tolsi took on the rest of the team, saying that Thandiswa Mazwai’s Zabalaza did not deserve to be placed as high as number five, while news editor Drew Forrest said it was the most important world fusion album to come from a South African.
Film critic Shaun de Waal said the Kalahari Surfers’ Akasic Record deserved to be ranked higher than Fokofpolisiekar, which it eventually was.
Together we struggled through other monumental questions.
Which of Felix Laband’s three albums deserved to make the list?
Does America-born but South African resident João Orechia’s Hands and Feet count as a local album?
Should Cape Town guitarist Righard Kapp’s Strung Like a Compound Eye make the top 20 and what about the Sticky Antlers’ self-titled debut?
In the end this is the list we compiled.
1. Moses Molelekwa—Genes and Spirits
This album represented the gutsiness of a new generation of South African jazz musicians. It’s steeped in the South African experience. Molelekwa has been dubbed the greatest pianist of his generation and some said he was a younger version of Abdullah Ibrahim, even a Sotho Keith Jarrett. The music is as aware of gospel as it is of kwaito. Molelekwa has perhaps presented the boldest writing of its time across all generations, period. His death by suicide was a sad national loss of talent.—Percy Mabandu
2. BLK JKS—After Robots
South Africa’s biggest music success story of the decade. Four young men from Spruitview and Soweto, who produce a hybrid sound that incorporates psychedelic afro-rock and dub-metal, managed to garner attention overseas and end up signed to one of the United States’s hippest independent labels, Secretly Canadian. The Mystery EP and debut album After Robots followed and have caused quite a stir at home and internationally. But a recent gig on home soil just goes to prove that the BLK JKS are only just getting started and there is a lot more to come. An absolute classic.—Lloyd Gedye
3. Zim Ngqawana—Vadzimu (2006)
Frankly, the two albums Zim Ngqawana has recorded in the past decade—Ingoma and Vadzimu—deserve to make this list. They blow past every sentimental cliché of South African jazz, feed off the rich, strange tonalities of traditional music and run it past masters of the avant-garde such as John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Zim’s own mentors, Yusef Lateef and Matthew Shipp. The results are wild, terrifying and gorgeous. Vadzimu is a jazz concept album like they don’t make any more. It tells the story of South Africa in four movements: satire, diaspora, liberation suite and nocturnes. It’s not good enough to call Zim a saxophonist: his feet may be in the dust of the Transkei, but he’s conducting the universe and we don’t care how mystical that sounds.—Nic Dawes
4. Buckfever Underground—Saves
Buckfever Underground have been around since 1998, making thoughtful music that veers wildly from the damn catchy to the dementedly creepy. From 2007, Saves is their quintessential album, combining surreal, absurdly appropriate lyrics from Toast Coetzer, and intelligent, inventive music from a band that includes Righard Kapp, one of South Africa’s finest guitarists. It’s an album that is poetic and political, without sacrificing the sort of musicality that’ll keep you listening time after time. There isn’t a finer documenter than Coetzer of the hallucinatory contradictions that make up existence in a certain South Africa. Humour and empathy are at the heart of the album, but also bold statements of arid existentialism, like “I want to die on a Tuesday afternoon”: “I want to die ... so I can be free of all the mourning, the bitterness and the black, all the tears and kak.”—Chris Roper
5. Thandiswa Mazwai—Zabalaza
This multi-award-winning production is arguably the most important world fusion album to come from a South African and richly deserves its international acclaim. Released in 2005 as the Bongo Maffin lead singer’s first solo effort, it offers a fresh and vibrant marriage of traditional Xhosa harmonies and instruments—including the one-stringed huadu harp—with kwaito, mbaqanga, gospel, reggae, jazz and even rock influences. Bongo Maffin was a cut above the kwaito mainstream and Zabalaza was a logical development—a thought-provoking and dignified reflection on what it means to be black in post-uhuru South Africa.—Drew Forrest
6. Matthew van der Want and Chris Letcher—Bignity (2002)
The follow-up to the guitar duo’s achingly breathtaking Low Riding, Bignity was, compositionally and lyrically, their pop offering — as pop as Van der Want and Letcher get without surrendering their laconic musings, ironic ruminations on love and relationships, black humour and fragile guitar soundscapes. Recorded and produced in Warrick Sony’s (of Kalahari Surfers) studio by Lloyd Ross, it includes bubbles of electronica (courtesy of Sony) and live instrumentation from the likes of saxophonist Buddy Wells (Tribe), Robin Auld and drummer Kevin Gibson. Less angry than its predecessor, Bignity is elegiac rather than depressing with songs like Letcher’s delicately penned Misheen, Deadends and a cover of the Springbok Nude Girls’ Blue Eyes, it was another supreme offering from, arguably, the finest South African exponents of the singer-songwriter art.—Niren Tolsi
7. Vusi Mahlasela—Naledi Ya Tsela (2007)
His first album in seven years, Naledi Ya Tsela (which means “Guiding Star”) was Mahlasela’s contribution to the past decade, and what a contribution it was. Littered with guest artists—including Dave Matthews, Chris Letcher, Rian Malan, Xavier Rudd and Ladysmith Black Mambazo—it offers up everything that made Mahlasela’s name: winning songs and a voice to die for. The album’s brilliance was recognised when Mahlasela walked away with the 2007 South African Music Award for best male artist.—Lloyd Gedye
8. Kalahari Surfers—Akasic Record
A highly sophisticated foray into African-flavoured dubfunk, released in 2001, this was Warrick Sony’s first solo album for a decade. His mesmeric 12-track soundscape (in Hindu philosophy, “akasic” refers to the rose-tinted dream state that follows accidental death) blends high-tech digital production with live bass, drums, keyboards and guitar—all played by Sony—and traditional instruments including tabla, udu pots and other African and Asian percussion. Several tracks feature samples from the music of Namibia’s Himba people and rhythmic clapping by the Khoisan. It measures up to anything in its genre on the world stage.—Drew Forrest
9. Fokofpolisiekar—Monoloog in Stereo
Lugsteuring (“Air disturbance”) put a post-Voëlvry spin on Afrikaner angst and established Fokofpolisiekar’s reputation for volume, vomit and rock’n'roll. But it wasn’t their best record. Monoloog in Stereo, released a year later, tossed out the Zeitgeist-flavoured anthems in favour of thoughtful confessionals from the world-weary pen of Hunter Kennedy. What could have been a misguided overshare turned into modern rock poetry thanks to a new sense of space and confidence in the Fokof sound. Its chief architect, producer and lead guitarist Johnny de Ridder, is a man of few words, but the sparse soundscapes of Monoloog allowed his famous five from Bellville to say so much more than their taal-toting contemporaries. Fokofpolisiekar may be better known for Ek Skyn Heilig than Wintersdag by die Seer, but the latter and the fantastic audio diary it belongs to are the real pinnacle of Afrikaans rock in the post-Noughties.—Niel Bekker
10. Hip Hop Pantsula—Omang (2003)
The release of HHP’s Omang paved the way for what later became a motswako revolution. Motswako, meaning “the mix”, is a type of hip-hop in which the rap star throws deep catchy rhymes using the Tswana language. The album undoubtedly set the tone for other acts that embraced the mother tongue to reach out to listeners. Omang also opened the channel for talented motswako acts such as Morafe, Bafixile, Molemi, Tuks and the Lekoko Clan, who had only enjoyed popularity within the geographic confines of Mafikeng in the North West.—Monako Dibetle
11. Simphiwe Dana—The One Love Movement on Banto Biko Street
In 2006 Dana released this album as a musical ode to Steve Biko. It was on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Biko’s murder at the hands of apartheid security police. The album is also a meditation on contemporary African identity. It references Afro-spirituals with jazz tonalities. You can hear Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka and other figures from our musical heritage.—Percy Mabandu
12. Marcus Wyatt—Language 12
Trumpeter Marcus Wyatt takes South Africa’s (conceivably) 12th official language, jazz music, into edgy, experimental terrain with an explorative groove album that brings together Miles Davis-esque primal blasts, space-oddity compositions and cerebral improvisations. A truly forward-looking South African jazz album, masterful in both conceptualisation and articulation. Listen out, especially, for the conversations between Wyatt’s trumpet and the vocals and saxophone of the then-freshly discovered Siya Makuzeni.—Niren Tolsi
13. Jim Neversink—Shakey is Good
Recorded over more than a year, Shakey is Good is a country-rock masterpiece that confirmed Durban’s Jim Neversink as one of South Africa’s finest songwriters. From the country-punk of Untitled to the solemn melancholy of Palace, Neversink’s second album laid down the challenge to most plying their trade in rock’n'roll. Expertly produced by Matthew Fink, who has since moved on to play with The Black Hotels, Shakey is Good is a must for fans of American roots music.—Lloyd Gedye
14. Bheki Mseleku—Home at Last
Bheki Mseleku, admirably known as the gentle genius, released this aptly titled album in 2003. Home At Last is about articulating a jazz musical idiom that is unmistakably South African, and is also connected to a global awareness that exile brings. It asks the question: What musical roots and home does a displaced musician address himself to? And it answers the question quite successfully in this concept album. Mseleku enlists Winston Mankuku on sax and Feya Faku on trumpet, neither of whom went into exile. They make a moving music that is both celebratory and contemplative.—Percy Mabandu
15. Felix Laband—Dark Days Exit
Felix Laband has quietly produced three superb albums of electronica this decade. 2005’s Dark Days Exit is possibly the finest: dreamy, insistent electronica imbued with a restrained, effortless majesty. If an album has a personality, this one is quirky, challenging, yet mysteriously soothing, that really cool guy you always see in the bar but never felt the need to talk to. It’s so far beyond the usual hit and miss of most electronic music, if it was rock you’d call it South Africa’s Exile on Main St. Laband manages to hint at a vast knowledge of musical genres without overstating their influences, and the result is an album that carries its listener with it, but still allows a freedom of association that makes your experience of the music unforgettably personal.—Chris Roper
16. Chris Letcher—Frieze
Oft-touted as the album where one of South Africa’s best singer-songwriters truly began to explore the expanse of his talent. Letcher’s newly acquired master’s in music composition from London’s Royal College of Music seeps through the soundscapes of Freize, melding with and running away from his fragile lyrical observations about (unrequited) love, life’s caprice and loss. Impeccably constructed, this is a lush, gorgeous album where electronica, piano, a heart/lung transplant machine, harmonica, guitar and cello all provided a dreamy soundscape that is always richly textured but never cluttered. A sublime Letcher release.—Niren Tolsi
17. Kobus!—100% SkuldGevoelVry
From the opening squelches of Drome te Bestel it was clear that Kobus!—aka former Voice of Destruction front man Francois Blom and former Springbok Nude Girls guitarist Theo Crous—had delivered a masterpiece. Their second album took the template they had established with their debut and then expanded it to mind-bending proportions. Songs like Ry In Die Kaar and Ek Wil Jou Soen showed the band’s relentless sense of humour, while delicate numbers like Die Wind offered up a whole new side of Kobus!. The album also pointed towards the band’s much heavier side, which they would fully embrace on their third record, Swaar Metaal, but 100% SkuldGevoelVry was one of the finest moments of the decade.—Lloyd Gedye
18. Tumi & The Volume—Live at the Bassline
Tumi Molekane and his Volume make great South African hip-hop, abrasive yet intelligent, confrontational but enlightening. The Volume include members of 340ml, consummate masters of dub, jazz and funk, and they bring a level of musicality to Tumi’s live shows that ratchets the intensity up a couple notches. And despite the excellence of a studio album like Tumi and The Volume, it’s live where you can really experience Tumi’s power and massive personality. Live at the Bassline brings together political anger, wry and insightful social critique, and Tumi’s particular rhythmic energy, but all anchored by a palette of jazzy, funked-up sound that somehow gives weight to Tumi’s messages, rather than detracting from them.—Chris Roper
19. Babu—Up Roots
In a country that often celebrates a sense of multicultural miscegenation in the arts, the late release of Up Roots in 2008 revealed the sometimes spurious and superficial nature of these claims. Mixing Indian classical music traditions with Western jazz paradigms, this viscerally and spiritually charged improvisational album would have been released much earlier if South Africa was, truly, a cross-cultural creative hotbed where Eastern, Western and African musical heritages dance together more often. But thankfully, Kesivan Naidoo (drums and cymbals), Rheza Khota (guitar), Ronan Skillen (tabla, didgeridoo and extended percussion) and Shane Cooper (bass) did gang up and release this stellar instrumental album, which says as much about the possibility of the New South Africa as it does of their consummate musicianship.—Niren Tolsi
20. Mzekezeke—Sguqa Ngamadolo (2002)
It is the summer of 2002 and everybody is reading kwaito’s obituary. Out of his popularity as an on-air loony prankster on “Jozi’s hottest frequency” Y-Fm, Mzekezeke unceremoniously drops a kwaito album titled Sguqa Ngamadolo, which literally means “Bend down on your knees.” A few months later, at a packed Sun City Super Bowl, Sguqa Ngamdolo takes song of the year at the annual music awards, propelling the song to ghetto-anthem status.—Monako Dibetle