Warrick Sony: Surfing the zeitgeist
For almost 30 years Warrick Sony has been writing soundtracks to the ongoing social and political struggles in South Africa using his Kalahari Surfers moniker.
His last album, One Party State, was released just before the football World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and saw him returning to the overtly political song structures he created in the 1980s, but with a dystopian dubstep edge added to the mix.
Now we get his new offering, titled Agitprop, which sees Sony offering more gentle, guitar-based songs with electronic rhythms and extreme political lyrics. This blending of folk and electronica brings to mind the songwriting of Syd Barrett, David Bowie and the Beta Band when first listening to it, but after a few weeks spent with the album it became clear that Agitprop could only be the work of the Kalahari Surfers.
Sony spoke to the Mail & Guardian about his new album from Milestone Studios in Cape Town.
Why did you choose Agitprop as the title of your new album?
I called it Agitprop because I think, now, we are living in a perpetual state of agitation and propaganda from all fronts — all over the world, in all cultures, rich, poor, middle class, whatever. We are brand-blasted from cradle to grave — cellphone companies, motorcars, stuff to eat, stuff to wear, stuff to watch, stuff to listen to, even just to spend on ... it’s all marketing and it’s all propaganda and it’s often political. But mostly with that title I’m addressing the political. Agitprop has the connotations of the Soviet “coolness” of the 1980s ... the Red Wedge, the Che beret and warm feelings of workers of the world uniting, throwing off the shackles of capitalism and owning the means of production. It also has its origin in a sad and genuine struggle by some human beings concerned about the welfare of others — and it is this that is most important.
Agitprop is a lot more song-based than your previous albums. Was this a conscious decision or did the album just evolve that way?
Punk was about the perfect three-minute song, preferably written on guitar. Being forced to relisten to hours of Joy Division, the Pixies, the Smiths and Sonic Youth by my 17-year-old son has made me realise how much I miss the discipline of putting words into music. For years now I’ve kind of kept them separate, having maybe a song or two per album. The feeling has been, for me, that the instrumental, atmophere-based music travels better; it is more relistenable, though not immediately accessible. I design my music to be something that grows on you with repeated listening. There are lots of layers of sound and meaning. It’s to do with form and content. Words provide an easier solution to give a form context.
You have spoken about this album being an attempt to integrate your earlier, more political songwriting work with your dub-inspired electronica of the 1990s and 2000s. What made you want to pursue this direction?
I’m a musical schizophrenic. My earlier work was conceived during a period of extreme political upheaval and in a way that was the bedrock of my artistic “way of seeing”. I cut and pasted punk, 1960s noise, electronic music and reggae and dub with South African flavours, like Shangaan bass playing. Satirical sound design and lyrics were the way to hit home the message. Today, I’m kind of doing exactly that with sharper tools.
Can you explain what it is about the government and its language that leaves you feeling uncomfortable? What concerns you most about the trajectory of the ANC and, naturally, our government by extension?
A thing that concerns me about the present government is that they are fighting among themselves so much that they are not finding time to govern. It’s a pretty unworkable situation where the ruling party is actually three parties. People vote for the ANC with almost religious loyalty. The ANC is the brand; it has the history and the credibility. So voters have voted for a party which had a sort of coup when Zuma and the communists took over, leveraging their chums into the driving seat, deploying and purging each other the way communists do but also getting all the goodies: the fat salaries and spoils of war and caring nothing for the poor.
The hours spent sorting Julius Malema out, for instance: what a waste of good governing time. And now the Brett Murray painting is taking huge resources and thinking and debating and all in defence of the undefinable.
In fact, the funny thing about the Brett Murray presidential penis saga is that no one objected to the fact that Zuma was being likened to Lenin, the father of Soviet communism, which I thought would be more demeaning considering that he inaugurated the Red Terror and was thought to have authorised the execution of the Russian royal family.
I’m an artist who puts my feelings out there and hopefully inspires others to question and think. That’s what art does, or should do. Whether you like his work or not, Brett’s painting has caused a shit storm and has made more people look at the role of the artist in society than any video installation has. Art should, I feel, open eyes to a reality so people think “oh, that’s beautiful” or “ugly” or “outrageous” or “that makes me angry ... so angry I want to burn houses down”.
Art and politics are not good bedfellows — it’s no accident that Mao Zedong, towards the end of his life, purged not only the Chinese people but also their ideas, their books, the paintings, music, the theatre, even buildings ... everything. China lost everything and was left with Madam Mao’s eight model plays and The Little Red Book and that was about it for 10 years until the sod died.
There is some good intention and optimism — I think in South Africa we have stood our ground well on things like the e-toll fiasco, the secrecy Bill and so on. People rise up and try to make a difference. I think there are many selfless and tireless fighters forhumanity and there are many in South Africa; we are a nation of good people.
What do you think of the health of protest music in South Africa?
There is also a large angry crowd of hip-hop devotees spewing their guts out in clever rhymes, who are probably the most political movement in music right now. I was working with a guy called Maniak, who writes in Afrikaans and puts out some of the best social hip-hop rhymes I’ve come across. Turn on Bush Radio and you can hear guys tackling JZ and the ruling elite with power and verve.
I haven’t, however, seen much in the way of rock bands putting down straight, sharp statements of incisive social observation. I may be wrong and I’m a bit out of the loop here, but from my corner I feel that maybe a lot of the anger out there is being expressed in other ways.
Music is like soccer — if you play the game right you can hit the big time. Few are prepared to shoot themselves in the foot by tackling huge issues head-on. The really political social comment out there is coming from people working in comedy. The Izikhokho Show is one of my favourites — I think Mdu Ntuli is a genius. Nik Rabinowitz on Friday mornings is a weekly social-comment download I don’t miss either.
What were you trying to explore with the song about [former South African Defence Force chemical weapons specialist] Wouter Basson?
I started this track during one of his trials some years ago, then revisited it each time he went back for more — I read up on him and obsessively followed what he had been up to. I then had this idea of his soul being so disgusted that it decides to call it a day and move on, but his tenaciousness to cling on sees him at loggerheads with it wanting to leave his body.
Can this album be seen as a rallying cry to South Africans?
In our country, politics is still a hot agenda and our government does a lot of interfering, so even the corporates are affected by their meddling. Education has been hard hit by their social engineering and the youth are starting to feel it. Hard-fought freedoms are at risk of being lost if we don’t stand up and say something, and there is some growing realisation that things need to be addressed.
I think of when I was young and I heard [Jimi] Hendrix do the American national anthem with burning fuzz-guitar satire. I realised that music as an art form can pull together a huge spectrum of feelings — and when Curtis Mayfield made an album called There’s No Place Like America Today, with its irony and cynicism and its warmth and love, it made me want to do something that spanned these worlds — the personal and the political. I’ll get there ...