Uncovering South Africa’s indie spirit

As the third Saturday of April drew closer, I found myself asking the question: how does one celebrate Record Store Day when South Africa has a minuscule independent music retail industry?

According to the official website, Record Store Day was conceived by Chris Brown, and was founded in 2007 by Eric Levin, Michael Kurtz, Carrie Colliton, Amy Dorfman, Don van Cleave and Brian Poehner to celebrate the unique culture of more than 700 independently owned record stores in the United States and hundreds of similar stores internationally. It is the day when all the independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music.

Special vinyl and CD releases and promotional products are made exclusively for the day and hundreds of artists in the US and other countries across the globe make special appearances and performances at their local indie record stores. This year it took place on Saturday April 16.

Starved of decent music
So as the international music websites and blogs that I follow began to upload news about plans for Record Store Day, I wondered what it means for South African music fans, so used to being starved of decent music by mainstream chain retailers such as Musica. Fans looking for music that is outside the narrow commercial focus of Musica have been driven to the internet to source their listening pleasures, while local artists, faced with zero chance of getting their independently produced recordings stocked in chain retailers, are using social networking platforms such as Facebook, Myspace and Twitter to promote and sell their music, which they do through mail order or at gigs.

So although South Africa may not have a host of mom-and-pop record stores dotted around the country keeping that independent spirit alive, it is still flourishing in small communities that exist around local bands, at live music venues and on the internet.

The answer to my question, it seemed, was not rooted in which of a handful of independent music retailers South African music fans chose to shop at but rather lay in the networks that were forming around our local independent music.

So, to create some awareness and celebrate Record Store Day with a South African flavour, my Mail & Guardian colleagues Kwanele Sosibo, Chris Roper, Lisa van Wyk and I approached several of South Africa’s top musicians to ask them which local album of the past five years they didn’t buy from a mainstream retailer had left the biggest impression on them and how our readers could get their hands on a copy.

The responses were very interesting to say the least and just go to show that if you are prepared to work a little harder to find them, there are plenty of albums being produced by independent artists in this country.

So, in the spirit of Record Store Day, we hope you go out and buy some great new Proudly South African music that is not the latest album by Prime Circle, Goldfish, the Parlotones, Lira or Freshlyground.

Mpumi Mcata (BLK JKS)
My favourite recent local album must be anything by Us Kids Know. I was and still really am into their Friendship Test EP (independent). Their new stuff is hot too. I like it because it’s pure, all heart, no bull! I got it off Chad [Polley, Us Kids Know drummer] — I wrestled him to the ground at some hipster joint in Jozi. But it can be obtained through their Facebook page; if you message them nicely a plan can be made. They have also posted some new beats on there. Alternatively, check out Chalkboard at 286 Fox Street in downtown Johannesburg. They are building up a nice catalogue of artists who have performed at the Bioscope.

João Orrechia
I recently had the pleasure of meeting a man known as Nozinja. I was taken to his studio next to some railway lines in Soweto. He writes and produces music for several groups in a style called Shangaan electro.

Sitting in his studio he played his newest creation on repeat — three minutes of insanely fast traditional Shangaan music composed by entirely electronic methods, which he would give to one of his artists to sing on. Between talk about his upcoming European tour, including Sonar in Spain, he showed me homemade videos of his artists dancing — such fast, strenuous dancing it made me feel old just imagining how long I could keep up such an activity. It seems the global music industry has caught up with Nozinja’s DIY methods, where albums and videos are not ends but only means to show off what could be expected from a performance.

I was given an album called Ni Famba Na Wena by Tshe-Tsha boys and, though it could easily be any one of Nozinja’s artists, it’s been on repeat in my car and I’ve played it in a few DJ sets. It’s raw energy, it’s very real, it’s the product of one man’s obsession and it sounds like nothing else out there. Nozinja music CDs are available at most major record stores but rather go and see them perform and buy the CDs directly from them.

Simphiwe Dana
My favourite recent local album is Sello Galane’s Free Kiba 2. I liked the fact that the structure of the songs and the melodies were deeply rooted in African culture. It was full of amazing harmonies and interesting call-and-response arrangements. There are hardly any Western influences in the music. The kiba style of music I think is from the Pedi culture. Music is a great repository of culture and it makes it easy for people to embrace the messages of the culture if you give it to them through music rather than if you preach it to them.

I think in South Africa we have to embrace pro-African music and artists who take that approach because it is one of the ways we can neuter the effects of apartheid, one of them being self-hate. The media has a big role to play in what people view as important so I think they have a big role to play in promoting what is ours. As a post-colonial country in Africa, the Americanisation of our society has been very tragic on us. You can find the album at most Look and Listen outlets.

Toast Coetzer (The Buckfever Underground)
Right now my favourite South African album is Die Plesier Parade’s Vonkvioole & Wasem. It’s not afraid. It’s about religion, depression and darkness — a kind of forced expression of life’s hardest puzzles. It breaks your head in two. It makes you think. Not everything works, but when it does, the soundscapes created take you on a tour of troubled-mind country. The closer, 15-minute-long Daar Is Net Een is spectacular — a creepy, whispered nightmare in equal parts melancholic and frightening. When the CD player stops, you will be silent. Maritz van den Berg is the man behind it — all the lyrics are his and sometimes the vocals too. But he rustles up a small army of other voices and musicians to help craft Die Plesier Parade’s albums (the self-titled debut is possibly even better than Vonkvioole & Wasem).

Maritz always mails me a copy of whatever new project he’s been working on. I always recognise the parcels — they’re handmade and never those padded envelopes that you can buy at the shop. And the return address of “Garsfontein-Oos” is unmistakable. Email Maritz at [email protected] — he’ll probably send you a CD for free. He couldn’t care less if this never made him any money.

Every few months I scrounge through the second-hand CDs at Mabu Vinyl (2 Rheede Street, Cape Town). I look for classic South African CDs. The last goodie I found there was Urban Creep’s Sea Level. The Book Lounge (corner of Buitenkant and Roeland streets, Cape Town) has a small selection of CDs, but they’re always nice and obscure, so I shop there too. The African Music Store (134 Long Street, Cape Town) is also excellent.

My favourite local record would have to be Hymphatic Thabs’s most recent album, The Age of Horus. I just loved the approach. It was not your typical hip-hop that was coming out at the time. The sound was very different and he had the balls to pull it off. It had that rugged BassMental Platform type of sound, which consisted mainly of one-bar basslines, but the attractive thing about it was that it focused on lyrics. It was not so much about beats as about the lyrics. Thabs is a poet so he was able to get his point across in a way that was serious but also fun on the ear. The content was basically five mics [full marks on The Source magazine’s once influential rating system].

His content dealt with the imbalances of life brought on by capitalism and its school, medical and commerce systems. It is available at several concept stores around the country, such as Grayscale in Braamfontein ([email protected]), Ritual Stores (www.facebook.com/RitualStores), Nubian Spot in Yeoville (0835878124) and at www.undergroundhiphop.com.

Koos Kombuis

The best local album of the past five years must, without a doubt, be Kayamandi by Schalk Joubert. It’s a fusion of African jazz and other influences. Schalk is among South African musicians what Hilltop and Oppikoppi is among South African music promoters; he rarely features in the press, he never grabs major headlines, but everyone knows him.

Apart from being a composer and musician in his own right, Schalk is one of the most sought-after arrangers in the country. He produced my last two albums. His influence even extends abroad — he has been arranging music for and touring with musicians such as Michelle Shocked and played a major role in introducing Gert Vlok Nel to audiences in Holland. On this album he collaborates with an astounding array of talents, among others, Gloria Bosman, Concord Nkabinde, Zolani Mahola, Lize Beekman, Feya Faku, Breyten Breytenbach and Rob Watson. I love the spontaneous humour and mood changes of the album and tracks such as AfroDizzy-Act, Sarie Marimba and African Requiem will always count among my favourites. The CD also contains visual material.

Kayamandi has small cult followings in a number of countries abroad. I am not sure about its availability in stores, but some tracks are available as clips on YouTube. It is distributed by Mountain Records (www.mountain.co.za) through EMI. Of course, I was lucky to get my own copy straight from Schalk ­himself.

You can also buy the album as a download from www.we7.com/#/album/Schalk-Joubert/Kayamandi

Ntuthu Ndlovu (Uju)

My favourite recent local release is Bongeziwe Mabandla’s Umlilo. I like it for its honesty. His content is amazing and it is about growing up in eTsolo in the Eastern Cape. There is a certain innocence to it. I like his voice and I think he can still grow lyrically. He reminds me of Jabu Khanyile or even Vusi Mahlasela in terms of the emotive quality of his voice, but he can still take it even further. He could still take more artistic risks but his stories and subject matter are honest. Most of his content is about himself. He put out an EP some time ago and worked a lot with Paulo Chibanga. Production-wise, the music could be more fleshed out — it felt a bit bare bones. I know that he is currently working on a full-length album due out soon. It is available through him. You can find him — Bongeziwe Mabandla — on Facebook and on ReverbNation.

Matthew Fink (Black Hotels)
One of my favourites is the Wild Eyes album Our Love Has a Special Violence, which was released around 2005 on the label One Minute Trolley Dash. Mine is copy #160/450. I have not seen its absolutely amazing packaging in stores (indie or other) in a while. I bought it at a gig when it was first released. I feel that the production quality of many South African rock/alternative records was not on par with their overseas counterparts through most of the 1990s and early 2000s. The Wild Eyes’ album was a well-produced, written and performed South African record. It was really brave in that the band appeared not to care about daytime radio or fitting into a mould that was cracked anyway. It seemed creatively so far removed from anything else released around that time.

Music stores are there to make a profit and the best way to do this is through top 40-ish releases. The record-store culture that I grew up with is unfortunately dying or, perhaps, evolving. I personally look to the internet if I am unable to find a specific release locally. This, however, is not as satisfying as leaving a store with your new purchase in a bag. To get hold of this album contact the band directly through their Facebook group. The group has recently reformed and will be playing at the Bioscope in Johannesburg on May 6.

Rudi Cronje (Ashtray Electric)
My current favourite local album is kidofdoom’s second album, My Faith in War (independent). It took me a while to get into their music, although I’ll never forget watching them the first time at the Armchair Theatre in Observatory. Ironically, I actually don’t like the album all that much. The production does not come close to capturing a band that thrives on being on a stage with an “I swear I’m not a hipster” crowd that needs to constantly put their hands in their hair –purely to help them keep their minds at bay. And this is exactly why I like this album. When you press play and use your imagination just a little bit, the chord progressions sweep you right back into the third row — smoke machine working overtime, minds being blown and Richard [Brokensha — keys] throwing his arms in the air triumphantly. Somehow this album ended up next to our CD player at home. I have no idea where it came from. This is nothing new — after a few drinks albums always get swapped between the bands. Best place probably to get hold of one now is to contact drummer Johan ­Auricomb — [email protected]

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Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye is a freelance journalist and one of the founders of The Con.

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