Durban kwaito’s Sugarman

For better or worse, Sandy B has always been an artist ahead of his time. In 1994, the Durban-based artist released Amajovi Jovi — an infectious lo-fi kwaito number with the laconic flow and thumping basslines that would go on to typify kwaito. It was kwaito before the genre even existed.

“That record has followed me wherever I go,” Sandy B says. “In the years that have followed, I’ve released a deep house album and an Afro-pop album but people still refer to me as a kwaito artist. I can’t seem to run away from that record.”

For the unacquainted, the story goes something like this: the success of Amajovi Jovi led to a meeting with Oskido and Don Laka, shortly after they founded Kalawa Jazmee Records.

“Oskido was crazy about Amajovi Jovi. He organised the meeting with the rest of Kalawa and had me come down to Don Laka’s flat in Johannesburg to play the album for everyone.

“They liked it but they were still busy working on a Mango Groove record. So they suggested I wait until the beginning of 1996 so we could start working together.”

The proposed deal with Kalawa fell through but Oskido passed on Sandy B’s contacts to House Afrika founder Tim White, who asked him for more material to put into an album. “At that point, I’d only recorded Amajovi Jovi, so I had to go back and record a few more songs that we could turn into an album.”

From there, a six-track album and an underground hit was born.

With Soweto functioning as the birthplace and the vein that sustained kwaito, Sandy B looked positioned to become one of kwaito’s first Durban-based superstars. A total of 10 000 albums were pressed (a combination of CD and cassette) and sold out in a matter of weeks, a fact that took Sandy B by surprise.

“You know why I’m wearing glasses on the album’s cover?” he laughs. “It’s because I thought the album would flop and I didn’t want anyone to recognise me if that happened. But I was completely blindsided by how well it did.

“I mean, Amajovi Jovi was even playlisted on Ukhozi FM at some point [before being pulled off the air for language] and that kind of propelled it nationwide. This was all before Durban kwaito was even a proper thing, the genre didn’t exist yet.”

The six-track album was the archetypal kwaito format. Student Night kicks off with a thumping kick drum before being accompanied by hypnotising flute and percussion. Sandy B then breaks into a comical verse delivered in SeSotho and isiZulu. The rest of the album (Dedication, Lifake (Doggy Style), Party Time and the Amajovi Jovi instrumental) features a series of musical aspects that contain influences ranging from garage and Chicago house to disco.

By his own admission, Sandy B and White should have more aggressively capitalised on the success of the album. When the record sold out, there were no-reissues — simply because Sandy B didn’t pursue the matter. He was also contemplating a move to Johannesburg to further his music career but decided against it on the advice of close friend and Joyous Celebration founder Lindelani Mkhize. There was another simpler reason: Durban kwaito’s first-born son didn’t want to make kwaito music.

“I’ve always maintained that I was more than just a kwaito act. Even when I released Amajovi Jovi, I was part of an R&B band. I could’ve easily made another album like that but …” he pauses, contemplating his response, “I just chose not to.”

Sure, but further explanation reveals there’s a bit more to the story than that.

Here’s the truth: Sandy B is a case of a perfect song at the wrong time. At the time of Amajovi Jovi’s release, kwaito was a few years old and its locus still very much in Johannesburg.

Moving to Johannesburg was a complicated idea for him. Sandy B had been displaced by the political violence in Durban, which resulted in him moving around KwaZulu-Natal. The last thing he wanted to do was to move again. The act of moving carried too much emotional weight.

And consequently the birth of Durban kwaito halted and would only take shape and demand national attention a decade later with the arrival of Durban’s Finest, Professor and Tzozo, DJ Cndo and the like.

As for Sandy B, his debut album had now become so rare it was considered a collector’s item. So rare was the album that its own creator didn’t have a copy on CD or cassette. Which wasn’t a problem. That is, until in 2016, when Canadian record label Invisible City contacted Sandy B and told him that they wanted to reissue Amajovi Jovi.

“They got wind of my music through DJ Okapi,” he says. “He’s a local vinylhead in Maboneng who collects rare and out-of-issue South African bubblegum music. When they heard the song, they made a point to find me. I have no idea where they got copies of my album but they did and they reissued the album toward the end of 2016.”

The newly reissued and remastered Amajovi Jovi album was pressed into 1 000 vinyls and published on the internet. With the release came a new kind of cult status, a glow that Sandy B has been more than happy to indulge.

In June, he performed at the annual Copenhagen Distortion in Denmark. While his profile continues to be reignited overseas, back home, he’s more than happy to live a life of relative anonymity.

These days, Sandy B splits his time between radio (he has a feature on Durban radio station Vibe FM) and running his record label and CD business. In his own way, he’s worked and contributed to a scene that has shown him little to no love.

Since Denmark, his work has featured on DJ Bongz’s gold selling debut compilation and still regularly gives music workshops, spitting knowledge to a new generation of musicians.

In the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugarman, two fans from Cape Town go in search of Sixto Rodriguez, an elusive musician from Detroit rumoured to be dead. Rodriguez, who hadn’t achieved success in the United States, was a hit in Southern Africa, Australia and New Zealand. His signature song was Sugar Man.

In some sense, Sandy B is Durban kwaito’s own Sugarman: an act and artist that thrived in a time before and then vanished. But Sandy B has not disappeared — his footprint still lives in Durban kwaito’s success and his re-emergence is testament to the fact that legends, no matter how hard they will it to be otherwise, live forever in the collective memory of those they inspire. 

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