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Bubblegum icon Condry Ziqubu returns

While Condry Ziqubu’s rise as a star of South Africa’s “bubblegum” disco era may have appeared rapid, before his big break as a solo artist in 1983, Ziqubu had already been working in the industry for 15 years. 

A regular on the soul scene since the late 1960s in groups such as The Flaming Souls, The Anchors and The Flaming Ghettoes, by the mid‑80s he had qualified as a sangoma, recorded with Harari — the biggest group in the country at the time — fronted his own group, Lumumba, and travelled the world as part of Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu’s band. 

Now, while the names of Mbulu and Semenya still live in contemporary conversations about genealogies of South African music, and songs such as There is Music in the Air, Not Yet Uhuru, Ziph’inkomo and Nomalanga feature on radio playlists, the name of Condry Ziqubu is heard far less.

Born on 28 July 1951, Ziqubu cut his teeth with two seminal bands in the soul scene in Alexandra in northern Johannesburg. By 1969, aged 18, he was sharing songwriting credits on most of the songs of The Flaming Souls’ album Alex Soul Menu and playing rhythm guitar on The Anchors’ Soul Upstairs.

For many of us black children of the so-called postapartheid generation, the textures of this sound and the stories woven into its melodies are anchored in memories of our growing-up years. Loud, happy gatherings in the form of Sunday braais, parents talking things past and dreaming up those to come in riddles the children can’t comprehend, skin shrivelled from too much time in the pool, chakalaka and newly free(er) black middle class aspirations meeting black joy under sweet jacaranda clouds, spying from the corner of your little eye Malume So-And-So stumbling during his solo dance in the lounge somewhere between Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenberg Revisited and Bra Hugh Masekela’s Chileshe.

Now record label Afrosynth, which also has a retail shop specialising in kwaito and bubblegum pop music on vinyl, is serving up a four-track offering by Condry Ziqubu comprised of material originally released between 1986 and 1989. Gorilla Man — Ziqubu’s first solo hit — makes up part of the sonic anthology. The song opens with an audacious 20-second intro telling the story of a man who preys on women in downtown Joburg and highlights Condry’s formula of lyrics that touched on daily issues without being preoccupied with apartheid censorship. 

The politically charged Confusion (Ma Afrika) is also on the release, as well as Phola Baby from his 1988 album Pick Six, which addresses gender-based violence. 

Everybody Party from 1989’s Magic Man, a through-and-through get-down song with no political or social intimations — other than as a brief escape from the harsh reality of the time — also finds its way into the anthology.

Although not all of Ziqubu’s discography focuses explicitly on the sociopolitical and economic conditions of his time, as a working and mobile artist within the apartheid state of South Africa, he could not escape the clutches of surveillance and racial oppression. One of the few local musicians who travelled frequently, Condry’s movements came under close scrutiny from apartheid officials, including having his passport confiscated and interrogations and harassment from the police, who were convinced that his travels in Africa were as an agent of the then banned ANC rather than as an artist.

Despite the cultural boycott on South Africa and the numerous other obstacles preventing South African artists from succeeding on the world stage, his earlier experiences with Harari, Semenya and Mbulu — he even toured with Harry Belafonte — had taught him not to lose hope. 

There is not enough space to quantify the cultural and sonic influence Condry Ziqubu has had, not only in South Africa but the world over, despite not being as popular as his contemporaries in the mainstream. The tributaries of his influence flow still into our music, culture and memories.

Gorilla Man  was released on vinyl and digitally on Johannesburg-based Afrosynth Records. A longer version of this article was first published on bubblegumclub.co.za 

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