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State of emergency: The rise and the alchemy of the people’s hit

The 1980s enjoyed a staggering number of hits, but initially these were not the people’s hits, as singer Blondie Makhene notes: “In 1983, South African music was going through a dry spell. South African music was in abundance, but American hits had a stronghold on us. We performed and recorded American cover versions while we were trying to find our musical identity in the pop arena.”

While US music wreaked havoc on South Africa’s dance floors, in 1983 Blondie Makhene embarked on a national tour as part of Blondie & Pappa — with backing vocalists including the star to-be, Brenda Fassie. After the tour, the international classic Weekend Special (which strangely enough was not an instant classic) was recorded. 

Makhene had taken Brenda Fassie to every imaginable township to convince the people that their own music was the future, when, in 1983, the song finally entered the public sphere. The single eventually sold more than 200 000 copies, announcing the arrival of the so-called township pop, soon to be illegitimately christened “bubblegum”.

Weekend Special was such a unique experiment that the producer Mervyn Matthews had yet to unleash a monster of a similar breed, leaving a “bittersweet” sense of achievement in his creative life. This is not to say that black urban music could not surpass the success of Weekend Special, because the song was a game-changer. 

Weekend Special opened the doors for iconic songs that ruled cultural spaces, broke boundaries and instilled a fiery spirit in the masses for decades to come. Indeed, its signature bass and the cheeky harmonious vocals served as a baton connecting the roots of mbaqanga right up to the bass culture of today as propagated by independent record label Kalawa Jazmee and others. 

As author and musicologist David B Coplan noted in 2007: “Over two decades later, there is hardly a local kwaito or pop music diva who does not cite Fassie’s inspiration.” 

Ken Haylock, managing director of the record company CCP, ad libs in the sleeve notes of The Queen of African Pop — Brenda Fassie 1964-2004: “The 1980s saw an unbelievable run of local hits.”

Fassie, who tasted the height of artistic practice, succumbed to the pressures of celebrity as a woman in an exploitative industry. She rose back with producer Chicco Twala and the 1987 bestseller album Memeza

But who is Chicco Twala?

Twala created songs that expressed the anguish of exile, laced soundscapes adorned with the continent, himself a scholar of music across Africa, especially of Fela Kuti. 

Following this success, acts entered the scene with experiments in synthesisers and elements of disco, laced with pre-democracy urgency messages. Nelson Mandela was called from his holding cell as Twala, one of the country’s most successful hit producers, delivered the message that the people wanted him back home in We Miss You Manelo (1989). The harmonious accordion, melodious bass and hi-hats carried a candid open letter to the detained prisoner in English — and it was not really a secret who this “Manelo” was. The song became a mouthpiece that reached the rural enclaves all the way from Johannesburg.  

Twala also teamed up with protest poet Mzwakhe Mbuli to record Papa Stop the War (1990), another direct song speaking to power, urging the oppressors to “listen to the voice of reason”.

In the 1970s Twala played for bands including Umoja and Harari, as well as his own group, Image. 

While his political music did not go unnoticed by the audience, it was only in the 1980s that Twala made it, producing hits for the likes of Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Brenda Fassie and the Big Dudes. In the late 1980s, he gave a platform for people like Spikiri Mofokeng and M’du Masilela, among many others. Besides making Brenda Fassie a household name again in 1998 with the earth-shattering Memeza, Twala was also involved in the hugely successful DJ Walker project with another 1980s star, Senyaka, producing the massive radio and dance floor kwaito hit Chisa Mpama (1999).

Rivalry with other players in the tumultuous bubblegum game matched the 1980s in South Africa, a decade marked by two states of emergency. The potency of this subject matter formed within new expressions can be felt at its best in Harari’s aforementioned self-titled album 1980. 

Hidden messages in songs came in even cleverer fashion. One seemingly unlikely place of political discourse is none other than the shebeen. 

Yes, the watering hole is as political as the grooves of a protest song. Where does this black body return to life after 365 days of migrant labour? Take the miner who asks the master brewer where the traditional beer is. He knows that when he gets home, he will find his umqombothi waiting. Not surprisingly, Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s song Umqombothi (1986) enjoyed success across the continent.

This is an extract from “Dangerous Combinations and Skeem Sam Foundations — The Most Beautiful Black City in Africa?” by Rangoato Hlasane, from the book Ten Cities (Spector Books/Goethe-Institut)

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