Sounds – and pictures – of South Africa’s musical past


What were you up to in the 1980s? Humming a tune can sometimes jog your memory. An image can also take me back in time. Because we played records then. And they came in cardboard album covers. This protective package for the vinyl inside was a canvas for 20th century pop art.

shot of 4 Shifty record albums from 1980s

Listening to music was about sitting around and looking at album covers. At least until CD player prices came down in the late ‘80s. The back of the album cover had information you’d get from the internet now: “liner notes” with credits, photos, lyrics. The artwork on the front cover became a visual association with that music and those times.

Album covers gave an artist a lot of space to play with (30 X 30 centimeters/12 X 12 inches). Cassette and CD cases were just too small for powerful visuals. With digital music there’s nothing to hold onto or look at while you’re listening.

So when I think of the music that shaped me, I don’t just hear it. I see it too. This month I’m seeing the covers of the southern African music albums I used to listen to in the 1980s. South Africa was in its last years of apartheid and Shifty’s music was mainly about protest and freedom.

Shifty Records album covers

Some of the more than 60 albums recorded by pioneering South African music company Shifty Records.

It’s Shifty September, commemorating the 30th anniversary of a groundbreaking music initiative, Shifty Records. Linked, of course, to this year that marks the 20 years of South Africa’s non-racial democracy since Mandela was elected president.

Shifty Records logo

Shifty’s logo was its mobile studio parked on a record.

Shifty record sleeve saying Home Taping is Killing Music

Check the anti-piracy warning on this ’80s Shifty album sleeve – did it deter you back then? Probably as much as warnings against illegal downloading today.

Support for the Shifty September project comes from the independent South African History Archive (SAHA, via Atlantic Philanthropies) and the French cultural body Alliance Francaise. Shifty also launched a crowd-funding campaign.

The month of September features a Shifty Reunion concert on South African Heritage Day (24 September 2014) and many other events. The main goal, however, is to catalogue and digitize this historic collection of anti-apartheid and counter-culture music. Talk about diversity – it includes African pop, rock, punk, jazz, folk, spoken word, choral and traditional sounds. “All protocols observed”, as they say on African podiums, in case a genre has been left out.

Of all Shifty’s albums my favourite is still its very first one. Sankomota was a jazz-rock-reggae band from Lesotho whose members were barred from entering South Africa by the apartheid regime. Which meant they were confined to their tiny country, entirely surrounded by South Africa. With no professional recording facilities.

Enter Shifty Mobile (before mobile phones that meant a mobile recording studio). Shifty co-founder Lloyd Ross and fellow Shifty musician Warrick Sony drove the studio from Johannesburg to Maseru to record Sankomota. The self-titled debut album that Shifty released reportedly still sells.

Take a listen to “Monoana (Wa Boroba-Supa)” from Sankomota’s 1983 album, cover by Caroline Cullinan of The Graphic Equalizer.

Another of my favourite Shifty albums is The Genuines’ Goema, a rocky tribute to this quintessentially Cape music style. They sung, in both English and their mother tongue of Afrikaans, about fighting the system in the Cape flats townships. The music video of their iconic song “Struggle” shows stone-throwing and tire-burning in protest against the soldiers and tanks in their streets.

“Struggle” video from the album Goema, 1987, directed by Joelle Chesselet

You’ve got the Casspirs*
I’ve got a stone
This bloody hatred
Won’t leave us alone
I want my share
I want my say
I want my sway
I want it today

(*military vehicles used against township protestors)

– “Do It Right”, another song on the album by Mac McKenzie, The Genuines

Maybe you never heard of Shifty Records. It wouldn’t surprise me. State-controlled radio refused to play their music. Aside from the political content of the songs, the mix of English with Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Afrikaans and other African languages violated apartheid (meaning “separateness”) broadcast policy. Record shops didn’t dare sell Shifty’s albums or cassettes. The mainstream press gave Shifty little publicity.

If you really want to appreciate the internet’s abilitiy to propel artists from obscurity to fame, take yourself back to the time when Shifty was trying to promote its music. In those days being hip to new beats required a lot more than a click.

Shifty promotion postcard

Shifty inserted this postcard in all its record sleeves. Then it was over to you, the fan. You had to write your address on the back, buy a stamp, lick it and stick it on, and send the postcard back to Shifty. After a few weeks you would start checking your postbox for news of new Shifty releases.

It was against these odds that Shifty made its impact. One way of assessing its influence is to look at the success of the artists Shifty recorded.

Four of Sankomota’s members died in a 1996 car crash, but erstwhile member Tsepo Tshola later became as one of Lesotho’s top musicians. Genuines percussionist Ian Herman went on to co-found Tananas with fellow South African guitarist Steve Newman and the late Mozambican bassist and vocalist Gito Baloyi. Tananas performed at WOMAD festivals and with top international artists from Sting to Paul Simon until Baloyi was shot dead in an apparent robbery attempt in Johannesburg 10 years ago. (A similar fate to that of top African reggae artist Lucky Dube in 2007.)

See spoken word artist Mzwakhe Mbuli perform from his album Change is Pain in this video shot in 1986 with Simba Morri on guitar and Gito Baloi on bass. 

Cassettes of Mzwakhe Mbuli’s Change is Pain sold so well at political rallies in the ’80s that Shifty declared it their unofficial Gold Record. “The People’s Poet” went on to perform internationally, before spending nearly 5 years in prison on controversial bank robbery charges.

Many would consider the greatest international success among artists launched by Shifty to be Vusi Mahlasela. The singer-songwriter and acoustic guitarist headlines a concert marking 20 years of freedom at New York’s Carnegie Hall next month with fellow South African musical luminaries Hugh Masekela and Dave Matthews.

Shifty’s music was great but its most lasting legacy was political rather than musical. The 1989 Voëlvry (Free as Birds) tour of alternative music by Afrikaans rock and punk bands was midwifed by Shifty, together with the progressive Afrikaans newspaper Vrye Weekblad. Young white men wanted to rock – not fight blacks in the townships or the borders. This music helped fuel the End Conscription Campaign, which was bad news for the South African military.

Bernoldus Niemand, Afrikaans alter ego of James Phillips of The Cherry-Faced Lurchers, was seen as inspiration not only for the Voëlvry movement and for Afrikaans bands that followed, like Fokofpolisiekar (Fuck off, cop car).

“Shot Down”, The Cherry-Faced Lurchers, Live at Jamesons, Johannesburg, 1984 – with historic South African political photos

Long have we all waited
Many times have we seen
In the eyes of the labourers
In the eyes of the neighbours
A feeling that leaves none to guess
Who’s been doing what
For who & when for less & who’s
Been left out there with
Dust on his dead feet,
Shot down in the streets…

I’m a white boy who looked at his life
Gathered in his hands and saw it was
All due to the sweat of some other man
That one who got
Shot down in the streets

James Phillips (AKA ), “Shot Down In The Streets”

Shifty Records wasn’t the only player on the independent southern African music scene 30 years ago. Folksinger David Marks could have rested on his laurels after his composition “Master Jack”, sung by Four Jacks and a Jill, became the first South African song to make the US charts in 1967. Or after mixing sound at Woodstock and for the John Lennon Plastic Ono Band. But he returned to South Africa and set up independent record company 3rd Ear Music.

The thousands of recordings Marks made from the 1960s through the 90s sought a home for many years and finally found one at Stellenbosch University. The Hidden Years Music Archive Project is now housed at the Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS) and will get the same kind of archival care as Shifty’s collection.

(3rd Ear’s collection) includes: rare recordings of the early performances of Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, who would make their international name as Juluka; a rather drunken night in Johannesburg with American folk singer Phil Ochs, who had recently suffered an attack that damaged his vocal chords; plenty of the great but seriously under-recorded band Malombo, whose Phillip Tabane had attracted the attention of Miles Davis among other luminaries; and rare recordings by two of South Africa’s finest traditional or neo-traditional musicians, the Zulu maskanda guitarist Shiyani Ngcobo and, in the mid ’70’s, Xhosa composer and mouth bow specialist Madosini. The Madosini recordings were sampled by the South African born Manfred Mann, as well as by New Zealand pop rockers Crowded House on their hit single “Weather With You” and the royalties from these and other uses were apparently Madosini’s only source of music industry income until an album was finally released under her name in 1998…

In 1979 Marks recorded Roger Lucey’s debut, The Road Is Much Longer, and released it through 3rd Ear. South Africa’s notorious Directorate of Publications considered four of the songs “extremely dangerous to the State.” One of them, “Lungile Tabalaza,” about an ordinary citizen who had died in police custody, had in fact been left off by the nervous record pressing plant and replaced with a minute’s silence. The album was banned outright, and the few copies that had been released for sale were confiscated. Possession of the record was a criminal offence.

Richard Haslop, Perfect Sound Forever online music magazine, 2010

Roger Lucey 1978 album cover

Cover of Roger Lucey’s 1979 album, cover by Andy Mason AKA N.D. Mazin

3rd apology for silence sted Lucey track

3rd Ear Music’s explanation of the blank track on Roger Lucey’s first album

Andy Mason cartoon on Lungile Tabalaza

Cartoon by Andy Mason on the inside sleeve about the song that was censored.

3rd Ear music also recorded top South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela in 1980, travelling to Maseru where he was in living in exile. Live in Lesotho features Masekela’s classic song about the migrant labour system that still drives southern African mining, “Stimela”.

album cover of Masekela's Live in Lesotho

My woodborer-chowed cover of Masekela’s Live in Lesotho album (this is why we need archives!)

South African protest music was also recorded in North America and Europe. An album of freedom songs was released by the South African Freedom Committee in New York in 1978, which the UN declared International Anti-Apartheid Year. Top vocalist on the Liberation album was Sathima (also credited as Bea Benjamin) whose husband, Abdullah Ibrahim (also credited as Dollar Brand), played piano and produced.

Liberation album of South African freedom songs recorded in New York

Notes on the album’s back cover by African-American actor and activist Ossie Davis.

Another notable producer of South African freedom songs was the former Soviet Union. The cultural group of the African National Congress liberation movement, Amandla, was recorded in the USSR.

Amandla recorded in 1982 in USSR

The name of the studio where these South African fredom songs were recorded in 1982 is in Russian, but it says in English on the sleeve: “Made in USSR”.

Among Amandla’s founding members was Nomkhosi Mary, the daughter of South African unionist and underground member of the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe guerilla movement, Vuyisile Mini. Also a singer and composer of note, Mini was sentenced to death for treason in 1964 and went to the gallows singing his freedom songs. Mary was among the ANC members killed in the 1985 South African military attack on Lesotho. Which takes us back to Shifty’s Sankomota album, featuring a song about an earlier South African commando raid against on Lesotho, “House on Fire”.

In case you thought that few outside southern Africa care about this music, a 2003 essay “Whispers in the Deep – Music and Censorship in South Africa (1960-1994)” by Peter M. Stewart was posted on an online reggae message board and ended up on the UB40 0fficial site.

In South Africa, not only was Amandla’s music banned but a black worker got a 5-year prison sentence for possession of a cassette of freedom songs in 1986.

Leave them alone, we shall get them
We shall revenge
In the evenings, in the dark
They’re spending sleepless nights
Because of Umkhonto we Sizwe.
They have no peace of mind
Because we are everywhere.
They have no place to hide
Because we are everywhere,
We of Umkhonto we Sizwe.
Everybody knows about Mkhonto
Wherever they go.
They spend sleepless nights
Because of Sasolberg.
Vorster is ill, as I am talking to you now.

– Lyrics of “SASOL”, song by Amandla about the 1980 Umkhonto we Sizwed sabotage attacks on the Sasol fuel plant (no internet link, transcribed from album cover)

Amandla’s musical director, acclaimed jazz trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, and lead singer Ndonda Khuze were invited by Jerry Dammers to perform with The Special AKA on the 70th birthday remake of “Free Nelson Mandela”. Elvis Costello produced Dammers’ first release of this anti-apartheid anthem in 1984.

Free Nelson Mandela 1988 record re-issue

This re-release in 1988 produced by Jerry Dammers and Tom Fredrickes was timed to promote the UK Nelson Mandela Freedom March – you could feel that apartheid’s days were numbered.

So My New Old Self says Viva South African Heritage Month! Viva Shifty September! Long live the struggle against forgetting!

And long live the importance of remembering – with optimal audio. With well preserved visuals too, I hope. Come to think of it, they should pass around some album covers during the Shifty Reunion concert.



My New Old Self was wondering whether young people care about revisiting this – well, uh, old – music. So I asked a young South African. This was the unexpectedly impassioned response:

Of course I care about it. Those are the South African bands I listened to when I was a teenager. I’ve heard some of them play at Oppikoppi (music festival). If you’re into music, you’re into the history of music. I know what Shifty Records meant to South African music. They were rebellious, they were doing things the apartheid government didn’t want them to do.

It’s also my history. The Voelvry tour was before my time but I’m South African and I know what it means. It’s all of our history, not just yours!






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