It has happened so many times that I should be used to it by now. Barbara and I were driving to take the dogs for a walk, and I absent-mindedly turned the radio onto the Solid Gold Sunday show. We listened to three, four, five schmaltzy songs in a row, and I turned it off again. “Do you want to listen any more?” I asked her. “No,” she said.
When I was growing up in Worcester in the early 1980s the South African music scene was a sleepy place; the airwaves were littered with dull, sentimental love songs. Perhaps David Kramer was the first artist who showed my generation that local music could be challenging. There had been others before him – Roger Lucey and John Oakley-Smithto name two - but I only learned about them decades later.
I first encountered Kramer’s engaging Afrikaans persona at the age of seven or eight on an SABC talent show. I liked him – he could tell a story in song like no other Afrikaans singer I knew. Then my sisters, older and wiser than me, started to listen to this other music Kramer was making. For these songs, from his 1981 Bakgat album, his voice was rougher, and there was a fury in the songs. I could identify Kramer’s indignation before the words of his songs were intelligible to me. I understood nothing of this. Safe in a world of family, school and church, I could not fathom why anyone should be so angry. I think I worried about his soul.
By the end of the decade, when Shifty Records was releasing confrontational material by Koos Kombuis and Johannes Kerkorrel, I was experiencing a musical as well as a political awakening. There was a sense of euphoria: our imagination had been fired by singers who came from small towns like ours, who had measured the world of certainties in which we lived and had found it lacking in both truth and beauty. “Ons soek ‘n nuwe energie”, Kerkorrel’s call to arms from his Eet Kreef! Album, became ours also.
Twenty years down the line, with draconian sensorship a thing of the past, I listen in vain for the raw power of those songs. True, something of the energy has survived: one is much more likely to find a roaring rock ‘n’ roll party than two decades ago, and that is surely a good thing. But the unrest, the close observation of real people and situations, the sonic adventurousness - these are absent from the South African musical mainstream. But while alienation is absent from the music, listening to it is often alienating, as local artists try their best to sound like their overseas counterparts. In the end we’re down to sentimental love songs again. Where are the unsentimental love songs for us to sing along to?
If proof is needed that music of public and private unrest can be for the body as well as for the mind, listen to Bernoldus Niemand (that’s James Philips’ Afrikaans alter ego, if you didn’t know) sing his hilarious Hou My Vas, Korporaal. Because of its political (and possibly sexual) ambiguity, it wasn’t played on 1980s South African radio. Sometimes, only sometimes, I wonder what station would play it if it was released today.