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Songs that tell South Africa’s history part 1: before 1980

Songs that tell South Africa’s history part 1: before 1980

Cover of Saitana’s 1976 album, Baby Don’t Go

Superlinear mostly focuses on politics but I also have a passion for South African music and history. What better way to combine these latter two passions than to create a (necessarily incomplete) list of South African songs that capture a piece of our history? Each song below describes a part of our country’s history. Some of them are sweeping in their scope, while others represent intimate vignettes of a time and place. Some of them are literal descriptions while others evoke the feeling and the mood of that time. This list is admittedly biased towards my white, English-speaking South African upbringing so if you have any others that you’d suggest adding, please let me know in the comments or on Facebook. I’d like to thank my friends that offered up suggestions and the artists that shared their music with me, some of which has not been widely heard for decades and which I share for the first time here in many years.

Stick your headphones on and take a tour with me through our history and musical heritage. You can listen to all the songs in this YouTube playlist (it starts with a news extract but quickly gets into the music) or read through them one by one below.

You can listen to all the songs in this YouTube playlist

Daar Kom die Alabama (1863)

Daar Kom die Alabama is one of South Africa’s oldest and most well-known songs. It is still sung in Cape Town today, especially during the Cape Minstrels’ Kaapse Klopse in the Tweede Nuwe Jaar carnival on the 2nd of January each year. The Alabama was a raider ship from the Southern States during the American Civil War. The South had a weaker navy than the North, forcing them to adopt essentially guerilla tactics at sea, including the sinking and capturing of civilian ships. The Alabama entered South African folklore after sinking one of the North’s commerce ships, The Sea Bride, within sight of Cape Town. The battle was watched by thousands of Capetonians from Signal Hill and other vantage points, and thus entered the annals of history. More reading here and here.

WHERE TO GET IT: Capetonians grow up with this song all around them, especially on the 2nd of January each year.

This newsreel clip makes a brief mention of the song within its cultural context:

…and here’s a modern, but authentic, rendition:

Chaka (1940s/1950s) by The Manhattan Brothers

[UPDATE: I came across this wonderful track months after originally publishing this article but I thought it too tantalizing a missing link not to include in this article.] The Manhattan Brothers were a household name across South Africa and much of Africa in the 1940s and 1950s. They took what they heard on the radio coming out of the USA at the time and made it their own.

This song tells the tale of Zulu king, Shaka Zulu, who shaped the history of our country like no other. He was an empire builder who gained territory through conquest, supported by his innovative warfare strategies and weapons, which the song references. In his ruthless, imperial mission to unite tribes across his region, Shaka left a proud legacy of achievement for the Zulu people but he also left a trail of destruction and devastation, making him one of the most interesting characters in South African history. The upheaval caused by his ransacking of neighbouring tribes to the south drove the Xhosa and the San closer together, cementing the cross-pollination between the two peoples and giving the Xhosa language its distinctive click sounds (borrowed from the San). To the west, tribes were forced over the Drakensburg mountains, igniting a domino effect of tribe displacing tribe known as the Mfecane (“The Crushing”) that de-populated vast tracts of the interior of the country. Indeed, Afrikaner ‘voortrekkers’ recorded piles of bones and wide open, uninhabited plains on their subsequent treks through the country’s interior. And, to the north, Chief Mzilikazi took his people and moved inland. They fought King Moshoeshoe‘s Basotho in modern day Lesotho and the Afrikaners of the Boer Republic before settling down in modern day Zimbabwe where they subjugated the native Shona, setting in place the social dynamics of that country to this day. All in all, there’s really few better characters to cover at the start of this series on the history of South Africa and this song does just that.

Info on The Manhattan Brothers is criminally hard to find today even though they were a household name and sold millions of records in their time. One of the best sources is the 1998 documentary, Songs from the Golden City, if you can find it.

A Piece of Ground (1963) by Jeremy Taylor

[UPDATE: After all this time, I was finally able to find Taylor’s original version. If it’s possible, it’s even more impactful than Makeba’s version. Give it a listen here]

I first became aware of this song through Miriam Makeba’s seminal cover of it and for the longest time believed it to be an original song of hers. Makeba was one of our country’s greatest musical exports in the 1960s when she had a residency in Las Vegas with Harry Belafonte. During her time in the USA, Makeba did much to champion Xhosa culture on an international stage. At the end of her 1967 album, Pata Pata, sits a poignant track that has as much resonance today as it did when it was written. Piece of Ground is an ardent plea for black South Africans’ “own piece of ground”. Makeba and Belafonte also included a similarly themed song on their 1965 Grammy Award-winning album, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, entitled Give Us Our Land

I was surprised to find out that the song was actually written by a white English expat school teacher living in South Africa. Jeremy Taylor is more well known for his comedic Ag Pleez Daddy song which lovingly captures the accent of the white, Afrikaans school children that Taylor taught at the time. However, his outsider status gave him a unique perspective on the South African situation, allowing him to write a song that so deeply touches the issues enshrined in the Freedom Charter and which are still closely held by many South Africans to this day. Indeed, the song has been covered multiple times; not just by Miriam Makeba. See Vusi Mahlasela’s cover here.

While best known for the novelty tune, Ag Pleez Daddy, Taylor wrote many poignant songs that captured his love for our country including The Green and GoldDrakensburg and Somewhere in Africa. Unfortunately, I was not able to source Taylor’s original version of A Piece of Ground, so enjoy Miriam Makeba’s version below.

WHERE TO GET IT: I haven’t been able to source a version of Taylor’s song but you can buy Miriam Makeba’s 1967, Pata Pata, album here: Takealot | Amazon | Apple | Spotify

Two Little Boys (1971) by Des & Dawn Lindberg

Two Little Boys captures the perpetual antagonism between English- and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans as a result of the Anglo-Boer War (known as the Second Freedom War to Afrikaners). The war was a particularly grinding, brutal one that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Afrikaner women and children towards its end when the British adopted a scorched earth strategy and interned Boer families in concentration camps (in addition to many black South Africans as well).

Des and Dawn Lindberg’s tale of two boys who grow up playing together – one English and one Afrikaans – only to subsequently find each other on opposite ends of the battlefield is a poignant and bittersweet tale that captures a powerful social dynamic still present in some parts of South Africa.

WHERE TO GET IT: Musicians’ website | Spotify has a version without Dawn

SB Man (1971) by Colin Shamley

Colin Shamley is the first of several socially conscious folk singers in this list that emerged in the 1970s. Many of their contributions have been sadly lost to time. Shamley is perhaps best known for his later song, Colonial Man, which is a personal favourite of mine (give it a listen). However, for this list, I chose to highlight the below live recording of Shamley’s SB Man. The song references the Special Branch (SB) of the Apartheid government’s police services. The Special Branch was notorious for their covert, often violent, activities aimed at suppressing anti-Apartheid activists. The song makes light of the fact that journalists, activists and musicians who publicly criticised the regime were constantly hounded by Special Branch operatives. They would be followed and their actions and movements recorded (and often suppressed). Read a first-hand experience here. In addition, for some further listening, Shamley’s Stopping Time covers similarly weighty issues in Apartheid South Africa.

WHERE TO GET IT: 3rd Ear Music

Vasco Da Gama (The Sailor Man) (1976) by Hugh Masekela

Along with Miriam Makeba, Bra Hugh was another one of our most well-known musical exports in the 1960s. Masekela even played the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 where Jimi Hendrix famously set his guitar on fire in an effort to upstage The Who who had played before him.

Masekela’s 1976 album, Colonial Man, takes the listener on a tour of South Africa’s colonial history. Several tracks could be highlighted here but I chose to use one that covers perhaps the earliest piece of history in this list: the “discovery” of South Africa by Portuguese sailor, Vasco da Gama.

Other tracks of historical interest on the album include Cecil Rhodes and Colonial Man (not to be confused with Colin Shamley’s song of the same name).

WHERE TO GET IT: Spotify Amazon lists a second-hand vinyl

UPDATE: the original 1976 album version of this song has been removed from YouTube. Here’s a slightly more recent one instead:

Soweto (1976) by Saitana

June 16th 1976 is a date indelibly etched into the South African psyche as the day of the Soweto uprising. Soweto would never be viewed in the same way again. Released in the same year as the uprising, Saitana’s track shows another side of the township. While not a strict recounting of specific events, the song reminds us that Soweto was (and is) more than just that one image of Hector Pieterson‘s lifeless body (as important and tragic as that image is). It provides us with an alternative view of 1976 Soweto, where people lived, loved and made music, even under the oppressive yoke of Apartheid.

Saitana was a member of legendary bands, The Beaters and Harari, but also released two solo albums. Listen to a few more of his tracks: Friends, Baby Don’t Go, Chocolate Toffee and The Disco.

WHERE TO GET IT: You might find an original vinyl at your local Cash Crusaders or on BidOrBuy if you’re lucky. Thank goodness, local music blog, Electric Jive, let’s you download it here.

Dingaan’s Day (1977) by Paul Clingman

Folk singer and author, Paul Clingman’s song, Dingaan’s Day, is a wry description of the Afrikaner holiday that held a central place in the nationalistic mythos created by the Apartheid government. It describes the annual public holiday of the 16th of December which is now recognised as The Day of Reconciliation because it marks important events for both Afrikaners (read on) and black South Africans (including the founding of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, as well as the date of significant protests). During Apartheid it was known as the Day of The Vow, or colloquially as “Dingaansdag” (“Dingaan’s Day”). The Day of the Vow arose after the Boer Voortrekkers’ defeat of the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River during the Voortrekkers’ expansion into the interior of South Africa in the early 1800s. 470 Boers fended off roughly 20,000 Zulus. They attributed their victory to God’s favour (although their guns probably played a role too) and vowed to recognise the date every year.

Paul Clingman’s body of work is extensive but is not as well known as it should be in South Africa. Clingman is credited as [one of] the original cross-over artist, merging Western and black South African musical techniques together in a way that was made most famous by Johnny Clegg [also an original innovator] and Paul Simon. See Clingman’s 1977 album, Father to the Child, for several examples of this style.

While researching this song, I came across the below clip of the dedication of the Voortrekker Monument on Dingaan’s Day in the 1950s. It’s a fascinating time capsule that sets the scene for the song.

WHERE TO GET IT: 3rd Ear Music

What a Time it Was (1978) by Clem Tholet

I thought a lot about including Clem Tholet in this list since he’s actually a Rhodesian/Zimbabwean artist. However, our countries’ histories are inextricably intertwined for Zimbabwe’s Ndabele population migrated there after being displaced during the Mfecane, precipitated by the expansion of Shaka Zulu’s empire in the early 1800s. We’re siblings really.

Clem was married to the daughter of Rhodesia’s final president, Ian Smith, and wrote songs that contributed to white Rhodesian nationalistic pride during the Rhodesian Bush War between Smith’s white minority government, Robert Mugabe’s majority-Shona Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo’s majority-Ndabele Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). Perhaps more well-known and more overtly nationalistic is Tholet’s, Rhodesians Never Die, but the song below, while unrepentantly patriotic and partisan, captures the time in detail making it a great historical artifact. The video below shows a particularly sympathetic and nostalgic view of Rhodesia. Take it as you will. Read more about Tholet on the 3rd Ear Music website here.

WHERE TO GET IT: Your guess is as good as mind. Try asking your local Zimbo. Maybe 3rd Ear Music?

Lungile Tabalaza (1979) by Roger Lucey

Where does one even start with Roger Lucey’s large body of socially-conscious work (see my entry on Lucey in the post, Eighteen Times White South Africans Fought the System)? Many songs could have been highlighted in this list but I had to choose just one. Lungile Tabalaza, released in 1979, contains echoes  of the satire of Chris van Wyck’s famous “In Detention” poem about the excuses that the Apartheid government gave for how detainees died in custody. Unfortunately, it describes true events. Activist detainees had a habit of dying while in police custody during the Apartheid years, especially if you were detained by the Special Branch (the same “SB” mentioned in Colin Shamley’s song above). The police would often explain away such deaths as having occurred due to a hunger strike or suicide, however, few took these explanations at face value. In the case of Lungile Tabalaza, they claimed that he took his own life by jumping from the fifth floor of Port Elizabeth’s Sanlam Building, the SB’s headquarters in that city. This song is especially relevant given the recent revisiting of activist, Ahmed Timol’s, death under similar circumstances.

Here are a few more of Lucey’s songs that retell real events or capture a time and place: Thabane poignantly recounts Lucey’s experience being locked in a rural jail; The Night Harry J Went to War retells the story of vigilante Harry Joshua who was fed up with gangsterism and took matters into his own hands; Spaces Tell Stories captures the hopeless feeling under Apartheid; Crossroads tells of protests in this Cape Town informal settlement; You Only Need Say Nothing references Trevor Jones, a comrade of Steve Biko’s, who was imprisoned for 17 months; and more…

WHERE TO GET IT: 3rd Ear Music

…and thus the first part our tour through songs that capture some aspect of South African history comes to an end. I hope you’ve enjoyed some of the gems uncovered in this post and I hope that the post has helped increase your appreciation for our amazing musical heritage. If so, please share far and wide so that these artists and their contributions to our social milieu can be more widely known. It’s a shame that so many of them live (or died) in relative musical obscurity.

This series is concluded in Part 2 which covers the period after 1980.

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