Arts and culture

South African music: pop, rock and crossover

From the 1960s onward, more and more white rockers and pop groups appeared to appeal to white audiences in a segregated South Africa.

Four Jacks and a Jill

Among the most successful was the band Four Jacks and a Jill (the name echoed their line-up of four men and a woman), who had their first number one hit with "Timothy" in 1967. Within the next year, they had an international hit on their hands with "Master Jack", which reached number eight in the US and number one in Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia.

Throughout the 1970s, Four Jacks and a Jill were perhaps South Africa's most successful pop group, touring Britain, the US, Australia and other places, including Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Despite the generally unthreatening, pretty nature of their music, the band managed to get a song banned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), and were the focus of protests by ultra-conservative South Africans who found any pop music akin to devil-worship.

After many line-up changes, the original pair at the heart of the band, Clive Harding and Glenys Lynne, eventually disbanded the group in 1983 when they became reborn Christians.

Freedom's Children, Rabbitt

By contrast, 1966 saw the birth of Freedom's Children, a band dedicated to the kind of "acid rock" pioneered in the US by bands such as The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

Four Jacks and a Jill may have been criticised for having long hair, but that was nothing compared to the opprobrium heaped on Freedom's Children - they were seen as hippies who threatened the very progress of civilisation!

Yet they travelled the country, building up a solid fan base among the more progressive young South Africans, and recorded two albums, "Astra" and "Galactic Vibes", that proved inspirational to later "alternative" rockers in the country.

In the mid-1970s, the "boy band" hit South Africa in the form of Rabbitt, four young men who kicked off their career with a cover of a Jethro Tull song and, in a singularly daring move, posed naked for the cover of their second album, "A Croak and a Grunt in the Night".

Imaginatively managed by producer-impresario Patric van Blerk, Rabbitt brought the teen pop market of South Africa to a pitch of Beatles-like hysteria before disbanding in 1977. Member Trevor Rabin went on to a successful career in the US, working as a sessioneer in top rock groups as well as producing movie soundtracks.

A change in mood

As the 1970s drew to a close, however, the mood began to change, with the echoes of Britain's angry working-class punk movement reaching South Africa.

Springs, a poorer white area on the outskirts of Johannesburg, proved to be the breeding ground of a new generation of rockers who were as unimpressed by the commercial blandishments of the mainstream industry as they were disillusioned about South Africa's repressive white regime.

The Radio Rats provided social satire, while Corporal Punishment released "Darkie", a sarcastic picture of white angst ("Darkie's gonna get you"). Bands such as The Asylum Kids and Dog Detachment also carried the flag of youthful rebellion, and gained significant followings.

By the mid-1980s, an alternative rock culture had developed in South Africa, showing considerable diversity.

James Phillips, a founding member of Corporal Punishment, was a central figure. As Bernoldus Niemand, he produced an album of satirical Afrikaans songs such as "Hou My Vas, Korporaal" (Hold Me Tight, Corporal), a satire on the army, thereby influencing an entire "alternative Afrikaans" movement of Afrikaners protesting against repressive social mores.

Bands such as The Gereformeerde Blues Band and singers such as Koos Kombuis were later to gain an enthusiastic following.

At the same time, Phillips produced superbly bluesy rock with his band The Cherry-Faced Lurchers. A vibrant underground rock scene, featuring bands such as The Softees, The Aeroplanes, Bright Blue and The Dynamics kept rebellious young white South Africans "jolling" through the 1980s.

Crossing over

At about the same time, a crossover was beginning to happen between black and white musicians.

Johnny Clegg, a sociologist who learnt so much about Zulu music and dance that he teamed up with with Sipho Mchunu to form the group Juluka, led the charge. Juluka's ability to mix traditional Zulu music with white pop and folk was in itself a challenge to the racial boundaries the apartheid regime attempted to erect between blacks and whites.

With a more pop-driven style, bands such as eVoid, Via Afrika and Mango Groove followed the crossover trail blazed by Clegg (hailed overseas as "the white Zulu"), whose later band, Savuka, continued to reproduce his earlier success.

Moving on

The white pop/rock tradition continues in South Africa, growing ever bigger and more diverse.

Bands such as The Springbok Nude Girls, arguably the finest South African rock band of the 1990s, spearheaded a drive into harder, guitar-driven sounds, while groups such as the acclaimed Fetish began to experiment with the new electronic palette made available by computers and sampling.

Today, an exciting pop/rock/electronic scene exists across South Africa.

SAinfo reporter

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Sipho Mchunu and Johnny Clegg of Juluka

Sipho Mchunu and Johnny Clegg of Juluka, one of South Africa's most internationally successful music outfits, in a detail from the cover of their 1981 album African Litany

The Cherry Faced Lurchers

The Cherry Faced Lurchers, one of the leading bands of South Africa's 1980s alternative rock movement, carried the flag of youthful white rebellion. Their 1985 album Live at Jamesons featured their performances at a popular underground (literally) Johannesburg nightclub


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