1001 South African Songs You Must Hear Before You Go Deaf

Just another music list

Time And The River – Dream Merchants

Time And The River - Dream Merchants

Time And The River – Dream Merchants

People often refer to Father Time and depict him as a white haired, bearded individual. There is also a song called ‘Old Man River’ so the subject of The Dream Merchants’ ‘Time And The River’ seems to refer to elderly men. However, the Billys (Forrest and Andrews) who sang this version of the song were not that old when they sang it, being in their late 20s in 1967 when it was released. Nat King Cole who also sang a version of it in 1960 was a bit older being around 41, but still not an old man. Despite this age difference in singers and age gaps, the song is well worth a listen, no matter what your age.

Cole’s version is as silky smooth as one would expect from a crooner like him, it is a lazy river slowly meandering its way down to the sea. The Dream Merchants on the other hand are a little faster flowing, upping the tempo and building in a big sound with guitars a-strumming, a pounding piano and a soaring vocal that would probably lift the eyebrows of a few reality talent show judges these days, especially as Billy (not sure which one) builds up to the crescendo finale of the song and moves his vocals up a few notches.

This is one of those songs that is so full of good things (energy, passion, vooma and any other word that describes a similar thing) that it is difficult not to be moved when listening to it. It’s too suave a song to be classified as white water rafting, but it certainly flows smoothly over the eardrums.

Where to find it:
The Heart And Soul Of – Billy Forrest Gallo CDREDD 654, 2001


Starlight – Grannysmith

Starlight - Grannysmith

Starlight – Grannysmith

An apple a day keeps the doctor away, or so the saying goes. Whoever came up with that phrase would not have been talking about this particular Grannysmith as I rememeber hearing that said when I was a child and Grannysmith the band were not around when I was a youngster. In fact when Mike Turner, Adrian Shannon and Riaan Combrink got together to form Grannysmith, it was well into the 90s.

However, the saying about keeping the medical profession at bay could quite easily be applied to the band that should have appeared on The Beatles Apple Records label as ‘Starlight’ is a song that will put you in a healthy frame of mind. It is a relaxed piece of pop rock with pseudo-classical guitars, breathy, mellow vocals and a laid-back mindset. It’s a de-stresser of a song.

The band were ‘discovered’ by Denholm from Just Jinger and signed to BMG near the end of of previous millennium (1999 in case you can’t remember that far back). ‘Starlight’ was their first single and it went on to just miss out on the S.A.M.A. best single of 1999 award where, despite its nomination, it was pipped at the post by Sugardrive’s ‘Disco Lazarus’. Some say winning is everything and second is nothing, but those that do can miss out on having a healthy bite of good music.

Where to find it:
Grannysmith – Grannysmith (1999), Colossal


Asimbonanga – Johnny Clegg

Asimbonanga - Johnny Clegg

Asimbonanga – Johnny Clegg

The phrase ‘stirring anthem’ is sometimes used by music critcs to describe songs that reach into our minds and finds exactly the right buttons to press to envoke a emotion so strong it sends shivers down our spines, tears down our cheeks or what ever physical reaction you experience when you are completely moved by a song. And ‘Asimbonanga’ is one of those great stirring anthems. Even the rather tame version that Joan Baez recorded (tame in comparison to Clegg’s that is) still does something to one.

‘Asimbonanga’, the plaintive cry that kicks off the song, means ‘we have not seen him’ and the song then goes on to name who we have not seen – Mandela. Back in 1987 when the song appeared on the international version of ‘Third World Child’ (we locals had a different track listing), sightings of Mandela were limited pretty much to those on Robben Island. The strange thing about this song is that if you take out the Ladysmith Black Mambazo-esque harmonies, this does not show too much of an African influence. It is practically pure western rock and yet you know it was made in Africa just from its feel.

However, if you are still not convinced by Johnny Clegg’s version, listen to the Soweto Gospel Choir’s version they recorded as a flashbmob at Woolworths 2 days after Mandela died (see Youtube link below), and feel the power of this masterpiece. It worked as a protest song back in 1987 and it worked just as well (if not better) as a suitable farewell to a man whose life was a stirring anthem.

Where to find it:
The Very Best Of Johnny Clegg & Savuka – Johnny Clegg & Savuka (2002), EMI, I-8575762
The Great South African Trip – Various Artists (2007), African Cream


Johnny Clegg:

Soweto Gospel Choir flash mob:

Joan Baez version:

White Rabbit – No Friends Of Harry

In From The Cold

In From The Cold

When you cover an old Jefferson Starship song from one of their most highly rated albums (‘Surrealistic Pillow’) and which goes on to be rated by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the top 500 greatest songs of all time (albeit 478th on the list), you are surely either brave or stupid. I think one can safely say that Rob McLennan and his band were not stupid when they took on this challenge.

No Friends Of Harry, were the front runners in the local goth/alternative scene in the late eighties and soon after the appearance of the debut mini album ‘One Came Runing’, a few of their tracks appeared on the brilliant compilation of alternative music of that era, ‘In From The Cold’. In amongst these was their blistering version of the old Jefferson Starship number.

Of course comparisions are almost obligatory when discussing cover versions so here goes. For a start, JS’s version is a builder with the instrumentation sounding almost muted while Grace Slick’s witchy vocals start off as threatening and dark, but as the military tattoo drum beat builds to an ‘into battle’ frenzy, so her voice becomes more banshee like. NFOH, decided to start out in full battle mode and McLennan’s vocals, while a long way off Slick’s in terms of technical ability, are dripping with sneers and anger while a menacing bass circles round the enemy.

Both versions have their merits and there will be those that say Jefferson Starship’s is better, while other will go for No Friends Of Harry’s and other still, like me, who enjoy both equally. Where NFOH’s version does trump Starship’s is that it is almost 5 minutes long compared to a paltry two and a half minutes Slick & Co. Feed your head on some white rabbit, the slick, quick way or, the longer, more harried route.

Where to find it:
Vinyl: In From The Cold – Various (1988), Principal Records, PRINCE013


Junk Food And Disposable Ladies – Neill Solomon/The Passengers

Rule Of The Swallow - Passengers

Rule Of The Swallow – Passengers

This has to be one of the coolest song titles around for a local track. It conjures up images of seediness and unhealthiness. It is often the case that songs with great titles disappoint once the needle hits the record or lazer beam hits the disc or the central processor accesses the mp3 file (somehow the first of these 3 sounds best), but with this Neill Solomon classic you are not disappointed. The version he recorded with the Uptown Rhythm Dogs on the album ‘The Occupant’ is haunting, with seedy overtones.

There is a venom in the piano playing which feel like the player was hitting the keys in anger at the dark life that is being sung about. A sax wails its despair and sleigh bells shudder like a rattlesnake while Solomon’s gruff ‘voice in the wilderness’ vocals entwine themselves around the music. Making it a most deliciously decadent take away.

The re-recorded version Solomon did with his band The Passengers is a quite different song as it is a reggae version with (almost) upbeat vocal, a stoned bass and some disposable ladies on backing vocals.

So now you have a menu of versions to choose from, but this is high class fast food. This is not a Big Mac of a song, there is real meat to it. This is flame grilled and juicy with loads of monkey glad sauce, crisp lettuce and tomato with a huge helping of vinegar drenched slup chips on the side. The added bonus here is that it won’t harden your arteries.

Were to find it:

The Occupant – Neill Solomon (1997), Fresh Music, NSCD001
Rule Of The Swallow – The Passengers, 1989, D.P.M.C. records, DMK9005 (Cassette ZDMK 9006)



Thank You – Lionel Bastos

Rising Above The Madness - Lionel Bastos

Rising Above The Madness – Lionel Bastos

Leonel Levy Lopes Bastos is another of those artists who weren’t born and bred in South Africa, but who we count as one of our own. I know it’s a bit of a cheat, but when you’ve got people from other countries who come to our fair shores and make great music, you can’t help but claim it as ours. Bastos was born in Maupto in Mozambique, but made his music in South Africa.

It is gentle, beautiful music that Bastos makes and ‘Thank You’ is a fine example of this. Describing ‘Rising Above The Madness’, the album this was taken from and Bastos’ 3rd, The SA Rockdigest called it “an assortment of stirring vocals, sweeping strings, and wide-screen, emotional arrangements” and goes on to talk about Bastos having “a fluid songwriting touch, an ear for the hooky lyric, and a warm, emotive voice”. I quote this review of the album here as it goes a long way to summing up ‘Thank You’. It has mellow vocals that stir the senses, althought the strings on this track are more classical plucked than sweeping, but there is a sense of wide screen-ness to the song as it seems to stretch out (as lazily as a Sunday arvie) across an aural landscape. The sweeping comes more from the backing vocals which are floating ‘aaahs’ that are the velvet cushion on which the honey edged vocals of Lionel are presented to you.

This is perfect relaxing music. Think James Blunt without the annoyingly smug attitude.

Where to find it:
Rising Above The Madness – Lionel Bastos (2000), SAFM, CDVM35

Hear here.

Spaces Tell Stories – Roger Lucey

21 Years Down The Road - Roger Lucey

21 Years Down The Road – Roger Lucey

Here’s a political one from Roger Lucey. That’s a bit like saying here’s a heavy one from Deep Purple. Lucey virtually exclusively did political songs, and he was one of our best at doing so. But back in the day, you weren’t allowed to hear political, so most of his stuff was only heard by a limited few (his seminal album ‘The Road Is Much Longer’ was banned outright).
‘Spaces Tell Stories’ is about the censorship of the press during the State of Emergency in the 80’s in South Africa. Newspapers like the Weekly Mail had large chunks of their stories blacked out, so we couldn’t be told what was happening in the country. But, as Roger observed, you didn’t need to read the stories to know what was going on. As the opening line of the song says, ‘Spaces tell stories/and details aren’t needed/you hear things you don’t want to know’.
‘Spaces Tell Stories’ could almost be classified as punk as it is a brief 2 minute 37 second angry rant at the establishment, but where it falls down on the punk front is that the instrumentation is far more refined and melodic than some of the thrashy sound your usual punks make. Instead, the anger manifests itself as it builds to a ragged military beat that goes to war against the subject matter, somewhat akin to John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ where the music spits out the message with as much venom as the words do.
South Africa is a lot further down the road from where it was when Lucey recorded this song, but it still stands as a milestone on that journey we took, a stark reminder of where we have been.

Where to find it:
21 Years Down The Road – Roger Lucey (2000), 3rd Ear Music


Hear here:


Gimme A Break – The Rockets

Gimme A Break - The Rockets

Gimme A Break – The Rockets

The Rockets were formed in Cape Town in 1968 (1 year before another famous Rocket went to the moon) and played funky soul music in the style of motown bands such as The Four Tops and the like. They grew in popularity, winning the Battle Of The Bands competition in 1969 and went on to perform on the BBC music show ‘Top Of The Pops’ with Tom Jones and Marmalade.
They went through a number of line-up changes and by 1985 had Ronnie Joyce (formerly known as Little Ronnie Joyce, but presumably he grew up) on vocals when they recorded ‘Gimme A Break’. I have come across 2 versions of the song, one where the funk-o-meter is turned up and they sound somewhat like a circa 1983/84 Kool & The Gang. On the other version there is a thumping bass dance beat that falls just short of becoming Hi-NRG. It doesn’t matter which version you manage to get your grubby little paws on, as both are sufficiently dance injected and funk-filled songs to have toe-tapping at a bare minimum, as you won’t be sitting down to do so, you’ll be out there on the dancefloor.
The lyrics are not deep or insightful, but when you are shakin’ your thang on the dancefloor, you don’t want ‘save the world’ stuff thrown at you, you want light-hearted words about love and dancing. So, ‘Gimme a break, gimme a chance, gotta get down, dance dance’ is perfectly suited lyrics for a song of such a genre. It’s about enjoying yourself.
The song made it onto the Radio 702 charts back Novemebr 1985 and reached number 3 there.

Where to find it: (Vinyl) Thank You Thank You (1986), Mike Fuller Music, FML1011


Which Way To Go – Robin Auld

Iron In The Sky - Robin Auld

Iron In The Sky – Robin Auld

If one were to talk of two guitars making beautiful music in a South African context the most obvious thought would be of Steve Newman and Tony Cox. But wait, here we have 2 guitars making beautiful music and there is singing on top of it! But hey, Cox & Newman can’t be expected to produce every single 2 guitared piece in South Africa.

So who are these guitar players and who is doing the singing. Well, as the title of this entry in the list will tell you, one is Robin Auld who one presumes is doing the acoustic strumming and the main vocals are immediately recognisable as his husky laid-back ones. But there is a decidedly South African electric guitar dancing around Auld’s acoustic and this is supplied by one Louis Mahlanga who is a well known name in South African music circles.

There is such a great synergy between the two guitars as they both trying to out joie de vivre each other, that they are sensibly given almost a minute and a half for an instrumental break. It’s infectious music that makes you glad to be alive. Poignantly, the song was co-written by Auld and James Phillips and the version on ‘Iron In The Sky’ was recorded live in Grahamstown. Phillips was killed in a car cash going to perform at the festival and this song is a hugely suitable tribute to him, not only because of its life-affirming beauty, but the synergy of the ‘white’ acoustic sound with the ‘black’ electric guitar to create a rainbow nation song would have pleased James.

Where to find it:
Iron In The Sky – Robin Auld, November 2000, (CDVM27)


God Keep The People (Who Stay Awake At Night) – John Oakley-Smith

Matinees On Saturdays - John Oakley-Smith

Matinees On Saturdays – John Oakley-Smith

There is an artist in the UK who in 2012 ‘did a Rodriguez’. That is, he recorded an album in 1967 and then another one in 1971 and then disappeared from sight only to have success come and find him decades later. This guy was Bill Fay who, following much touting in ‘Uncut’, a UK music magazine, eventually had an album in the UK charts.

And we all know the Rodriguez story of how he made 2 brilliant albums that did nothing then disappeared from sight, only to make a huge global comeback. John Oakley-Smith’s problem is that he only made 1 brilliant album that did nothing in 1976, but that shouldn’t preclude him from getting the recognition he deserves should it?

Just have a listen to the beautiful ‘God Keep The People (Who Stay Awake At Night)’ and then try and figure out why this man did not get more accolades. Like Rodriguez and Fay, Smith had an eye for human characters that he brings into his songs especially in this one where as he asks God to look after those nightowls whom most of us hardly notice. And, like Rodriguez and Fay, he brings them to our attention through great tunes. But where perhaps he outdoes Rodriguez and to a degree Fay, (and I may be going out on a limb here) is that he has a better voice. His is somewhat akin to Nick Drake and that is perfect for the music he plays.

So while you are listening to ‘God Keep The People’ maybe one of you out there may think about making a film called ‘Seaching For Matinee Man’.

turWhere to find it:
If you’re lucky you may find a vinyl copy of his brilliant LP ‘Matinees On Saturdays’ at a second hand shop. The song’s on that.


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