1001 South African Songs You Must Hear Before You Go Deaf

Just another music list

Ntyilo Ntyilo – Alan Silinga

Essential South African Jazz

According to some sources, Alan Silinga wrote ‘Ntyilo Ntyilo’ but most of the time it is credited to Miriam Makeba. It is probably because Makeba’s version is the one people normally look to when looking up this song. And it is quite possible that Makeba gets a writing credit for the lyrics and it was Silinga that wrote the music. The one source that credits the song to Silinga was the notice of his death on 7 September 2007 published by the Minister of Arts & Culture, Dr Pallo Jordan (https://www.gov.za/p-jordan-african-composer-alan-silingas-death) which notes that Silinga wrote the song for Makeba.

And what a gift he gave us in this hauntingly beautiful melody. It was a bit of a struggle to find a version credited to Silinga as the artist, but the one on ‘Essential South African Jazz – The Jo’burg Sessions’ has him as the artist on that track. And this is a beautiful instrumental version of the song. It is laid back jazz with a peaceful violin (a la Soweto String Quartet) that soothes the soul and eases any aches and pains one may have. There is a kind of sadness to the sound, but it is more a melancholy inducing sadness than a depressive one.

A number of other artists have recorded versions which are worth checking out. There is the famous Maria Makeba version already mentioned, Hugh Masekela did a flute led jazzy version, Johnny Dyani did an acoustic guitar one, Thandiswa Mazwai performs an upbeat take on it and 60’s garage band, The Shangaans, mix the Zulu lyrics with some English ones in a 60’s ballad style. So there are many different ones to chose from and you are almost guaranteed to be moved by whichever one you choose as the power of the music will transport you to a place where you feel safe and warm and wrapped in satin. I kept coming back to the one on the ‘Essential Jazz’ collection. But that’s just me. You may chose a different take on the song as your personal favourite, but its undeniably a moving track.

Where to find it:
Various artists, Essential South African Jazz – The Jo’Burg Session (2008), African Cream, ACM-CD0048

Video:
Alan Silinga:

Miriam Makeba:

The Shangaans:

I’ll Walk With You – Sean Rennie

Sean Rennie had 2 hits make the Springbok top 20. The first of these was ‘I’ll Walk With You’ which spent 5 weeks on the charts and peaked at 13. Rennie hailed from Ireland, but made South Africa his home where initially he was part of a band called Purple Haze, but then moved on to having a successful solo career.

And listening to ‘I’ll Walk With You’ it’s not too surprising that he had the success he did as he has a velvety crooner type voice that sits comfortably against the pop sensibility of the song. Although the song was a hit in 1970, there is a slight 50’s love song feel to it. It has a harpsichord sounding intro (which may well have been an actual harpsichord), gently strummed guitars and an ever present tambourine to accompany the singing.

The song lasts just 2 minutes and 48 seconds which adds to its 50s feel and as the it draws to a conclusion, Rennie slips into a bit of an Elvis impersonation. Rennies are a well know remedy for heartburn and this Rennie certainly soothes any aches of the heart one may have. It’s a gentle, pop song which may have dated somewhat, but it is a good reminder of a more innocent time. Well executed and a deserved hit.

Where to find it:
Various Artists – The Best of SA Pop Volume 1 (1994) GMP, CDGMPD 40485 (CD)

Video:


Home Wrecker – The Dirty Skirts

I imagine a punch bag must feel a little bit like one does after listening to The Dirty Skirts’ ‘Homewrecker’. The song has such a punchy beat that hardly lets up throughout the song while the band bounce through the lyrics as if they are bashing you on the head as they go. You are left feeling a little battered and bruised by the experience but know you’re like one of those characters in a movie who gets their kicks getting into scraps. You smile through swollen lips and black eyes and say, ‘you should see the other guy’ even though everyone knows there is probably not a scratch on them.

Led by Jeremy de Tolly, The Dirty Skirts hailed from Cape Town and deliver an energetic punk rock sound similar to Green Day and the Strokes. It borders on frenetic and sounds like fizzy teenage hormones in a shook-up bottle. There is a a scuzzy guitar intro that tumbles into the song which has a blast of guitars before de Tolly’s urgent punky vocals bash their way through and you’re washed away on the beat.

In his song ‘Cooler As Ekke’, Jack Parow comments, ‘Shame you listen to The Dirty Skirts’ and a few lines later has the put-down ‘Jy lyks soos Jeremy de Tolly’ (you look like Jeremy de Tolly). Maybe its professional jealousy or maybe its just that it’s part of a rappers cool image to dis anything that’s not rap, but The Dirty Skirts did enough to get up the nose of one of the country’s top rappers and I can see that a song like ‘Homewrecker’ which is all punk and no rap would not be liked by pure rap lovers.

And maybe The Skirts kind of punk is not your cup of tea, but they certainly knew how to make a song in ‘their’ style. Punchy, punky, energetic and never at the cost of a tune. ‘Homewrecker’ is a good example of the genre. As de Tolly sings, ‘Let’s punch a hole in this Saturday night’. And they certainly punched a Dirty Skirts sized hole into the SA music scene.

Where to find it:
On A Stellar Bender – The Dirty Skirts (2007), Seed Music, SEED123

Video:

Going Straight – Flash Harry

Going Straight – Flash Harry

Going Straight – Flash Harry

When someone sings to you that they are going straight, you would not really think that they would tell you this in a ska-punky kind of way because people who sing that kind of music are a bit dodgy, aren’t they. Well, I’m sure the Mother Grundys of the day would have told you that as they tried to prevent you from listening to anything except pan pipes and Sonja Herholt. But when Flash Harry tell us that they are going straight they do so in that jerky punky way that has a ska-ish feel.

And perhaps that is the point as listening to the lyrics, they are seeming to have a dig at those who ‘go straight’. ‘I’m just a straight man/I depend on the news’ sings Keith Berel then continues ‘My wife makes me breakfast/and my boy shines my shoes’. He is singing about a typical white South African growing up in the early 80’s, a man who is comfortable with the chauvinism and racial dominance of the day without being out there on the far right in either area. He just wants to live his life. ‘Don’t ask me questions/I got nothing to say’.

There is definitely a tongue firmly in a cheek in this song. Flash Harry were, in a subtle way, asking how can you be comfortable with what is going on around you? How can you just bury your head in the sand while these injustices continue? Perhaps there is a clue in the rattlesnake sounding tambourine that opens the track. There is a venom hidden behind the perky upbeat song. Not all is as it seems in this cheeky sounding track.

Flash Harry were a short lived band with only 2 albums to their name. Keith Berel moved on to the even shorter lived, but equally brilliant Carte Blanche (only 1 album there) after Flash Harry called it a day and again came up with some tuneful yet subtle political songs in his new group. Even the title of ‘Going Straight’ is a bit tongue in cheek as, in order to be heard in South Africa in those days, you could not be straight talking with your message, you had to wrap it up in something that the censors wouldn’t take offence to and Berel and Flash Harry were good at doing that.

Where to find it:
Vinyl album: Take What You Can – Flash Harry (1982), A.D. Records (DTC 1000)

Fever – Otis Waygood Blues Band

Fever – Otis Waygoods Blues Band

Fever – Otis Waygood Blues Band

There was an Otis involved in the original ‘Fever’ and an Otis in the version that is the subject of this entry. The song, originally recorded by Little Willie John, was written by Otis Blackwell and Eddie Cooley back in 1956 and has been covered by numerous acts over the years with possibly the most famous being Peggy Lee’s 1958 version which made it to 8 on the US charts (although the McCoy’s (of ‘Hang On Sloopy’ fame) 1965 cover peaked 2 places higher at 6). The original by Little Willie John got to 27.

But it is the version by Otis as in Otis Waygood Blues Band (which didn’t have anyone called Otis in it) with which we are concerned here. There a sort of cartoon soundtrack quality to this version. One can almost imagine Tom of ‘Tom & Jerry’ fame walking along, full of confidence which all goes well as the music with a swaying rhythm has all that self assuredness and strut that the walk would have. But then, as often happens with Tom, he trips or stubs his toe or has some other mishap just as Rob Zipper injects a sudden cry of ‘Fever!’.

Now some might say that comparing an Otis Waygood song to a cartoon is a bit sacrilegious, and maybe it is. But the point is that cartoon soundtracks were brilliant at describing the mood and action of what was happening on screen and, with this cover,  Otis Waygood capture a mood and feeling that has a funky strut interlaced with the surprising screech of ‘Fever!’ every now and then which conjures up images in the mind in the same way those soundtracks did. And there is something feline in this sound. It is slinky, sexy, aloof, confident and alluring. It seduces you into a world of dimly lit back alleys and smokey underground dives where, no matter what, you are the centre of attention.

It is a little bit of a steal classing this as a South African song as the band hailed from what was then Rhodesia. But listening to ‘Fever’ has given me enough of a confident strut to include it in a list of South African songs.

Where to find it:
Otis Waygood Blues Band – Otis Waygood Blues Band (2001), Retro Fresh, Fresh CD109

Video:

Miles – Moodphase 5ive

Steady On - Moodphase 5ive

Steady On – Moodphase 5ive

When you put this song on, you immediately think that the ‘Miles’ in the title refers to Miles Davis as the intro is a relaxed and jazzy trumpet. But after a few seconds of this ploughing a lone furrow, it is joined by a chilled-out drums ‘n bass style beat and a few seconds later Ernestine Deane’s silky vocals slink into the song singing ‘I drove for miles’. So just what miles does the title of this superb Moodphase 5ive track refer to, the jazz trumpeter or the distance between here and music heaven?

Well, the trumpet, that continues to pop up throughout the song, certainly suggests a link to Miles Davis. On this track the horn of Africa comes courtesy of Douglas Armstrong (wonder if he ever went under the name Mielies Davis?) and keeps remind one that this is a kind of jazz track. This feel is accentuated when Ernestine starts singing skat style later in the song.

But the insistent beats are somewhat at odds with the jazzy sound, miles away from it, you could say. But in a strange way it works and works well. The relaxed feel of the song (which has a flute occasionally fluttering around in it) puts one in your favourite coffee shop on a lazy afternoon, sipping your brew and chilling while the world goes by. You go into a dreamy state and are miles away. So perhaps the ‘miles’ in the title refers to this state of mind

But none of that really matters. Quibbling over what the song title is about misses the point that this is a song to relax to and not spend time fretting over. There is a reason it spent 3 weeks at 1 on the SA Rockdigest charts.

Where to find it:
Steady On – Moodphase 5ive, (2000), African Dope, ADOPECD002

Video:

God’s Window – Egyptian Nursery

God’s Window - Egyptian Nursery

God’s Window – Egyptian Nursery

God’s Window is a viewing point of some stunning scenery near Bourke’s Luck potholes in Mpumalanga near the town of Graskop. The viewing points looks out over a valley and some beautiful mountains. There is a sense of serenity whenever one is faced with such beauty and it’s not surprising that people call it God’s Window.

It’s not clear if Egyptian Nursery had this particular bit of scenery in mind when they wrote the song ‘God’s Window’, but whether they did or not, they were certainly thinking the same thoughts one does as one looks out over the world. The song is a chilled out affair that seems to capture the beauty and peace of majestic mountains and beautiful valleys. There is even a repeated flute-y sound emulating the cry of a bird that you would hear when looking at such a view.

Arlene Bechard’s vocals float lazily like that bird catching the updrafts, stretching its wings as it glides across the land while Cragie Dodds’ beats take one along on the journey, colouring in the scenery with African sounds that root the song in the continent. About halfway through we are treated to some French rapping from Mojama Kalume, the final member of the band.
The album of the same name features an ‘Easy Mix’ which was also included in the second ‘Breathe Sunshine’ compilation, but this a drum and bass mix and, to my mind, less easy on the ear than the original version. It’s good laid-back drum and bass if you like that kind of thing, but its not my personal favourite.

I wish my eyes could see though God’s Window/I wish that I could see myself through God’s Window’ sings Arlene. Well all she needs to do is to put this track on, close her eyes and imagine herself looking out over the hills and valleys of Mpumalanga and she’ll be there. And due to the wonders of modern technology, you can do so too.

Where to find it:
God’s Window – Egyptian Nursery (2000), Blue Flame Records, 398 50382

Videos:
Original version:

Breathe Sunshine Easy Mix:

 

Gasoline – Saron Gas/Seether

Fragile - Saron Gas

Fragile – Saron Gas

Way back in the day (we’re talking 2001/2002), a band called Saron Gas came roaring out of Pretoria into the South African music psyche. Hard rocking and with an angry sound they blew away all other hard rock competition and came to the attention of Wind-Up records in the US. They changed their name to Seether (as sarin gas is a toxic nerve gas which had been used in a deadly terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995). Under their new name they have had a US top 20 hit with ‘Broken’ which reached number 20, and a number 2 album there in the form of ‘Holding On To Strings Better Left To Fray’.

One of the songs that bridges the Gap between Saron Gas and Seether is ‘Gasoline’ as the band recorded it under both names. It is a song that thunders from the first dirty guitar chords, through the growling vocals of Shaun Morgan and continue till the screaming guitars and backing vocals close the track. It is Nirvana-esque in its grungy-ness and Metallica-ish in its dense wall of rock. It’s home-grown hard rock at its finest.

The Saron Gas version spent 2 weeks at the top of the SA Rock Digest charts, but there is little to choose between the two versions. The Seether one is that little bit denser and fuller in sound. It has more polish on it, but the slightly more raw sound of the Saron Gas version is more in tune with the pain expressed in the lyrics (‘She’s got no one to hate/except me’). Both come at you like a 4 o’clock highveld thunderstorm and bliksems you into submission.

I know in South Africa we normally refer to it as petrol, but this gasoline is drenched in American rock sensibilities and got the recognition it deserved. So pull up to the pumps and get your fill of ‘Gasoline’, rev the engine to a roar and Seethe(r) on down the highway.

Where to find it:
Saron Gas version: Various Artists – 5fm Playlisted (2002), Sony Music, CDDGSO 003 W
Seether version: Disclaimer – Seether (2002), Wind-Up, CDMUS (CF) 303

Videos:
Saron Gas version:

Seether version:

Saturday Night – John Oakley-Smith

Matinees On Saturdays - John Oakley-Smith

Matinees On Saturdays – John Oakley-Smith

Looking at what I have planned as songs to include in the list I notice I only have 2 John Oakley-Smith tracks. The previous one was ‘God Keep The People (Who Stay Awake At Night)‘. To this I have now added ‘Saturday Night’. I could really have gone for every single track on Oakley-Smith’s marvellous ‘Matinees On Saturdays’ album which still remains criminally unavailable on CD or to download.

Oakley-Smith had a knack of encapsulating people in short vignettes that look at life and how we live it. ‘Saturday Night’ is a prime example of this. He takes that moment in the weekend where you are the furthest away from work. You have just managed to shake off the babbalas from the Friday night jol and haven’t yet eased in to the lazy melancholy of a Sunday which always has Monday hanging over it like the Sword of Damocles.

This piano driven track seems to be in a rush as it dances along on a light-footed tune. And that is apt because, as we all know, time travels at twice the speed of comfort over the weekend. Oakley-Smith’s pure, Nick Drake type vocals bounce lightly across the surface of the song. But it’s not all the bed of roses the light touch of the music suggest. The characters in the song sit on the park benches and smoke as evening draws near, but ‘Even the dogs bark louder on a Saturday night’. These characters then lose themselves in the hotel bars and as they head home they are mugged. Not as pleasant a picture as the music suggests.

But the people make it home and head out to work on Monday with the thought ‘You could lose your mind if it was not for Saturday night’. This slight positive note closes the just over 2 minute song which leaves you wondering what it was you just heard. Was this a gentle tribute to one of the best times in the week, or is it a commentary on the sadness about the drudgery of life for many who turn to alcohol and live with violence, barely surviving.

This is a beautifully unsettling song which lures you in, unsettles you, yet leaves you feeling strangely uplifted but curious and wanting to go back and listen to it again and again.

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

Little Jimmy – Gwynneth Ashley-Robin

Little Jimmy – Gwynneth Ashley-Robin

Little Jimmy – Gwynneth Ashley-Robin

Hands up who remembers ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’, the song by Little Jimmy Osmond. Well, that was a hit on the Springbok Charts in 1973 and it got to number 7. Jimmy would be the youngest person to make the SA charts and the little Osmond kid seemed to have had a real affect on older women as he was 10 when he had his hit and at that point Gwynneth Ashley-Robin would have been 12½.

A year after Little Jimmy’s success, he was back in the charts, not as an act but rather as the subject of a song by Gwynneth who, at the time would be the second youngest person to chart (she was later overtaken for second place by Lena Zavaroni who had a hit with ‘Ma! He’s Making Eyes At Me). At just 13 years old, Gwynneth would be the youngest local act to make our charts and she did so with the aid of a well know act in the 70’s, Jody Wayne.

Jody would write and produce the track which is a cute little sing-a-long song. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the track is that Gwynneth’s vocals do not sound like a little girl singing. It is a surprisingly mature delivery that is somewhat akin to the Motown soul acts of the 70’s like the Supremes or the Ronnettes. And the lyrics are also similar to that era of songs. It could easily sit alongside the likes of ‘De Doo Ron Ron’, ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘Baby Love’.

Gwynneth (who’s real surname was Joubert) would have a second hit in the form of ‘Little Soldier Blue’, but sady would die in a light aircraft crash at the tender age of 15. Given the voice on that kid, we can only sit back and wonder what could have been. Instead we can occasionally put on ‘Little Jimmy’ (add it to your guilty pleasures list) and marvel at a voice ahead of its years.

Where to find it:
Various Artists – The Best of SA Pop Volume 1 (1994) GMP, CDGMPD 40485 (CD)

Video:

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