1001 South African Songs You Must Hear Before You Go Deaf

Just another music list

Kwa Ndebele – Selaelo Selota

Painted Faces - Selaelo Selota

Painted Faces – Selaelo Selota

Selaelo was born in rural Limpopo. When he grew up he worked on the gold mines where his love of music began. He would also work as an usher at the famous Market Theatre in Johannesburg and as a cleaner at Kippies Jazz Club. He would study music at the FUBA academy and University of Cape Town.

Along this long road from the bundu in Limpopo he picked up a relaxed guitar playing style that brings together a jazzy sound with the Ndebele feel. ‘Kwa Ndebele’ sounds a bit like Tananas with some of the edges smoothed off. It is a laid back track that conjures up images of the warm yellow and brown countryside in the north of the country. It speaks of vast spaces, blue skies and sun filled moments away from all the worries of the world.

There is a hint of George Benson in the track which is predominantly an instrumental with a little bit of gentle skat thrown in for good measure. The track appeared on his debut album, ‘Painted Faces’ which shifted 60,000 units and earned Selaelo 2 Sama awards (Best Contemporary Jazz Album and Best Newcomer) and listening to this piece it is not hard to see why. It is polished African jazz that has beauty painted all over it.

Where to find it:
Painted Faces – Selaelo Selota (2000), Colossal Records, CDCL(WL)7032 or BMG Records Africa – CDCL(WL)7032


Complicated Game – Peach

On Loan For Evolution - Peach

On Loan For Evolution – Peach

In the late 70’s UK band XTC started to make some minor waves in music circles with songs like ‘Life Begins At The Hop’ and ‘Making Plans For Nigel’. They would later bring us hits such as ‘Senses Working Overtime’ (#9 on Radio 5’s charts) and ‘Mayor Of Simpleton’. But it was on their 1979 album ‘Drums And Wires’ that we find the dark and brooding ‘Complicated Game’.

While not essentially a punk band, there was an element of the genre about the song and this is probably what attracted local punk band Peach to cover this lesser known XTC track. There is something slightly menacing about the staccato guitar that opens the track and this feeling does not let up when Angie Peach’s haunting vocals kick in. The song seems to spiral around in the brain as some sort of dark and brooding earworm that digs into the core of your senses. There is a strange catchiness about the tune and the kind of stuttered vocals have a weird way of luring you deeper into the song.

The cover is not a million miles away from the original XTC track in that both take the stuttered approach to the vocals while the guitar lurks in the background, prowling like a caged panther. However, it is the black-lipsticked vocals of Angie Peach that steal the show in the Peach version. She is a temptress luring her prey into the dark web of her song like a blackhearted siren. The track swirls around you like a whirlwind tempest, sucking you into the very core of this complicated game.

It is not quite the catchy pop-punk of ‘Nightmare’, nor is it the punk rock of ‘A Lot Of Things’. It was rather overlooked at the time the album was released (I can’t recall ever hearing it on the radio), but its inclusion on a couple of local compilations (‘Sharp Cuts 2’ and ‘Rocking Against The System’) has made me take a closer look at the track which opened the b-side of their album ‘On Loan For Evolution’.

Where to find it:
On Loan For Evolution – Peach (2002), RetroFresh, freshcd 123


Groen En Goud – The Bats

Groen En Goud – The Bats

Groen En Goud – The Bats

About 13 years before David Kramer had a major hit with his rugby themed song ‘Hak Hom Blokkies’, The Bats were already singing about rugby and including an accordion in a hit track. Their hit ‘Groen En Goud’ entered the Springbok Top 20 on 12 July 1968. It would spend 9 weeks on the charts and peak at 7.

It has a short instrumental intro before the Bats launch into ‘Vat hom Dawie’ and then continue with their cries of encouragement to their favourite bokke (Groen en Goud, if I do have to explain, refers to the green and gold colours the Springbok Rugby team wear). In fact, the whole song is pretty much made up of things one may hear shouted from the crowd at a rugby match.

There is a little interlude to these ‘chants’ when the boere orkes comes in and the Bats move into singing ‘La la-la-la die groen en goud’. It’s all done to a catchy tune. One can hear the humorous twinkle in their eyes as they sing and you can almost imagine them doing the langarm around the studio during the accordion interlude. It is a great 2 and a bit minutes of perfect boerepop and when one sings about something as revered as rugby by a section of the population, you are bound to have a hit.

Arguably the first ‘rugby’ hit in South Africa (but I would welcome suggestions of earlier ones), ‘Groen En Goud’ would blaze a path for Kramer’s ‘Hak Hom Blokkies’ and Shuster’s ‘Hier Kommie Bokkie’. And don’t forget the more serious ones such as PJ Powers’ awesome version of ‘World In Union’ and the various versions of ‘Shosholoza’. The Bats knew how to make good pop songs and in ‘Groen En Goud’, one could almost say that they didn’t even need to try.

Where to find it:
The Best Of The Bats – The Bats (1996), Dawn Music, MORCD612


Blues For Louise – Piet Botha/Jack Hammer

Jan Skopgraaf - Piet Botha

Jan Skopgraaf – Piet Botha

The clue to how this song may sound is in the first word of the title. It’s blues through and through, right from the very first rasping guitar note, via the racing drums and swirling organ and through to the whiskey-rasp vocals, it never lets up its blues-ey feel.

The song first appeared on Piet Botha’s 1999 album ‘Jan Skopgraaf’ and it races along at pace. On the live version that can be found on the ‘Bootleg’ and ‘Tassenberg All Stars’ albums, Piet introduces the track by saying ‘hier’s ‘n ode aan ’n heks wat ons geken het’ (here’s an ode to a witch that we knew’) and there does seem to be a kind of devilish energy to the track that brings to mind a mad dance around a fire in the dark woods.

And the lyrics throw up sparks from the fire that haunt and enchant. Piet sings about Louise and how she was ‘nooit ‘n maklike meisie’ (never an easy woman) and that wherever he goes, ‘Loop ek met my bybel/En ‘n nine mil/En ‘n mes’ (I walk with a bible, a 9 mil and a knife), because he is scared of Louise, ‘banger as n’ pofadder’ (more scared [of her] than of a pofadder). This woman is bad news. And that’s good news for a blues track. A bad woman makes for good blues.

There are at least 2 live versions of the track out there. The first is the aforementioned one on ‘Bootleg’ and ‘Tassenberg Allstars’ while there is also a Jack Hammer version on ‘Live At The Nile’. The former is an acoustic version with more muted vocals and seems to soften Louise a little while the latter starts out with a heavier guitar and then launches into a ZZ Top-fest of guitars and brings that down and dirty feel to a Louise who is a cactus of a woman. Not for the faint hearted.

Where to find it:
Jan Skopgraaf – Piet Botha, (1999), Wildebeest Records, WILD 019


Rolling Of The Bones – Hawk

Africa She Too Can Cry - Hawk

Africa She Too Can Cry – Hawk

There is something primal about ‘The Rolling Of The Bones’ by Hawk (aka Joburg Hawk) and this feeling is there from the first ominous guitar note. The pounded ‘African’ drums that come in within a few seconds add to this. Then comes Dave Ornellas’ gruff and booming vocals and soon there is a kind of celestial choir surrounding the voice. But then that was what Hawk were made of. They took the heavy rock sound that was emerging in the late 60’s/early 70’s (think Deep Purple and Black Sabbath) and Africanised it.

But this is not the sunny skies, graceful animals and beautiful savannah’s of Africa that this song looks to. Rather it draws energy from the strange underworld of witchdoctors, dark caves and rituals. It’s earthy and echoes the Shona story that the earth of Africa is red from all the blood spilt fighting over the land.

Ornellas and his band tap into a world that seems as far removed from rock music as South Africa is from Europe and America where this kind of music was emanating from at that time. Yet they fuse the two together into a dense track of just over two and a half minutes to create something uniquely African yet dressed in the heavy rock of ‘the west’. Later band like Juluka, éVoid and Hotline (and yes Paul Simon) would weave a feeling of Africa with pop sensibilities, but Hawk made this mix years before and did so with a thundering track that had echoes of witchdoctors climbing inside the belly of a Deep Purple song and turning into our very own hard rock song.

Where to find it:

Africa She Too Can Cry (Official CD re-issue) (2004) RetroFresh, freshcd137


I Need Someone – Alan Garrity

I Need Someone – Alan Garrity

I Need Someone – Alan Garrity

With his previous hit, ‘Put Your Hand In The Hand’, Alan Garrity made a big mark on the local music scene as the song went to number 1 on the Springbok Top 20. While his follow up hit, ‘I Need Someone’, did not peak as high (stalling at 2), it would spend 33 weeks on the charts (a record for consecutive weeks for a song by a local act and second on total weeks to The Staccatos’ ‘Cry To me’ which saw 2 runs in the charts) and would be the top performing of any song (using a top 20 points basis) over the almost 24 years the singles charts ran for.

So what made the track from 1972/1973 so popular. Well, it is a solid pop song which sings about love. Garrity’s strong vocals also add to the attraction of the song, soaring on the words as he breaks into the chorus. Then there is the interesting instrumentation as it has a stomping syncopated rhythm to it that predates the glam rock of T Rex and Slade by a few years. Yes, it is not quite as heavy as the later glam rock tunes, but the intent seems to be there. The fact that it is not as heavy is probably what made the song so popular in South Africa at the time.

Lyrically the song is about a man searching for ‘someone to lean on/someone to understand/someone I can depend on/someone to hold my hand’ and this would have appealed to the universal longing for most people. So, combining the strong vocals, the pop-stomping rhythm and words that spoke to one of our most basic instincts, it is not surprising that it was a song we needed to go out and buy.

Where to find it:
Various Artists – The Best of SA Pop Volume 3 (1994) GSP, CDREDD 610


Shosholoza – Ndluvu Youth Choir

Rise - Ndlovu Youth Choir

Rise – Ndlovu Youth Choir

This list would not be complete with what has been described by some as South Africa’s second national anthem. It somehow has become to South Africa Rugby what ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ is to English Rugby. But ironically it does not have South African origins. The song originated from the Ndebele men in what was then Rhodesia. These men would come and work on the gold mines in South Africa and they would sing it while working.

The song talks about a train journey and some say it is about the train journey from Rhodesia to South Africa to come and work, while others think it is more about the return journey home. I am inclined to go with the latter view as there is a joy to the song that surely would have been for a homecoming rather than a setting out to work.

No matter which direction inspired the song, it worked its way into South African culture and is now loved by all in the country. It’s call and response sound has a unifying effect and none more so when Siya Kolisi lifted the world cup in 2019. It has been recorded by a number of different artists including Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Drakensburg Boys Choir, but I have gone with the Ndlovu Youth Choir’s version as they carry the baton to the next generation.

The choir was formed in 2009 to try and help those youth in poverty. Almost 10 years after forming, they appeared on the US TV show ‘America’s Got Talent’ and made it to the final of that contest. With the Rugby World Cup that year, they did a Flash Mob style performance of the song at a Woolworth’s store and set the place rocking with their youth, enthusiasm and colourful dress. Their version is full of life and vitality and is worthy of the song.

Where to find it:
Rise – Ndlovu Youth Choir (2020)


Hou My Vas Korporaal – Bernoldus Niemand

Hou My Vas Corporaal – Bernoldus Niemand

On 6 December 1983 a very strange single appeared in South Africa. Featuring a kind of action comic cartoon picture of a mean looking korporaal on the cover with a pop art caption telling you the name of the song. The picture sleeve actually gave no indication of who the artist was, one had to take the single out to see that it was by Bernoldus Niemand.

But who was this mysterious Benoldus Niemand? Well the clue to who knew who he was was in his surname. Nobody. Nobody knew about this strange dude. And things got stranger when you put the track on as it starts with a very heavily accented dude asking, ‘Excuse me, are you recording?’ in an almost apologetic voice. But what follows would have rung bells with many young white South African men who had done their time in the army. This Niemand dude captured the feeling many had of being lost in this strange world of being ordered around and having to play soldiers when they had hardly learned to shave.

But was this sort of thing allowed? Was Niemand allowed to expose the fear and trepidation that those young men faced. Surely he should have been singing about what a great thing they were doing protecting their loved ones back home. He should have been encouraging, not…not…telling the truth!

But there was something stirring here in this simple song which doesn’t feature the most complicated tune, or the best vocal performance by a long mile. History has shown this to be one of the most important records made by a white South African. We would later find out that Bernoldus Niemand was James Phillips and we would see more of him in bands such as Illegal Gathering, The Cherry Faced Lurchers as well as a solo artist. But this was arguably the seed for the whole Voelvry movement that revolutionised Afrikaans music and politicised the country’s Afrikaans youth.

It is sometimes hard to believe that this song, which also sounds like a thrown away track, played by a slightly intoxicated busker and a cats choir, would have such an impact. But that was the genius of James Phillips. He gave us a simple choon with words that tapped into the core of every troopie’s vulnerabilities. It was a kind of wooden horse of Troy, with a biting, fighting spirit hidden inside an innocuously looking package. Even the cartoon cover seems to give it a sense of the non-real, yet it was more real than anything that had gone before in our country. Phillips would re-record the track when a member of Illegal Gathering, and it’s worth having a listen to that version which is even more stripped down (just voice and guitar), but one always hou’s vas to the original Niemand version as in a strange way it gives us the comfort that the singer is searching for in the song.

Where to find it:
Wie Is Bernoldus Niemand – Bernoldus Niemand (1995), Shifty Records, Bang CD 007

Benoludus Niemand version:

Illegal Gathering version:

Stone Walls – Dennis East

Stone Walls – Dennis East

Stone Walls – Dennis East

Dennis East found a successful formula recording songs written by songwriter Ben Findon. In 1976 he saw one of his biggest hits with ‘A Million Drums’ which Findon had penned and with which the Dooleys had seen a number 11 hit with it in the UK. So the following year East followed this up with ‘Stone Walls’, another Findon penned track. He would see it go to 12 on the Springbok top 20.

The song is such a bouncy pop tune that you may experience cramps in your toes from tapping them along to the track. It came out at a time when disco was really starting to take hold and ‘Stone Walls’ would have been popular in the discos of the time as it would have been one that was easy to dance to. And East’s strong vocals are injected with dance, bobbing along over the instrumentation.

In a reversal of ‘A Million Drums’ it would appear that East’s version was released before The Dooley’s as the first I can see it appearing for the latter was on their 1978 eponymously titled album. While their version has the same bounce to it, it lacks the fire of East’s strong vocal with the Dooley girls sounding at times a little like The Supremes and at other times a bit like Abba, but there seems to be an almost disinterested sound to the vocals. The stone walls they sing of (the opening line of the track is ‘stone walls can’t keep me out’) sound a bit like is a small pile of rocks that can easily be jumped over in The Dooleys’ version whereas with Dennis East’s version you feel that the stone walls are 18 foot thick castle walls that he will bust through to get to his love.

Where to find it:
A Million Heartbeats – The Best Of Dennis East (2015) 20 Degrees South


This Boy – Sweatband

This Boy – Sweatband

This Boy – Sweatband

Sweatband were one of those local acts who burned very brightly but not for very long. They would only release 1 album (‘No Sweat’ which was later re-released on CD as ‘Lank Sweat’ and included bonus tracks) and a handful of singles, but in amongst this they included a SA Rock classic in the form of ‘This Boy’.

One may be forgiven, when listening to the song for the first time, for initially thinking it was going to be a country pop tune as it starts out with a sparse piano and guitar instrumentation and Wendy Oldfield singing about this boy who ‘broke his heart on a twelve string guitar/lost his love in a Canterbury bar’. But after this short intro, a beat comes in that suggests we may be in for something more. And then, as Wendy sings that ‘This boy’s in it for life’ the song changes gear and we are into an almost Peach-ish punk rock track with Wendy sounding something like Ella Mental’s Heather Mac.

What sets the song apart from Peach and Ella Mental is that about two thirds of the way through John Mair starts to show off the fact that he must have been listening to lots of Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen and Jimmy Page as he launches into a blistering guitar solo which continues to underpin the rest of the song, making this a hard rock, punk rock track that, well, rocks!

The lyrics hint at the situation in the country at the time in the lines ‘He grew up fighting to be free/In a privileged society/Where the privilege don’t mean you’re free’, but they end up focussing more about the boy who has dedicated his life to rock and his goal to make it. And make it they did. The song would go to 15 on the Springbok charts, 5 on Capital 604, 6 on Radio 5 and 8 on Radio 702. Mair (perhaps the boy in the title) would become a well respected guitarist in South Africa before sadly being killed in a car crash in 2002. Ironically, the person who went on to find the most success was Wendy Oldfield. Wonder if she will ever do a version of the song changing it to ‘This Girl’.

Where to find it:
Lank Sweat – Sweatband (2002), Fresh Music, FRESHCD102


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