1001 South African Songs You Must Hear Before You Go Deaf

Just another music list

December African Rain – Juluka

December African Rain - Juluka

December African Rain – Juluka

One of the set works I had in English at school (a long time ago) was a book called ‘I Heard The Owl Call My Name’. So when Johnny Clegg and Sihpo Mchunu came along singing about December African Rain and ‘I heard the owls calling my name’, I had some idea of what the song was about. The book was set in British Columbia where the native Kwakwaka’wakw people believed that if you heard the owl call your name then death was imminent.

But Juluka were not about to die. This was 1983 and they still had a few more years in them yet. However, the song is about a person facing their demise, but it is not a morbid farewell he is saying to the world. He is accepting of his fate as a natural progression. Yes, there are some regrets – “where did the time go?” and taking leave is not easy – “It’s so hard to say goodbye to eyes as old as yours my friend”, but we are told to “wipe away those tears and remember the good times”. This is a much more upbeat song for a funeral than the dirges we usually have. It celebrates life rather than mourning the loss of it.

‘December African Rain’ was one of those rare things, a Juluka chart hit. It got to number 7 on Capital Radio 604’ chart and 15 on Radio 702. In amongst all the imagery and ‘Yum-um-um-um-bo’s’ there is one line that stands out for it pure beauty and imagery and that is, ‘The firelight has danced its last across your face my friend’. That may well have been the case for the friend, but for the song, I am sure it will be a long time before it dances it’s last across your sound system.

Where to find it:
Original vinyl: Work For All – Juluka (1983), Minc, MINC(L)1070 (also available to download from iTunes)

Video:

Speedtrain – Frankie’s Playground

Frankie’s Playground

Frankie’s Playground

Part German, part South African, Frankie’s Playground is not a place you’d let you little kids hang out in. There are no health and safety rules with this band. And with a ‘Speedtrain’ on the loose, you need to lock uup your daughters (and sons) because this one is coming helter skelter down the tracks straight-atcha.

Frank Riester is the German driving force behing this juggernaut. He was in a band called Deadlock which opened for Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and ZZ Top at the Balinger Open Air Festival in 1996. When you are opening for such acts, you need to know your noise if you want to make any impact and, judging by the thundering rock of ‘Speedtrain’ Frankie’s Playground know how to make a noise.

Starting off with the sound effects of a steam train, chugging along, it suddenly bursts into a highspeed one, guitars blaring, drums thundering and the yowling vocals of Frank which have been distilled in hours and hours of great heavy metal bands like Deep Purple, Iron Maiden and the aforementioned Rainbow. One thing’s for sure, if you bang your head in this playground, there will be no teacher around to put a plaster on it, so sit back and enjoy the noise of the playground and this speeding train. Tickets please.

Where to find it:
Frankie’s Playground – Frankie’s Playground (1999), Riester International, CD5820

Weeping – Erik Windrich

Erik

Erik Windrich

Okay, we need to start this one with a statement that this is not a cover of the classic Bright Blue song by the éVoid frontman. No this is a song which Erik wrote around the same time that Bright Blue were writing their song, however, Erik took about 26 years longer to release his song of the same name.

A lot had happened in that time. Erik, had re-located to London with his brother Lucien and the 2 of them were plying their trade as éVoid, performing live at The Springbok Bar in Covent Gardens. After years of that, things went quiet on the Windrich front till Erik decided to record a new album and when he did, he included this track which had been sitting around in his back pocket for a while. He found himself a few musicians to record with, including a guy called Mosi Conde from Guinea who brought a kora to the proceedings.

The result is a gently bittersweet song that has Mosi’s kora cascading around Erik’s guitar picking, the latter still having that South African sound that éVoid had managed to pluck from their instruments. It is a matured éVoid sound, no longer the manic bounce around the stage stuff, but a more refined take on life, but no less catchy. Like the éVoid track, ‘The Race Of Tan’, the lyrics ponder the fate of those whose ancestory was regarded as questionable and borderline acceptable under the apartheid regime. It looks at identity and racism.

This song should not be played next to the Bright Blue one to compare them just because they share a title. Both songs bring out the tears because of the injustices seen in the country back then, but while Bright Blue drag the extra sobs from you due to the dramatic beauty of their composition, Windrich seduces them from you using sheer gentle beauty.

Where to find it:
backyard Discovery – Erik Windrich (2003)

Video:

Hear here:

Duisand Myl Blues – Valiant Swart

Deur Die Donker Vallei - Valiant Swart

Deur Die Donker Vallei – Valiant Swart

A thousand miles is a long way. To put this in perspective, Johannesburg is about 785 miles from Cape Town. To go a thousand miles you’re talking about a trip from Polokwane to Cape Town. By Air that is about a 2 and a half hour flight (if you can get a direct one). By car it would be (depending on how you drive) about 16 hours travel (without stops). However, if you have this song as company for you on the road, then the journey would not be that bad.

This is a song of longing for a loved one who is far away and was probably written by Valiant when he was touring and missing his baby. It is possible that he was performing in Polokwane and wishing he was “by my baby in my Khaya in die Kaap”. The melancholy that he feels being alone on the road transmutes into this song of aching blues.

But it is not all despair as he find solace in singing “songs van die sterre en die maan” and he admits “dan vergeet ek so bietjie van jou”. Now a woman waiting for her man back home may not like to hear that she is forgotten, so Valiant goes on to tell her what happens  after singing the songs which have made him feel a bit better – “Maar dan gaan ek af/en gaan uit in die strate/en ek mis jou”. It would take a hard woman not to be moved by this.
‘Duisand Myl Blues’ find Valiant in a melancholic mood, singing to a muted, strummed guitar. His voice conveys his longing for his baby and lyrically, these are words straight from the heart. They will strike a chord with anyone who has every missed their loved one.

Where to find it:
Deur Die Donker Vallei – Valiant Swart (2002), Rhythm Records, SWART004

Video:

Fragile – Venessa Nolan

Burn - Venessa Nolan

Burn – Venessa Nolan

In 2001, a new talent emerge on the local scene and that was Venessa Nolan (no relation to the Nolan sisters as far as I know). Her debut album ‘Burn’ set the music scene alight with smouldering and moody songs. Despite its name, ‘Fragile’ was not the quietest track on the album. In fact it ranks up there as one of the rockiest.

Not that Venessa is a rock chick, she is more a singer/songwriter in the mould of Carole King, except she rocks a bit more. ‘Fragile’ is built around Venessa’s piano, and Paul Tizzard’s ever present dumming. Yo Yo Buy’s provides a solid backbone bass and Tigger Reunert chips on on the guitar to round off the sound of this solid pop-rock tune.

‘Fragile’ provided Venessa with one of her 3 number 1 hits on the SA Rockdigest Charts. It is difficult to say that it was one of the stand out track on ‘Burn’ as there were so many good tunes on that album and ‘Fragile’ stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the others. Fragile? They don’t break them like they used to.

Where to find it:
Burn – Venessa Nolan, (2001), Rhythm, RR005

Butchers & Bakers – The Staccatos

Butchers & Bakers - The Staccatos

Butchers & Bakers – The Staccatos

And just what did those Candlestick makers do to be left off the title of The Staccatos number 7 hit of 1968. Sure, they get a look in in the lyrics, but no headline billing. I was going to shed some light on this, but there was some load shedding and where are those candles I ordered…?

The Staccatos knew how to make pop records. They hold the record for the longest run by any song on the SA Top 20 (38 weeks by ‘Cry To Me’ in 1969 and 1970), but only managed 10 weeks with this little ditty. There is a catchy tune around which Brian le Gassick wraps his soulful vocal chords. He is helped out by a chorus of backing singers in that big sound 60’s style. There are also some brassy bits thrown in for good measure on a sing-a-long song that brings up visions of housewives tapping their toes to this song on the radio while doing the ironing. (Not that one wants to be sexist about this, but that is the sort image that would accompany this style of song in films from that era – and usually the woman would be in curlers.)

But this is no longer the 60’s and the ironing is no longer just the woman’s job, so that can’t stop people (of any gender) enjoying this song and tapping you feet along to it while listening to it on your iPod. This is a prime cut of a song, warm and fresh and (so that the Candlemakers don’t feel left out) one that you can wax lyrical about.

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

Video:

Johnny & The Mermaid – Johnny Kongos & the G-Men

Johnny & The Mermaid - Johnny Kongos & the G-Men

Johnny & The Mermaid – Johnny Kongos & the G-Men

Before the thundering power-pop of ‘Tokoloshe Man’ and ‘He’s Gonna Step On You Again’ John Kongos went by the name of Johnny Kongos and he had G-Men. He also made rock ‘n’ roll records and ‘Johnny & The Mermaid’ was one of his early offerings that goes way back to 1963. The song shot up the LM Radio charts and peaked at number 6. There’s nothing fishy about this tail (apologies) of a man who is off fishing to try catch himself a mermaid. It is a classic rock-a-billy song with Elvis-y vocals, Hank Marvin-y twangy guitars and has an added girlie chorus in a question and response set of lyrics. It’s toe-tapping, ducktailing, boogie that announced to all and sundry that Rock ‘n’ Roll had arrived in South Africa.

It is quite hard to connect the dots between this and his later offerings when he went to the UK and began to rock, or even to the full-on hectic stuff he’s produced with his sons of late. Although the Mother Grundies of the day would disagree, the song takes one back to an age when music seemed innocent. Those opposed would be be moaning about what this young upstart had in mind, once he found himself that mermaid and would ensure that any memaids that were found had the appropriate stars across offending parts of their anatomy. But stick on a Seether track afterward and show them the uncensored video of ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke and you may find them saying that, yes, things were innocent back then. And we should not forget this era of music. It is always refreshing to pop back to it now and again and pretend that all is right with the world.

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

Lisa Se Klavier – The Parlotones

Unplugged - Parlotones

Unplugged – Parlotones

Comparing The Parlotones version of ‘Lisa Se Klavier’ to Koos Kombuis’ is a bit like comparing the piano playing of Richard Clayderman to that of Jerry Lee Lewis. Now, I can already see you have one foot in the stirrup of you high horse and are getting ready to blast off a riposte that Koos Kombuis is nothing like Richard Clayderman, so let me explain. I am not saying that Koos did a boring,bland version, I am just trying to highlight the difference between Koos’ quiet, gentle and highly moving version and the ‘Tones racing, bouncing one.

There will also be those who say that The Parlotones have destroyed the song by speeding it up and making it rock and you are welcome to be like that if you want. However, if you want to live a little and break out of the mould and see things from a different angle, then follow me down this review. The rest of you go back to your bland old covers of this song and marvel at how much like the original they sound.

If you’re still with me then let’s us take a tumbling, foot-tapping Afrikaans-sung-with-an-English-accent roll through the song. Replete with ‘da-da-da-da-da-da’s’ and (heaven help us!) drums and (gulp!) rock guitars. The ‘Tones throw in a bit of klavier and some organ for good measure (although renaming it ‘Lisa se Organ’ would not be a good idea). They have taken a great tune, given it a great injection of rock, scared off the sissy’s who can’t bear to hear their sacred cow being taken for a run round the meadow, and produced an interesting cover of a classic. This is their own version of it and they did it their way. Enjoy it.

Okay, you can let those worshiping at the shrine of Koos back into the room now.

Where to find it:
Unplugged – The Parlotones (2008), Sovereign, SOVCD 036

Video:

For Annette – Jack Hammer

Anthology - Jack Hammer

Anthology – Jack Hammer

‘For Annette’ finds Piet Botha and his band in a quieter, more reflective mood. There is a sadness running through the song which seems to be about a woman who has turned to the bottle: “I know the way the she drank her wine/Red yellow all the time just to get away”. It is sung from a stand point of a friend of this ‘Annette’ watching and understanding but not liking. The reasons for the “Too many living sharpened tears” is what “Some call [it] love in a place that died”.

To match the subject of the song, there is that distinctive Jack Hammer rough edged guitar sound and a grungy emotional vocal, but it’s not as in your face as some other material in the band’s portfolio. It’s serious subject and the music matches it.

It’s not all doom and gloom thought, there is the bittersweet line “And I can see you smiling” which suggest that there is some positive left in ‘Annette’s’ life. This is a song to sit in solitude and listen to, while reflecting on life and friendship. It’s a song for watching the sun go down on a particularly emotional day. It has a certain soothing quality to it that won’t wash the blues of the day away, but will slowly dissolve them, leaving you better off for the experience.

Where to find it:
Anthology – Jack Hammer (January 2000), Wildebeest Records, WILD020

Heidi – Peter Lotis

Heidi - Peter Lotis

Heidi – Peter Lotis

Heidi was a little cartoon girl who lived in the Swiss mountains who had been drawn by Japanese animators and who spoke Afrikaans to her grandfather and friend Pieter. Well, that’s how any child growing up in the late 70’s in South Africa would remember her. There is a lot more to her story and you can read up all that on Wikipedia if you want.
Those children of the 70’s would be very familiar with the theme tune to the TV cartoon, as would any parents of such children, although they would probably have heard the Afrikaans version by Herbie and Spence more than the English one that Peter Lotis recorded. Lotis had been churing out records since the late 50’s, but was enjoying success presenting ‘The Money Or The Box’ on TV at the time this came out.
The song has a typical German oompah-band style to it as well as the obligatory yodelling to give it a Swiss feel. Such was the popularity of the TV show that both Lotis’ and Herbie & Spence’s versions made the Springbok Top 20. Lotis fared far better, reaching number 2 while Herbie & Spence faltered at 13. This song will bring back many memories for those growing up at the time. It is a specific song from a specific time, so if you weren’t there, it may not appeal, so you could just press the skip buttion if you want, or take a trip down some elses memory lane. It’s up to you,

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

Video:

Heidi on Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heidi

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