In some ways, South Africa’s 1970's urban-based mbaqanga sub-culture mirrored the Jamaican rude-boy sub-culture. While apartheid’s machinery did, for a time, control the influx of black rural people to contained townships, the late 60s and early seventies certainly had its fair share of street-corner hoodlums with their own underground economies. If ska and rocksteady were the soundtracks to the first youth subculture of Trenchtown, what role did mbaqanga music play in 70's South African township expressions of subculture and style?
Certainly, the Okapi knife was to many young South Africans what the ratchet knife was to the rudie. Talk to some of the older men today and they will tell 70s township leisure-time tales of dressing up “smart like gangstas", drinking hard, dancing, gambling, fighting and womanising. These original machismo ‘mapantsulas’ developed a larger-than-life expression of style with which to mock convention and those more powerful than themselves. From what I have heard, mbaqanga music was the dominant soundtrack. But I don't think the expression and experience of mbaqanga was a singular sub-cultural one, whatever its original breeding grounds. The woman who worked in my childhood home could not get enough of mbaqanga, and she was no gangsta.
|'Sondela' in isiZulu means 'come closer'|
Mbaqanga was also a huge ethnic and language cross-over success. Migrant mine workers from all over South and southern Africa certainly sent money back home. They also took home heaps of urban attitude, music and style that caused all sorts of disturbances and excitements. Sometimes, the more succesful mbaqanga groups would tour these countries too.
In my rare chances to dig for records on my working travels, I have found old 70s mbaqanga records in Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Some owners of these records have stories of their times, or their brothers’ times on the mines in Johannesburg and elsewhere in South Africa. If the mood is right, they will also tell fantastic tales of those ‘let it all hang out’ parties, and of the pimps and crooks that fed off the inebriated. Deep in the fabric of these stories of conquer and calamity is a felt experience of young, often migrant and dislocated, people exploring new identities and boundaries in relation to authority.
Which brings me to today’s offering, produced by the ever consummate Almon Memela. One track in particular got me thinking along this swearing and respect diversion. Do have a listen to the 1975 45rpm release of “Badonse Memela” first. The same song appears on the album, but the highly unusual “fuck you” verbal exchange near the beginning is absent on the LP. The few lines of isiZulu talk conjour up a street scene where a youngster remarks with attitude that an “umfundisi” (clergyman or learned one) is passing by. The older umfundisi replies with a friendly greeting, asking how “his son” is doing and then invites him to shine his shoes. To which the youth replies, “hau, fuck you man”. The umfundisi expresses shock at the youth having lost his sense of respect and addressing him with such language, and then says, “what’s with this fuck you business? If its like that, then ... fuck you man!”.Abafana Bomjovo (The Jiving Boys) are an above-average, tight and grooving instrumental outfit with strong organ, accordion, guitar and sax line-ups. Enjoy!
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