Shifty Records, celebrating 30 years since forming back in 1984, is the focus of a heritage month taking place in Johannesburg. It combines exhibitions, documentary screenings, panel discussions and, of course, concerts to celebrate the Shifty story of musical activism in the struggle for democracy in South Africa.
Shifty September will be taking place in Johannesburg throughout September 2014 to celebrate Shifty’s 30th birthday, the 25th anniversary of the ground breaking Voëlvry tour and to mark 20 years of democracy in South Africa. For full details please visit the new Shifty site here.
For those of you unaware of Shifty Records it was one of the only record labels recording alternative sounds in the 1980s. To celebrate Electricjive has created a mix of our favourite Shifty tracks and we've taken time to speak to a key mover behind Shifty - Lloyd Ross.
Electric Jive (EJ): Heritage projects, archiving and remembering the past are often the preserve of older societies. Sometimes these projects come in for criticism for a nostalgic view of the past and a negative view of the present. Recently the Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth was closed by local residents for "building a house for dead people" whilst they live in squalor. How is Shifty September different? Lloyd Ross (LR): Probably the best way to answer that is to explain why it is happening. I was approached by the director of the Alliance Francaise in Johannesburg because he wanted to find a unique way of celebrating 20 years of SA democracy in Heritage month, i.e. September 2014. He announced himself as a fan of Shifty Records and said he wanted to do some sort of focus on its exploits, because he felt it was a valuable cultural asset that was little recognised. In this, I had to agree with him, because Shifty provided pretty much the only home in apartheid South African for composers and performers of original music with any kind of social or political comment during the decade before the new dispensation. This led to a Shifty catalogue of extremely diverse genres from a broad cross section of the country's racial make up. And not a few pretty damn fine tunes that, because of the situation back then, very few people got to hear. Besides, I'm not sure how the analogy in the question relates to celebrating the output of a group of talented musicians.
EJ: Why did you start Shifty Records? LR: Because of the situation described above. I was playing in bands in the late 70's, saw some extremely exciting and vital music being produced with zero interest being shown by the recording industry. I set out to at least document what was happening.
EJ: Which/What do you see as the most influential vehicles/means for expression of social commentary and political voice in South African music today? LR: I'm not sure I understand the question, but as far as I see, there is very little social commentary in music in South Africa today.
EJ: Shifty was born at a time where reliance on physical distribution seemed to sometime constrain the label's ability to reach more people. I seem to recall issues with vinyl pressings and the like. Can you comment on this? LR: Well, not only was there censorship by the record companies A&R departments, the broadcasters and the State, but we also ended up in the absolutely bizarre situation of having a cutting engineer (the only one in the country) stopping the lathe while he was cutting two of our records (both on the same day), because he didn't like what he was hearing.
EJ: If you were forced to choose one album from the impressive catalogue which one would you take to a desert island LR: Obviously a difficult question, but it may well be Bignity by van der Want/Letcher, one of the last albums I produced as it exhibits exceptional songwriting with unrestrained ideas. I also think it was one of the best productions that I ever did.
EJ: Looking back what might you have done differently? LR: I would have tried to have more fun. I was too obsessed, but that was maybe the only way I could have managed to do what needed to be done. Oh, and I would have used a whole lot less reverb.
If you haven't dipped into the impressive Shifty catalogue then take a trip to the bandcamp site where you can listen to samples from each of the albums. In the meantime Electric Jive has made up its own mix of favourites that you can listen to here or at mix cloud.