Lerato Lichaba is well-acquainted with the music of his ancestors. When he let’s go on his guitar, his Zulu roots blossom on stage. His band, Urban Village, is rooted in the family’s homeland and offers a unique synthesis of Zulu guitars, indie folk, isicathamiya-inspired choirs (Zulu a cappella vocals made famous by Sam Thsabalala and the Ladysmith Black Mambazo) and jazz, all carried by an uplifting spiritual energy. His personal journey is indicative of the evolution of South African music: at first a DJ and house fan like many young people of the post-apartheid generation, he is now reconnecting with the maskandi of his “uncles” (neighbours) in the Mzinthlope district of Soweto. This typical genre that migrant workers from Kwazulu-Natal brought to the city fascinated him. He soon began digging under the asphalt, trying to reconstruct, through the search of vinyls, the long and rich history of South African music. Here, we are offered a glimpse of this history, through selected records from his personal collection.
The music of the rural exodus
His journey began in the 1920s – a period when the Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho peoples who populated South Africa were still living in their homeland. But soon enough these village dwellers would migrate to the big cities for work in mines.
Township Jive & Kwela Jazz
“This documentation of music in the form of the people moving from their homelands, coming to the city of Johannesburg to look for work. And predominantly it’s music which had been made from the era of Sophiatown.”
“As time went on, Kwela music became the predominant jazz music of South Africa.“
Spokes Mashiyne – “Meva”
“He’s the guy who really took control of the penny whistle. Back then, the players couldn’t afford to buy instruments, like saxophones, bass guitars and stuff like this. So an instrument easily accessible was the penny whistle, which was the most predominant instrument. So this is the guy who… the God of Kwela music. After Kwela music had developed, people from Sophiatown were shifted to come and live in Soweto.“
S. Tshabalala – “Bonakele”
“This is when Kwela met Maskandi music and Mqashio music. Here in this record, artists – because they were not allowed to partake in recreational activities. They would only be subjected to work Monday to Saturday at their employers’ or bosses’ houses. So the only chance they had to have fun was on Sundays. But it was quite tricky for them because on Sunday they were strictly subjected by the law to go to church. So the majority of them would find changing places, or places where they could hide away and they could just play a jam for many hours. So this is how this record came to be.”
International recognition, the end of isolation
Certainly, in the 1960s and 1970s, black music developed and was broadcast on the radio, especially on Radio Bantu – the government-created radio station for black listeners. But they were watched very closely and a censorship commission made sure that subversive or rebellious songs were banned from the air (sometimes by scraping off sections of a record with a razor blade). Eventually, the time came for international recognition for many groups:
Paul Simon feat. Ladysmith Black Mambazo – “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes”
“And then came a man called Paul Simon.“
“So this project, Graceland, is the one which broke African music internationally. Because even Black South African musicians didn’t believe in themselves, or didn’t believe in their music that much. But until Paul Simon came and worked with them and took their music to Europe, it gave also South Africa a huge international recognition, of which a major project broke out which is Paris – Soweto.“
Mahlathini & Mahotella Queens – Paris – Soweto
“So these, for me, are the most important documents ever that are for South African music. Because this is how our music got to Europe. Being able to now go overseas and perform and really… say [another word] to the world of what’s really happening in South Africa so that the world could listen out and help us with the Apartheid situation.“
Lerato does, of course, own the records of Juluka, the band formed by Johnny Clegg and his comrade Sipho Mchunu, who caused a sensation with their mix of traditional Zulu music, mbaqanga, and pop embodied by a multiracial group. Johnny Clegg, who continued his solo career with the group Savuka, became one of the main musical ambassadors of the anti-apartheid struggle at the end of the 1980s, topping the European charts with songs like “Scatterlings of Africa” and “Asimbonanga,” his tribute to Mandela.
He too is the heir to the traditional-urban melting pot that blossomed from the 1960s onwards in the South African townships.
The 1960s: traditional Zulu music meets township jazz
Mahlathini & Amaswazi Emvelo
“So this is the era of the ’60s when the traditional Zulu musicians from Natal came to Joburg. So now this is both a mixture of traditional Zulu music mixed with township-kind-of-styled jazz or township music. So this is the awakening of the Black people saying, “Ok, when we get to Joburg, now we know what we can do!“
Moses Mchunu – “Gijima Mfana”
“Moses Mchunu is a very good Maskandi musician also, who also broke the line between township jazz and Zulu traditional music, you know?“
South African soul
” Radio Bantu opened its heart too – this was when Black people’s music stopped being banned. So Radio Bantu took out compilations of Black soul music, but it’s music which was predominantly being influenced by the North Americans. For example, by the likes of Clarence Carter, Percy Sledge, James Brown… There were also the artists who frequented and taught South Africa a lot, of whom we adapted their style of playing music, and mixed it with our soul music in South Africa.“
“So, Radio Bantu Hits Volume 1. We have it … And yeah! That’s it, for now!“
Indeed, the list is long and this journey is necessarily fragmented, all the more so as this unbridled creativity has continued to blossom long after apartheid, giving birth to new musical forms (such as kwaito, or more recently amapiano). Being part of this long history, inspired by a specifically South African urban heritage, is the starting point and the trademark of the group Urban Village, which will release its first album in January on the No Format label. Stay tuned for more details on PAM.