Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

The Hard Workers – “Ayoba Yo” (audio) (premiere)

In this exclusive interview with DJ Okapi, he takes us through the development of the unique variety of South African EDM from the late 1980s.

Rush Hour Music is releasing a new compilation celebrating the unique electronic music scene in the late ’80s in South Africa. Pantsula! – The Rise of Electronic Dance Music in South Africa, 1988-90 has been compiled by DJ Okapi and Antal and highlights the point at which South African disco artists began drawing more from local sources for their inspiration, as opposed to blindly following American trends. The music blends bubblegum pop with African rhythms and the sounds and dance of black townships.

In this exclusive interview DJ Okapi takes us through the development of the genre highlighting the key artists in this vital music scene. Pantsula! is available now via Bandcamp.

The press release talks about different genres that aren’t that familiar to us – can you give us a quick run through – what is Bubblegum and how long did it last?

We thought Kwaito was something to do with jazz – can you tell us about that? And isn’t Pantsula a dance style too? Help us unlock this please

“Bubblegum’ is the name often given to South African disco during the ’80s. The term was initially used by the media to imply that the music was disposable and mass-produced, that a song’s sweetness would quickly run out and people would rush to buy another. Many musicians from that era didn’t use the term at all (preferring simply disco), but in general the term stuck. The bubblegum era is largely accepted to have started in 1983 with the release of “Weekend Special” by Brenda & The Big Dudes (a hit that later charted in the USA, remixed by Van Gibbs and release on Capitol in 1986). Initially the sound was very American-influenced and typically with English lyrics. Very quickly however it evolved to incorporate more local influences and languages, also becoming more electronic – for example the Pantsula sound featured on the comp, which might be a considered a subgenre of bubblegum. While the bubblegum sound evolved, the term remained in use to describe local pop music until the early ’90s, when kwaito took over.

While bubblegum was the pop sound of the ’80s in South Africa, kwaito was the sound of the ’90s. Kwaito drew on a range of influences from the time, not only local disco/bubblegum but also international house, hip-hop. Eurobeat, Italo, etc. – typically slowed down, a defining feature of a lot of South African dance music. The ’90s in South Africa was an era of drastic social change and newfound optimism, so kwaito was typically about celebrating freedom after the fall of apartheid, whereas bubblegum songs from the ’80s were often infused with more politics. Kwaito’s heyday was in the ’90s and early 2000s. Today it too has largely disappeared, as with bubblegum, and been replaced by house and hip-hop.

There’s no major connection between kwaito and jazz – except in cases where particular musicians experimented with a fusion of the two, such as Don Laka’s ‘kwai-jazz’.

Pantsula is more commonly associated with a particular tradition of dance and fashion in South Africa that has evolved from as far back as the ’50s and ’60s, initially attached to township gangsters known as mapantsula. The dance and style still lives on today, but this specific sound known as pantsula music was relatively short-lived and confined to the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Was this music influenced by Western disco music? What makes it more than just a pastiche of that to you and other DJs who are championing this music now?

South Africans have always been very into American music, going back many decades. The bubblegum era of the ’80s was arguably the first time that local South African artists started to outsell American artists in South Africa, but even then, acts like Kool & The Gang, Donna Summer and others were enormous in South Africa. Bubblegum/disco was initially quite obviously influenced by American funk – for example the landmark track ‘Weekend Special’ by Brenda & The Big Dudes lifted directly from songs by Sharon Redd and the BB&Q Band. And of course the instruments used were similar to what other artists and producers all over the world were using at that time, such as the Yamaha DX7. But very quickly South African musicians and producers were able to hone this sound into one that increasingly incorporated local elements. One sub-genre was by Shangaan-speaking artists and producers – what became known as Shangaan Disco. This was particularly influential on the ‘Pantsula’ sound featured on the Rush Hour compilation, for example the emphasis on off-beats and the use of indigenous languages.

How much more of this music is there left to uncover? We notice a lot of labels are starting to be interested in it. Do you plan more releases for the future?

There is endless music from South Africa still left to discover. I’m still finding new stuff all the time. A huge amount of music was recorded in South Africa during the ’80s and pressed on vinyl and cassette. This was partly due to the fact that the apartheid government had set up a network of radio stations, each aimed at one of South Africa’s various language and ethnic groups, so each station required new music to be recorded in their respective languages. Songs in English had the power to be played on various stations, and could therefore reach a broader audience.

Yes, there are certainly more releases in the works. I’ve recently launched my own label Afrosynth Records with Rush Hour’s help. The first release came out recently, a disco 12″ from 1979 called Burnin Beat. I’ve got several more releases lined up for early 2018, focussing on bubblegum and kwaito – South African pop from the ’80s and ’90s. Among these is an album by my favourite singer Ntombi Ndaba, who I’m also trying to get back on stage again.

Can you tell us about other recent reissues we should check out?

Definitely Burnin Beat on Afrosynth Records – it’s hot! For people looking for more South African disco, check out the Boogie Breakdown compilation on the Boston-based label Cultures of Soul, which I helped put together and was released in late 2016. Other labels putting out South African music include Awesome Tapes From Africa in the US; Invisible City Editions in Canada; Crown Ruler in Australia; Soundway, Be With and Matsuli in the UK; and Sharp-Flat in South Africa, who recently reissued a classic album by Kabasa.

Could you tell us about the Hard Workers and their track ‘Ayoba Yo’?

The Hard Workers were one of the most popular ‘pantsula’ acts on the late ’80s. Their songs were often instrumental or with minimal vocals. Pantsula was the birth of electronic dance music in South Africa and it was the producers who were key to the sound. In this case the man behind the Hard Workers was producer Tom Mkhize, whose background was in traditional Zulu music but during the late ’80s became a pioneer of electronic sounds in SA pop music. At the time this kind of music would’ve been played not so much in nightclubs as in shebeens – informal taverns all over South Africa’s townships (usually in people’s homes), so it’s still occasionally referred to as tavern or shebeen music.

“Ayoba-yo” is the title track to one of the Hard Workers’ albums from 1988 (that year they also released the album Kae Kapa Kae). ‘Ayoba’ is local slang for ‘cool’ and is still widely used today. I’ve uncovered the original master tapes for several Hard Workers’ albums, so look out for more on Afrosynth Records in 2018.