The question that has been plaguing my mind the last couple of months is this: What does music do? In 1981 an album was released in apartheid South Africa. The band who produced it was an anomaly; a multi-racial marabi-punk band known as National Wake, a bands whose roots are planted in reggae, funk 'n punk and inspired by The Clash, Malombo and Philip Tabane. A band that still resonates with South African feel and political potency.
The band that featured on the recording was comprised of Ivan Kadey (rhythm guitar), Gary and Punka Khosa, brothers in rhythm on bass and drums respectively, Steve Moni on Lead Guitar, and Kelly Petlange on saxophone. The band and the scene they created were described by Craig Duncan – Czech State Radio’s alternitave music specialist - as “perhaps the most dissident music scene of the 20th Century: a multi-racial punk-reggae band operating in a fascist state” . The album “National Wake” was banned from the airwaves, “gazetted” after over 700 copies had been sold. The digs which they inhabited became subject to police searches, and under political pressure the band disbanded, and the album lay dormant until 2009 when Keith Jones and Deon Maas set out to make a documentary about punk in Apartheid and the role it played in South Africa’s struggle for equal rights.
In the early months of 2012 I started researching the band for my master’s thesis. It led me to Rosebank Mall in Johannesburg to meet Ivan Kadey, rhythm guitarist of National Wake; one of the three remaining members. My timing was right, Kadey was visiting his home town after relocating to California in the 80’s, and I was able to glean from him some of the magic that made National Wake the musical force that brought a portion of a fractured society together. For Kadey it was never about being political. Out of the bowels of the commune in Parktown, where the band resided - illegally because of the pass laws at the time - a sound started to emerge. It was lively, energetic, angsty and it spoke of hope that the nation would wake out of dark times – “this is the wake of the nation/this is national wake…we’re bubbling up with the new time people”; a musical account of living in Apartheid South Africa under the release of punk, captured in a moment of censorship.
Skip forwards a week and a ten minute drive from Rosebank to Yoeville, March 2012, once the hub of musical activity in Johannesburg in the 80’s, the home of the now infamous Rocky Street. A place which I had been taught to fear, where the stereotypes of Nigerian drug lords run free and the imagined crime rate is so high you can’t even walk through the suburb. I park my car outside a block of flats and Ivan lets me in, we walk up the stairs of the somewhat dilapidated building, along the corridor and into a well-kept and homely flat, owned by Kadey’s sister-in-law.
My perception of Yoeville is immediately altered. Growing up in the Northern suburbs the entire stigma that surrounds Yoeville becomes nothing but the thought of those too scared to venture out of their comfort zones. There must be some truth in their fear, but on the streets during the day there is another culture – where people walk the suburbs, and greet each other as they walk by, Bob Marley blares from a car radio – It is only my imagination that is keeping me overly alert. The only thing to be feared is thought, even though it has become a culture in Jozi to watch your back - it isn’t the worst advice.
My mission for the visit was to receive a visual document taken of a National Wake gig held in an outdoor square on Rocky Street in Yoeville in 1979. The video is something special. Having been born in 1987, and starting primary school in 1994, the first year where multi-racial classes were taught together – a curriculum for the new South Africa had barely been thought of, apartheid became a list of dates, and a tribute to Mandela – although I do have a picture a drew of Brenda Fassie as a raging cocaine addict in a tribal mask (age 13). I was never confronted with the true and deeper realities of apartheid, we parroted the names of the laws and the years they were implemented but we never really learned what they meant - the theatre, music, and arts of the time left to academics and kids whose parents were inclined to the arts. The history of separatism that occurred during apartheid was never conveyed clearly in my younger years, even though the roots apartheid planted still thrive in a negative light in the news, thoughts and culture of the country today.
The high walled houses and constant patrolling of private security vans in the suburbs hold testament to “the fear”. The fear that many suburban upper -middle class whites feed off of that keeps them locked behind closed doors and travelling safety in cars, public transport out of the question. They rarely interact with the black domestic workers walking on the streets, or the fruit sales men, or the bead artists – “hawkers” in their eyes. Negative connotations shooting like daggers. The new language in the country is to turn opposing heads in greeting, in shame, or fear of the other, or perhaps just not knowing how to communicate? As if it were a crime to nod and smile, say hello or perhaps, if the mood took you, stop and have a chat.
But this video footage which I was privy to in a Yoeville flat, on a Sunday afternoon, gave me an insight into apartheid that is rarely seen – and probably as uncommon in real time as it was then – in South Africa. People dancing, not just white, or black, or coloured, but all of them together in a square in Yoeville, smiling, happy, standing watching the music as the camera passes over them – the atmosphere seems light, even a scene where Kadey is dealing with a police officer – the tension is minimal. Well, as minimal as dealings with police go.
The text book South Africa, the one we learnt about out of the books was transformed, but more so than that the words “oppression” and, “racism” were not present for that moment. National Wake became a door to a new universe of thought. About stigma, about how we treat words with such great power. Trevor Noah –South African comedian - offers a similar sentiment about the nefarious “K” word. No not Kellog’s. Kafir. He then continues his act by desensitizing the word – taking away it’s power. He offers the audience the original Arabic definition of the root being “infidel”. He highlights the different between saying Nigger in Xhosa and Nigger in America, the former meaning “to give” and the latter being a derogatory term. He makes you feel the break down between words and our given meanings for them. National Wake, the music, and the scene they created conveys a feeling, a break down in meaning, that still exists in South Africa today – one of wanting a South Africa united in its diversity.
So what can I say about what music does? For now I will say this: different styles of music convey different feelings, and people relate to those feelings, those feelings bring different groupings of people together, sometimes in extraordinary circumstances – National Wake was extraordinary, the feeling of their music crossed colour boundaries, and brought people into a new space for thought about a possible future of peaceful co-existence. I can only hope that this story and this feeling is part of the history that is taught to future generations – one that speaks to the new South Africa, not against it.