30 years of Shifty: How music and memory made the rainbow nation

It started with a claptrap caravan, a V6 bakkie and a mission to capture the sounds of a turbulent time. During the 1980s, independent label Shifty Records recorded music that South Africa’s apartheid government didn’t want heard. Thirty years later, a project aimed at preserving this vital canon of work culminates in a month-long exhibition. Evan Milton presses play.

  • This article by Evan Milton was first published in the Mail & Gaurdian of 2014/08/29 as “Rebooting Shifty Records mighty rebel yell“, which had the benefit of various sub-editing eyes. The version below is what was originally commissioned for a commercial /trade magazine, which then decided not to publish it, deeming Shifty Records to be inappropriate for its readership. Thanks to M&G for publishing the words. Thirty years on, is this still the music that caused all the trouble?

Dit was ’n kak tyd; dit was ’n kwaai tyd’, wrote Afrikaans musician Koos Kombuis.It was a shit time; it was an angry time’: summing up South Africa in the 1980s and the environment that prompted Lloyd Ross to hit the road with an old caravan reassembled as a mobile recording studio.

Travelling the length and breadth of South Africa, and crossing over its borders, Shifty Records – so named for its itinerant status – became a lifeline for artists whose music spoke of the troubled times and inhumane regulations of a country in turmoil. ‘How do I live in this strange place?’ sang James Phillips, recording under the moniker of Bernoldus Niemand – one of Shifty’s earliest releases. For the Shifty team, the answer to that question was: find artists playing music that matters; record it; and then try to get that music heard.

“There were radical racial purity laws that governed state broadcasting, which was the only broadcasting there was.”

– Llody Ross on Shifty Studios becoming Shifty Records

Easier said than done. Back then, the airwaves were censored and neatly compartmentalised, with radio stations for different races and languages. Apartheid ‘security’ agents monitored artists who were targeted as troublemakers, and on weekends, uniformed police patrols ensured that live performances didn’t cross the colour bar. Amidst this atmosphere of fear and loathing, however, bands such as Ivan Kadey’s National Wake (SA’s first-ever multi-racial punk-reggae and protest band, formed after the 1976 Soweto uprisings) and Phillips’ earlier group, Corporal Punishment, flouted the rules with songs about political injustice. Ross was inspired, joined forces with Kadey, and Shifty was born. The year was 1983.

The first band Shifty recorded was Sankomoto, a Lesotho-based trio producing an edgy, earthy mix of jazzy funk-rock, reggae and traditional African influences. Two of its members were barred from leaving Lesotho by the apartheid government – due to having played for another group deemed to be subversive. Ross and Warwick Sony (who officially joined Shifty in 1985 when Kadey left South Africa) hitched up the caravan and left the red tin-roofed house they shared on a desolate property beside a disused mine-shaft in Jo’burg. Their leaseholder was the late Jaqui Quinn; killed in 1982 along with 42 other people in the infamous Maseru raid by South African Defence Force soldiers. It was an unlikely time for music to flourish. 

‘The evening before I left, I was in a complete state of panic,’ recalls Ross. ‘This was something I’d never done – driving over borders with a recording studio in a caravan to put down a band in another country. Things like that either fall apart, or they fall into place – there’s no middle ground. We found an old premises abandoned by Lesotho Radio standing completely derelict. We pulled the caravan up next to it, put the band in there and recorded. That became one of the most evergreen recordings Shifty ever did – it still sells today.’

He pauses for a moment as the days and years catch up. ‘It’s ten years since Frank [Leepa, the guitarist] died. The last of that original band: Moss [Nfoko, drummer] and Maruti [Selate, bass] passed away some time earlier. It was a beautiful record. Pivotal and iconic; like we’d done something to help change a country that wasn’t what it should be.’

Sony takes up the story: ‘We got back to Johannesburg, but every single radio station refused to play the music, because the band mixed their languages: English, Sotho, Zulu and some Swahili. There were radical racial purity laws that governed state broadcasting, which was the only broadcasting there was. If radio wouldn’t play it, no record company would release it. There was never supposed to be a Shifty Records; just Shifty Studios, but we had to make something to release the music.

‘Subsequently, we got Sankomoto played by Tim Modise on Radio Bop [broadcasting out of the nominally independent ‘homeland’ of Bophutatswana], who became a big fan; and a speciality show by Chris Prior, known as “the Rock Professor” on what was then Radio5. Everyone who knew, knew where you could get the cassettes, under the counter.’

“Mzwakhe Mbuli was banned from distribution, but not possession. We found a way…  blank label cassettes.”

  – Lloyd Ross (Shifty) and apartheid laws

The Shifty catalogue started with anti-establishment punk and protest music, but grew to over 60 released records, and a remarkable diversity of artists. There was jive, folk and acoustic; there were soundtracks for Johannesburg’s Market Theatre company and recordings of workers’ choirs for FOSATU, South Africa’s first trade union federation. There was rock ’n roll, the early sounds of Cape-based goema-rock and beat-poet influenced ‘cut-up’ recordings; there was jazz and traditional African music and spoken-word poetry, and there were angelic vocals ranging from Vusi ‘The Voice’ Mahlasela to Jennifer Ferguson.

‘Once I had the caravan, I started looking for things to record; usually people that were not in a commercial groove, but were singing about what was going on in the country,’ recalls Ross. ‘It started as a labour of love; I was funding it from the work I did in the film industry, and didn’t really have high overheads. I spent what I earned to keep the company going. We had to keep inventing. Mzwakhe Mbuli [dubbed the ‘People’s Poet’] was banned from distribution, but not possession, but we found a way to manufacture cassettes – blank label cassettes. He was very popular at political rallies, so people knew there was this recording and it sold like hot cakes. Our first gold record, although we couldn’t ever say that.’

Shifty was also pivotal in the Voëlvry tour, the highpoint of the boere-punk movement. Voëlvry (‘free as a bird’) has been widely documented as an angled nail in the apartheid coffin – young Afrikaners using music and wild concerts to rebel against the National Party system. It was also genuine rock ’n roll excess and road-tour chaos.

‘You want anecdotes?’ asks Ross. ‘Gary Herselman, who was called Piet Pers then (‘Pete Pink’) became a dog for the tour. To quote Koos Kombuis, Piet wasn’t acting like a dog; he became a dog. When they stopped somewhere, he’d sit under tables and bite people’s ankles. For the whole tour. If there were dogs around, he’d curl up with them, and sleep with them. Finally, after going all around the country like that, when they got back to Jo’burg and sighted the Hillbrow tower, Piet let out this huge howl and suddenly became a person again.’

“These were the first okes I met who actually wrote their own stuff. They weren’t just about the right notes – it was about what they were saying.”

  – A young Jannie ‘Hanepoot’ van Tonder meets the The Softies

In 1984, trombone-player Jannie ‘Hanepoot’ van Tonder met Shifty artists The Softies and soon found himself recording in sessions with a number of musicians, including Voëlvry lynchpin Johannes Kerkorrel and his Gereformeerde Blues Band. ‘It was a totally different mindset,’ he recalls. ‘I was in the army band, playing funerals for people killed in the border war. These were the first okes I met who actually wrote their own stuff. They weren’t just about the right notes – it was about what they were saying.

‘I remember when Lloyd first got that demo cassette from André [Letoit – aka Koos Kombuis]. I was blown away. There was nothing that was even vaguely like that before, not by any notion. It changed everything for me, hearing that – full-on Afrikaans protest music from a well-educated Afrikaner who was very sharp and able to express himself using the colloquial folk idiom. It was a revolution, one that wouldn’t have happened without Shifty.’

        Shifty Records: Thirty years on…

30 years later, this important music was in critical danger of dying. Each album had started with a set of master recordings, captured on old reel-to-reel multi-track magnetic tape. With about 200m of tape used for an hour’s worth of music, this is a massive volume of material, which, as time passed, faced physical problems like stretching and breaking. Far worse is the degradation of the ferro-magnetic material that captured the precious sounds. Once that’s gone; it is gone forever. It became an imperative to have the master tapes properly archived.

“We use records of defiance and resistance to show stories that would otherwise not be known.”

   Catherine Kennedy, director of the South African History Archives

Enter the South African History Archives (SAHA) who took on the task of obtaining funding and staff to painstakingly transfer each tape onto the audio equivalent of a high definition digital format. Alongside this transfer of music, the archival process also involves cataloguing the musicians involved in making the recording, and data like recording dates and recording techniques used. This is crucial for later academic purposes – and to provide an accurate archive. Fortunately, the aim behind the archive is also to bring the music to life once more, through real-world exhibitions at Johannesburg’s Alliance Francaise, and online for the global audience.

‘We use records of defiance and resistance to show stories that would otherwise not be known,’ says SAHA director Catherine Kennedy. ‘With the Shifty archive, there are many interesting angles: the way music and identity and politics collide. How music and performances can activate young people. How the Shifty concerts were part of the End Conscription Campaign, one of the single most effective anti-state-conscription campaigns ever…’

‘The most important thing was to get the old analogue tapes saved, and even some of the older digital tapes, which were starting to drop out,’ says Ross, with an evident sense of relief. ‘We’d never be able to find the money, or the months and months of time it would take to digitise and annotate everything, so the fact of this archiving is the best thing that could happen. Imagine when some producer wants to take, say, the late Johannes Kerkorrel’s voice and do something with it and Frank Sinatra? With the masters on a more stable format now, the music is safe.’

* Read more on these Shifty Artists here:

* The Shifty Records retrospective exhibition runs at Alliance Francaise in Johannesburg for the month of September 2014, including a permanent visual exhibition, weekly panel talks and conferences and a roster of live performances, culminating in a Heritage Day concert on 24 September (17 Lower Park Drive (c/o Kerry Road), Randburg, 011-6461169). More details and performance dates at www.shifty.co.za

* See the online exhibition at www.saha.org.za

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