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 The Power of the Music Media in SAfrica

The Power of the Music Media in SAfrica - A self generated myth & The Hidden Years.

"........foremost among (the reasons for newspapers not fulfilling their primary function of informing the public) has been the failure of the industry - or, at least the English-language newspaper industry - to train, nurture & reward journalists. English South Africa remains dominated by a mining man's culture that disdains intellectual life. The poor quality of Newspapers is accompanied by poor theater audiences and poor support for the arts in general, and the question must be asked whether English South Africa has not been intellectually crippled by the emigration of so many of its finest sons & daughters during the apartheid years........"


Groucho Marks writes: Nowhere has the history of popular music existed in quite so bizarre a climate as that of South Africa during its 'internal exile' & it's 'international isolation' - its hidden years. Much of our music past, like that of our political past, is hard to access. Just as people & books were banned & censored - no reasons given - so too were some musicians & their music. Irony & contradictions still abound. The distance of hindsight has made wise fools of us all. Whichever way we may choose to squint at it now, we can still only see what we want to see in the long shadows of apartheid. There is no immediate escape from this political fact. But where too from here? Why look back in the first place? If one considers that most of the recordings that were restricted or banned in the 60's, 70's & 80's, were not even political. The Government would claim that by reflecting or ignoring their insane policies, that it was the Musician / the Troubadour / the actor / the singer, who was a threat to the order, safety & security of their State.

On the other side of the extreme, the international cultural boycott attracted the attention of many who may otherwise have been unaware of South Africa's racist laws. Sadly though, the boycott was often (if unintenionally) mismanaged & selectively applied. From outside of the country, Anti-Apartheid activists & artists were 'obliged' to avoid personal contact with people inside the country - but their records, books & films were more often than not widely available & viguourosly promoted - at the expense of our own indigenous artists. No problem with international competition. However, this so-called competition was ecnomically driven by racist politics. The irony is that many local cultural workers are now asking: why is it that they have to fight for a share of local content in their own homes? If this is all about Freedom of choice where does this freedom lie? In the hands & heads of a few facelss radio programmers, TV producers & record company marketing teams? Has local music really grown up enough to speak for itself?

Ethnically divided 'Radio Bantu' promoted indigenous music exclusively for some 40 years. 'White' indigenous music's share of segregated radio and markets featured foreign sounding imported recorded 'material' almost exclusively - at the expense of our own 'original' music - which at best was considered inferior and at worst, subversive. Commercial Record Labels & State Media thrived off the boycott, while local artists (who stayed & played to face the music), struggled to be heard above the din & racket of that wonderfully sounding imported recorded product. In my view listener's choice is basically whatever they are fed from the 'entertainment industry'.

But back to the future... & the Hidden Years: Despite the popularity & influence of many community artists - who could attract large crowds in concert, on campus, to townships & the odd mixed club or shebeen - with no mainstream media or industry support - our colourful music past still lies hidden in the shade of those who did record. This is not to suggest that commercial recording artists were any less committed to change; but at least their music - for better or worse - is available today. It is hoped that by Networking with other collectors & SAfrican Musicians - via the internet - that our hidden years Music will eventually attract media attention & become part of our History - Education & Development. "Without a yesterday there can be no tomorrow" (Zolani Mkiva).

There are a number of archive tape & photograph collections fading & oxidizing as fast as the musicians & the memories that we believe should never be forgotten. Good Music that can speak for itself needs to be heard in the first place. It would be a sad irony indeed, if the security establishment - who used all the tricks in their dirty book, to prevent progressive musicians from being heard, were to now have the last laugh. Anecdotes, tapes, photos, posters, news, suggestions....... are all welcome.

Chris Chapman responds:

There is a lot of truth in what you say about sa music and the apathy of the media etc., and I am very glad that there is somebody who is prepared to say it. Harrass those smug little music journo pussycats, I say, they need it. There's no cushier job on the planet than music scribe - always wise after the fact, never having to come up with a follow-up album, no responsibility for shifting units. Hard work is hanging out at gigs listening to the chit-chat of those higher up the music industry food chain. If your harangues force them to do a tiny bit of reading, or a smattering of research to try and verify their assumptions and learn a bit more about their subject matter, then you have done us all a service.

The funny thing about music, though, is that it speaks for itself. Good music will be listened to and appreciated by those with an ear for it despite what the critics or anybody else say about it. By the same token, crap music will be marketed by the industry and gushed over by the cream-lickers, the media hacks who go to album launches to eat the snacks and sip the hooch. Thank God! It gives them something to do. Many radio programmers and deejays will pander to this sop. In truth, they know no better. They do not have the capacity to discern real art from transient fashion. A large chunk of the market will fall for it too. They're all the same - the middle class lowest common denominator syndrome. This is a consumerist culture that needs throwaway music to consume. Somebody has to supply it - the flip side of the free market coin.

All the more reason to let the real music, the real mythology, speak for itself. The best moments in music are the fragments of melodies and lyrics that capture the vibe of the times - those songs that live in our imaginations not our intellect. Those moments in music need no words, politics, lobbying, skinnering, or anything else. It's as if they were always there, songs just waiting to be written, just waiting to be heard.

We carry them around in our heads. They weave a potent blend of sound power mythology which helps us navigate our way through life. Each one of us will have our own personal deep down favourites, strung out like stepping stones through our lives, through the passing of the times, trends, drugs, fashions, regimes, heroes, lovers.

That's not to say that this music needs no marketing, no industry to put it on the table. It needs somebody with vision and strength to make it available, just like it takes musicians with vision and strength to forge it in the first place.

When we run out of those people, or throw them behind bars, then we're in the shit!

So I have this problem with dredging back into the past. What for? That music has been written and aired. Good and bad. Meaningful and meaningless. Let it rest. The magic moments will live on in our imaginations anyway. The superfluous has vanished, and should stay vanished.

But to keep on making the magic ... ah, that is the challenge, to keep sniffing the nectar of the muse and the bard, we need to focus not on the footprints that are left behind, but on the new terrain that is heaving up over the horizon, new responses are needed, new boundaries discovered and pushed. To stand still too long in this business is to lose the connection - to break the link - to fossilize. Music is a living thing, it's connected to culture, it shifts and moves constantly. If you stand still, it'll bypass you.

The music scribe's primary responsibility then is to track the unfolding mythology of the times through the music that really kicks - to separate out the wheat from the chaff, to interpret, to signpost. To look to the future, to put your finger on the pulse.

There's no point in dragging up ancient tapes of bygone eras and ramming it down people's throats, for whatever reasons. Are you telling them that they should listen to this music? Seems to me that the best you can do is produce the stuff and make it available to people. They will choose the music that they like - not the music that you chose for them - as every generation before them has done. That's the way it should be.

If you have any comments about this article, please drop us a line.

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