photo credit: all images courtesy of http://afrosynth.blogspot.com/
Pop music archaelogist DJ Okapi schools us on the 80s and 90s – the South African bubblegum pop golden era – on his blog Afro-Synth, drawing for gems never heard before and many not to be heard again. It’s a great platform to bring back memories and to trace the roots of some of South Africa’s best selling genres right now.
Where does one go out in South Africa if they want to hear the kind of stuff you talk about on your blog?
A handful of other DJs will drop Burnout or Weekend Special but it usually stops there. There isn’t enough of an interest for any scene to develop, even in Joburg, where most of the music was recorded. People want to dance, and to dance people want stuff they’ve heard before. Those who are old enough to remember it are too old for clubs, and younger people are programmed to prefer new music – if it’s old skool they only think of American or British stuff. They’re reluctant to listen to their parents’ music. As a DJ I’ve always tried to offer something different, and people are slowly catching on – but unfortunately I doubt there’ll ever be a huge market for it. So wherever I’m playing is where you can hear this stuff (Facebook DJ Okapi for details). I’m aiming to move into radio as a lot of it is better suited for that.
What made you want to start Afrosynth?
Through DJing and digging for old funk and 80s records I’d come across the odd bubblegum LP, which I’d buy whenever I could find them, usually for about R20. As the collection grew, I started compiling all the album info – production credits, labels, serial numbers, etc. In 2008 I wrote an article for the Sunday Independent that also appeared online – short reviews of some of my favourites with cover pics and an interview with the former archive guy at Gallo, who was let go soon after. It underlined that not only was the music unavailable on CD or for download, there was a huge lack of information on the artists themselves – not only one-hit wonders but also many of the big-selling stars of the day. By the time the article was published I was living in Korea and had plenty of time and fast internet to be able to start putting the blog together.
How old are you and where are you from?
I’m 28 and grew up in Cape Town. Now I live in downtown Jozi. Though I was born in the 80s most of this bubblegum stuff is well before my time. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve really started exploring it. That’s what makes Afrosynth different from a regular nostalgia project – I’m sharing it as I’m discovering it for myself, not trying to sell something or show off how much I know or own. To me its main appeal is that the music is still so fresh. The design and fashions on the cover art are still cool. It’s about more than the huge historical significance – it’s still relevant today.
Do you think we will start to see record labels doing reissues of South African pop records from the 70s and 80s as is the case with West African music? Or is it happening already?
I’m skeptical about it. In Europe or the US there may still be a market for collectors who’ll pay a fortune for vinyl re-issues of Afrobeat or Ethio-jazz. But here it’s a different story. There’s no market for vinyl anymore. Record pressing plants closed down long ago. Even major labels can’t make ends meet, even from CDs – piracy is rampant and even condoned by cops here in SA. It’s hardly an environment conducive to new independent specialist labels. There’s always been interest in SA music over the years, most recently Shangaan techno, but it;s usually by Americans selling it to other Americans, or Europeans to other Europeans. As an African I’m more interested in making it relevant and accessible to as many people as possible, rather than trying to cash in. And it’s one thing re-issuing old music, but how much of the revenue goes back to the artists who made it? The music industry today is completely different to how it was during the 1980s, when the stuff on Afrosynth was put out. Now we can find anything, but we can’t make money from it. I’ve had requests from people in Europe to sell them extra copies of sealed albums I pick up, but I’m wary of even bringing money into the equation, so I keep putting them off. If the demand were there, I’d love to re-issue the stuff or print hard copies of the Afrosynth mixes. But realistically in terms of getting it out there, the internet is the only option.
Name three of your favourite finds from digging in the crates.
It’s hard to say – my favourite finds aren’t necessarily the records with the best music – because there’s just so much good music from back then. Occasionally it’s albums I’ve heard about but never expected to find – like I recently picked up an album by Oom Hansie – an alter ego of Lucky Dube before he got into reggae. It’s full of programmed beats and it’s all in Afrikaans – Lucky was pulling off Afrikaans alter-egos years before James Phillips and decades before Die Antwoord. More often my favourites are the ones I find for R2, or the ones that are still sealed and I get to listen to it for the first time, 25 years after it was meant to be sold. The other day I found an early album of the Bhundu Boys, a Zimbabwean group that made it big the UK before self-destructing. It was still sealed, never been played before. Then there are others I picked up overseas that were banned in South Africa – like Mzwakhe Mbuli’s ‘Change Is Pain’, or anti-apartheid vinyls put out by the ANC in exile. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet some of the musicians and got them to sign their records, which they’re always happy to do most of them don’t own their own records on vinyl anymore. So I’ve got signed copies from Splash, Ray Phiri, Hugh Masekela, the Soul Brothers, Sox – I guess those are the ones I hold closest.
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