(Update: It’s been brought to my attention that some people aren’t sure how to stream the songs while reading. Um. Click the little “play” icon next to the song name. Easy, huh?)
(Second Update: Song links for below entry have now expired)
I used to be in a band in South Africa. More about that later. While I was in the band, people around would constantly complain about how hard it was to “make” it in the South African music industry, and that, even if you managed to, the ceiling was too low to stand tall.
South African music has come a long way since then, however. Every week, I hear about someone that I knew, or someone completely new, blasting everyone away. The wealth of musical talent in South Africa is point-blank unbelievable. Bearing in mind the melting-pot that is South African culture (a country with more cultures than you can shake a yard-stick at), South African music has been born out of a mingling of local differences and outside influences; giving it all a special essence that carries with it the unmistakeable flavour of the country.
The problem with South African music, however, is that it all too often begins and ends it’s life in SA, without travelling the world and tipping it’s hat to strange faces.
It’s because of this fact that this post was inspired. I’m based in Brisbane at the moment, but South African music is still in my heart. And it should be broadcast worldwide. So I started compiling a list of SA music that you should be hearing.
Some of these bands are now defunct, some still active, some just taking their first steps and starting out. It would be great if you could help them on their journey.
One last thing; in no way am I claiming this to be a definitive list of SA music. As with any mix-tape compilation, subjectivity is king and rules with an iron fist. There are of course a huge selection of artists who have carved their place in South African Music history, who do not feature below; Hugh Masakela, Brenda Fassie, Johnny Clegg and Juluka, Arapaho, Amersham, Bright Blue, Salty Dog; even some of the newer acts, causing much excitement, such as Fokofpolisiekar, are not mentioned below. This doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to feature; they simply don’t. Deal with it.
So, without further ado, I present to you…
(or, “1.9 hours of Saffa tunes ekse, wukkine!”)
1. Big Idea
Big Idea are a band that exemplifies the mix of cultures bubbling in KwaZulu Natal; since forming in 2004, they have become the quintessential hip-hop/jazz fusion group, and a leader of the live music scene. Fronted by charismatic vocalist Quincy “Ou Q” Fynn, the band is Paki Peleoele on drums, Rory “The Jacob” Jacobs on Sampler, vocalist/emcee King Babar, emcee Jet and Dj. LV on decks.
Oh. And I went to school with Rory. Hi Rory!
Big Idea are honestly a band that fills me with excitement. It’s kind of like the first time I heard Max Normal, and I knew that SA was going places. Big Idea fill me with that same, if not more, optimism for the future.
Their technique and creativity know no bounds.
Listen to the listed song below, “Aweh”, and tell me these guys aren’t destined for greatness with a straight face. Go on, I dare ya.
Listen: Big Idea – Aweh
2. Guy Buttery
A product of coastal KwaZulu Natal, Guy Buttery is a freak of nature. An early adopter of the mandolin and sitar, the quest for new musical boundaries was inevitable for Guy. Through friend, guitar teacher and present jam buddy, Nibs van der Spuy, Guy was introduced to fingerstylist extraordinaire, Michael Hedges. This only poured more fuel on the fire.
A lot of Guy’s pieces use unorthodox guitar techniques; sometimes you can see him using his left hand for the rhythm section, while his right hand comes over the neck of the guitar to supply the bass or melody lines. Couple this with extensive harmonics, percussive drumming on the body of the guitar, and wild tunings, and you have an inkling of the force that is Guy Buttery.
On a side note, one of my dreams would be to see Guy play with Ohad Rein of Old Man River. The creative explosion would be something to see…
And, as an added bonus, here’s a recent video of him performing “December Poems”.
Listen: Guy Buttery – December Poems
Wonderboom have been about for as long as I can remember, and thus earn the title of one of the longest-lived SA rock bands (via a poll of myself). This is no mean feat, as, generally speaking, South African rock outfits have a life expectancy slightly less than that of your “marked down for quick sale” milk.
In 2007, they released their seventh album, “City of Gold”, which proved once again that these guys are one of South Africa’s greats.
Wonderboom hold a special place in my heart; they were one of the opening acts for Live’s first tour of South Africa, and they blew me away with their stage presence.
This single is off their latest album, and is a slightly more mainstream track than the bulk of their stuff; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t up there with their best!
Listen: Wonderboom – Brain
4. Nibs van der Spuy
Nibs is a verified acoustic guitar legend of South Africa. I first came across Nibs when he exploded onto the scene with the band, Landscape Prayers, and was an instant fan. This grew with his solo albums, which displayed his incredible diversity; be it African, Classical, Celtic, World, Maskanda, Indian or folk, Nibs had you covered.
His latest album, “Beautiful Feet”, has opened to stellar reviews, and is gaining Nibs a reputation internationally.
This track, “Dream of Believers”, has Nibs at his genre-mixing best; and, incidentally, has him sounding more like Ben Harper than I’ve ever heard before!
5. Dave McMillan
I’m letting my bias be known here; Dave “Fingers” Mac is the reason I picked up a guitar in the first place. I was away at camp when I was younger, and there was this kid, a few years younger than me, who picked up a guitar and within 5 minutes had all the girls falling for him.
I wanted to be that kid. And that kid was Dave Mcmillan.
Dave has been the frontman and contibutor to more bands in Durban than I can count. However, recently he’s stepped out as a solo artist, and he’s shining brighter than anyone could have ever imagined. Including collaborations with such artists as Nibs, Guy Buttery, Roly Struckmeyer and Gareth Gale, Dave Mac’s new album is something special. With hints of Rodriguez, James Taylor and Ryan Adams, keep an eye out for Dave.
I wish him all the best.
Oh: And Dave has the entire album up for download (free download, I should add) at his official site linked below. Go get it.
Listen: Dave McMillan – Grow Your Love
Official Site: http://www.davemcmillanmusic.com
Freshlyground exploded onto the SA music scene in 2002, and haven’t stopped since. It’s a band made up of individuals from all walks of life, and perfectly blends Afro beats, funk, dance, classical influences and jazz to produce a sound of Africa. Ever since the unstoppable radio hit of “Doo be doo”, Freshlyground is one of those bands who never fails in putting a smile on your face. They continue to make relaxing, easy-listening tracks with their latest release “Ma’Cheri”.
Listen: Freshlyground – Doo be Doo
Cynosure were a band I wish had made it. Cocky and arrogant as all hell, they were made all the more irritating by the fact that they were frikkin’ great. A band that that managed to effortlessly produce colourful, melodic funk pop rock as easily as others breathe should have lasted longer than they did.
This track, “Land of Colour”, shows the pop sensibility that hinted at greatness. It’s too bad boys.
Listen: Cynosure – Land of Colour
8. Farryl Purkiss
Another product of the coastal town of Umhlanga, Farryl Purkiss is one of the shining lights of South African music.
The first time I met Farryl, his “band” (more accurately described as guys who simply wanted to jam without practising) consisting of Farryl, Mark Campbell and Martin “Jiggy” Brennan was opening for my band at the time. I knew within the first chord that these guys would eclipse our efforts; I just didn’t expect it to happen as quickly as it did.
Farryl has toured both nationally and internationally, with superstars like Missy Higgins and Ben Lee, as well as co-composed and played with Jack Johnson… and now he’s headlined Australia’s famous Big Day Out.
Did I mention that Farryl’s a model? Well, he is. How envious are you now?
Seriously though, Farryl is straight-up one of the nicest musicians I know. When he came down under to tour with Bob Evans, I managed to slip into one of his gigs. Within a second of saying “Howzit?”, Farryl had reminded me of the camraderie that existed in the SA music scene. And, as one of it’s ambassadors, we can’t do much better.
Listen: Farryl Purkiss – Deja Vu
9. The Parlotones
(Status: Active in UK)
I remember the first time I saw Parlotones play; the lead singer, Kahn Morbee climbed onto the stage, and aimed his trademark megaphone at the microphone, and I knew I was in for a good night.
Due to The Parlotones eccentric creativity, it took a while for them to gain widespread acceptance; in some ways, they’ve reminded me of Radiohead, and the reactions to their more “prog-rock” releases in that regard. However, South Africa has been realising their potential in the last few years, and The Parlotones now stand as one of the bastions of South African rock.
If you get a chance to see these guys live, grab it with both hands.
10. Syd Kitchen
(Status: Update – Deceased. See here for more.)
Syd Kitchen is to South African music what the Sphynx is to Egypt; a landmark that has seemingly always existed, yet remains a true enigma. Syd Kitchen has been active in the South African music scene since the late 60’s, and has in all that time remained an innovative and non-compromising performer.
Syd’s career has often been described as a portrait of ecclecticism and freedom of spirit; whether it be with the “Kitchen Brothers”, “The Flying Sombreros” or “Bafo Bafo”.
A teacher, thinker, and published poet, Syd Kitchen will always be, for me at least, the godfather of South African music. He is the very heart and soul of it all.
11. Just Jinger
(Status: Active in the US)
Yes, I used “Jinger”. Yes, I know they go by “Just Jinjer” now, as the Yanks didn’t know how to pronounce their name. But to me, they will always be the Just Jinger of old.
Just Jinger is the biggest selling rock band in South African history, with over a quarter million units sold. Over the last decade, the band has performed and toured with U2, Counting Crows and Def Leppard among many others. Just Jinger, in many ways, are South African music.
I can think of no other local singer who has inspired me as much as Art Matthews. Just Jinger brought with them the promise of reconciliation, in the beginning days of a new South Africa. Ultimately, they represented hope.
I think, in some ways, they always will.
Choosing a track for Just Jinger literally gave me a headache; from songs such as “Here’s to You”, “Home”, “No God”, “Painting Hours”, and “Those Days Are Over”, it was an incredibly difficult decision. In the end though, it was “Father & Farther” that won out.
Listen: Just Jinger – Father & Farther
12. Springbok Nude Girls
(Status: Active… for now)
Another band that basically are South African music, the Springbok Nude Girls exploded onto the indie-music scene in the mid-90’s, championing an eclectic and energetic approach to rock music that instantly struck a chord with the university crowd around their hometown of Stellenbosch.
What’s the Nudies music like? Well, take some punk, reggae, scat, metal, funk, jazz and psychedelia; throw it into a big melting pot; stir in some intrinsic Africa… and you have some idea.
Inevitably, the Springbok Nude Girls went the way of the majority of rock acts in SA, and headed into the deadpool on a sad day in South African Music history.
However, after more than 5 years apart, the pull became too much for the boys, and have recently reformed as the (more international sounding) “Nude Girls”. This track is one of the cult-favourites they gave life to…
13. Lucky Dube
I’ve already paid tribute to the passing of Lucky Dube in this post here. As one of the guiding stars of music in South Africa though, we need to pay tribute not only to his passing, but his life.
Lucky Dube made a type of melodious, African reggae that slowly but surely turned him into a superstar. He sang powerfully about social problems, racial inequalities, and his love for God. With the song, “Together As One”, he became the first black artist in South Africa to be played on a white radio station. This alone is an accomplishment that should never be forgotten.
As I said previously, “His political questioning meant that Lucky sang for the people, wanting everyone to live together; in some dark times, he truly was a voice for the voiceless.
Wherever you are now Lucky; I hope it’s irie.“
This track, Mask, is less reggae than the bulk of his work; but the sorrow is appropriate. And when that shimmering guitar begins? Man…
Listen: Lucky Dube – Mask
14. Prime Circle
Prime Circle get the “most rapid rise to stardom” award. Forming in 2001, their debut album “Hello, Crazy World” was recorded and released in 2002, and with it, the storming single “Hello”, which catapulted them to the main stage of South African music.
Prime Circle have always been a strange one for me; you can’t deny their musicianship, and they put on great live shows… but in the back of my mind, I can’t help feel that in some ways they are doing “rock by numbers”. That said, they’ve certainly carved their niche in SA music, and deserve to be on this list.
Listen: Prime Circle – Let Me Go
15. Mr Smug
I actually auditioned for Mr Smug, back in the day. Needless to say, I was turned down. Regardless, Mr Smug were an awesome band.
Marcel will probably be less than chuffed that I’ve included Mr Smug on this list, and not their current incarnation, “Sheep Down”. However, I would have been doing myself a disservice to not include them here. Mr Smug was a true bastion of South African punk, from their days at the Mishi Jones baseball park’s “Uprising” concerts, to their nights at the Winston. Hard, fast, and at times sloppy, Mr Smug rocked, and you rocked along with them.
As a side note, if anyone has their track “Paradise Road”, with it’s killer horns, please get in touch. For now, you’ll have to make do with the track “Little Blue Wave”.
Listen: Mr Smug – Little Blue Wave
Any kid who was even the slightest bit interested in rock in the 90’s would have heard of Squeal. Fronted by Dave Birch, Squeal were the quintessential rock group; bad asses who would throw out some balls to the wall rock, while you slugged back a Black Label at the festival grounds. Go on, deny you did.
Long Pig, their debut album, was probably one of my favourite albums of the decade, and this song, “See Saw”, was one of it’s most haunting tracks.
Listen: Squeal – See Saw
17. Vusi Mahlasela
Dave Matthews, of the DMB, said of Vusi Mahlasela, “Vusi has a sort of profound beauty about him. He has a light on… And that’s something he would share with Bob Marley, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye or Miles Davis.” High praise indeed, but it’s deserved praise. Vusi’s sound is a hybrid of folk, world, blues and soul, one that connects South Africa’s Apartheid-scarred past with its promise for a better future. Writer, poet, political activist and consumate performer, Vusi truly is a guiding star in SA music.
Listen: Vusi Mahlasela – Thula Mama
18. Henry Ate
Comprised of Karma-Lee Swanepoel and Julian Sun, Henry Ate were one of the most honest bands I ever had the priviledge of hearing. Karma had this innocence and beauty to her voice that simply crushed you; and Julian Sun’s backing vocals and guitar were the perfect complement. Henry Ate took you on a journey, and you never were concerned about the destination; the journey was all that mattered.
This single, ‘Just’ is one of the most widely played singles South Africa has ever experienced. It’s a guitar folk song filled with excitement and seriousness in the same breath, a dynamic piece of pop history that will probably always remind some of the open fields at festivals.
Listen: Henry Ate – Just
(Status: Active. Well, er. Sometimes. For Reunion gigs. When they’re all in the same country.)
(Update: Officially rocking again. Can you say “Hell yeah”?)
Perez. ‘Nuff said.
Nah, just kidding. But come on.. it’s Perez. These guys, I’m sure, were the inspiration for more bands starting up in my hometown of Durban than any other South African band. Perez exploded on the scene with no warning. Within 18 months of their debut show they managed to clock up 4 number 1 singles and sell out just about every live venue in South Africa, still holding attendance records at some of them.
The first time I heard them, I knew that music was what I wanted to do. Point blank. Mike Goddard, the drummer for the band, had been a few years ahead of me at school; and it absolutely blew me away that someone I knew could be on the radio, with a single that I couldn’t get out of my head. It was totally surreal.
The rest of the band were all familiar faces around Umhlanga; it was not surprising that they had a near cult-level local following.
Perez sadly broke up, and I don’t think South African music ever quite got over it. They represented every hope, and every dream we had, of exposing South African rock to an international audience. I remember the exact moment I recieved the news they were breaking up. It was at a band rehearsal, and we all just looked at each other; it was like we had lost the heart and soul of everything we were trying to do.
I left the country for a while. Did some travelling. As fortune had it, upon my return (I was only coming back for 5 days, before jetting out again), all the members of Perez found themselves in the same country, and did a single reunion gig in Durban, at the Bat Centre.
That night, I saw gods play on that stage. And if there’s one band I want to extend a “thank you” to, it’s Perez. Thanks guys.
Listen: Perez – Wasted Out
20. Arno Carstens
Already featured on this list (lead singer of Springbok Nude Girls), Arno features again for his solo efforts. With his solo stuff, Arno hits and much as he misses; but when he hits, it stays hit.
Listen: Arno Carstens – Another Universe
21. Saron Gas
(Status: Active, in the US, as Seether)
Not many Yanks know this. Seether began their career as a band from Maritzburg, called Saron Gas. Saron Gas slipped away quietly to the United States to perform a showcase with a large independent record label. The result of that meeting? A seven album record deal, change of band name and relocation to the United States.
The US may have become base for Saron Gas/Seether, but SA had them back before they started playing for the labels, as opposed to the music. We had them when they produced stonkers like “69Tea”, below.
Listen: Saron Gas – 69Tea
I only played at the same festival as Deluxe once, which was fine by me, because it allowed me to appreciate their shows all the more. Deluxe were fantastic songwriters; they had that ability that only comes along every so often, to draw you in with their music and drag you along on their journey.
Deluxe ended far too soon. Had they continued on that journey, I have no doubt that they could have broken internationally. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.
Listen: Deluxe – Let You Go
Again, declaring bias here. I used to be a member of Sitter, back in the days when it was me, Adrian Arlt, Gary Wolno and Edan Latz. Eventually, the music wasn’t going in a direction that I wanted to follow though, and I ended up leaving. Soon after, Adrian headed overseas.
Never one to let something stand in their way, Sitter carried on and gained two new members, Darryn and Theo. I still get updated on how they’re doing across the pond, and from all reports they seem to be going from strength to strength, which is awesome. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more hard-working bunch in SA music than these guys.
This is actually a new version of a song that I originally recorded with them, called “The Music”. On this version, Quincy from Big Idea (listed above) busts some rhymes. I have to be honest; I think this version is way better than the one I was on :)
Listen: Sitter – The Music
(Status: Active. Sort of. Only every now and again. So I hear.)
Movie55 were brought to my attention by Wicked Mike (Hi Mike!). At the time, he was managing them, and said they were probably one of the most exciting outfits he had come across in recent times. Not only highly professional, but creative and heartfelt with it.
Mike sometimes talks things up a bit, which is not to say anything bad against the guy, but it is his job after all. He cares about these bands. So I listened to the song, not really expecting it to live up to his hype.
I was wrong. Another band that could have gone far.
Listen: Movie55 – Save Myself
One-time lead singer for the afore-mentioned Movie55, BOON is quickly making a name for himself in South Africa as a solo artist. The themes of BOON’s music relate down-to-earth, everyday life, running the full gamut from kissing to loneliness, birth to death. No matter what form the songs are delivered in, it’s always music for the masses.
When I first heard the below single, I wasn’t sure about it… until that chorus kicked in. It’s haunting. Stick with it. I guarantee that after a few spins it will grow on you.
Listen: BOON – Silent Scream
Known as Tree63 in the States, Tree were a staple of the 90’s Durban Music scene. Due to them being a band that proudly displayed their christian beliefs, they were sometimes sidelined by those in the music establishment who dismissed them as a “church band”; which was a great shame, as they were a band with a great innate pop-rock sensibility.
Ultimately, it was only a matter of time until one of the major Christian labels snapped them up, and in Tree’s case it was the powerhouse UK outfit, Kingsway Music. They’re still rocking up the worship festivals worldwide, last I heard. And in addition, they’re some of the friendliest guys you’ll ever meet, so if you see them around, say hi.
Listen: Tree – A Million Lights
27. Max Normal
(Status: Well… active… but not in the incarnation below)
When I say Max Normal, I’m talking about the Max Normal that ended in 2002, with their last performance as the support group for Faithless in Cape Town. The Max Normal that released the groundbreaking album “Songs from the Mall” in 2001.
Max Normal were, for me, the band that dispelled the myth that white men couldn’t do the hip hop crowd proud in SA; their distinct style of rap, lyrical and beat composition dominated “Songs from the Mall”, and with it there was little doubt that these guys offered the SA hip hop community something entirely original, creative and 100% proudly South African.
Listen: Max Normal – Hazel’s Joint
Tweak’s brand of pop-punk never changed my world. But I found myself unable to leave them off this list, simply for the fact that Tweak was largely instrumental in exposing “punk” to a larger South African audience. Now, I know I’m going to get flamed for this, but please note the inverted commas around “punk”. There are plenty of other bands who were flying the punk banner high before Tweak (one of my favourites always being Pet Flyz), but it was Tweak, with their brand of inoffensive, radio-friendly, pop punk that gained punk more mainstream exposure. Criticize them all you want, but they did us a favour.
Listen: Tweak – Down By Da River
The first time I heard Plush, I dropped everything to listen. It’s not often a band comes along that stops you dead in your tracks, but Plush was just such a band.
Plush were an acoustic rock band based out of Cape Town, comprising of Rory Eliot and Chas Smit. Together they were described as “so unbelievably tight that they sound as though they are one masterful musician, playing two guitars, with four arms and one almighty voice“. Plush were everything I had been waiting for. They wrote songs that spoke to you. Welcomed you in. Sat you down with a beer, and lent a sympathetic ear for all your hurts. They played the soundtrack to your life. Plush, in my opinion, had the potential to be the best thing out of South Africa. Ever.
Plush’s rocket ride to stardom ended tragically when Smit was killed by a drunk driver when attempting to cross a street in Pietermaritzburg in September 2005.
I, along with many South Africans, shed a tear that day.
Listen: Plush – Erla
30. Rory Eliot & The Reason
Rory Eliot, one half of Plush, took a 6 month sabbatical following the tragic passing of bandmate Chas Smit, before returning to the music scene as a solo artist.
Eliot joined up with drummer Ben Peters, a former contributor to Plush, and again shared a stage as old Plush favourites, and an increasing repertoire of new tracks saw sell-out crowds and packed venues all over Cape Town. Soon, word of Eliot’s return spread. In early 2007, bass player Louis Roux, opted in to create Rory Eliot and The Reason.
I hold out high hopes for Rory Eliot & The Reason. They’ll never quite be Plush, but neither would I want them to be. But the fact that Rory is carrying on the dream that he and Chas shared is surely a symbol of hope.
And there you go; thanks for sticking with me through that. Again, of course there are plenty of other artists who could feature here, so please don’t flame me!
But if you want to spread the word about YOUR favourite South African band, then drop me a line, or leave me a comment, and make yourself heard!
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