By Robert Adam
No matter what our ethnicity, creed, colour or orientation, I suppose the day inevitably arrives, together with other age-betrayal prompts, for each of us to occasionally yearn a memory lane visit.
Maybe we reach an age when we take more comfort from memories of the past than expectations of the future.
Being no exception, I am today, therefore, in a memory-lane frame of mind, having visited my music archives and in so doing, jarred awake some fond recollections of a bygone era.
Taking a central role on my recollection stage is 1980’s Township Pop a.k.a Bubblegum Music and SABC Radio’s and TV’s presentations thereof. That is, from the days when SABC TV1, TV2 and TV3 represented different format connotations than they do today.
But how did this white man, (or ‘European’ as we used to inanely distinguish ourselves) far removed from the music industry, get to be familiar with and enjoy Bubblegum Music?
It was November 1987. The same day that the SAA Helderberg plane went missing. Trying to tune my radio into any news of the plane, I came across a radio station playing Lucky Dube’s ‘I’ve Got You Babe’. I mistakenly thought it was a good American artist singing, maybe Dobie Grey. A good song, too. Staying with that radio station, Patricia Majalisa’s Witchdoctor came on. Hey, that’s good, I thought. Next came Mosquito, I can’t remember the artist. By now I was getting hooked. It was mainly the melodies and that haunting, synthesised keyboard whine and tremolo effect which was replicated on so many numbers at the time. Maybe from the same session musician. Numbers by Brenda Fassie and Yvonne Chaka Chaka followed. I spent the rest of the day enjoying the same radio station, later catching radio Sesotho for the top 20. The presenter was a fast talker, almost singing his pitch with plenty of echo. The atmosphere he created was electrifying. I was to tune in regularly to his show over the following few years.
The music encouraged me to investigate those ‘black’ TV Channels (TV2 and TV3) where indeed I was able to catch video clips and ‘live’ lip-syncing shows revealing the faces behind the voices which I had come to know from the radio. Shows such as Di a Rora, Lapaloga, Chuchumakala (excuse spelling) etc. There was one great live show on Saturday nights, in the isiZulu language I think. I could never pronounce (or remember) that show’s name. It began with ‘Ngemoga…’ or something similar. I now got to know a host of additional artists such as Lazarus Kagudi, Mercy Pakela, Alec Khaoli, Harari, Sypho Hotstix, Chico Tswala, Brenda Fassie, Zizi Congo, Ringo, Chimora (both versions), Dan Tshanda/Splash/Dalom Kids/Matshikos/Patricia Majalesa, Rebecca Malope, Marc Alex, Caiphus Semanye, Bayete, Kamazu, William Mthethwa, Monwa and Sun, Dan Nkosi, Ebony, Mafika, Alton Mashaba, Issyboy, V. Mash, Dr. Victor, MarcAlex, Sankomota, Brotherhood, Taboo, Ashanti (Chains of Love), Freeway, The Bees, Winnie Kumalo, Pat Shange, Fatty Boom Boom, Ntombi Ndaba, Dan Nkosi, Pamela Nkutha and even the Piki Piki man! And so many more. To me it was all pretty creative stuff. Yes, I know it did not always represent what was considered to be conventional, quality musicianship and was largely devoid of any cultural identity. There were many, more conventional, quality bands such as Sakhile and even Stimela around and who never seemed to get a fair look-in on TV or radio.
As a Hillbrow resident at the time, I enjoyed many such quality, multi-cultural bands at the various local shebeens and local clubs, most notably the Chelsea on Kotze Street. Like most people, I suppose I enjoyed different music for different occasions and moods.
But I wasn’t completely naïve. The probabilities that the SABC and music publishers cooperated in avoiding any depiction of political controversy in the public entertainment arena, whilst still humouring their audiences, was quite apparent. To some degree, I would therefore have suspected that Bubblegum Music was an idea born out of that cooperation and was tailored to assist the pacifying of a restless people. It may thus have emerged as an artificial music genre. One had only to consider the tame lyrics of the music to realise that not all was well. But even considering such undercurrents, I still felt that the ‘genre’ possessed strong elements of creativity, excellent delivery and relatively slick visual presentation despite video technical quality and editing not being that advanced in those days.
Eventually, of course, it was inevitable that political messaging would filter through in some of the music, such as in Chicco Tswala’s ‘We Miss You Manelow’ and ‘Soldier’. Bubblegum Music also began to be displaced by a growing preference by both artists and audiences for more dignified, cultural identity and for language diversity to be depicted. Brenda Fassie, for one, stopped singing in English. The Bubblegum ‘genre’ seemed to rapidly decline, particularly as 1995 approached and South Africa moved towards a more political maturity, taking the music industry with it.
There is a postscript to this story. If we fast-forward some 15 years to when I found myself running a music store, I would play my many audio tapes and video clips of Bubblegum Music in the store for amusement. The music attracted overwhelming public delight. Playing Lazarus Kagudi’s ‘This Place is Boring’ with that superb keyboard backing always set the mood alight as did Monwa and Sons’ Orlando Hangover’. Brenda Fassie’s ‘Weekend Special’ never failed to get them dancing in the aisles. It was fortunate that some music publishers saw opportunity in releasing some CD and DVD compilations from that Bubblegum Music era and to some degree, that satisfied customer demand. However, what I learnt from the experience was that despite more seasoned musicians and modern audiences looking on 1980s Bubblegum Music as having been a political ploy, churning out simplistic candy music, there remains a significant element of our population who identify Bubblegum Music with life as it was at the time and who thus enjoy it purely on those merits. It represented a different occasion and a different mood in their lives. Mine too!
Robert Adam wrote this piece for Afrique Best – The Heartbeat of Africa.
Contact him on afriquality at yahoo dot com