South Africa's militant musos


By Norm Dixon

JOHANNESBURG — The cream of South Africa's musicians and pop performers have embarked on a militant campaign to defeat continued racism by record companies, record retailers, radio and television. They are demanding that outstanding royalties be paid, "exploitative" royalty rates be increased and that local music and culture be played and promoted on radio and TV.

Over the past two months, leading musicians and performers have picketed, marched, protested, sat-in and, most recently, fought off baton-wielding South African Broadcasting Commission (SABC) security guards with savage dogs. The activists include: the towering figure of Mzwakhe Mbuli, the "People's Poet", who became a township legend in the 1980s when, while on the run from the security forces, he would appear from nowhere, recite revolutionary poetry at the funerals of freedom fighters and then melt away; Jonas Gwangwa, world-renowned trombonist, contemporary of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba in the days of Sophiatown and for years the director of the ANC's Amandla Cultural Ensemble; Ray Phiri, founder and lead singer of the legendary groups Harari and Stimela, and one of the musicians "discovered" by Paul Simon; Ntemi Piliso, veteran sax player, leader of the African Jazz Pioneers and a founding member of the group 30 years ago; top producer and performer Sello "Chicco" Twala; Mahotella Queen Hilda Tloubatla; and popular singers Mara Louw and Tshepo Tshola, the "Village Pope".

Explaining the musicians turn to militancy, composer-singer Caiphus Semenyena, who recently returned from 30 years in exile, told the weekly City Press that South Africa's recording and broadcasting industries "neither respect nor fear local artists. Artists have to do for themselves what workers have done for themselves".

On August 9, many of these newly-militant musos gathered to explain their concerns and their demands. Spokesperson Mzwakhe Mbuli announced that musicians would "leave no stone unturned" to challenge all institutions that practice discrimination. The SABC and the record companies were the main culprits, he said.

SABC radio stations and television refuse to play local records and videos and favour of those produced overseas, primarily from the US. Radio and TV stations continue to be divided into "black" and "white" stations, producers continue to categorise music as "black music" or "white music", and managements continue to categorise listenerships as "black markets" and "white markets". The musicians are demanding that quotas for local music be introduced.

Mbuli pointed to 5-FM, established 19 years ago to cater for white youth, as an example of the problem. In recent months, the station has openly campaigned against increased local content, appealing to its still overwhelmingly white listenership for support. Mbuli said the days were over when a radio station should serve only the interests of one racial group. He called for a boycott of stations that do not play local music.

South African performers and musicians, grouped together under the banner of Concerned Musicians and supported by the Musicians Union of South Africa, do not define local music as "black" music 5-FM would have people believe. White South Africans who play rock, grunge, metal and funk are also being locked out of airplay by the SABC. "We are all South Africans," Mbuli said.

Sello "Chicco" Twala added that airplay was unrelated to the popularity of artists. He dismissed arguments that local music was not played because people did not want to hear it. The Soul Brothers, who have sold millions of recordings, rarely get played. Locally-produced cassettes often outsell foreign records with little promotion or airplay. The ZCC choir, a gospel group, sold 200,000 copies of their last album and does not get airplay. "Our people want our music. How do they sell 200,000 units if they do not want them. We have a lot of new talent that has never been on the radio, never been on TV," he pointed out.

The record industry also came in for a hiding. "The history of the record industry has been one of exploitation of musicians," Mbuli said.

He pointed to the example of Mahlathini, the world famous singer who performs with the Mahotella Queens. After 30 years in the industry and popular throughout the world, he can still only afford to live in a four-room house and lives in fear of a "dry spell" that will send him back into poverty. "Those companies have very huge budgets but will only spend a few thousand rands to promote local artists. Musicians suffer paupers funerals and live in shacks while the bosses and those at the top echelons live in mansions in the poshest suburbs," Mbuli said angrily.

Record companies continue to produce, promote and market on the basis of racial classifications. Another panel member added that record companies poorly distribute local albums. "Our musicians don't have their products in the shops and therefore no-one buys their albums," she said. With lack of air play, a vicious circle is created. "It easier for a record company to buy a full marketing package from overseas and just slap it on the shelf."

Jonas Gwangwa pointed to the sad irony that "South African music is appreciated by people the world over. Some of us have travelled extensively playing South African music. There have number one records overseas, Oscar nominations, Grammy Awards. But our own people still can't hear it." The South African recording and broadcasting industries "are killing our culture, our identity".

Mbuli said it was time for a "total overhaul" of the SABC. "Let's have new policies, a new consciousness, new systems. If they don't change then it becomes meaningless to have a new president, a new flag. [The ANC] will have occupied the office but with no power."

He said that musicians were not "playing games" as had been proven by their recent actions. "In September" Mbuli stated, "we will jam the SABC. They won't be able to go in or out. It will the heaviest and biggest operation ever undertaken by musicians. Maybe this time we will carry sticks to protect ourselves against dogs. It will be peaceful, but expect the biggest crowds [of musicians] ever seen."

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