Various Artists, “Yebo! Rare Mzansi Party Beats from Apartheid’s Dying Years”
By Andy Thomas · June 30, 2023 Merch for this release:
Vinyl, Compact Disc (CD)

While South African music recorded under apartheid—from free jazz to Soweto Soul—has been well documented, until recently the dance music of the ‘80s has been somewhat overlooked. This was music known as “bubblegum”—the synth-heavy, multi-lingual boogie, disco, and soul-pop that only now is being recognized globally as a culturally important era in South African music. As London DJ and historian John Armstrong compiler of this new compilation explains, “The large majority of mzansi music available to us in the ‘80s was only the ‘safe’ village and traditional material and the classical Cape/township jazz sound. All of which was great, but there was this gaping hole in our S.A. record collections in the chronology that said ’80s dance music.’”

Armstrong first got his hands on these records via Peter Johns, a radio DJ from Harare, when he was searching for different records to play at his club session at The Bass Clef in East London. A selection of those tracks now feature on Yebo! Rare Mzansi Party Beats from Apartheid’s Dying Years, a compilation of music recorded during the last days of apartheid, when censorship and grinding repression was still a grim reality. The arrival of cheaper synths and drum machines like the Roland TR-707 was a pivotal moment for this music, and they would be used to full effect by producers like Peter “Hitman” Moticoe.

These were the sounds that captured the imagination of regulars at The Bass Clef. “Paul Ndlovu’s ‘Tsakane’ (a Moticoe production from 1986 by the of the future ‘King Of Shangaan Disco’) had such a magical effect on the Bass Clef dancers that I was unable to leave the decks on a Saturday night without having played it at least twice,” Armstrong writes in the compilation’s liner notes. Moticoe had been behind some of the earliest bubblegum hits, including Obed Ngobeni and The Kurhula Sisters’ “Ku Hluvukile Eka Zete” from 1983, that helped push Shangaan music into the electronic age.

The compilation plays like a mini musical history lesson: The mid-‘80s saw the birth of labels like Rightrack, home to both Paul Ndlovu’s “Tsakane” and The Angels’ “Johnny Boy,” the latter a glorious slice of soulful boogie that represents bubblegum at its most refined. Ronnie Robot’s On Records, one of a number of indies that emerged during this era, was responsible for such bubblegum classics as Sky Jinx’s 1987 hit “Pusa Twala.” In the ‘90s, On Records began releasing progressive tracks like Tool & Figs “Blackout,” which sounds something like Italo Disco transported to a studio in the townships. Even more forward-looking is the compilation’s closing track, which dates from 1993: “Chomesa,” by major star and future Brenda Fassie producer Sello “Chicco” Twala, represented the harder edge of bubblegum as it began to segue into kwaito, the slowed-down, homegrown dance sound of post-apartheid South Africa. It’s the way this compilation veers between different styles and years that makes it such a welcome addition to the re-evaluation of bubblegum as music that created the foundations for what followed—from kwaito to qqom through to amapiano.

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