The resurrection of South African bubblegum pop

18 December 2016 - 02:00
By Sandiso Ngubane

Local dance music is making a mark globally creating a renewed interest in early kwaito music and other electronic subgenres that predated it

DJ Okapi, real name Dave Durbach, owns Afro-Synth Records in Maboneng Precinct in downtown Joburg.
Image: Alon Skuy DJ Okapi, real name Dave Durbach, owns Afro-Synth Records in Maboneng Precinct in downtown Joburg.

In the late '80s, before the demise of apartheid and the rise of kwaito, a young man by the name of Eddie Magwaza started producing township-centric dance music, similar to the bubblegum and disco sound associated with the likes of Brenda Fassie, Chico Twala, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Spokes H.

Recording under the name V.O., Magwaza never went mainstream, but decades later - and long after his death - his music has captured the ears of DJs around the world.

Last month, Canadian label Invisible City Editions re-issued four tracks from Magwaza's 1990 album Mashisa, cementing the popularity of this obscure recording, which has lately become a regular feature in the sets of some of the world's most influential DJs - particularly the dub version of the title track.

At a time when South African dance music is making a mark globally, there's a renewed interest in early kwaito music and other electronic subgenres that predated it.

At Afro-Synth Records in Maboneng Precinct in downtown Joburg, owner Dave Durbach, also known as DJ Okapi, shows me the original V.O. record alongside the recent re-issue. Invisible City Editions acknowledges him for having helped license the music from Magwaza's label, Music Team.

"When Invisible City announced they were doing a re-issue of V.O., Music Team had no idea their music was set to be re-issued," Durbach says. He contacted Invisible City and introduced them to the rights owner. "They put together a proper deal and signed a contract, so it's done legally."

Afro-Synth stocks a lot of the old bubblegum and African disco records, some of them re-issues and others old, unsold records still in mint condition.

Durbach also recently helped compile and license music for a compilation of South African disco on the US label Cultures of Soul. Titled Boogie Breakdown: South African Synth-Disco 1980-1984, the album hit shelves around the world in late September. He says he's working on similar projects with other labels, and is happy to assist with the licensing so that those involved get their dues.

"There's been a number of big DJs in Europe finding and playing a lot of the stuff that came before kwaito," he says. "They don't necessarily know the whole backstory or political context of the time but they know it's South African, and young people are dancing to it. The sound speaks to them."

LISTEN to a track from V.O.'s 1990 album, Mashisa


Durbach says his own interest in the early South African bubblegum and disco era has been growing over the years. Through digging for records and tracking down rights holders, he gained access to unsold, still-sealed records, many of which would've gone largely unheralded in their time. That's when he decided to go into retail, first online and more recently at his physical store.

"At the same time, guys were coming from overseas - Europe and Canada - buying up these records and reselling them, because there is growing demand for the old local stuff."

Durbach says Mashisa didn't sell back in its time, but a few copies got into the hands of international DJs and the dub version proved very popular. "The re-issue is now in stores all over the world, even though very few people in South Africa even know this album. V.O. is the most obvious example but there are many other obscure South African albums on heavy rotation around the world right now."    

In terms of the challenges in licensing music for re-issue, Durbach says many of the rights owners are hard to find or have died. "With others it's even more difficult because the original labels have been bought out by a succession of larger companies, and now the rights are sitting with a major label who might well not even know what's in the catalogue they've acquired over the years."

Some big labels, Durbach says, are just not keen on licensing their music. "It's easier dealing with the independent labels that are still run by individuals who are still alive and in Johannesburg. There are a handful of labels like that." 

The resurgence of South African bubblegum and disco comes at a time when, globally, local music is gaining traction, with many of its stars gaining popularity. Black Coffee is an obvious example, as is Nozinja, who is largely credited for the popularity of Shangaan electro, but there are other, younger producers who are setting dance floors ablaze the world over.

The Durban producer DJ Lag signed with British label Goon Club Allstars, which released a four-track EP of his last month. Others, like Rudeboyz, are also finding favour with an international dance scene fascinated by the sounds of South Africa's townships.

Durbach says: "I think when some people hear a cool Black Coffee track, for example, they become interested in finding out what came before it. There was kwaito, but some people want to go even further back."