Directors: Punk arrived in South Africa at the same time as the Soweto Uprising Punk In Africa is a documentary film that examines the punk movement’s emergence in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The film contends that the punk subculture represented “a genuinely multi-racial, radical impulse, set against political struggle, economic hardship and even civil war”. Co-directors Deon Maas and
Directors: Punk arrived in South Africa at the same time as the Soweto Uprising
Punk In Africa is a documentary film that examines the punk movement’s emergence in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The film contends that the punk subculture represented “a genuinely multi-racial, radical impulse, set against political struggle, economic hardship and even civil war”. Co-directors Deon Maas and Keith Jones spoke to Rolling Stone about the film’s revelations and concerns:
“Punk in Africa” is a potentially romantic concept to some, and a problematic one to others. Let’s start by asking what the film itself encompasses and investigates in respect of culture in Africa…
The film deals with the history of alternative music in three Southern African countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique) set against the political and social upheavals in the region from the early 70’s to the present day.
… and then what the term “Punk in Africa” translates to sociolinguistically: Was it – could it have been – about the same kinds of “revolutionary ideas” that we’ve traditionally associated with punk?
Punk was actually more revolutionary simply by virtue of the fact that it was taking place in Africa. In the Western world punk was perhaps revolutionary as a fashion statement and an independent philosophy rather than an actual engagement with revolution. But in countries that suffered under repressive regimes, not only in Africa, but also places like Brazil and communist Europe, the spirit of punk itself becomes a de facto statement of political protest. Nobody got tear gassed or detained in the Western world’s punk scene. In other places they did.
Punk – at least according to a general understanding of 70s social culture – was largely informed by economic and social anomalies in the UK, US and Europe. How did these notions reflect in an African idea of Punk?
Punk started in the US first in Detroit as a response to post-riot inner city social deterioration (via the MC5, Stooges and the first black punk group, Death). Later the scene in New York around The Ramones and CBGB’s was a direct response to disillusionment with the counter-culture and the overall situation in post-Vietnam War America.
Social and class ramifications around punk only surfaced later in the UK, where the phenomenon also heavily encompassed local Irish and Jamaican immigrant populations. When the punk movement emerged in Southern Africa not long thereafter, people in the scene largely identified themselves to some degree in opposition to the apartheid and colonial policies of the time. There is a line of social engagement that runs through this entire movement but which was always expressed differently in every individual context. Therefore in Africa it dealt with uniquely African problems and evolved into an expression of multi-cultural African identity.
Aesthetically, what were some of the interesting aspects of Punk emerging in Africa as opposed to its US or Euro incarnation? Look, sound, etc, specifically.
For us the main criteria to include and examine certain bands in more depth was their strong connection to African identity, whether through their lyrical content, their visual style or in elements of their music. Bands like National Wake were mixing punk rock, reggae, township funk and African percussion in their sound as early as the late 70s, which was also reflected in the visual presentation. Kalahari Surfers had very strong African imagery and used Shangaan basslines and cut-ups of South African political speeches as a form of agit-prop in post-punk music.
The Genuines combined traditional goema rhythms with punk, something that Hog Hoggidy Hog also picked up on later. And all of the Mozambican and Zimbabwean artists we interviewed were influenced by indigenous music to some degree, often very strongly. Today bands like Sibling Rivalry and Fruits and Veg out of Durban or Swivel Foot from Johannesburg work with African guitar styles, something first attempted by Gay Marines back in the mid-80s. In terms of the visual style, punk always worked with local elements everywhere it occurred, and in Africa that meant a strong use of recognisable local styles, whether ironically as in the case of Safari Suits or overtly and proudly African as with many bands from National Wake to Teboho Maidza from The Rudimentals.
Is it unfair then to feel that Punk was merely an inherited or “imported” concept as far as Africa was concerned?
Punk arrived in South Africa at the same time as the Soweto Uprising and the spirit of both was immediately assimilated by bands like National Wake, who were active in Johannesburg and Soweto circa 1980. National Wake was in fact a peer (not an imitator) of bands like The Clash and The Specials because they happened at the same time and were influenced by the same cultural roots and political concerns. It was actually the banning and police harassment by the apartheid government of National Wake that caused their demise, and as a result they are not as well known as other bands today. Later a group like The Genuines made their music even more South African by mixing goema with punk. Like hip-hop much later, punk took on an identity of it’s own in every territory that it was picked up on.
In terms of the people you spoke to in researching the film, what were the feelings surrounding where punk went, from the time of its emergence in Africa to the present?
One of the things we discovered was that many people on the punk scene today had very little knowledge of the history of the music and subculture in the local context – for example we were asked on one shoot in a club if we were also going to include “really old bands” such as Hog Hoggidy Hog or Fuzigish.
For many of the originators, they had moved so far away from that scene or in some cases even away from South Africa or Mozambique that it was a real discovery for them to find out through the film that similar bands and scenes exist today very much in keeping with what they were doing in the 70s and 80s. For us to connect that narrative into one untold story was very important.
Finally, the film focuses on Southern Africa – which by and large includes South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – were the experiences of Punk essentially different from country to country?
The three countries share a common history because they were the last bastions of colonialism in Africa. While the rest of Africa became independent and the Western world had an interest in the political aspects of 1960s counter-culture, all of that bypassed Southern Africa. What was different from country to country was that punk and the DIY aesthetic became attractive to independently minded people at different points in time when it was needed, as punk as a movement usually happens when it is needed. In South Africa this went hand in hand with the anti-apartheid movement in the Eighties. Mozambique went through it in the nineties with the end of decades of civil war, while Zimbabwe is going through it at the moment as a response to the conditions there.
Punk in Africa will have its first South African screenings at the Labia Cinema on Orange in Cape Town on 17th January and the Bioscope in Johannesburg from 20-27 January 2012.