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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Record store owner keeps the soundtrack of ‘bubblegum pop’ playing

Afrosynth Records is a vinyl shop in Johannesburg that specializes in South African music, including bubblegum pop. PHOTO: The Hawk

Johannesburg, South Africa — In a small red brick building at the end of an alley, a door opens to a room crammed with records. Light filters through the windows, shining on shelves along the walls packed with vinyl, leaving space for nothing other than a record player, two speakers and a narrow walking area for customers to browse the record collection.

This is the home of Afrosynth Records, a vinyl shop, record label and internet blog that specializes in South African music. It is located in the Maboneng Precinct, a redeveloped district located on the eastern edge of Johannesburg that has numerous art galleries, studios, restaurants, coffee shops and bars. 

David Durbach, whose stage name is “DJ Okapi,” owns Afrosynth. He is also a record collector, a DJ and journalist originally from Cape Town. He grew up on the sounds of American music that local radio stations played, gravitating toward American soul and funk. What he was listening to, what was widely available to him, prompted many questions about music.

“Why was American music more familiar to me than local music?” Durbach said. “That was on the backburner of my mind.”

While still in high school, Durbach started seeking out South African music, mainly vinyl records. The more he absorbed himself in local music, the more he began to understand its importance, especially during the apartheid area.

Music was central to the struggle [against] apartheid,” Durbach said. “Politics were so restricted due to jailing. Musicians had to step up in their place because they were the only black South Africans that had the ability to move around the country freely and speak to a wide audience. Musicians were not just entertainers. They were political messengers, political educators and really at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid.”

David Durbach, founder and owner of Afrosynth Records, was a teenager when he began wondering why he was hearing American music on local radio stations, not South African music. PHOTO: The Hawk

One of the local music types that Afrosynth specializes in is bubblegum pop, similar to American pop styles popular during the 60s and 80, but with a uniquely South African flavor. The 1980s were a time of extreme political oppression by the apartheid state in South Africa, but also of increasing resistance against the regime. 

In their book, “Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth: The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop from the Banana Splits to Britney Spears,” Kim Cooper and David Smay write that bubblegum music in the United States was seen as mass-produced one-hit wonders whose catchy tunes were meant to appeal to teenagers. The word bubblegum was used to suggest that the music did not have much substance or creativity. 

But in South Africa, according to Durbach, popular bubblegum pop artists like Don Laka, Sello “Chicco” Twala and Benda Fassie used their music as a platform to challenge apartheid. 

“There is a massive amount of political relevance hidden slightly under the surface in metaphors or in melodies,” Durbach said. “There was extreme censorship at the time, so pop artists didn’t have the freedom to disagree or say apartheid was bad. They had to veil those messages.”

In 1987 Chicco wrote and released a song titled “We miss you Manelow.” The music video tells the story of parents missing their daughter Manelo, who left home because of her pregnancy. The refrain, “we miss you Manelo,” was understood to be “we miss you Mandela.” Nelson Mandela, who would become the first post-apartheid democratically elected black president, was imprisoned during this time, and even publishing his name could lead to arrest. 

According to Richard Nwamba, a South African music historian and host of This is Africa on Radio 702, Brenda Fassie brought the genre’s political messages to the forefront. One of her most famous “struggle” songs was called “Black President,” released in 1990. 

“[It] struck a chord with the people because suddenly bubblegum music began to deviate, go into politics,” Nwamba said. “That’s when it started to get support. It encouraged other local musicians to start addressing the issues of apartheid.”  

Durbach’s mission is to preserve the bubblegum genre because as the 1980s came to a close, so did bubblegum. Through his record store and blog, Durbach said he wants to give people the opportunity to have access to, listen to and learn about bubblegum music.  

“As we work together to get South African music on the market, it’s becoming less of a niche,” Durbach said. “People are realizing that [it] has a unique power, especially in dance music, something that can be appreciated all over the world.”

In the 1980s vinyl was the dominant format for listening to music. So, especially for lesser known artists, getting bubblegum pop back on the market means selling the old records, or pressing new ones. Vinyl’s current comeback in South Africa and abroad is helping this revival.

“I can safely say that vinyl is making a comeback,” said Ryan Cannon, a 24-year-old DJ who has worked at Afrosynth for the past two years. “It’s not a scenario where record stores are filled with old men. I can attest because I work behind the counter. Sometimes we’ll have a young boy, 17 or 18, in the jazz section. We’ll have older people looking for disco music here. Vinyl is different now.”

Ryan Cannon, a 24-year-old DJ who has worked at Afrosynth for the past two years, said vinyl’s comeback in South Africa is helping to sell bubblegum pop records. PHOTO: The Hawk

Durbach said he assumed locals would show a demand for South African music when he opened Afrosynth in 2016. After a while he realized that South Africans could be made more aware of local music, especially locally-produced music from the 1970s and 1980s. 

“It’s a myth to think that apartheid stopped after 1994, but in a musical sense it stopped slightly before,” Durbach said. “People realized that music is how we can learn about different cultures and backgrounds, we can all party together through music, and that’s what can actually create the political change.”

Ntombi Ndaba, Durbach’s favorite artist, is an ambassador of the old-style sounds. Ndaba was popular in the mid 1980s but disappeared from the spotlight by the early 1990s after her manager died. Durbach was so inspired by Ndaba’s music that he tracked her down to a small community in the Free State, where he found her living in difficult conditions. After some convincing by Durbach, Ndaba ended up releasing a compilation EP entitled “Tomorrow” in April 2018.

“The lyrical content [in her songs] were sophisticated and reflective,” Durbach said. “The production and arrangements were amazing as well.” 

Durbach added bubblegum pop is a soundtrack to South African identity that needs to be heard.

“It has to be somewhere,” Durbach said. “It’s the history of our country. That’s something that inspired me to say let’s keep this music alive. For this to just disappear would be a major loss.”

Sandile Bhengu, whose stage name is Sandy B, is a Kwaito music artist who Durbach works with through Afrosynth’s label. Kwaito is a music form that originated in the black townships of South Africa in the 1990s. Its creators drew inspiration from hip-hop, dub, jazz and house, but were heavily influenced by bubblegum disco stars like Chicco Twala and Brenda Fassie. 

Musician Sandile Bhengu, whose stage name is Sandy B, said he is happy to be an “ambassador” of music that is deeply rooted in South African history. PHOTO: Sarah Harwick ’21

Bhengu’s most known album is his debut, “Amajovi Jovi,” released in 1995. His most recent album, “Qhum Qhaks,” was released in March 2019. 

Bhengu said he thinks modern South African musicians have veered far away from local sounds, and he wants to bring back the 90s kwaito sound.   

“South Africans need to know that they have a good sound that the world needs to hear,”  Bhengu said. “Bubblegum and old school Kwaito, people need to be aware that we have something unique. I’m happy that I’m one of the ambassadors, trying to make sure the world is hearing more of our sound.”

Follow this link to listen to 1980’s and 90’s South African Pop music on Spotify.

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