A New Threat to S. Africa’s Musicians : Politics: Post-apartheid influx of international stars challenges the local talent, which has developed in isolation.


The opening up of South Africa’s cultural scene after long years of apartheid-inspired isolation strikes a bittersweet note for local musicians who fear being swamped by an onslaught of international competition.

They say that the end of international boycotts has attracted a parade of visiting foreign stars who formerly shunned South Africa--and increased the fight for already scarce resources and limited radio time for local music.

Musicians’ excitement over the end of censorship, the ability to return home after long years of exile and new exposure to foreign influences is often offset by what they say is a sidelining of a rich cultural heritage. Township swing jazz, for example, is often more popular abroad than at home.


Despite the fact that South African music has been in vogue in Europe and to a lesser degree in North America since the country’s historic April elections, local artists, promoters and record producers are now concerned about protecting their turf.

“We’re coming out of 30 years of cultural, political and economic isolation. South African culture has developed in an unnatural vacuum, and the standards achieved in musicianship, performance and composition have not been really tested against international competition,” South African singer Johnny Clegg says.

He adds: “Musicians are struggling with the idea and reality that they have to compete with UB40, Sting, Whitney Houston and Phil Collins. There’s a sense that we are second-class in our own country.

“We are passive cultural receivers of the American product. We are trying now to adjust this. We have to balance out the wave of cultural flooding since the boycott was lifted and the promotion of our local culture.”

Clegg, known as the “white Zulu” for his exuberant crossover music blending Western and ethnic styles, is one of the most successful South African musicians. But, like the others who have made it, such as singer Miriam Makeba and trumpet player Hugh Masekela, Clegg spends most of his time touring and selling records overseas because the market at home is not lucrative enough.

Industry sources cite, among the myriad problems, a dire lack of suitable venues to stage concerts and shows and the high costs of studio production for a public that is largely too poor to afford compact discs or cassette tapes.


For instance, in a city of 2 million people, Johannesburg has only a handful of jazz and rock clubs and cafes. Many in the erstwhile music mecca, Hillbrow, in the city center, have closed down because of a vicious crime wave and high overhead costs.

“There is a cultural inferiority complex here stemming perhaps from cultural isolation or boycotts over the years. It’s got a lot to do with the apartheid legacy. People have been afraid at stages of history to go out. Here, musicians were virtually considered criminals,” says Lloyd Ross, of Shifty Records, which produces little-known local artists abroad.

“I think it’s great that we’re finally on the international circuit and the Rolling Stones are coming next year. But radio here has to support the local industry. DJs are saying local musicians are inferior. This is untrue. There is definitely quality music here. But there has to be more money put into it,” he says.

Even on independently run or black radio stations, a listener is more likely to hear American Top 40 tunes or soul hits than local bands such as Mango Groove, Ladysmith Black Mambazo or Lucky Dube.

Musicians struggling for survival in the post-apartheid era say everything hinges on opening air time to local content--to give exposure and also shape consumer tastes. At a hearing last week, some of the country’s top musicians bluntly told the new Independent Broadcasting Authority that there had to be a quota for local music to help preserve South Africa’s unique sound.

“Our kids are learning hip-hop. They want to be Americans. And when Americans come here, they say: ‘Where is Africa? Where are the beads? Where is the music?’ ” Masekela says.


For jazz musicians like Masekela, who left the country for decades to avoid bannings and political persecution by white rulers, the return home has been difficult at times.

The joy of being reunited with old friends and family has been tempered by small earnings and audiences, nostalgia for the adopted homes they left and difficulties adjusting.

Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, better known as “Dollar Brand,” eyed with dismay the audience of only a handful of people--mostly friends--who showed up to hear a recent concert at a plush Johannesburg hotel. It was a sorry showing compared to the large turnouts at Sweet Basil, the club in New York’s Greenwich Village that he was accustomed to.

Asked how it felt to be back in South Africa, he grew contemplative. “I would need many long moments to answer that question.” After pausing, he adds: “Traumatic.”