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Culture, Music

Apartheid Almost Killed the Video Star

by Dave Durbach / 22.02.2010

Without snazzy videos to distract from their tunes, what are the chances of Die Antwoord being met with anything other than confusion? As a commercial art form, music videos in South Africa have always been something of an anomaly. From the midnight broadcasts on SABC TV, to the dedicated local platforms of Channel O, through to MTV Base and MK, they’ve always served a purpose, but there’s never been any money in it. In SA, the era of the big budget music videos was a non-event, except for of a handful of Kwaito pool parties and major label rock acts. Now, as money slowly drains from the music industry and the music itself grows ever more entrenched on PCs, the tendency for slick, DIY videos has become the international norm. In SA, this has pretty much always been the case.

The roots of low-budget music video-making in this country go back several decades, tied closely to the peculiar history of television here, and the general state of repression within the arts. When TV finally came to South Africa in 1976, long after most of the rest of the world, the country was well on its way to military dictatorship – its rulers whipped into a Calvinist froth by a mounting pressure at home and abroad. Apparently failing to consider its potential for further brainwashing the public, Apartheid cronies were scared that TV would stir the potjie – by exposing segregated South Africans to images of each other, and to international examples of racial equality, communism and other kinds of immorality.

Nevertheless, TV did eventually arrive, where it remained for the next ten years under an SABC monopoly. Those intent on making music videos back then faced numerous challenges, including censorship and limited budgets (for expensive technology). Nevertheless, some classic music videos emerged out of the decade, ones that are worth checking out today. When life gives you lemons, the adage goes, make lemonade. But when you’ve given mielie meal, make something else…

Yvonne Chaka Chaka – ‘Umqombothi’

Perhaps the most influential person in the local music video industry at that time was producer Pam Devereux-Harris. As part of Sky Productions, and later with her own company, she churned out as many as ten videos a month, usually on next to no money. “We’d shoot for one day,” she remembers. “We’d only have budgets for one day. We’d have maybe four location changes. We’d start like at 4 in the morning, and sometimes finish at 4 the next morning. We worked very hard, extremely hard. But if you look at a lot of things now – a lot of the art direction, styling, it’s not too shabby.”

For a decade, Devereux-Harris was the first name in local music videos. “There were other people making music videos, but I think that we had the market. We had very good directors. They’ve all become now very famous commercial directors. And we had very good editors, art directors, and stylists. We put the money where it was meant to be.”

Brenda & the Big Dudes ‘Touch Somebody’

Productions were funded by the artist’s label, with the SABC the only prospective client. Agreements were often reached beforehand to ensure airplay. “We’d go and have a meeting with the record company, and hopefully the artist would be there. You’d get their ideas, and the director and myself would go and we’d storyboard it. We’d come up with the concept, go back to the record company and the artist, give them the concept, and they would say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’.”

Storylines differed according to budget and the artist’s input, ranging from linear narratives to more abstract, visual approaches. “A lot of the artists wanted everything to be very literal,” she explains, “but because of the budget, we’d almost conceptualize them to make them fit into what we could do.”

Censorship was a constant consideration. “All the lyrics had to be approved by the SABC, before we could make the music video.” With the SABC’s media monopoly, artists who didn’t get onto radio wouldn’t sell albums. Getting past the censors was therefore imperative. “In those days, artists used to change their lyrics,” says Devereux-Harris, “like Chicco doing ‘We Miss You Manelo’. When we made that music video, it wasn’t anything to do with Mandela. It was about this poor young girl that was leaving her home because her father kicked her out because she was pregnant. But that’s how it got onto air. There were lots of songs like that.”

Chicco – ‘Miss you Manelo’

Later, expanded budgets meant greater creative freedom and better results. “The first big video we did was Chicco’s ‘Soldier’,” she remembers. “That was a big budget in its day.”

Chicco – ‘Soldier’

Looking back on these videos now, some seem fairly laughable by today’s standards. The cultural boycott played a large part in stifling creative output. “I don’t think they were up to (international) standard at all,” admits Devereux-Harris. “And there was no platform for them then. MTV would never play them.” Nevertheless, they kept people entertained.

Videos were more than an afterthought, however. Like radio, videos played a vital part in promoting artists and selling albums. Phil Hollis of Dephon Records was the brains behind successful bubblegum names like Chicco and Yvonne, as well proto-kwaito acts like Senyaka and Spokes H. “Pam did all the videos for me” he recalls. “That’s what sold all my stuff, was the videos.”

Yvonne Chaka Chaka – ‘I’m in love with a DJ’

Filming in townships in the 80s posed its own challenges. “We did a lot of Brenda’s videos,” says Devereux-Harris, recalling one particular instance. “We were filming in Soweto. When we were shooting ‘Bongani’, shooting in this little house. Ratels [something like Casspirs] were coming past, and all the neighbours were saying, ‘put your lights off’. We would wait until the Ratels went past, and then we carried on shooting.”

From those days till now, South Africans have proved to be adept at making low-budget, high-quality music videos – proof that no matter what the circumstances, in the right hands, a little creativity can go a long way.

* Some more homegrown music videos from the 1980s:

Brenda & the big dudes ‘Weekend special’

Falling Mirror – ‘Johnny Calls the Chemist’

Lucky Dube – ‘Prisoner’

More 80s videos and music available here.

Opening Image © and courtesy Sean Metelerkamp.
*Sean Metelerkamp shoots stills & directs music videos, commercials & short films. He is represented by Harry & Co.

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