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Kalahari Surfers

One Party State

by Dave Durbach / 11.11.2010

Almost two decades since the fall of apartheid, realists feel increasingly compelled to ask: how far have we really come? Segregation, racial tension and xenophobia are still everyday occurrences. We see rampant capitalism in the face of widespread poverty, while dissenters are painted as uncle toms or the rooi gevaar. The threat of state-imposed media restrictions looms overhead. Hatespeech is condoned. The opposition is toothless. One might say we’re living in a de facto one-party state, and the warning bells are ringing.

Because of this, the Kalahari Surfers’ new album One Party State signals a return to the outspoken politics of their apartheid-era heyday. In their first album since 2007’s Panga Management, the Surfers take potshots at the powers that be using their weapons of choice – layers of warbling synths, morphed vocal samples, vintage African Dope breakbeats and some tasteful live instrumentation.

For the uninitiated, when it comes to electronic music in SA, no one has been doing it for longer, nor had half the impact, than Warrick Sony’s musical alter-ego. One listen and you’ll hear why. Unlike 99% of electronic music, this demands your constant attention.

The Surfers’ technique of using found recordings from political speeches and TV soundbytes instead of conventional recorded vocals is a satirical masterstroke that never grows stale. “A New Kind of Leader” tells of a straight-talking “man of the people” over an ominous soundscape. “Gathering Data” slows down words to exacerbate the voice of yuppie do-gooder arrogance (“We took four wheel drives on the worst roads imaaaagineable”) and “Play around with the Buttons” carries TV studio backchat between producer and cameraman during Nelson Mandela’s historic speech following his release. This classic Surfers method to subvert authority hearkens back to the mid-80s, when Sony managed to get a government official to admit, “I want to state it categorically: this government is a tool,” on one of the Surfers’ biggest early hits, “Township Beat”.

Kalahari Surfers

Kalahari Surfers outside Victor Verster Prison waiting for Mandela to be released

Other tracks on the new album employ long-time collaborator and spoken word artist Lesego Rampolokeng – “Blackness and Light”, “Child Soldier” (with the lyric “the red in the carpet is ours”), “In Transition”, and “Minority Report”, a homage to white middle class paranoia.

Unlike your typical bedroom producer’s tracks with meaninglessly obtuse song titles, the Surfers always choose (or recycle) their words wisely. The title track cuts political rallying cries and police radio-speak over groundshaking bass synths and anthemic strings. “Youth League” superimposes military drill chants over sporadic fits of d ‘n b. Elsewhere, titles like “Every Eventuality” (“look on the bright side…”) and “Intimidasie”, with its manic synth solo, speak for themselves.

A dark moodiness prevails throughout and seldom relents, the only exceptions being “Relax”, “Straight to the Hips” and “Fish Effect”, with its slowed down dubstep beat the most catchy, danceable track on the album.

In terms of influences, “Parts of Northern Natal” lifts the wobbly ultrabass of Roots Manuva, while the guitar-driven “Frontiers of Madness” channels Tricky circa Maxinquaye, courtesy of vocals by Durban singer Sarah Jane Mary Hills. Elsewhere one can pick up the usual African Dope suspects – Felix Laband on album opener “Blackness and Light” or Mix and Blend on “Cutting Yourself”.

Mzansi’s first and foremost alternative electronic act has raised the bar again. Fans of conscious, genre-defying breakbeats can’t afford to miss out.

*For more on Meneer Sony, check out his ode to Jozi and “Born under Punches” in Mahala 1.

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