Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Shifty September: celebrating a unique guerrilla musical legacy

Shifty September: celebrating a unique guerrilla musical legacy

In the early 1980s, a small graphic of a caravan parked on a vinyl record was the logo of the pioneering, independent record label, Shifty. It came to represent the musical hopes and dreams of a generation of South Africans. Thirty years later the Shifty September Festival, culminating in a concert on September 24, will pay homage to a remarkable generation of musical activists and those who recorded them. By MARIANNE THAMM.

“New morning, new morning
Old ways get away
But here in my cradle
I lie incapable
I’m a white boy who looked at his life gathered in his hands
And saw it was all due to the sweat of some other man
That one who got shot down in the street”

– James Phillips – Shot Down in the Street, 1984 –

It was the worst of times politically but musically, it was the best of times. In the early 1980s, as bombs exploded in cities and rebellion reached fever pitch in the country’s townships, a young man with a caravan and a plan embarked literally on musical journey that ultimately resulted in a treasure trove of the best resistance music ever recorded in South Africa.

It all began around 1982 when Ivan Kadey, a guitarist with the multiracial punk band, National Wake, and a film industry freelancer, Lloyd Ross, (and later Warrick Sony from The Kalahari Surfers) saved enough money to buy an old caravan.

They transformed the vehicle into a mobile studio that, hitched to a Ford V6 truck, traveled to Lesotho – where they recorded their first bestseller album by Sankomota – an eclectic blend of jazz, kwela, reggae and soul – to Cape Town, where they captured the experimental band Happy Ships (of which Ross was a member). Over the years Shifty was to provide a lifeline to a collection of pioneering musicians who had been relegated to the outer fringes of mainstream society by rigid state control of culture, music and political and social life in the country.

Shifty was also to expose the eclectic range of musical styles in the country from Goema to Jive, from Mbaqanga to rock, from isicathamiya to choral music as well as punk and jazz – all of which was completely absent from the national soundscape.

None of the musicians recorded by the label received airplay on the country’s radio stations, which were then state-controlled. The mainstream press too mostly ignored Shifty and its catalogue of artists. To circumvent this, Ross and Sony pioneered innovative guerrilla marketing methods through newsletters sent to a subscriber base as well as the use of alternative distribution outlets, including independent book shops, clothing stores and university campuses.


It was an increasingly defiant era that culminated with the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the End Conscription Campaign. And the considerable audience (many of them young and white) for Shifty’s artists and sound were hungry and tuned into this political climate.

Shifty recorded an eclectic range of socially and politically conscious music by various bands and accomplished musicians some of whom who are today acknowledged as pioneers. These include Vusi Mahlasela, Ian Herman, the late and great James Phillips (in his various incarnations), Carl Raubenheimer, Koos Kombuis, Simba Mori, Jennifer Ferguson, Louis Mhlanga, Tony Cox, Lesego Rampolokeng, the Radio Rats, the poet Mzwakhe Mbuli and more.

It was also Shifty’s influence that sparked the VoëlVry movement, which inexorably altered the landscape of Afrikaans music and launched the careers of Ralph Rabie aka Johannes Kerkorrel and Koos Kombuis, among others.

The VoëlVry movement, as Max Du Preez, who was then editor of the cocky independent Afrikaans newspaper Vrye Weekblad, recalled “marked the end of the Afrikaner as our grandmothers knew him.”

Thirty years later the vaults of Shifty Records provide one of the most comprehensive records of the exciting and innovative music of the time. Those of you lucky enough to reside in Gauteng will be able to enjoy a series of events, including film screenings and debates, throughout this month and that make up the Shifty September festival. Screenings and panel discussions will take place at the Alliance Française in Parkview.

The first event tonight (Friday) at 6pm is a panel discussion and the screening of Robbie Thorpe’s 52-minute documentary, “Famous For Not Being Famous” on the life of the late James Phillips, undoubtedly one of this country’s most unique and finest songwriters. His untimely death in 1995 a week after he had been involved in a car crash, deprived him of the recognition he so justly deserved.

The festival will culminate in an extraordinary concert that will take place at the Bassline on Heritage Day, September 24. The concert will see many Shifty musicians reunited in a once-off nostalgic trip reflecting an extraordinary musical history. On the bill are Vusi Mahlasela, Louis Mhlanga, The Genuines, Tananas, Tony Cox, Jennifer Ferguson, Lesego Rampolokeng, Van der Want/Lecher, Jonathan Handley, Matthew van der Want, The Kerels, Urban Creep, Rian Malan and the Kalahari Surfers.

The Shifty September festival has been made possible by a variety of funders including Alliance Française, Atlantic Philanthropies (through SAHA), Southern African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO) Foundation, the National Arts Council (NAC), Business and Arts South Africa (BASA), Spier and Hilltop Live.

But the Shifty project is an ongoing one with the South African History Archive undertaking – through funds raised – to catalogue and digitise this rare and important archive that reflects the struggle through the sounds and words of the country’s musicians.

The Shifty September Festival, far from simply being a nostalgic trip down a political memory lane, is a record of the ingenuity and survival of artists under pressure – caught between a political system that would silence them and a commercial market that ignored them. They survived and outlived both. DM

The Shifty September Events Calendar:

6:30 pm – 9:00 pm-
James Phillips: Famous for not being famous
Alliance Francaise, Johannesburg Gauteng10/09/2014
6:30 am – 9:00 pm –
Voëlvry: The Legacy
Alliance Francaise, Johannesburg Gauteng12/09/2014
6:00 pm – 9:30 pm –
The Singing Clubs
Alliance Francaise, Johannesburg Gauteng17/09/2014
6:30 pm – 9:30 pm –
We’re Not In It For The Money: The economics of being different
Alliance Francaise, Johannesburg Gauteng19/09/2014
6:00 pm – 9:00 pm –
Radio Control: Musical Protest & Politics
Alliance Francaise, Johannesburg Gauteng23/09/2014
6:30 pm – 10:00 pm –
A Shifty Story: A chronological journey through the Shifty era
Alliance Francaise, Johannesburg Gauteng24/09/2014
11:00 am – 8:30 pm –
Shifty Heritage Music Festival – Viva la Différence! Bassline, Johannesburg Gauteng

Photo Main: Frank Leepa, Moss Nkofu and Maruti Selati of the Lesoto-based Sankomota, Shifty Records’ first recorded artists. (Picture Shifty Records)

Photo: The distinctive Shifty logo.

Read more:

  • Listen to a fabulous two-hour special feature with Warrick Sony on Shifty on Bush Radio’s The Wrong Rock Show


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