Maverick Life


The digital tool that ushered in the bubblegum music era

The digital tool that ushered in the bubblegum music era
In the early 1980s, Yamaha Corporation released the Yamaha DX7, the first digital synthesiser, which went on to revolutionise how music was made globally. Image: Flickr/ Benjamin Dehli / Dehli Musikk

A nostalgic look at South African bubblegum music, the digital synthesiser that made it possible, and whether the genre still has its fingerprints on the country’s contemporary music. 

In the early 1980s, Yamaha Corporation, a Japan-based manufacturing company released the Yamaha DX7, the first digital synthesiser, which went on to revolutionise how music was made globally. 

The DX7, produced a rainbow of sounds, from percussive, metallic and acoustic sonics which became synonymous with bubblegum music — a genre of rock & roll and pop music whose origins can be traced back to the late 1960s in the United States. 

Besides what it could do, it also gave a lot of power to music producers and engineers, who could solely create various sounds.  This created a breakaway from needing a band in the studio in order to create music — it was now about the synthesiser, the drum machine, a singer, a producer who made records that we now love, explains DJ Okapi aka Dave Durbach, founder of Afro-Synth — which initially started as a blog focused on South African bubblegum and kwaito music, and later grew into a vinyl store in Maboneng, which now operates solely as a distribution record label. 

Fast forward to the present, the DX7 is still making waves in the music industry, creating tunes that delight our eardrums. However, even though the synthesiser managed to gain prominence in contemporary music, bubblegum has not experienced the same luck. 

The proliferation of bubblegum music in South Africa

Dave explains that he started collecting vinyl music as a student in the early 2000s. He collected all kinds of music, including South African bubblegum, of which there were a few pressings circulating at the time. He continued to dig crates and found South African bubblegum music, but the information on these artists was either not there or there was too little of it. 

Thankfully, it was during the boom of the era, and people used blogs to pen down their interests or share information with others — and with Durbach — that he created Afro-Synth, which summarised information of bubblegum artists while other posts involved interviews with the musicians. 

Those who were willing to read and be educated found out about the music he had discovered. The information on the blog goes as far back as the 1970s — and there is a plethora of musicians that made bubblegum music. Pockets of information about Potchefstroom soulman Sackey,  Eric Mbeko, who released Party Time, vocal group Elegance, which released, Waiting for you in 1987, Fly Cherry Fly by Captain Moses released in 1985, can be found on the blog. 

Eric D ‘Party Time’. Image: Flickr

Afla Sackey & Afrik Bawantu. Image: Lisa Aissaoui / Flickr

Afla Sackey & Afrik Bawantu. Image: Lisa Aissaoui / Flickr

Afla Sackey & Afrik Bawantu. Image: Lisa Aissaoui / Flickr

Afla Sackey & Afrik Bawantu. Image: Lisa Aissaoui / Flickr

Chicco Twala. Image: Duif du Toit / Gallo Images

Chicco Twala. Image: Duif du Toit / Gallo Images

The change in how music was made, enabled a proliferation of new music. There was so much music being churned out and not all of it was good, explains Durbach. A lot of it is mediocre or just derivative of something else; you find people trying to sound like Chico or Brenda Fassie, he continued.

Even though he tried to bridge the gap between the music and the information that existed — knowledge about the plethora of various artists that existed in that era is still scanty. One of the reasons could be because of how the genre was perceived at the time. This is in spite of the internet and recent platforms such as Discogs that bring information to the fore.

Bubblegum music was seen as disposable 

Although South African bubblegum music is different from the pop genre it draws its inspiration from — it still had catchy choruses and buoyant beats. Other local musicians managed to make the genre their own by perfectly blending it with South African culture. It was still “bubblegum”  and the consensus of that time about the genre implied that “the music is disposable, sweet, quick to last”, but it quickly loses its flavour and you have to replace it with something else, explains Durbach.

Cultural theorist, Bongani Madondo, echoing Durbach, explains that he came across the name in reference to quickly disposable Western dance music from the mid-1960s to about the late 1980s. 

Therefore in both European and American charts, Abba, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, and The Bee Gees, for example, would qualify as bubblegum. “Here it referred to township pop starting from the early 1970s”, he says.

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“As for the music style, I don’t think there’s a specific neat entrance and exit point for Black music,” explains Madondo, arguing against the music being disposable. “Black culture music is not a tool of record labels and the media’s marketing and sales departments but an expression of various aspects of our daily lives, desires, hopes and sense of play”. 

Madondo explained that what you refer to as “bubblegum” is, to him, “a high technology version of mbaqanga, late 1960s township soul music, and late 1970s South African interpretation of disco music. It’s an indefinably powerful mash of all those urban, Black sonic traditions”.

Even though his sentiments are true, existing under the veil of capitalism means that your talents are commodified — and those who could not be commodified were thrust out of the spotlight with nothing but their talents. 

Just like art imitates real life, the 1980s was the perfect decade for the music’s impact politically and culturally because it was probably the most repressive era, he postulates.

Madondo says that because of the state of emergency and constant banning of artists of all kinds, bubblegum found a cryptic and no less super-groovy way of talking back to the system, he explains that it was also a genre that was reflective of the times.

“Fun can be deeply political. And artists such as Condry Ziqubu, Chicco, Harari,  Yvonne, Brenda, Steve Kekana, PJ Powers, Kamazoo, Splash, Tashif Kente, and so on created bold music that spoke to the Black working class and other economic levers’ aspirations and dreams. What’s more political than that?”, says Madondo.

Just like Alice Walker’s quote: “Hard times require furious dancing. Each of us is proof,” the music certainly helped people to thrive. 

April 2001. Brenda Fassie, well known South African singer in Mmabatho for Miss Malaika. Image: Daily Sun / Sipho Maluka

Brenda Fassie, well known South African singer in Mmabatho for Miss Malaika. Image: Daily Sun / Sipho Maluka

Bubblegum music quickly fades away

However, just like its name, it seems like the genre did not have the staying power to allow it to have a presence in South African contemporary music. Unlike South African jazz and kwaito, which found their footing in the country’s contemporary music, bubblegum seems to be a thing of the past. Durbach explains that jazz music is timeless and it evolves while “various pop genres, they die”. The root genre, pop music will always be, but the various subgenres come and go very quickly.  

Despite the fact that it sold very well, some people still looked down on it, explains Durbach, adding that with the changes that came into South Africa in the early 1990s, politically, socially, also technologically, it closed the door to bubblegum and new music like Kwaito – hip hop came after that. He notes that as South Africa gained its independence, there was so much music and exciting music that was coming out in the 1990s.  

“Things don’t stay the same, that is the only thing that is true in music. Things are always evolving, and the closer or commercial you are and the quicker it disappears as well — and I think that is what happened to bubblegum “, he says.  

Madondo also agrees that a huge chunk of the recorded music did not make it to the radio chats and television features. But it happens in all kinds of music. When asked about the staying power of the genre, Madondo says: “From the mid-1970s to its current influence in all kinds of Black pop…that’s close to 50 years of impact and you claim it lacked longevity?”

Bubblegum music lives on

The heart of “bubblegum” is in all subsequent Mzansi musical styles from the 1990s on, says Madondo. “Just listen to that AmaPiano track Paris, or the stuff Young Stunna and fellow acts feature in and out of: it’s bubblegum, it’s mbaqanga, it’s kwaito!”

One thing to remember is that there is no specific sound that defines bubblegum other than perhaps how producers and engineers as well as arrangers understood about the pace of the song’s beat per minute, tempo in non-musical terms. The heart of the music is made of synthesisers, keyboards, electric guitars, computerised bass, some producers used Moog, and all kinds of studio chicanery. 

The sound created at that time was on par if not ahead of the pack of global techno-pop: “It was futuristic, it was ahead of the game by 30 years. That is why its imprints are in all the popular styles created today”, he says, from Cassper Nyovest and Riky Rick, Big Zulu’s mbaqanga boastful raps to AmaPiano, house, AfroPop, and everything coming out there. DM/ML


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  • Linden Birns says:

    Great article! However, synthesisers and synth-pop predate the Yamaha DX7. Moog, Roland, Korg, Oberheim and Sequential Circuits developed the first generation of powerful analogue polyphonic (one could play piano-style chords or multiple notes at the same time) synths that allowed users to invent their own sounds. The DX7’s advantage was its affordable price, portability and use of digital frequency modulation (FM). The latter provided some brighter acoustic sound simulations. But it was complex to programme so most users relied on its factory pre-set sound patches.

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