Earlier today, I dropped by the Smithsonian Museum of African Art to check out a documentary on Punk music in southern Africa. In early 2012, I saw one of my favorite African films courtesy of the museum, so I was optimistic about this film, despite lacking interest in the genre of music it explored. The Museum, like so much of the world right now, is paying tribute to Mandela, and I was greeted by his image as I entered the building. Meanwhile, the film, Punk in Africa, looks at the development of that genre in South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe from the 1970s to the present. The producer of the film, Jeffrey Brown was on hand to engage in Q&A and one of the protagonists gave a brief live performance.
Like almost all coverage of the region, the South African portion of the film dominated. Punk in Africa combined interesting stock footage with interviews of now middle-aged rockers reminiscing about their heydays (the 1970s and 80s) and walking through the streets of South African cities (Joburg, Cape Town, Durban – the epicenter of the punk scene, and Pretoria) remembering their old haunts. The film showed us older South African bands like National Wake and Kalahari Surfers and newer ones like Hog Hoggidy Hog. Particularly interesting notes were when one rocker spoke of the beauty of spontaneity vs. systems and another noted that South African censors refused to use the word ‘desirable’, employing ‘not undesirable’ instead.
One questioner noted the absence of women in the documentary. However, I was struck by the extent to which white rockers dominated the film. A central theme of the movie was that punk emerged as an outlet for youth (of all races) frustrated with the rigid social mores of Apartheid South Africa. However, I suspect that whites were the primary driving force behind this scene and that in a 80 minute film, it is difficult to hit all of the politically correct notes. And what the modern footage missed, the archival footage covered as it prominently showed interracial crowds and the music itself had a stronger ska/African influence that I would have imagined. Ultimately, as the Producer notes, ‘it’s a history of southern Africa with a cool soundtrack.’
The more curious decision was the inclusion of very brief forays into the punk scene in Maputo, Mozambique (with two fluent English speakers) and Harare, Zimbabwe. While it detracted from further drawing out the South African punk scene, this allowed for very interesting insights on contemporary interracial bands; one being Evicted, in Harare, a group with heavy white representation. One mixed race member spoke of his family losing their farm during Zimbabwe’s land invasions.
Following the screening of the film (which had great attendance), Ivan Kadey of National Wake, who immigrated to the US in the mid-1980s rocked out with several songs, including one about Amsterdam being the beginning of the story of the white man in Africa. Kadey’s drummer, who was involved in the Soweto uprising of 1976, ended the night with a moment of silence for Nelson Mandela.