By Dan Magaziner*
South Africa’s 1970s are rightly remembered as a time of rising militancy. From the universities to the docks to the schools–the decade saw the rise of Black Consciousness and Steve Biko’s calls for a radical reorientation of black culture towards the struggle for political and mental liberation. We curate our memorials to that decade with raised right fists and confrontations between uniformed students and uniformed police. But by choosing to title his column in the SASO Newsletter, “I Write What I Like,” Biko called above all else for unapologetically creative responses to the tensions of the moment. Black South Africans answered this call in a variety of ways, some stridently political, others defiantly original. Oswald Mtshali, Mongane Wally Serote and others answered his call in words; Dan Rakgoathe, Winston Saoli, Louis Maqhubela and others on canvas. Batsumi answered with a cascade of sound.
Founded in Soweto in 1972, in 1974 Batsumi recorded an album that will be re-released later this week by Matsuli Music. The music is stunning, from the moment the album opens with Zulu Bidi’s searching bass, and expands to include horns, flute, what sounds like a didgeridoo, drums, voices and Johnny Mothopeng’s guitar. This is the past, reaching out to the present to remind us that we still don’t understand. Today Biko and Black Consciousness’s legacy as a political movement is contested and debated, invoked across the political spectrum and twisted to fit present-day concerns. But Batsumi is closer to the truth of that moment. This music doesn’t preach, it doesn’t declaim, it doesn’t sloganize – but it also doesn’t offer flee from the radical demands of its present. Indeed, although these tracks are not stridently political they are by no means escapist fare, suitable for shuffling dance steps at late night shebeens. Take the third track, “Mamshanyana.” It opens with Mothopeng’s acoustic guitar, the spare, patient twang of which could not be more different than the township jazz sounds we associate with this time period. (The amazing quality of this remaster is most apparent here, incidentally – you can literally hear the subtle reverb of the strings.) Drums, bass and organ, join, come together, voices crest, flute and sax echo. As it builds, it swings, coalescing into a uniquely compelling statement of intent. By the time and sax and flute solo over organ, bass and drums, Batsumi has got you.
And that’s precisely the point. They have you nodding along in the same way that people respond to an accurate rendering of some richly remembered past. (Albeit with considerably more rhythm than that which attends to most story-telling.) It’s fairly easy to see Batsumi in your minds eye – the township practice sessions, the clothes, the conversations – at the risk of cliché, you can practically smell the incense. But when they start to blow, or jam, or pound or chant, there’s an abandon that demands our attention – the compulsion to express oneself, at a time when self-expression was radical and political in and of itself. Batsumi didn’t need to respond to protests or apartheid or Bantu Education to be revolutionary. It just was, without ideology or partisan squabbling, no program necessary. That Johnny Mothopeng was the son of imprisoned PAC president Zephania Mothopeng is incidental; he played a mean guitar. His band played what they liked and what they played kicked ass. This was black consciousness, this was the 1970s. This was revolution.
The album can be previewed and pre-ordered here.
* Dan Magaziner, an assistant professor of history at Yale University, is the author of The Law and the Prophets, an intellectual history of South Africa between 1968 and 1977. The US edition can be ordered here; the South African edition here.