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Unofficial History of SA Dance Culture Vol 1.

A working draft by David Robert Lewis

THIS is an unofficial history, a subordinated knowledge of dance culture, a culture which as Michel Foucault puts it, is subordinated because it is "knowledge of the delinquent" and therefore incapable of an all-encompassing unanimity.


Disco was the anthem of our parents generation. Movies like Saturday Night Fever catapulted this new club sound into the mainstream . In essence, most dance music that we hear today traces its lineage to disco and the seventies. The electric sounds that had emerged out of the late sixties had evolved from earlier renditions of dancehall favorites and attempts to play ballroom jazz and popular hits on the Hammond Organ. My earliest experience of disco music as a child, was the hit Funkytown played at garage parties in the late seventies in which synthetic beats were interspersed with ska-funk, reggae and something called two-tone or house music. With the arrival of the eighties and "new wave" a more personable electronic sound could be heard alongside alienated punk by the Violent Femmes, early rap music by Herbie Hancock and a host of strains that we associate with the decade taste forgot.

The real discotheques of the generation, known as the "baby-boomers" were lavish cocaine dens with discoballs and mirror ceilings. Pulsating lights and strobes completed the John Travalto, Saturday Night Fever effect. Places like Raffles or Charlie Parkers on Sea Point's Main Rd, would be followed by InExcess at the Ritz, Club Xenon opposite the Castle or mile-high establishments at the top of the Heerengracht, and other places of interest, unremarkable except for the affirmation of a bourgeois lifestyle that was light years away from punk, and nowhere near the house music scene we now take for granted.

While most discoclubs of the eighties played to a strict code -- a playlist dictated more by the demands of commercial radio, there were a few that stood out for their progressive attitudes. Places like Rita's below Bree St, which reproduced the London Cavern, and a queer-black crossover crowd of genuine punks, fashionistas, and new romantics (early Goths). Or the Mix in Shortmarket St, which had incorporated a German and Italian playlist.

In the absence of television, (South Africa only got hooked-up to the drug in 1976) a healthy radio culture had developed, with David Greshem's Springbok Radio Top Twenty on FM and Radio 5's Top Forty on AM. Capital Radio operated out of Port St Johns and the "independent homeland" of the Transkei with a breath of fresh-air delivering a smattering of the UK selection via shortwave, so it was up to Greshem to provide the country with what listeners considered "the official" hits of the day. As television developed, Cedric Sampson's Pop Shop on SABC's only channel 1 took over from radio, providing viewers with a subversive mix of Pink Floyd, and even Talking Heads.

Despite the disco-beat and R&B soul music that pervaded everywhere, clubs like T-Zers in Canterbury St, (not the present day strip club) played a healthy dose of punk, ska, reggae and rock music. Equally seditious Jazz in the meanwhile could be found at the Jazz Den in Sir Lowry Rd, a forerunner of Manenburgs.


WITH the State of Emergency of 1985, everything changed. Suddenly the apathy of the early eighties had been blown away, the need to integrate a more progressive crowd past the border-control separating Cape Town into different group areas had became paramount. Curbing the oppression in new ways was the motivation of live-music dance venues like Brian Weinronk's Indaba Project in Wale St, or Justin Dysell's The Base on Shortmarket, situated on the remains of the Mix. An ethnic-chic developed to counteract the overdose of disco, and bands like Benny B Funk and the Sons of Gadaffi Barmitzvah band could be heard alongside, Artvark, Jennifer Ferguson, and the Genuines.

"The Genuines played a helleveh lot there, I think they got exposed to an audience. They weren't unknowns but they were more known on the Cape Flats than in town," maintains club-owner Brian Weinronk. "I think that's where they got their break. The whole idea was to foster new talent, bands that weren't necessarily well-known but had a following."

Weinronk, a confirmed dayglo-neon eccentric, professes a philosophy based upon fusion and cross-pollination of culture. "Cultural fusion is where you get a new mass coming out of the blending of different music, different styles, world music, it creates something new. Its not just white kids dancing to black music."

While critics like Derrick Wilson of the Argus railed against white communists, smoking marijuana and mixing with blacks in an illegal ethnic fusion, Shifty Records were smuggling banned copies of the Kalahari Surfers and Peoples Poet, Mzwake Mbuli into the country. An underground radio station, Bush Radio delivered itself via tape cassette and a whole host of subversive activities developed around the transmission of anti-apartheid struggle. For instance on any given day, one might find a freedom charter T-Shirt, banned. An End Conscription Campaign poster, banned and Sex Magazines contraband and so on, all available from fleamarkets like Greenmarket Square.

With Vula Magazine, a fashionable ethnopunk monthly seemingly giving up the ghost by the late eighties, victim of a general apathy which seemed to negate our attempts to build a cross-over culture, an integrated future free of coercion, there were other projects like ADA magazine, City Late, Indlovu, and Kagenna, of which I was an integral part.


THE first signs of Acid House in the South African youthscape began to appear during 1988 after the earlier English "Summer of Love '87". This new imported sound from England's capital, London, complete with trippy fractal gear, bandannas and smiley faces, at first aroused only the interest of the elite, fashion community of Cape Town. The very first pre-Rave "acid house" event for example, was organised by Nick Wittenburg and others, and was held in the basement of Rita's. I remember being at first astonished by the seeming inanity of it all. Then I realised the models were actually getting down and dancing. A squelching sexual noise came out of the speakers, followed by a repetitive schreek. Yes, now I get it. This was like Barbarellas first birthday party and the disco-bunnies had turned into space-cadets.

But like all things, this progression from disco was merely a hint at what was to come and its impact on club-life although minimal, kept the bass line bubbling.

At the time the Equity ban and cultural boycott gainst the Apartheid regime was peaking in the United Kingdom and South African's isolation was all but complete. While white youths were struggling to come to terms with isolation, and the ethnic-chic that had pervaded the Base and Indaba Projects was being written off as nothing more than hippie inspired, lefty "ethno-bongo". The second wave of a more militant American Hip Hop culture arrived in Africa. While earlier forays had been sanitised by "white folk" like Malcom Maclaren and Michael Jackson, this new wave carried none of the self-conscious pretension that had seemingly mocked its roots in Africa.

The new rap-style hit the ghettos and suburbs housing Cape Towns so-called "coloured" mixed race communities like the bassline from a 909. And fell onto an ethnic overload searching for a more progressive sound. Curiously the main site of hip hop expansion was none other than the self-same African-crossover venue The Base, famed for promoting live music in the city centre. Here Saturday afternoons were filled with rap groups practising and performing to an ever increasing and more diverse crowd. "Fuck tha Police" and "fight for your right to party" were anthems for a seething mass, Africa's Hip Hop Nation.


ALONGSIDE this militant rap expansion came a new and vibrant rap organisation, the African Hip Hop Movement. The authorities were seemingly pleased that the youth seemed to have something to do instead of hanging out on the streets. Wrong move. History was beginning to catch up with Apartheid and it would be the new freedom of the global village that would inflict its biggest blow.

In the early days of the South African Rap scene, artists tried to imitate the American Hip Hop sound in particular the inspired attitude of Public Enemy. The Prophets of da City, a local group from Salt River-Woodstock were at the forefront of progression and were acclaimed for their innovative style, using riffs from SA jazz legends such as Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) and even sampled tribal beats from marimba groups, This fusion of African and American ideas was crucial in fomenting the new sound as well as a source of pride, inspiration and a new medium for the message.

"We saw the situation overseas, the violence, they have a similar organisation called Zulu Nation. We are the same as them, the difference is we are in Africa," said DJ Ready D aka Deon Daniels at the time. Ironically it could be said that the original rhythm and breakbeats that had shaped the Blues, Jazz, Soul and Rock of the USA and the international musical landscape, was now returning to Africa, the source of the riffs in the first place. A study of history would show that the African drum beat was a cultural meme that had infected the Land of the Free by travelling with the slave ships of the South to later inspire a generation of American Soul Merchants. Mother Africa was having her revenge.


RAPS major exponents in the city were D.J's and spokesmen; Rozzano Francisco, Shahien Afriefdien, Dion Daniels and Bobby Hendrickse who ran the movement out of living rooms or from derelict apartments in Woodstock, an inner-city outpost. Subsequently companies like Making Music and promoters like Lance Stehr would organise concerts internationally with performances in France and the Montreaux festival in Switzerland.

According to Rossanno Franscisco,"what happened was that we were breakdancers, we were in a vibe that was totally different to everything else, and then we stopped all that, and got into music." Rap groups were being formed at an unprecedented rate. Some significant moves in developing the new style were made by; Organised Rhyme, AK47, Black Noise and John Dunlop's MC's from U.N.C.L.E. The survivors were the ones who managed to assimilate the local sounds and the anti-apartheid attitude of the hood. This deep pool of angry youth would soon play an important role in inspiring the transition.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, an unprecedented amount of change was unleashed upon the entire world. August 1989 would be a major turning point for all South Africans because it was then that the politicians began to show signs that they were not unassailable. The granite facade of apartheid was beginning to move palpably, when suddenly a defiantly small group of individuals took to the streets of Cape Town in an attempt to defy a ban on political parades. Urged on by ring leader, Nat Tardrew (who would be the first to commandeer an SAP water cannon). Police reaction was swift and plans by the multiracial mob to overthrow the government were thwarted by armed riot brigades who sprayed the ragtag group with a purple dye. This was the celebrated "purple rain" peace march. The resultant graffiti "the purple shall govern" would appear on a nearby wall later that day. The significance of this seemingly innocuous event, more than others, would be realised barely a week later when the nationalist government was forced to back down over its inability to prevent a larger peace march that included religious leaders and even the city's outspoken mayor, Gordon Oliver .

The extent of the groundswell had unnerved the apartheid State. An entire city had shown that it had no care for the politics of segregation. The level of support was unprecedented, a direct result of the genuine desire for the peaceful change that had seemingly infected a diverse cross-section of citizens. South Africans had began to sense that if they pushed, the once impenetrable granite facade of Apartheid would move, that something was beginning to give way.

The effect on the general mood of Cape Town was immense. A feeling of optimism prevailed, spilling over onto the dancefloor and giving dramatic import to a wave of new ideas, of freedom of association and expression. Surfing this wave was the city's then only counter-culture magazine promoting earthlove and smartculture, its name Kagenna self-consciously intended by myself and others as a resurrection of the Mantisheaded god of the original inhabitants of Cape Town, the !Kung San people. Its launch at the Base Club in Shortmarket St, along with mirimba band & theatre act, Antoinette Kellerman and Azazi Mkweru, white rapsters and teenage black dance groups, served to add to the buoyancy that would serve to refocus and inspire a new generation of alternative media forays.

The biggest moment in the modern history of South Africa was yet to arrive. Although most South Africans had no way of knowing this then, after forty years of coercion and oppression. Carrying the momentum on to further cultural fores, was the sheer hope and faith that things could change. The sheer pace of this change unleashed by a countrywide uprising spurred on by a new generation of turned-on, freak-out youth would be staggering.


ON the evening of February 2, 1990 a simple announcement. The major political movements illegal for the past forty years had been unbanned. The state had finally admitted defeat and with it their intention to release political leaders including Nelson Mandela.

What few people realised then was that this was the date that Apartheid, the terrible policy of racial segration, for all intents and purposes, was finally over. Kaput, finished, klaar, dead or so we thought. What the world would witness afterwards was from our point of view, merely a long and drawn out funeral arrangement for an antiquated ideology, and the inevitable fight over the legacy of the liberation struggle. The slow and arduous mopping up operations had begun. An entire country began to ready itself for a place in the international community, along with a return to a global youth market and industrial exploitation.

Yet the underground continued to surge forward, in spite of setbacks. With the build up to South African president, F.W De Klerks Feb 2 announcement, South African teenagers, intuitively it seems, were already beginning to celebrate change. Rap was taking an inclusive part in the ordinary struggles of the people. No political gathering of note could be complete without it. Groups such as Black Noise found their way onto nearly every open-air political meeting in the city. A generation of black schoolkids were finding that becoming active participant-performers was liberating and all you needed was a ghetto blaster.

But while rap was intimately linked to a more political commentary and politicised community the other new dance forms were still only on the periphery. The club scene remained isolated from day-to-day issues. Beer drinking mindlessness was still a way of life and the scene was characterised as much by its lack of cohesion as by its whiteness. This was the time of slick disco-house clubs like Idols, and the psychedelia parties at the Gothic UK influenced Playground, Club DV8 and of course, Wirlygig at the Fringe in Canterbury St.

And yet amidst the mind-numbness and alienation on the dance-floor an undercurrent, a groundswell of one nighters and elaborate crossover parties that continued to infect the youth with an alternative agenda. The children of the architects of apartheid were creating their own reality. Some realised the importance of this and the validity of their contribution to a new global youthculture proving that information wanted to be free and nothing was going to stop it. Not even in South Africa.


UFO, a small, guerrilla party formed by Jesse Stagg and Carl Mason, after the successful Kagenna underground parties, at first achieved sporadic success with a one month flash of a club named The Front, (later renamed Eden) where the potential for cultural escapades was demonstrated with a display of Ratiep -- a group of 35 indigenous Malayan ritualists piercing their bodies with skewers, swords and chisels. John Dunlop member of the MC's from UNCLE comments on the scene: "Everyone was getting off on how weird it was -- more people were freaking out than dancing". The natural synergy the new stimulants of rap and rave, created pockets of energy that were clearly visible amidst a previously stratified dance scene. White kids were beginning to venture out to the dance clubs in the taboo territory of the Black townships -- clubs like the Galaxy and Space Odyssey. Former exclusively Black or Whites Only clubs began exchanging DJs and punters, in the process healing some of the social fractures.

Meanwhile the rave underground was becoming bolder, with organised "mystery bus" tours and bacchanalian beach parties. A significant catalyst in the scene back then was Danny Schreiber, a low key "New Age shamen" stimulating gigs and initiating raves worldwide, and of course, Nick Wittenburg. The next move by the UFO posse was intended as "a stroke of marketing genius, or the work of madmen" -- the introduction of "smart rave culture" to Cape Town via a massive public event, (for all intents the very first rave party in South Africa). What followed was the prototypical 36 hour drug-induced rave frenzy in a warehouse on the reclaimed land bordering the Cape Town oceanfront called Paarden Island. The event, known as the World Peace Party, held in September 1991 attracted more than 3500 people from a wide cross-section of the cities youth tribes amidst a concerted backlash from a rightwing Christian grouping who objected to UFO's Peace Sign Posters, due to their apparent "Satanic" derivation.

In a period notorious for violence and despite a big gang presence, not one incident of outrage marred the event. Coincidentally the news headline of the following morning would drive the significance of the achievement home, albeit on a pyschic-spiritual level: A billboard that read simply: " PEACE " heralding the governments first National Congress on Peace - CODESA. What was significant about this single event, apart from the open use of drugs like LSD and Ecstacy, was that it was the first time local parties began to follow a recipe that was being dictated by a fashionable trend in UK dance circles, and places like Club Megatripolis. Techno-Games, ambient music, intelligent lighting, the rise of cyberdelia amidst the debris of disco.


THE success of the Cape Town scene led to more technically advanced raves in South Africa's largest city, Johannesburg - population 7 million and the administrative Capital of Apartheid, Pretoria. In March 1992, Mike Aldridge coaxed his Damn New Thing Magazine launch into possibly the first ever Johannesburg rave -- a "cyberbondage" event at an infamous old fort and ex-prison now host to the Constitutional Court. This was followed in August 92 by The Evolution rave, held at a defunct ice-rink, famed for being the first such event to receive extensive coverage in the local press.

Nationally the scene was peaking and had matured enough to move into different directions, namely the deep, progressive house groove and it's more hardcore siblings, the 140 BPM plus drone of techno and breakbeat. A mythology that would build into an eventual crescendo with the 1994 election. Johannesburg was considered ripe for ex Soul 11 Soul designer Preston van Wyk and Eric Kirsten to open the cities very first, dedicated house-rave club, Fourth World featuring decor by counter-culture artist "Bodine Hallelujah" and a rooftop movie-theatre by avante-garde film-maker (and later self-confessed heroin addict) Roger Young as well as the very first fully-functioning smart-bar serving vitamin cocktails and nutrients snacks.

While back in Cape Town, goth club, The Playground was forced to add a second dancefloor (DV8) providing nothing but techno and house music. The influence of two completely different sub-cultures would create an enormous impression, and overlap into other more international projects.

Although by now there were accusations that it was all just mindless drug-induced escapism, Preston van Wyk responds: "I don't see it as a form of escapism I see it rather as a way of coming to terms with reality, its something very positive. It makes perfect sense to me as a young white South African living in a third world country, that rather than reject Africa, I can embrace it. and that is where the marriage and fusion of First and Third worlds come together to actually form Fourth World culture."

An anything goes attitude prevailed, as drug culture became intertwined with rave. In fact Nick Wittenburg was one of the first promoters to sense the benefits and opportunities afforded by laisazze-faire capitalism, quickly moving from pumping LSD and Ecstacy tablets to pushing harder products like Herion and Speed.


BY THE time the all-race elections had arrived, the new Vibe Tribe, as it was known, had been partying for months and were beginning to develop the physical stresses and mental discomforts of prolonged inebriation. The almost nihilistic desire to party was, to tell the truth, a reaction to the general hysteria and anxiety that had racked the entire country, what with the Zulu-based Inkatha Party threatening a civil war and rightwingers promising to stop the election at all costs, nothing short of a miracle could save South Africa. To everyones surprise, the 27th of April dawned like a new clear dream and there was no- way you could get away from the simple fact illustrated by the infectious grins and ecstatic smiles that seemed to have been plastered on the faces of an entire nation. Something truly remarkable had occurred and nothing could ever be the same again. Despite the drugging, a miraculous bubble of goodwill and exuberance had escaped after decades of being locked-up, and the country now intended to give the world an example of what stress-free partying was really about.

So what did rave and dance-culture really achieve? Jesse Stagg of UFO has this to say: "The point is, these brothers and sisters in the global groove union were waging a war of alternative lifestyle, but you see the reality they grew out of is not rosy with the righteousness of the American constitution, theirs is not the land of the free and the home of the brave. The reality they chose was light years away from the dogma of the powers that be. For this generation, It was always about the empowerment of the individual, It was about youths that said fuckit and just did it". South Africa is proof enough that music can dissolve barriers.


AFTER the elections of 1994, Vibe Tribe (a combination of Muti Tribe, Spiral Tribe and Wirly Gig) gave way to two rave outfits, Vortex, and Pharcyde. Both competing with each other for attention and battling over who could attract the most amount of ticket-paying public. The era was categorised by a certain mindlessness that repeated many of the mistakes of the early era of disco. Crowds were mostly a white or a "coloured" crossover, while the trance, drum & bass and jungle music was steadily schitzofrened from its roots in rap and house culture. Meanwhile the black townships had developed their own unique style of dance music -- kwaito, which refused to be contained, eventually arriving through radio in the form of successful cross-over artists like Mandoza. A new sound had began to filter over into white suburbia, but by and large, the scene remained awkwardly divided along race.

In fact rave was beginning to eat itself with delusional teenagers struggling to make sense of UFO and the oddball PEACE, LOVE, UNITY & RESPECT (PLUR) philosophy, as Hilary Prendini Toffoli of Style Magazine seemingly reported in September 1995 (only the second time rave was being taken seriously by South Africa's mainstream press). "Why do they love it so much?" she asked with all her noodle-eating seriousness, as an anonymous raver complete with sweatband shouted back in her ear, in-between gulps from his water-bottle: "You stand here on this dance floor and its like a tribe coming together. You're waiting for something to happen and then when the lasers come out, its like space making contact with earth, the hand of friendship. Did you know this music attracts UFOs?"

The event, coincidently a joint Megatripolis, Vortex production organised by myself and others, entitled UFOs and Things Cybersafari was a blitz of technology and vinyl, linking ravers in California with their breatheren in Africa via the continents first public video-conference. Such exposure in the media would generate into mayhem as Vortex and rave itself turned into yet another petroleum product for youth exploitation. More genuine offshoots and parties by other tendencies within rave such as the Alien Safari crew would lead the trance-floor but not before heading off into the wilderness and cyberdelic notoriety.

Venues of interest in this post-election period were the Function on Loop st, Grant Bailey's Magnet on Bree, and Justin Dysells' new Club Angels, situated in the new "queer village" of Greenpoint. As Observatory moved from being a student dive to an alternative node, a village on its own, music cafes like Cafe Ganesh, the Planet, and Ruby's supplied a hodge-podge of bohemian culture as live music became considerably more eclectic and special than recorded industrial offerings.


[As with any history there are bound to be events, situations, names, and places that I've left out. If you feel that there's something important that needs to be added, give me a call on +27+82-4251454 or drop me an email:, and we can talk about it.]