interview by Ellis MaythamWarrick Sony was born in South Africa in 1958.He first came to public attention in the early 1980's in South Africa as the sole member of the Kalahari Surfers.
They released five albums of politically radical music with numerous South African session musicians. Many of the albums where released by Chris Cutler's Recommended Records in London as they were too political and anti-apartheid for South Africa at the time. The musicians where credited only by first names in fear of the Apartheid police. The music was only available to South Africans as imports during the 1980's.
Most of the music also included sound recordings of political speeches from apartheid years in South Africa. This material had been collected while he was working as a sound recording engineer for American and European media networks while covering political activity in South Africa during the Apartheid years.
He then toured Eastern Europe with session musicians mainly from Henry Cow. Sony not only had to get permission from Anti-Apartheid organizations to perform, but had to have his passport stamped on a special pull-out page so that he could remove it when he returned to South Africa, as it was illegal for South Africans to enter the former Eastern European countries.
He then went on to produce music for many artists for Sony, BMG, Recommended, M.E.L.T. 2000, African Dope, Microdot and Shifty records. He is also involved in numerous sound recordings for film and commercials. He has also held sound recording workshops with Brian Eno for post graduate students.
PSF: What was your early musical background before you were ever in a band? Who were some of your favorite artists when you were young?
W.S.: I am autodidact, totally self-taught. Started playing guitar at age of 12, learning chords from a guitar course in a weekly magazine. First song I could play was "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence. I loved a South African band called "the Suck"- they destroyed a grand piano on stage and played a killer version of the Black Sabbath song "War Pigs"- (it was) my intro into social comment and music. My friend's brother had a wah-wah pedal and played a Hendrix riff through it and totally blew my mind. Hendrix was my introduction to electronics– this changed my life. The Suck also played "21st Century Schizoid Man," a King Crimson song which led me into the murky depths of Prog and ART music. The psychedelic side of the Beatles led me to the work of Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha and I started collecting Indian music from Roopanand Brothers; my favourite Indian record dealer was off Grey Street in Durban (at that time, Durban had the biggest Indian community outside of India in the world). I listened to South Indian Veena music and learned tabla from the Surat School.
PSF: Could you talk about your upbringing and how that influenced your work? Did you have any first hand experiences with apartheid that left an impression on you?
W.S.: I grew up in Cowies Hill, a suburb of Durban. Attended Westville High School but was frustrated with the conservative confines of Christian Nationalist education. I played bass guitar in various school groups, doing Who and Hendrix covers. Left school a year early to go and live in an Krishna Ashram in Desai Nagar near Tongaat. In 1976, he was drafted into the Apartheid army - tried to fail (the) medical by fasting for 30 days drinking only distilled water. Military authorities declared me 100% fit for duty however and I had a 2 year stretch to sit out. I protested that as a Hindu pacifist I couldn't use a gun so they put me into Medical Services and then in the Band where I played the trombone and enjoyed some formal musical education. I was politicized by Punk in '77 and formed a punk band in the army called "Grim Reaper". I heard of Steve Biko's death on my birthday whilst standing guard in the vehicle park without a rifle.
PSF: Could talk about any bands you were in before the Surfers started?
W.S.: Very influenced by the Crass/Lee Perry/Pere Ubu /Max Romeo/Talking Heads/Pop Group/This Heat/Art Bears/DAF, etc.. Very influenced by Punk and new wave and Reggae whilst in the army 1976-78 after leaving went to Cape Town and played in various punk/art/new wave bands: Rude Dementals, Happy Ships, Under Two Flags, The Cortisones
PSF: The Kalahari Surfers is essentially you with who ever you can get or choose to play on your recordings?
W.S.: Kalahari Surfers began as a musical exploration between 3 friends of likewise musical and political interests. Working in Cape Town, during the early '80's, a number of compositions were realized using a variety of tape machines. We discovered that the best way to compose was to record all of our improvisations, then to revisit, edit, rework and rehearse.
Later, with access to a studio, the process became more refined but essentially the studio or the ability to record was the instrument of composition. I had a fascination and love of gadgets and technology so with the access to multi-track recorders, I was able to realize more of my art alone.
PSF: Describe your creative process- how do you come up with songs?
W.S.: I often come up with a song title or song title idea like "Let's Build a Shack" which was an obscure allusion to a Swell Maps song called "Lets Build a Car." I then South Africanize the idea and set it in the near future ala JG Ballard – so the scenario is: we're running from the cities which have been burnt and rubbled during civil war , families heading for the country with the refrain " Let's Build a Shack." This was also a turn around for whites who don't have these skills and for whom this would be an alien way of living but is totally normal for many South Africans.
PSF: You started as a sound recording engineer for various international media networks in the 1980s covering political events in South Africa and anti Apartheid activities?
W.S.: I worked as a free-lance sound recordist after moving to Johannesburg in 1983. I could work hard for a few months on a drama or feature film and then plough the money into the studio and spend a few months doing my albums.
PSF: Did you consider the Surfers' work to be explicitly anti-apartheid?
W.S.: Surfers were an expression of an average white middle class teen's rage against the injustices of that system. Punk helped me realize that. That we had a right to express ourselves and that we had a duty. This was our reality. We were suffering in the army against our will.
PSF: What censorship did you come across during time under the Apartheid government?
W.S.: I teamed up with Lloyd Ross (of Shifty Records) towards the end of last year (2003). Lloyd made a documentary (for the new South African Broard Corporation under democracy) on James Phillips (musician who had passed away). While he was in the South African Broadcasting Corporation archive, he found records with gouge marks on them. Someone had the job of carefully dragging a nail across the offending track to make sure no-one would play it ( low tech censorship).
PSF: Did you ever have to leave South Africa to record because of censorship?
W.S.: Lloyd Ross had a mobile studio in an old Rand Mines house which we all lived. I went to Lesotho to help him record a group called Uhuru who (because of the reggae band) changed their name to Sankomoto and became, over the years, very successful. They were banned for political reasons from entering South Africa at that time, so the only way to record them was to take the studio there. At that time, we were sharing a house with Jaqui Quinn who was murdered in Lesotho during an operation to kill her husband who was in African National Congress ( the liberation party that fought the Apartheid Government) which was done a Vlakplaas (the Apartheid security police) hit squad directed by Eugene de Kock. Check out the Truth Commission report.
PSF: Your music has a lot of speech recordings of 1980's political events. Did you collect these and then decide to put music to them?
W.S.: This was the environment we lived in. Later, as international interest peaked and Apartheid was in its last throes, more and more work came from the foreign media networks. I did hard news for CBS News, ABC News, WTN, BBC and ITN in an environment which was hostile to media workers. I was often suffering the same tear gas and police bullying as the protesters. I ran a cassette machine and collected audio whilst working. I still have piles of cassette tapes with all sorts of audio: Hitler Youth type school sports days, Afrikaaner right wingers singing hymns, rallies, marches, police announcements radio broadcasts as I was the collector of Apartheid's audio garbage.
PSF: Could you talk about the use of humor and satire in your work?
W.S.: South Africans use humour to get out of and express all sorts of troublesome situations – Puns and word plays are part of black newspaper culture and a way of seeing. Living through the John Vorster and (prime minister) P.W. Botha era one couldn't help laughing a loud at the antics of the State (nothing has changed I might add – check out the work of Zapiro in the Mail and Gaurdian newspaper now), I also found in the early work of the Mothers of Invention very inspiring – the cynical critique of American culture and its covert operations world wide, the jaundiced cynical eye of Frank Zappa always helped me to see South Africa in a certain way.
PSF: Since you use so many field recordings in your work, who were some of the artists who also used this medium that influence your work?
W.S.: Holgar Czukay's album Movies, Eno & Byrne's Bush of Ghosts, This Heat– both albums, Karlhenz Stockhausen.
PSF: Looking back now, what are your favorite Surfer albums?
W.S.: The albums fall into two distinct time period– those of the '80's which are word and concept albums and those of the post '94 freedom period, which are more film and music driven.
Pre '90's, I like the Bigger than Jesus album– the last of that lot of work which I think was lyrically the most accomplished. Of the post '94 stuff, the last album Panga Management, which was mostly done using Ableton Live, the first major new software I've adopted since Protools in the '80's.
PSF: Where can one listen or purchase any of your found sound recordings?
W.S.: Everything is a negotiation as have contributed my recordings to, South African artist, William Kentridges theatre production Ubu and the Truth Commission as well as the theatre production Truth in Transition. More recently,Sweetnoise, a metal band from Poland, made use of my work for their new album Tripty.
PSF: When apartheid ended, did you have to change focus musically?
W.S.: I didn't 'HAVE to' as it was more a freedom as like now we can write about love and rivers and trees and shit without being insensitive. My musical freedom was to enjoy working with music without words.
My post-Apartheid work evokes atmospheres of ambiguous discomfort... sort of strange worlds of ethnic misfits. Music suited better to film.
PSF: What musicians toured with you?
W.S.: For the UK and European concerts, Recommended Records put together a band for me which consisted of:
Mick Hobbs (from Officer) on bass
Alig (from Family Fodder) on keyboards
Tim Hodgkinson (from Henry Cow) played keyboards and sax and slide guitar for the East Germany gigs
Chris Cutler on drums (Henry Cow, Art Bears, etc.)
Myself on guitar and vocals and tapes
Maggie Thomas did our sound
In South Africa, I worked with existing bands and we toured together as a two part act:
The Kerels played with me in Durban
The Cherry Faced Lurchers did many gigs for me
Louis Mahlanga and his Musiki Afrika played with Lesego & the Surfers
In France, at the festival of Angoulemem, Ubuyambo and Amampondo have also done gigs and tours with me. Ghetto Muffin was a Ragga outfit I played with in Norway.
PSF: In the 1980's, you toured Eastern Europe. How did this come about?
W.S.: During the middle of February 1987, the Kalahari Surfers were asked to play at the 17th Festival of Political Song in East Berlin. "Rote Liede" was the title of that years effort and the line up included artists from all over the world. These were the times when politics were fashionable in Western popular music. It had been 10 years since punk, Reagan, Thatcher, Gorbachev and P. W. Botha were in power and many songwriters worked social comment and political satire into their lyrics. In England left wing pop stars had formed a movement called the Red Wedge which include people like Billy Bragg and the Communards. Communist Chic was in.
I came from a country where a man had gone to prison for having an A.N.C. (liberation movement that fought the apartheid government) flag on his beer mug, where the state employed its Iron Fist against any form of criticism regularly banning and detaining activists and artists. My passport had to have a special removable page when I traveled to the East Bloc so that the South African authorities would not be tempted to enquire about my goings on behind the Iron Curtain.
Chris Cutler was well connected with the East Bloc and set it all up. He was brilliant at getting gigs. We played in East Germany and Soviet Union. I met political exiles in Moscow and in East Germany, people like Max Mfazwe who had fought for (Zimbabwe prime minister) Robert Mugabe and Umkonto (armed wing that fought apartheid) and was married to an East German girl. I later bumped into them in Johannesburg South Africa many years later having resettled in SA after liberation. Good people with interesting stories.
PSF: You toured Brazil also.Who did you play with there?
W.S.: Lesego Rampolokeng and I were invited to perform at a poetry festival in Belo Horizonte and we performed together with backing tracks. The new South Africa had just happened and I was of the opinion that The ANC (newly democratically-elected government in South Africa) ad agency Hunt Lascaris had done a great job on selling the flag, peace and a happy transition to the Nation, along with our great leaders. Indeed, it was heady optimistic times and I told Brazilian journalists the same. Lesego disagreed and said that they were all untrustworthy corrupt sellouts as I guess there was some truth in that.
PSF: You went to Chris Cutler's Recommended records in the 1980s to record Own Affairs. Why didn't you record and press it in South Africa?
W.S.: I recorded all my albums in South Africa. They were manufactured in the UK by Chris Cutler's company because no-one in SA would do them. EMI made me pay for cutting the vinyl acetate of side one of my first album but told me to basically go away and don't do that sort of thing as it was 'political, anti-religious and pornographic,' as they called it (your basic hit rap album now!)
PSF: You named your one album after Tim Hodgkinson's song on a Henry Cow album?
W.S.: The album is called Living in the Heart of the Beast which Tim took from a book called In the Belly of the Beast (by Lyndall Hare) because that's what living in S.A. felt like... the Beast.
PSF: You have done recording workshops with Brian Eno?
W.S.: He came to South Africa to do a series of interactive art workshops and basically connect with SA musicians and artists. I engineered the session at the Baxter in Cape Town (February 1998) where he composed with about 30 non musician artists a piece using various found sounds and instruments of great miscellany.
PSF: What soundtracks have you contributed to?
W.S.: Most notably the Truth Commission film of John Boormans called In My Country based on the book Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog.
PSF: What musical acts/groups have you toured with?
W.S.: We played with Fred Frith (from Henry Cow) band Keep the Dog in Russia and during the '90's, I had a band called TransSky (a pun on the homeland in Apartheid) and we toured with Massive Attack during their South African visit.
PSF: You used political speech recordings and incorporated them into songs. The song "Teargas" is interesting and great. How did that come about?
W.S.: I had recently played a concert for the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), during which the police rolled a canister of teargas into the hall creating pandemonium. That same evening, I laid down the vocal line for a track which featured a distorted voice shouting 'Teargas! Tear gas' over and over and coughing and choking. It was a performance piece in the studio. Tragic comic... that was South Africa in the '80's.
I was working then as a film sound recordist to pay off the 16 track tape recorder I had bought for the studio that I shared with Lloyd Ross. The state media machine was like a theatre of the absurd. I used bits of propaganda films in my music: P.W. Botha's State of Emergency speech, news broadcasts and quiz programs. I'd intercut material that I'd recorded in the field as a documentary sound recordist for the BBC or Channel 4. William Burroughs was the guiding light in splice and paste word/content experiments and I'd devour anything thing that spoke to me in the ironic voice.
PSF: Touring Russia in the 1980's must have been quite an eye opener for a South African?
W.S.: We played at Festâ- it was put together by the Committee of Youth Organizations,(KOMSOMOL) and was held at the Palace of Youth. Gorbachev was making massive reforms then. I never met a communist in Russia, even though I was staying in the Communist Youth League's fanciest hotel. It made me feel strange, the distance between foreigners and locals. The haves and have-nots in the socialist dream. The place was awash with Americans. Perestroika and Glasnost were the buzz words. I could get three times the official rate on the black market, but money is worthless when there is nothing to buy.
Luckily I found Melodia (the only Soviet record company) made good vinyl so I stocked up on hundreds of fantastic classical records.
I was amazed at the extraordinary experiments (that) humanity has attempted. The break up of the Soviet Union was beginning... which was the exact opposite to what was happening in South Africa. We were trying to bring all the former homelands under one united South Africa- separate development of all the different races was a bad idea for us. I had many arguments with Russians over this. Here were a people moving toward democracy, away from Socialism, whereas we still had the overtures of Socialism, in fact, one could have died for being a communist in South Africa at that time. To be a rebellious youth in Russia, you'd become a Christian and wear a pendant with a picture of the last Czar aroundyour neck.
To be a rebellious youth in South Africa, you'd be anti-Christian and wear a lapel badge sporting a hammer and sickle. The Russians never got their democracy and we (South Africa) never got our socialism. Another one of God's curved balls.
PSF: Your original title of one of your albums Bigger than Jesus was banned, and later released as Beach Bomb. Was this as a result of Christians telling everyone that rock music had hidden Satanic messages, or because of multi tracking and sampling?
W.S.: A piece I did called "Play it Backwards" as on my second album used voices from Radio Today (a morning news broadcast of the '80's), discussing the hidden messages in rock music, which are found by playing records backwards. I was intrigued, so I ordered the tape from a guy who made a living out of doing this stuff. He'd even written a book, assembling hundreds of examples of these ridiculous messages that he'd discovered by playing his record collection backwards! He later charged that these secret messages could be found on some of Shifty's releases. We challenged him on this, and by using his same technique, I proved that even Christian songs had demonic undertones, when I demonstrated that the line "God is in all of our aims," turned into "Satan is in all of our aims" when it was played backwards. He settled out of court.
PSF: Are there other South African bands now that you admire? Are there any that you feel are kindred spirits to you?
W.S.: I have always been intrigued by African computer programming in music – the beginnings of this with Chico's work on the MC500 on Brenda Fasi's albums to early Kwaito (songs like "Magents" by Senyaka ) and Arthurs' Kaffir, right up to the Gabby Leroux's work with Mandoza. I'm also still an avid listener of '70's mbaquanga music, especially now that it has been re released on CD, especially Moises Mchunu, Soul Brothers Abafana Basequdeni and the African Cheese stuff like Harari.
(I like) an experimental rock group called EMP (that) I used for a movie a few months ago- they are really brilliant in an instrumental style similar to what 65 Days Of Static are doing in the UK. Also Felix Leband, Waddy (Max Normal) , Tumi and The Volume, Real Estate Agents, Teba, Crosby, Zukile, MArekta, Mzi & Ginga, Lesego, Marcus Wormstorm- all are out there ploughing a new groove.
I liked Miriam (Makeba) when she was with the Skylarks during the Sophiatown period and Hugh (Masekela) when he was with his band "The Union of South Africa" and of course, he did write one of the best South African songs ever- "Stimela." For Dollar (Brand), the album he did with Johnny Dyani was for me his greatest- Good News From Africa on the Enya label, a real gem. Sakhile first album was OK. Ladysmith (Black Mambazo) is the most imitated group in our history.
PSF: What do you think the prospects are for the political future of your country?
W.S.: This is an inspiring and amazing country, predictions of which will always surprise one. The present government has taken us down the road of many other African dictatorships, with its corruption and divide and rule personality cult... and that persons' (South African President Thabo Mbeki) obsession with race, and his veiled Stalinism. He has removed his opposition, not terminally, but clinically and being an exile brought his, understandable, bitterness against whites to the countries leadership. The political spectrum in the ANC divides along the 3 lines: the exiles, the Islanders (those incarcerated on Robben Island like Nelson) and the UDF - those who fought apartheid from within the countries mass democratic movement. It is these latter that Mbeki purged and forced from office a la Joe Stalin.
There are many wonderful people waiting in the wings to lead us back to optimism and good will. With the demise of the Mbeki regime, I feel we will be a great country with abilities to solve our great problems peaceably.
Kalahari Surfers- MySpace page
Kalahari Surfers on Wikipedia
Warrick Sony on Wikipedia
Warrick Sony blog
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