“I sold my soul, at that moment, to the God – Music.”
Kalahari Surfers founder Warrick Sony is recounting the moment his fate slotted into place – his future of raising several inflamed and sonically subversive middle fingers to the establishment; of making albums that quoted the Apartheid government’s inane yet dangerous assertions back at them, clothed in angry upside-down and mangled music, Punk electronified; a future of eloquent, brave new sound, found and rerouted, untangled, strummed, reborn.
Sony was thirteen when he conducted the metaphysical transaction, listening and watching spellbound as the older brother of a friend picked the opening notes of The Eagles’ The House of The Rising Sun through a Wah-Wah pedal. The legal name change would only come later, but in that instant, in that sonic epiphany, Warrick Swinney became Warrick Sony.
Around a dozen albums, ranging from deeper-than-Derrida Dub to forward whizzing techno, from Punk spat through a genetic modifier to brutally blissful soundscapes of ambience, from traditional African scenes to improvising computers to bass in your face would follow. And woven through all of them were Sony’s mischievous satire of found sounds – eerie clippings of idiotic politicians and bovine actors, jingles and jangles of Life In South Africa, from Apartheid to Azania.
The Kalahari Surfers, in its first wave circa the early Eighties, was a shifting collective of musicians, with founder Warrick Sony at its centre. Live performances featured Sony on bass or guitar, and samples of everything from Traditional African music to ironic shards of speeches by Die Groot Krokodil (‘The Big Crocodile’, then-president PW Botha, may his soul rest in unease) and other idiots and clowns, often featuring angry and sarcastic banners.
The Surfers’ music had rhythm, was propulsive, but it wasn’t grooves of sunshine – Sony used the medium of music to seep lyrical outrage and passionate invective into the minds of revelers. The vinyls throb with anger at The State Of The Nation; the imagery is claustrophobic; the melodies schizophrenic, careening from hip-swinging beats to Burroughsian cut-ups.
Way too challenging to become big in Suid-Afrika, The Surfers’ music nevertheless attracted the attention of the white-haired reptiles in the cabinet, who proceeded to ban the first four albums (fourth album, the deliciously ironically titled Bigger Than Jesus, succeeded in getting its banned status reversed in court, establishing a legal precedent at the time). For the same reasons the apartheid government banned the music, liberal British record label Recommended Records snapped them up and put them out. In the early Nineties Sony took The Surfers on tour through Brazil and Europe, taking along fellow activist, avant-garde poet Lesego Rampolokeng, who collaborates with The Surfers to this day.
Recalls Sony, “The best audiences were the Germans – I think they get my music. Enjoyed the East Bloc concerts too. The Russians were also interesting, in that they didn’t have the 60’s – they didn’t have Hendrix and Soul music and Gospel, all the things that made modern Rock music – but they did have a different soul. Dark soul. I liked playing in Moscow but I think today it’s a different story. They’re pretty much in the same situation as us, with crime and corruption, and, as Zappa said about communism not working because the people want stuff – they also want stuff. But their leader is a bit of a nasty; I prefer ours. He laughs more and I get the feeling has a better sex life.”
After a spell doing soundtracks and scoring for TV, The Kalahari Surfers surfaced in 2000. And, like their country, something had shifted. The new Kalahari Surfers was sonically streamlined – gone were the coughs and spatters, the crude angles and violence of its beautiful, brutal teenage years. With the brilliant album Akasic Record [2000, African Dope records], The Surfers announced a new sophistication and sheen of sound. But the essence remained.
The messages were still heavily political and humanitarian, but the voice had wisened – eloquence replaced howls, caution replaced damnation, and experience replaced outrage.
Bass and Dub-heavy recent albums Muti Media, Panga Management and 2011’s One Party State are still strewn with samples of Seffricana – the sonic flora and fauna of our myriad overlapping cultures and dialects – but the morose, ominous English of Afrikaner politicians have been replaced by the morose, ominous English of the new government.
Blerrie politicians! Can’t live with ‘em, can live without ‘em.