Recording sun rises on ‘African Sunset’

The reissuing of Kabasa’s African Sunset after 37 years raises questions about the necessity and politics of archiving classics from South African bands that made music under apartheid.

Opening with a scorching guitar riff from Robert “Doc” Mthalane, Kabasa’s song Walking in the Jungle soon settles into a hypnotic funk groove. It is driven by sparse percussion and a relentless bassline, which is punctuated with flute and Rhodes piano.

The song is part of some of the finest rock music to emerge from Soweto in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an underserved scene with music difficult to get hold of – outside of the legendary band Harari. A case in point is Kabasa’s 1982 album African Sunset which, criminally, has remained unavailable for 37 years.

But, thanks to the record label BBE Africa, Walking in the Jungle and the rest of the album are no longer lost artifacts of our apartheid-warped cultural past. African Sunset is now available on vinyl, CD and as a digital download, which should be celebrated. But why did it take so long?

The birth of Kabasa

Kabasa was founded when guitarist Mthalane and percussionist Oupa Segwai, fresh from the breakup of Harari, hooked up with vocalist and bassist Tata “TNT” Sibeko.

Mthalane spent many years playing with and writing songs for Busi Mhlongo and also recorded a celebrated album with Madala Kunene and Mabi Thobejane in the 1990s, which is no longer available. Segwai later worked with Yvonne Chaka Chaka.

Kabasa recorded a trio of albums in the early 1980s, the eponymous first was released in 1980, and the second, titled Searching, followed in 1981. Africa Sunset was the band’s third and last record and was released on the short-lived Lyncell Records in 1982.

Mthalane, the much-loved icon of South African music who in the later 1980s earned the nickname “the Jimi Hendrix of South Africa”, was the star of the show.

The rhythms of an African sunset

Feeling of the 60s is one of the album’s highlights. The jam starts slowly, with Mthalane offering echoing guitar notes that drift over the rhythm. He then drives the groove forward with some urgent strumming that feels rooted in Maskandi but is delivered with rock ‘n’ roll flair.

On Happy to be me, Mthalane’s guitar and Sibeko’s disco-funk bass, deliver a riddim that sounds like reggae kings Sly and Robbie had their way with it back in their 1980s heyday, while on Mafateng, Mthalane delivers some scorching blues-tinged guitar work.

The title track, African Sunset, is another favourite, a gentle rolling piece of psychedelia that showcases flautist Mabote “Kelly” Petlane. It reinforces the link between Kabasa and the fiery guitar-driven music that emerged in Zambia in the 1970s, dubbed ZamRock. But, where some of the ZamRock songs reissued over the last few years are decidedly unhinged in their ferocious attack, the songs on African Sunset owe as much to soul, funk and jazz as they do to psychedelia and garage rock.

Questions of comparison

The ZamRock connection is instructive. The music from that scene has seen a comprehensive reissuing campaign over the last few years, with whole box sets of recordings by key artists recently released.

So why does South Africa’s own rock scene not receive similar treatment? We have had to wait 37 years to welcome a masterpiece like African Sunset back into our lives. Why is the artistic output of black South Africans under apartheid so comprehensively ignored two decades into democracy, and why is the work of revival left to overseas labels? African Sunset is just one example. There are many others. 

Cape Town’s Sharp-Flat Records reissued Kabasa’s debut self-titled album in 2017 but the band’s second album, Searching from 1981, remains unavailable.

The question is, why are there not more labels like Sharp-Flat restoring our rich musical history?

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Interviewed by Sharp-Flat Records’ Calum MacNaughton about the African Sunset reissue and the two weeks he spent in studio with the band in the 1980s, engineer and coproducer Graham Handley said that it is wonderful that the album would once again be available. He added, however, that there are many artists whose work remains unavailable, including the solo output of Harari guitarist Masike “Funky” Mohapi. 

Like the late Mohapi, none of the artists who recorded African Sunset are alive today, but allowing their music to live on for future generations should be a priority. If there are South African record labels out there that believe in serving our national music and its audiences, there are many lost classics to be preserved and reissued. They could start with the first two Kabasa albums.

If not, the indifference speaks volumes.

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