It’s New Year’s Eve. Fireworks have been going off throughout the night. As midnight approaches, their intensity and frequency increases.
In the dining room of a low-cost house, cluttered with mismatched furniture, doilies and ceramic cups filled with brown liquor, Ukhozi FM blares out of a small radio set. Linda Sibiya, the host of the station’s end-of-year countdown show, is playing out the old year with some of its most popular songs.
A man, possibly someone’s uncle, staggers around with a Castle in his hand. An old woman is passed out on the sofa, doek askew, her lips parted deep in sleep. Children are playing excitedly, euphoric with their midnight bedtime.
Three youngsters in the living room are in a serious debate.
“Ngeke mfethu, uTira uzonqamula unyaka,” says the first adamant that Tira will win this year.
“Unamanga!” refutes another.
“Lalela,” the third chimes in, “kuzobe iculo la maskandi,” certain it will be a cultural song.
It’s a common scene in most black working-class homes in South Africa as the Durban-based national radio station is played full blast to bring in the New Year.
The segment, which has been hosted by radio personalities including the now-retired Linda “Mr Magic” Sibiya (who left the station a little over four years ago) and DJ Sgqemeza, is heralded as the SABC Summer Songs of the Year. In 2016, on the show’s second run, maskandi artist Mroza’s smash hit Sobulala uVan Damme, featuring Mkhathazi and Mzo, won the title. Mroza walked away with a cash prize of R150 000. Nathi Mankayi’s pastoral ballad Nomvula won in 2015. What was interesting about both songs was their clear departure from the gqom and house sensibilities that had dominated the list in previous years.
In 2009, Big Nuz and DJ Tira’s Umlilo finished the year in Ukhozi FM’s top spot, as the Durban-born duo scorched the airwaves and solidified record label Afrotainment’s dance dominance in a era of Dezemba-type records. The hard rhythms and scandalous lyrics of Professor and DJ Tira’s Jezebel moulded the sonic landscape of 2011, spurring on the culture of “ukushima voluntarily” in December. Big Nuz reclaimed the throne again in 2012 with the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of Serious, ushering in the let-loose feel that has become emblematic of popular dance music over the festive period.
But at the dawn of 2013, right after the countdown, the online publication Public News Hub reported that “listeners had criticised Ukhozi FM on social networks for supposedly showing favouritism in selecting the song of the year” for choosing Tira’s Summertime. “Most people on Twitter and Facebook appear to have been expecting DJ Vetkuk and Mahoota’s Via Orlando to be the song of the year,” the report stated.
In 2017, after Durban-based gqom duo Distruction Boyz finished in top spot with Omunye, conversations about authorship and originality abounded as allegations were levelled against them for having appropriated DJ Lag’s Trip to New York. Song analysis verified the duo copied instrumentals, key signatures, tempo and lead melodies from Lag’s record, and Distruction Boyz and Black Major, Lag’s management company, are still in a legal spat over the song’s credits and proceeds.
With a listenership of more than 7.7 million people, Ukhozi FM’s song of the year is a significant cultural and artistic phenomenon. As 2018 comes to an end, Vusi Nova’s soulful reworking of As’phelelanga, featuring Jessica Mbangeni, is a strong contender for top spot as it has been played consistently over the past few months. Other strong contenders include Eyadini by Manqoqo; Prince Kaybee’s Banomoya featuring Busiswa and TNS; Malwedhe by King Monada; Macala by Mlindo the Vocalist; and gospel group Abathandwa’s Moya Wam.
Whichever song wins, there will be millions of families across the country crouched around their radios, waiting to hear the track that opens their 2019.