We Fought The Law

NMEPage34-35nationalwakeIt is dangerous to be right in matters where the established authorities are wrong. Voltaire said that. It is dangerous to be a politically radical multi-racial punk band when the law itself is openly racist. National Wake were that band. In apartheid South Africa at the tail end of the Seventies, guitarists Ivan Kadey and Steve Moni and a rhythm section of Gary and Punka Khoza, Shangaan-speaking brothers from the township of Soweto, represented a visceral challenge to the segregated status quo. The government, it’s safe to say, were not fans.

In 1979, when the band joined the Riot Rock tour around the Cape, the message the promoters received from the authorities was stark: “Application for a Group Areas Permit to allow a mixed band has not been favourably considered.” Looking back now, Kadey still can’t believe the organisers had been stupid enough to ask permission. “Of course they’re going to refuse! You’ve got to expect it,” he says. “You just have to do these things and hope they don’t care about it until much later. The promoters said we couldn’t play and I said: ‘Screw that! We’re on the bill, we’re going to play.’” They did, but the promoters soon pulled the plug. Being stopped from playing music because of the colour of your skin throws Macca and Springsteen’s over-running Hyde Park show into some sort of perspective.

By that point, National Wake were getting used to living outside the law. The band lived and rehearsed together in a rented house in a ‘whites-only’ area, where it was illegal for Gary and Punka to stay. “It wasn’t just Gary and Punka,” adds Kadey. “There was a group of musicians and various girlfriends and guys who’d stay over for the night. It was really a hotbed of illegal dwelling. It was like an outpost of Soweto in the middle of Johannesburg.”

The constant atmosphere of oppression just served to fuel the band. “It was an intense existence, like being at war,” says Kadey. “There was a total edge to our existence as a band and as a group. The police were well aware of us. There were many stories of contact with police, both hilarious and frightening. Somehow we managed to walk that line.”

“Punka was arrested several times,” adds Moni. “They would come around and look for marijuana seeds or ‘subversive literature’. They were also looking for evidence that there were mixed race couples living together, anything. Whatever they could find that smelt of illegality they were onto.”

Behind their teeming headquarters, in a jungle-like garden overgrown with vegetation, an old summer house had been converted into a makeshift rehearsal room. It was there that the band brewed their music: a mixture of rebel punk, roots reggae and African music. It is music of its time in the best possible sense: a permanent record of the band’s journey and their cultural struggle against apartheid. Listening to the music from throughout their short, precarious existence, you can hear the early optimism that a better world could be found being squeezed out by the choke hold of police interference. “There was a constant sense of living dangerously,” says Kadey. “That gets into the heart of the music. It’s urgent.”

They were not the only multi-racial musicians playing together in South Africa at the time – there were folk bands like Juluka, whose white frontman Johnny Clegg sang in Zulu, and mixed jazz groups – but those bands weren’t pushing the aggressively countercultural message that National Wake were. Songs like ‘International News’ spoke directly about the media blackout surrounding the townships and the war over the Angolan border. Indeed, Kadey is keen to correct one misconception perpetuated by the ‘Searching for Sugarman’ documentary: “It’s a marvellous movie, and we all dug Rodriguez, but the filmmakers say that he “was protest music” in South Africa. That’s pure bullshit. There was a ferment of protest singers and bands and music in South Africa. National Wake was right at the belly of the beast.”

The political heart of the band had been there ever since Kadey began jamming with Mike Lebesi, who played congas and bongos. Steve Moni joined the band later, in 1980, after original lead guitarist Paul Giraud left. Moni had previously been in The Safari Suits, another of the bands on that ill-fated Riot Rock tour. When Kadey asked him to join he didn’t hesitate: “National Wake were not a band in the normal sense. They were really pushing the envelope on a lot of different levels: the music they made, the way they lived, where they lived, where they played. It was much more than a band.”

The group played as many shows as they possibly could – rock bars in white-only or ‘grey’ areas on one night, then hitting the township nightclub circuit the next. “We were playing in uncharted places, in defiance of the then Group Areas Act which defined where people could live, play and move about,” remembers Moni. “I was finishing work at nights on a late shift, then heading off in a van after midnight to play some township and getting back at three or four in the morning.”

Typically they would be forced to play segregated venues because they were the only ones that existed, but the band didn’t let that stop them. “Certain venues would be whites only and certain venues would be blacks only. We crossed those lines,” says Kadey. “Sometimes they wouldn’t let us play because we were a mixed group and they were terrified of losing their liquor licence. The consumption of booze was completely controlled by the government and there was no way that blacks and whites were going to drink liquor together because [in the eyes of the government] that might lead to, you know, God knows what.”

The band recorded and released just one record, 1981’s self-titled debut, which sold something like 700 copies before being withdrawn under government pressure. “When the album came out we were getting even more attention,” says Kadey. “The amount of visits from the police became regular. I’m talking about three times a day.”

Eventually this pressure grew too much and the band cracked apart. “Life was becoming pretty weird,” says Kadey. “On top of that, the album was stifled and there wasn’t really anywhere for us to go.” Despite the record’s subdued sales, the band’s music continued to be passed around Johannesburg throughout the Eighties in the form of underground cassettes, and their story was recounted in various fanzines.

Tragically both Punka and Gary would die in their late forties, before they could witness Keith Jones’ 2012 documentary ‘Punk In Africa’ reignite an interest in their band’s music. For the first time, bootleg and original recordings from throughout the band’s brief life have been collected together for a new compilation, ‘Walk In Africa 1979-1981’.

In the end, it was major forces of history like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the impact of American divestment that led to the 1990 lifting of the ban on the ANC, Nelson Mandela’s political party, and the abolition of apartheid. However, after hearing from fans and the musicians he inspired, Ivan Kadey knows protest music had a part to play. “In terms of people being able to express their defiance I think it was one of the elements that gave people courage,” he says. As long as their outlaw band played, another world seemed possible. “In those hours when we were performing, it was a different South Africa.”

Originally published in NME, 5 October 2013.