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1980s Jo'burg Punk From 'National Wake'

An in-depth look at late 1970s/early 1980s mixed-race Johannesburg punk band National Wake's only album, which has now been re-issued.


Oscar Wilde said, “An ethical sympathy in a writer is an unpardonable mannerism of style.” 999 times out of 1,000 he's correct, especially when that ethical sympathy takes on a political coloration. But when the unjust apportionment of power is part of the atmosphere you move through, things change. And I don't mean part of your atmosphere in an I read an Alexander Cockburn column once type way, I mean it in a shut the f-cking window Jesus go out the back way

It was the latter atmosphere in which the South African punk band National Wake arose. Thirty years ago they released their eponymous album. Now, in the wake of the documentary Punk in Africa, they have remastered it and re-released it.

National Wake came about in 1978 Johannesburg when architecture student and guitarist Ivan Kadey and brothers Punka (drums) and Gary (bass) Khoza began playing together, accreting musicians as they went along and even adding horns and strings in places. All the musicians that became involved in the band were extraordinary players. A lot of punk bands say, “We can't, let's do it anyway,” but National Wake said, “We can, let's do it anyway.”

They combined folk and Southern African music with soul and funk in a punk matrix, creating something wildly experimental, yet somehow inevitable. They played the alt club circuit and the township circuit, neither one of which was common for a biracial band, which was not common either, to put it mildly.

Their only album, National Wake was released in 1981. It did not get great penetration internationally, given the difficulty of making music in a multiracial band at the time in that place. The racial element made it hard to play without harassment and the growing isolation of South Africa made international touring essentially impossible. And that's a shame, because the record is a whole new world for most, a world worth moving in.

Any review that talks about one band in terms of another is unfair. It's misleading. It doesn't mean this review wont touch on similar groups, just that it is insufficient. National Wake sounds like no one so much as National Wake. Listening to the album (the album, not the songs — “I don't hear a single here!” and neither will you) is to enter a unique musical space, a refreshing one at times and at other times challenging. But it is its own thing.

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Cover of Isha Sesay's 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'

'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'—an Excerpt From Isha Sesay's Book About Remembering the Chibok Girls

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Continue on to read more, and revisit our interview with the reporter about why it's important for the world to remember the girls' stories, here.

***

"We should burn these girls!"

"No, let's take them with us!"

"Why not leave them here?"

The men were still arguing, dozens of them trading verbal blows while Saa and the other horrified girls looked on. None of the men seemed particularly troubled by the fact that the lives of almost three hundred schoolgirls hung in the balance. Amid all the yelling, the girls had been divided into groups. Each batch would burn in a different room in the school buildings that were aflame just a few feet away. Tensions were escalating when a slim man with outsize eyes suddenly appeared. Saa had never seen him before. Like many of the insurgents, he too looked young and was just as scruffy. But when he spoke, tempers seemed to cool for a moment.

"Ah! What are you trying to do?"

"We wanted to burn them!"

"Why not take them with us, since we have an empty vehicle?"

His suggestion triggered a fresh round of quarreling. The same positions were expressed, and the newcomer continued to calmly repeat his idea of taking the girls with them, till he finally got his way. The girls later discovered his name was Mallam Abba. He was a commander.

"Follow us!" the men shouted.

None of it made any sense to Saa. Why? To where? As the insurgents shuffled her out of the compound, she felt as if her whole life were on fire. All Saa could see was the ominous orange glow of flames consuming every one of her school buildings. With every step, the fears within her grew. She struggled to make sense of the competing thoughts throbbing in her head. This isn't supposed to be happening. The insurgents had asked about the boys and the brick-making machine; they'd systematically emptied the school store, carrying bag after bag of foodstuffs and loading all of it into the huge waiting truck. With everything now packed away, Saa had thought the insurgents would simply let the girls go home. After all, that's what had happened during their previous attacks on schools—they'd always let the schoolgirls go, after handing out a warning to abandon their education and strict instructions to get married. Saa had simply expected the same thing to happen once more, not this.

She scanned the crowd of faces surrounding her; the creased brows and startled expressions of the others made it clear that everyone was equally confused. Whatever the turmoil they were feeling, they kept it to themselves. No one said a word. Saa fell into a sort of orderly scrum with the men corralling and motioning her forward with their guns, each weapon held high and pointed straight at the girls.

Saa and Blessing moved in unison, along with the hundreds of others, snaking along in the dark through the open compound gate, past the small guard post usually occupied by Mr. Jida, which now sat empty. Yelling came from nearby Chibok town. Saa could smell burning, then heard the sound of gunshots and people running. It was bedlam.

Just beyond the compound walls sat a crowd of bushes. As she and the men moved out into the open, Saa felt their thorns spring forward, eager to pull at her clothing and scratch and pierce her body. Careful not to yell out in pain, she tried to keep her clothes beyond the reach of the grasping thicket with no time to pause and examine what might be broken skin.

Saa retreated into herself and turned to the faith that had anchored her entire life. Lord, am I going to die tonight, or will I survive? Desperate to live, unspoken prayers filled her mind and she pleaded, repeatedly, God save me.

She was still praying as they walked down the dirt path away from the flaming school. The shabby-looking men with their wild eyes gave no explanation or directions. They simply motioned with their heads and the sweep of their rifles, making it clear to keep moving. As the reality began to sink in, Saa felt her chest tightening. Her heart was going to beat its way out of her body. But she couldn't allow herself to cry or make any sound. Any kind of display would make her a target, and who knew what these men might do?

The insurgents walked alongside, behind, and in front of her; they were everywhere. Every time Saa looked around, their menacing forms filled her view. Initially, all the girls were steered away from the main road and onto a rambling path overgrown with bushes; the detour was likely made in an attempt to avoid detection.

Parents lining up for reunion with daughters (c) Adam Dobby


***

This excerpt was published with permission from the author. 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' is available now.

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