Nothing Was Desirable: A Review Of ‘Punk In Africa’

By: Curt Hopkins

Documentaries about punk music often have a political element. But that political element sometimes seems rather contrived. Fair or not, we wind up rolling our eyes, not at the concern for the apportionment of power in the society being examined, but in both the melodramatic earnestness of the participants and the mirthlessness of the filmmakers. Punk is joyous, joyous destruction, joyous transgression, joyous creation – joy is the true political structure of punk, more than any cladding you can tack to it. In Deon Maas’s and Keith Jones‘ Punk in Africa, however, the political element is anything but contrived. In the film punk acts as a lever for political change, and the need for political change powers the joy of the music.

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Punk in Africa examines the punk scene in Southern Africa from the 70s onward, an era in which apartheid was being challenged in South Africa with violent repercussions, civil war burned across Mozambique and Robert Mugabe began his massacres in Zimbabwe. At this time, a combination of musical catholicity, the urge to break out of the stifling patterns of the past, and an influx of (white) U.K. citizens lit the slow fuse that transformed Southern African music. It wasn’t an explosion, it was an uninhibited musical miscegenation, in which punk and native musical traditions met – and screwed in the bathroom at the youth club.

Although created with the latest in technology – in fact, a great deal of the connections made, footage and photos gathered, accounts and illustrations were obtained via social media sites,Facebook in particular – the aesthetic of the movie is refreshing in how faithful it is to the punk visual aesthetic. The material artifacts of the age, like fliers (ask your dad) and 45 covers (ask your mom), govern the way the movie looks.

“You Know What Comes After Irony? F*ck You!”

The melody of the movie is one of profound humanity. There are people – recognizable people – in the movie, with their fears, boredom, resolution, sorrow and joy registering materially on you as they move through the flickering images. These aren’t rock stars. F*ck rock stars. These aren’t even icons. These are the people who answer the question that Wild Youth asked, “What about me?” These are “me.”

In the U.S. or the U.K. a two-toned band was a “political” statement, in the sense that it argued, in tangible terms for a turn away from a status quo that consisted of inertia and separation. It could get you grief in these places. But in apartheid South Africa, to have a band whose members were of different races – and many, like National Wake, were – is the kind of political act that solicits possible imprisonment and beating. It was a profound rupture with the past. It was punk.

The mentality was police state. As music journalist Dianne Coetze tells the filmmakers: “It was an incredibly repressive time to live, even if you were white… Your psychology, your ability to think big, your ability to engage with broader society was so constrained, that when this movement came along, it allowed people to be anarchic. That element of anarchy very much fed into the feeling that you wanted to go against the apartheid regime.”

“You Sound Like Where You’re From.”

Even as South Africa transforms itself into something approximating a “rainbow nation,” the challenges of freedom remain and the music continues to reflect it, sometimes in joy, often still in anger, but with a sense of possibility. Among the many questions that punk wrestles with in a post-apartheid era, “what is African?”

In the States, we tend to see punk as an historical moment whose aesthetic is occasionally resurrected in either costume play or homage. Punk in Africa shows it as more of a continuum, taking the audience from National Wake’s manic headlong danceability to Hog Hoggidy Hog and Fuzigish, with their horns, African jazz influence and ska and reggae inflections.