• Punk in Africa

    Released by: MVD Visual
    Released on: March 11th, 2014.
    Director: Keith Jones, Deon Maas
    Cast: Michael Flek, Warrick Sony, Lee Thomson, Paulo Chibanga, Tiago C. Paolo, Rubin Rose
    Year: 2012
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    The Movie:

    The documentary PUNK IN AFRICA begins with a quote by musician and human rights activist Fela Kuti: “In Africa, music cannot be for entertainment, it must be for revolution.” That sets the tone for a film that tells the story about how punk music played a role in three South African countries fraught with political and social unrest in the latter half of the twentieth century: South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Although it would be foolish to divorce the UK and US punk rock movements from their respective socio-political contexts, the stakes are obviously higher in nations where activism could potentially be met with violence, censorship or even imprisonment.

    Although many of the bands featured in this documentary owe an obvious stylistic debt to their Anglo-American precursors, the trait that unites them all is their willingness to engage in an oppressive social reality head on. One of the first bands featured in PUNK IN AFRICA are Wild Youth, and it is worth quoting the opening lines to their song “Wot About Me?” as a representative example of this foregrounding of activism:

    “I don't want to talk about Johnny Rotten
    I don't want to talk about Sid Vicious
    I don't want to talk about Joe Strummer
    I just wanna to talk 'bout... 'Bout me
    Wot 'bout me?”

    Much of the punk rock bands in Apartheid-era South Africa centered around the city of Durban, where groups like Wild Youth, The Gay Marines and Power Age would not only play their music in seedy clubs but also in guerrilla street performances. Wild Youth and Power Age drummer Rubin Rose tells an anecdote about playing one of these street shows in a multi-racial area of the city until the police arrived and stopped their performance. Rose left the music scene soon afterward due to the very real threat that anyone playing punk rock could be detained and incarcerated by the authorities.

    National Wake, from Johannesburg, are perhaps the keystone band of the South African punk music scene. They were the first multi-racial rock band and their music was an infectious blend of punk, funk, reggae and soul music, all delivered with a political message (they are often likened to The Clash and they share that band’s willingness to blur musical genres). The members of National Wake not only preached racial unity in their lyrics but also lived it; they all lived together in a large house, a dangerous prospect during that time. When the band started to make waves, attracting both blacks and whites to their live performances, they started to be harassed by the authorities and they disbanded soon afterward.

    The punk rock that emerges in South Africa after the end of Apartheid in 1994 signals a noticeable tonal shift in the documentary. Bands from South Africa no longer had to operate under the watchful eye of oppressive authorities and, as a result, the music from this period gives off an almost party vibe. Members from ska bands like Hog Hoggidy Hog and Fuzigish talk less about politics than they do about how the disparate influences of their music celebrate their cultural heritage. Almost as a response to the de-politicization of post-Apartheid punk rock, the documentary features reactionary commentary from Mark Kannemeyer, a comic book artist living in Pretoria, and Andries Bezuidenhout, a professor of Sociology from the University of the Witwatersrand; the latter says that the contemporary music scene in South Africa is comprised of “disillusioned parents and clueless kids.”

    PUNK IN AFRICA starts strong but unfortunately the quality drops in the second-half of the documentary. Most of the 82 minute documentary centers on South Africa; the second country, Mozambique, doesn’t make its appearance until the hour mark. All of a sudden we’re back into areas of Africa that are suffering from economic instability and political unrest; unfortunately the filmmakers rush through these last two countries without adequately explaining their corresponding histories. The members of the band 340ml talk in a general sense about living in a “closed society,” the massive drug problems in the 1980s and the possible influence of civil war on their music. Rather than offer explanatory commentary at this point, the filmmakers frustratingly flash a few seconds of archival battle footage with the subtitle “War of Independence and Civil War: Mozambique 1964 – 1992.” When Tobo Maidza, vocalist for The Rudimentals, talks about the political situation in Zimbambwe, we get a similar film clip/text footnote: “Political Unrest: Zimbabwe 2000 – 2003.” Gee, thanks.

    Those caveats aside, PUNK IN AFRICA is certainly a fascinating documentary that shines a light on bands that will be obscure to many western audiences. Directors Keith Jones and Deon Maas have assembled an excellent collection of archival footage and contemporary concert performances from key players in the South African music scene; there’s a good balance between the various talking heads and music clips throughout. Fans of punk, and music documentaries in general, will find a lot to like here.


    MVD Visual brings PUNK IN AFRICA to DVD in an anamorphic widescreen transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.77:1. The film is a mix of heterogeneous video sources; clips from the late 1970s and early 1980s are often in rough shape, but the contemporary interviews and concert footage look very good. As with many documentaries of this nature, you’re not going to get a consisted video quality throughout and given the rarity of some of the archival clips, you’re lucky to get them at all.

    The DVD comes with a Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. As with the video option, some of the vintage clips show their age but for the most part the sound is good throughout. By the time we get to the second half of the documentary, the music comes out loud and clear. The documentary is primarily in English, although occasionally individuals will speak in Afrikans and these are subtitled accordingly. The disc gives you the option of playing the documentary with German, Portuguese or Spanish subtitles.

    Aside from the obligatory promo trailer, MVD’s DVD features performances and interviews from musicians featured in the documentary. The contemporary live performances by Hog Hoggidy Hog and The Rudimentals sound good; unfortunately, the track from 340ml is marred by some audio distortion and the mix on Evicted’s performance is guitar-heavy. National Wake’s song is an old promo video for the song “International News.” There are extended interview clips from Mac McKenzie, Amavel and Warrick Sony which presumably ended up on the cutting room floor. Rounding out the extras is a clip from Michael Flek, from Wild Youth, giving an impromptu acoustic performance of his song “Wot ‘bout Me?”

    The Final Word:

    PUNK IN AFRICA is strongest when its focus is on Apartheid-era South Africa; in fact, I was scrambling to find copies of Wild Youth and National Wake songs afterwards, a real testament to the documentary’s effectiveness in generating interest. It is unfortunate that the filmmakers rushed things when it came to the music scenes of Mozambique and Zimbabwe; there just isn’t enough historical context, which is essential when you start your documentary purporting to tell the story of the revolutionary potential of the punk rock scene. Overall, though, the documentary is worth watching based on the strength of its early sections. Recommended.