National Wake: the multiracial South African punk band that rebelled against apartheid

GGuitar player and songwriter Ivan Kadey had no intention of forming South Africa’s first multiracial punk band, but from the moment he met brothers Gary and Punka Khoza it was clear what a powerful combination they would make. By the late 1970s, under the apartheid system of institutionalized racial oppression that separated white and black South Africans, the group’s very existence was to prove explosive. “Just getting up and making music together was a political statement,” Kadey, now 70, explains via video call from his current home in Los Angeles. “We were for a non-racist, peaceful South Africa and that’s what we stood for simply by standing up and performing. On many levels it was an affair with the system.”

He already had the perfect name for this gang of outlaws: National Wake. At the time when the country was being ruled by the right-wing National Party, both calling themselves National Wake called on their country to wake up from the nightmare of segregation and promised to celebrate its demise. “We said, ‘Let’s dance on the corpse of apartheid,'” explains Kadey. “The name was purely an agitprop statement, as was the composition of the band.”

Formed in 1979, National Wake recorded just one album before disbanding in 1982 under pressure from police harassment. Now the story of their short, tumultuous existence is being told in a new documentary. This is National Wake which has its world premiere this week at Sheffield DocFest. Director Mirissa Neff believes the band’s story continues to resonate powerfully. “One of the main themes of this film is how we experience history,” says Neff. “This band came out of a certain moment, a police state, where these horrible, inhuman things were happening, and they turned that into something beautiful. These were people who weren’t even supposed to be together, but formed across racial lines for a love of music when it was illegal to do so. I find that so admirable.”

Gary Khoza, Punka Khoza and Ivan Kadey share the stage as National Wake

(Ivan Kadey)

In 1976, Kadey, the orphaned son of Jewish immigrants, was an architecture student living in a communal house in Johannesburg when the city was rocked by the Soweto Uprising, a demonstration led by black students that ended in a police crackdown that killed at least 176 young people. “Students risked their lives to protest government repression,” Kadey recalls. “It got you thinking: what were you ready for? What have you done in terms of combat? For me, music was the most direct way I could express my feelings about life in South Africa.”

For the next three years, Kadey played and wrote songs with his friend Mike Lebesi, but what they really needed to start a band was a bassist and a drummer. “We jammed all kinds of people with Mike,” Kadey recalls. “At one point he said, ‘Hey, I have these two buddies from Soweto. It would be great if they came over and we had some jam and that was it.”

Gary and Punka Khoza turned out to be exactly the people Kadey was looking for. Gary, the older brother, was a quiet introvert who had been a musical prodigy growing up. “The story goes that when Gary was nine years old, he was discovered in a backyard in Alexandra township, playing drums on cookie jars,” explains Kadey. “He’s been drumming for the Flaming Souls since he was 10, which was a really hot soul band at the time. He could play any instrument backwards, forwards and sideways.” He became National Wake’s bassist while his charismatic younger brother, Bernard “Punka” Khoza, took over the drums. Together they formed a powerful rhythm section that fueled haunting protest songs like “International News” about the media blackout surrounding the townships and the war in Angola.

National Wake quickly built a following in Johannesburg, playing semi-legal shows in student unions and some separate venues. But when they tried to take part in a national tour called Riot Rock in December 1979 and play alongside all-white punk and new wave bands like Wild Youth and The Safari Suits, the promoters got a powerful message from the authorities, who told them informed that a “permission to allow a mixed band was not positively evaluated”. The band was determined to play anyway, but in the conservative town of Fish Hoek, promoters lost their nerve and pulled the band’s plug seconds after they took the stage. It was just one of many such frustrating experiences for the band. “See, the wake wasn’t glamorous,” says Kadey. “It wasn’t like we were floating on a sea of ​​fans at the top of the world. It was a struggle, just as the entire apartheid resistance movement was a struggle.”

A 1979 government telegram informing organizers of the Riot Rock tour that an “approval to allow a mixed band was not being considered favorably”.

(Ivan Kadey)

The constant uncertainty as to whether they would be allowed to play or not weighed heavily on the band. Original lead guitarist Paul Giraud left because, as Kadey puts it, “he found The Wake too taxing to deal with. You had to have some capacity to deal with what it was.” He was replaced by The Safari Suits’ Steve Moni, who had witnessed the National Wake controversy on the Riot Rock tour. Moni, who is on the video call from his home in Prague, says the prospect of joining the band is both “extremely exciting and extremely challenging”. He adds: “It was much more than just a band. It was a lifestyle. It was a prototype.”

While there were other multiracial music acts in South Africa at the time, including jazz bands and folk groups like Juluka, whose white frontman Johnny Clegg sang in Zulu, they didn’t carry the same kind of countercultural messages that National Wake made core to theirs Identity. “What was incredible about Wake,” says Moni, “was that it really was something that had never been seen before.”

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The band’s only self-titled record was released in 1981 and sold around 700 copies before being withdrawn due to government pressure. “Very soon after [record label] WEA International put the album out, the security police came and basically told them to put it on hold,” Kadey recalls. “They pulled it and stopped promoting it, not that they ever did much to promote it!”

The album’s release was just the pretext the police needed to increase their harassment of the band. By this point, Kadey’s home had become National Wake’s headquarters and was being raided multiple times a day by officers looking for cannabis and “subversive literature” and other pretexts for an arrest. One day the band was called en masse to a local police station. “There was this little guy in gray flannel pants, a tweed jacket and a little Hitler mustache,” Kadey recalls. “He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘We’re a band. We make music. We want to sell records.’ I never mentioned politics. I was just talking about our ambitions as a band. He looked at us and said, “There is no place for you here. You should go abroad. Call yourselves ‘Exile’, you’re going to do really well.’ And then he let us go. It was all very ominous.”

This Is National Wake director Mirissa Neff: “These were people who weren’t even supposed to be together, but they formed across racial lines for the love of music when it was illegal to do so”

(This is National Wake)

The pressure of having to survive as a band in such depressing circumstances eventually led to National Wake splitting up and going their separate ways in 1982. For decades their story was largely forgotten, and tragically Gary and Punka Khoza died before interest in the band was reignited through a 2012 documentary Punk in Africa and the 2013 compilation Walk in Africa 1979-1981, which brought together live bootlegs and original recordings from National Wake. This is National Wake is the first time the group’s inspirational story will be fully told. “The Wake was lightning in a bottle,” says Kadey. “It happened over a period of two or three years and then it lost oxygen and died. I think Mirissa’s film will breathe new life into it. Forty years after the band broke up, it still feels great to be a part of it.”

Kadey hopes her defiant story can help inspire a new generation to speak up about what she believes in and channel their anger and frustration to make their own inflammatory music. “People were looking for a peaceful, non-violent solution to what was happening in the country, and that was Wake,” he says. “It was a way of defying all the laws in a way that was like, ‘Hey, we can come together and do something cohesive and powerful.’ You could dance to that damn thing. It was primarily shake-your-ass music. There weren’t many ballads.”

This Is National Wake premieres at Sheffield DocFest on Friday 24th June and returns on Monday 27th June. More info at thisisnationalwake.com

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/national-wake-documentary-interview-2022-b2106436.html National Wake: the multiracial South African punk band that rebelled against apartheid


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