Were National Wake The Most Anti-Establishment Band In Rock History?
A rock band, comprised of two black guys and two white guys? No big deal. Unless, of course, you’re in apartheid South Africa. The story of National Wake and “perhaps the most dissident music scene of the 20th century: a multi-racial punk band in a fascist police state.”
Words: Will Simpson All pics courtesy of Ivan Kadey
Imagine you are a rock band and your gigs get regularly visited by the police, your communal house/ rehearsal space is under constant surveillance and there are official government files written about you, monitoring your progress and assessing the danger you pose to the state.
It sounds like the sort of existence that every studious rock rebel from The Clash to the MC5 to Primal Scream have had wet dreams about. But this was everyday life for an obscure South African punk era group. Their crime? They comprised both black and white members; National Wake’s very existence was a threat to the apartheid state.
In some ways their story is much the same as any other band’s – group forms, releases a disappointingly received album and splits up shortly afterwards. But National Wake’s multi racial line up put them on a collision course with the South African authorities – this was a group that undertook an act of transgression every time they stepped on stage.
Three decades on the group’s guitarist Ivan Kadey is on the phone from his home in Los Angeles remembering their brief fraught existence. “Right from the start there was never a question of ‘we can’t do this because we’re black and white’,” he recalls. “It seemed very natural to us. I’d been playing with another guitarist at the time. We looked for a drummer and a bassist and tried a couple of people and then Gary and Punka Khoza called round to jam and it was just fantastic.”
“It was a very bizarre world, and you just had to find a way of dealing with it,” he says of South Africa at the time. “There weren’t actually laws against black and white socialising, so to play in a private room was no problem. Performing in public was another issue. Particularly when the songs we were writing were very open, critical of the system and were actually putting forward an alternative.”
National Wake played their early gigs in the safe cocoon of the student/ alternative scene where an anti-government stance was a given. “I think in some ways we represented the dream of what everyone hoped what South Africa could be and within that circle we were really well received. I always thought we were the band that everyone was waiting for – the idea of this band had already existed in people’s consciousness long before we ever met each other.”
They were also fortunate in that they formed just as new wave was starting to lap at South African shores. Though the cultural boycott was in place, imports were trickling through into SA’s more adventurous record stores. And domestic groups were starting to pop up, most notably Wild Youth, a Durban-based outfit whose three chord clatter would have more than held its own at the Roxy.
Musically at least, National Wake were a step on from simple white bread punk. Listening to them now the similarities to Sandanista!-era Clash leap out, which given their diverse backgrounds isn’t surprising. “The Khoza brothers had played together in a funk band and like all of us were both totally into rock n’ roll. I had come out of being a sort of folk protest singer as a teenager. I was always interested in songs that tried to have some sort of social message.”
With all these ingredients in place, National Wake were programmed for confrontation – and as their name spread and the venues they played got larger, the authorities started to take notice. By the time the band’s one and only album was released the group were being visited up to three times a day and being constantly harassed by state police.
“One time they burst in and the whole band plus our manager were taken in to the Hillbrow police station [in Johannesburg],” remembers Kadey. “We were introduced to a very sinister looking man sitting there in a tweed jacket and grey flannels looking like a school teacher. He was questioning us about what we were doing and what our plans were and he ended the whole thing by saying to us ‘you guys should go overseas and call yourselves ‘Exile’. You’ll do really well.’”
Ivan remarks that it was actually good career advice. Indeed though their fame was growing inside South Africa, they struggled to get their music heard abroad. Apart from one solitary play on the John Peel show and one gig in Swaziland, National Wake went completely unheard outside their homeland. “The ANC had a total ban on anything from South Africa, even if a band was anti-apartheid. And it made people very wary. Even established groups like Johnny Clegg and Juluka had trouble touring the US and UK. Basically anything that came out of South Africa at that time was tainted and, you know, maybe it was.”
Inevitably these frustrations had an effect on the band. “There were always tensions. It’s not as if we were this idealistic group who had totally bonded. A band is a band. The two brothers – Gary and Punka – there was stuff going on between them and as time went on like any other band there were questions like ‘Where’s the money going? Who’s controlling the money?’ and so on. With all that and the external pressures I think everyone started to ask themselves, ‘Is this worth it? Where is this leading?’”
It all came to a head in 1981. The band’s debut album was released and at the same time the group were booked to play a series of gigs at the Chelsea, a prestigious Johannesburg club. There was just one problem – like most high profile rock venues it was segregated. Whites only. “Our black fans couldn’t come in and that caused a huge conflict within the band – what does it mean to be making it? If it means coming into line with the system is it worth it? It was a real problem.”
Worse the album didn’t do as well as many were expecting. Despite good reviews and the buzz building around the band at the time, it failed to get much in the way of airplay and was estimated to have sold a mere 700 copies. The group were suspicious. Rightly so, as it transpired.
“It later came out that security police visited the record company, leant on them and basically said, ‘kill this thing’. They were asked not to push this music any more. The record companies generally made their money by importing ready made hit albums from overseas. They certainly weren’t going to make a stance on local music and freedom of expression. Looking back it seems naive to think we could have even made it commercially in South Africa.”
Disappointed by the album’s reception, riven by divisions, broke and exhausted by three years of harassment, the group ground to a halt. Gary Khoza joined 80s activist outfit Malopoets whilst his brother formed South Africa’s best known reggae band of the time, Dread Warriors. Meanwhile Ivan built a studio and recorded other SA punk bands before emigrating to the States in the mid 80s for a new career as an architect.
Defeated by the apartheid system, for years National Wake remained a dimly-remembered footnote in the history of South African rock. But those who actually saw them never forgot their energy, idealism or what they represented. As is so often the way, the internet fuelled a renewed interest in the band and then in the middle of last decade Kadey was asked whether he’d be interested in getting involved in a re-issue of the album.
“I thought that was a good idea but then there was so much other stuff that we recorded that never saw the light of day that could be included in the package. So I started transferring all this stuff to digital and listening to it and after I worked though everything I just thought ‘this is amazing’. I had hardly given any sort of attention or thought to National Wake’s music for over 20 years.”
For Kadey, National Wake’s career encapsulated South Africa during those three short years. “Those early songs are naively optimistic and in a way it reflects the feeling in the country at the time. In 1979 when PW Botha came into the presidency believe it or not he was a breath of fresh air from what had been there before. He made some astounding statements saying what they would do in terms of liberalising the country.
“Then I later found out that the generals pulled him over the coals and read him the riot act and he gave a speech known as the ‘Rubicon’ speech where he just stood there, wagged his finger at the crowd and said ‘we will not change’. And then the real dark days began.”
Back in the 21st Century the re-issue and Keith Jones and Deon Maas’ acclaimed Punk In Africa documentary has meant National Wake’s music is being heard for the first time and, in many cases, rediscovered. “One of the best things about all this is the number of people who have come out and said how inspiring they found the band when we were together. There are a number of groups who have said that they see themselves as growing out of that National Wake spirit and that has been amazing.”
“It totally blows my mind because at the time these things just weren’t said. We didn’t know how people felt. And that has been the most amazing part of this whole process – understanding that we didn’t just disappear and have no effect. In some small way we did actually change things.”
National Wake – Walk In Africa 1979-81, is out on October 8th on Light In The Attic recordings.