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Famous South African Musicians and Bands

Johnny Clegg

Johnny Clegg was born in 1953 in Bacup, a small town on the eastern boundary of Lancashire, England. His father was English and his mother Rhodesian and Clegg was raised primarily in his mother’s native home of Rhodesia, which is today’s Zimbabwe. At the age of 9, his family emigrated to South Africa and by 14 Johnny was learning to play the guitar. He became interested in the Zulu street music and became friends with Charlie Mzila, who played near Clegg’s home and began to learn the fundamentals of the Zulu music as well as Inhlangwini, the traditional Zulu dancing.

As he was learning, he often accompanied Mzila to hostels, rooftop bars, and other haunts of the migrant laborers which led to trouble with the authorities for violating the Group Areas Act. Even in such difficult and complex political times in the country, Johnny somehow managed to forge a narrow pathway into the unseen world of the many Zulu migrant workers. During this turbulent period, Johnny gained a reputation for being a capable Zulu guitarist in the tradition of the Masikande and his name caught the attention of Sipho Mchunu. Mchunu challenged Johnny to a friendly competition and it was the beginning of not only a friendship, but a musical partnership that would go on to alter the course of South Africa’s music.

In 1969, Clegg and Mchunu formed Juluka, the first prominent mixed-race South African band. During the era of Apartheid it was illegal for them to perform in South Africa and Universal Men, their first album, received no air time on SABC, which was state owned. That didn’t stop the band from playing at private venues however, and their album soon became a hit by word of mouth alone. The tone of the music was explicitly political and many of their concerts were broken up and band members (including Clegg) were arrested. The Band broke up in 1986 because Mchunu’s father requested that he come home to watch over the family’s cattle

Clegg’s second racially mixed band was called Savuka and continued to successfully blend traditional African music with threads of European influence. Savuka gained critical acclaim with their albums Shadow Man, which sold 1,000,000 copies just in France, an Cruel Crazy, Beautiful World, which was more romantically inspired. At the height of their success, Savuka outstripped even Michael Jackson in France. The late singer/songwriter had to cancel a show in Lyon, France because Johnny Cregg with Savuka attracted a larger audience. One headline in a French newspaper read “White man singing black music outsells black man singing white music.” Heat, Dust, and Dreams, which was their last album received a Grammy nomination in the World Music category.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is an all-male South African choral group which was formed by Joseph Shabalala due to an inspirational series of dreams that he experienced in 1964. The group that would become Ladysmith Black Mambaza began in 1960 and was called “Ezimnyama” or “The Black Ones”. Shabalala formed a group of relatives comprised mostly of brothers and cousins, and while they sang quite well together and captured the essence of isicathamaiya (the Zulu people’s traditional music), they were virtually unknown beyond the Ladysmith district.

In 1964 Shabalala experienced a recurring dream in which there was a choir that sang in perfect harmony. He described the sound as being beautiful and inspiring, a sound that had yet to be achieved by his present group. The result was the reformation of the group with the addition of new and younger relatives, but keeping the name as it was. He worked with the group to sing the harmonies he heard in his dreams and created what would become the group’s signature tune: “Nomathemba” a female name meaning “hope”.

After evaluating his group and deciding that they were able to capture the soft, beautiful sounds that he had dreamt of, Shabalala began to enter the group into the isicathamiya competitions that were held on Saturday nights in the hostels of Johannesburg and Durban. The group dominated nearly every competition that they entered and became so good that eventually they were forbidden these competitions, but welcomed to entertain there. Their success was so phenomenal that they began to receiver contract offers from music producers and in 1972 they signed on with Gallo Record Company in the African music division.

In 1973 they released their first album “Amabutho”, which reached gold status, the first album by a black group or musician in South Africa to achieve this. Subsequent albums also reached platinum or gold status and when their second album had been released they considered themselves professional singers. In 1976, Shabalala’s conversion to Christianity added a host of new religious material to the group’s already impressive repertoire. Soon after, their first religious album “Ukukhanya Kwelanga” was released and went double platinum. By 1981 they had become so wildly popular that the apartheid government consented to allow them to travel to Germany to take part in the South African folk music festival in Cologne.

While they had toured Germany after the folk music festival, their popularity in the west skyrocketed after they collaborated with American singer/songwriter Paul Simon to make his memorable album “Graceland” Simon contacted and spoke with Shabalala in person and after lengthy discussions the group was off to London to begin recording with Simon. After the release of Graceland, Simon went on to act as their producer for Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s first album intended for U.S. release (Shaka Zulu) under Warner Brothers Records. The album won a Grammy in 1988 for Best Traditional Folk Recording. Their amazing success paved the road to the west for many other African acts, such as Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and Stimela.

In 1999 Joseph Shabalala began “The Ladysmith Black Mambazo Foundation”, with the aim of teaching young Zulu children in South Africa about their culture and traditional music, isicathamiya.

Prime Circle

A South African rock band, Prime Circle was founded in December 2000 in Witbank, Mpumalanga, South Africa. Band members Marco Gomes, Ross Learmonth, Gerhard Venter, and Dirk Bisschoff had been playing in a variety of separate bands until they came together to form Prime Circle. They began by playing venues of the Mpumalanga music scene at night while they practiced and added to their playlist in the garages of their parents’ as well as holding down normal jobs during the day.

Initially signing with an independent local label (David Gresham Records), the band got a contract for a two-album deal. The albums produced what would become the signature style and sound of the band and yielded songs such as “Weaker Still”, “Kuve This Life”, and Fall Too Fast”. Another song, “Hello”, from their debut album “Hello Crazy World”, was a huge success in South Africa topped the national charts for an incredible 28 weeks.

“Live This Life”, their second album, was released in October, 2005 and had achieved gold status by early 2006 with many of its singles joining the album in its success on the charts. They have played many major local concerts and in 2007 the band performed at the Dubai Desert Rock Festival among such Western music legends as Iron Maiden, Robert Plant, and Prodigy.

Their popularity seemed to grow at an amazing pace and they have played numerous European tours, including touring with the American rock band 3 Doors Down. Prime circle released a new album in June 2014 and continues their work out of Johannesburg.

The Parlotones

The Parlotones are a critically acclaimed rock band from South Africa. The band was formed in 1998 and is well-known for the face make-up that is worn by the band’s lead singer Kahn Morbee.

In October of 2003, the band’s first album Episods was self-released, but their second album Radiocontrolledrobot, which was released through Sovereign Entertainment in 2005, was the first to achieve mainstream success. The album won in the Best Rock Album category at the South African Music Awards in 2006. The haunting ballad “Beautiful” was featured in an Irish television commercial and the exposure led to a European license contract with Universal Music and the album reached gold status by 2007.

The band acts as spokespersons for Earth Hour and Live Earth, as well as Prince Charles, Rihanna, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In 2009 they played in Cannes, France for the Midem Talent Showcase and met the American rock band Blue October. Subsequently, the Parlotones were invited to do their first U.S. tour as an opening act for Blue October, who were touring to promote an upcoming album, Approaching Normal. The match proved so successful that the Parlotones went on to headline several other U.S. tours. They also performed at the FIFA World Cup Kick Off Celebration in 2010 alongside such performers as the Black Eyed Peas, Shakira, and Alicia Keys.

In 2012, the band announced that it would be moving to Los Angeles, California and in 2013, their manager Raphael Domalik released the book The Story of The Parlotones, which sold out almost immediately.

Freshlyground

An Afro-fusion band that was formed in 2002 in Cape Town, South Africa, Freshlyground’s band members come from Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well as South Africa. Their distinct style of music is a blend of jazz, blues, and indie rock as well as the traditional music of South Africa including African folk music and kwela.

Their debut album Jika Jika was released early in 2003 and its commercial success gave their career a kick-start and reaffirmed their standing as a vibrant and fresh talent on the South African music scene. The exposure that the album gave them resulted in the band being invited to play at both the Robben Island African Festival and the Harare International Festival of the Arts.

In 2004 the band participated in the opening of the Parliament of South Africa and performed for President Thabo Mbeki in the event that was organized to celebrate then years of democracy for South Africa.

In 2005 they were nominated for three South African Music Awards for the album Nomvula and while they didn’t win any awards that year they were awarded the prestigious Best Duo or Group award in 2008. In the same year, the album Ma’ Cheri (released in 2007) won the Album of the Year award.

Freshlyground also became the first band from South Africa to receive an award from MTV when they were presented with an MTV Europe Music Award for Best African Act.

Seether

The alternative metal/post grunge band Seether was formed in 1999 in Pretoria, South Africa. When the band was founded they used the name “Saron Gas” and released a single independent album (Fragile) under that name.

In 2002 the band changed its name to Seether and released their original album “Disclaimer”, which was their major record label debut. They became more popular with the mainstream with the U.S. #1 single “Fine Again” and had even further success with the single “Broken” in 2004. Broken reached # 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and they continued producing #1 hits with songs such as “Fake It”, “Country Song”, and “Remedy”.

Seether’s music shows heavy influences by such American grunge groups as Alice in Chains and Nirvana, in fact one interviewer wrote that lead singer Shaun Morgan “is an unabashed, unapologetic worshiper of Kurt Cobain, using Nirvana’s sound as a template for Seether.” With the commercial success of their albums, as well as tours with rock icons such as Nickelback in 2009, Seether’s popularity seems to be riding a tidal wave of success around the world.

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