SOUTH AFRICA: End Beginnings - Lesego Rampolokeng with the Kalahari Surfers
A fascinating mix of poetry and music, Rampolokeng's sharp writing entertains and provokes in equal measure
To the uninitiated (such as myself, a few minutes before starting my research for this review), this album has a few surprises. Lesego Rampolokeng is not a singer, but a renowned South African performance poet, and the Kalahari Surfers are not his backing band. They’re not even a band at all. They are a ‘fictional band’, according to their creator Warrick Sony, who uses the name as a stage name for his solo projects which have a constantly changing roster of musicians. All of this is probably well-known to any South African readers or any poetry aficionados out there, but before I knew this, I found the album difficult to get along with. Poetry and music have had a long association, with musicians like Bob Dylan blurring the line between poet and lyricist, and poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah all having released albums of poetry and music, The lyrics were interesting but musically I was lost. Now knowing what I know, the album begins to take shape. Rampolokeng’s singing is non-existent, really. He talk-sings, because the emphasis is the spoken word content which is extremely powerful and potent, while Sony’s backing instrumentation is sparse and harsh, which serves as suitable accompaniment to Rampolokeng’s hard-hitting poetry.
“In Rampolokeng’s hands, poetry becomes vital, funny, caustic, shocking, compelling, and commanding.”
The words for the album were taken from two collections of Rampolokeng’s poetry entitled Horns for Hondo and Talking Rain, published in 1990 and 1993 respectively. Sony’s music is very unusual and memorable, but it is more or less just a vessel for the delivery of Rampolokeng’s poetry. The opening track gives you a good idea of wat Rampolokeng’s poetry is like. It speaks of the brutality and violence inherent in the apartheid system, with verses such as “no one can negotiate, when their words amputate/I can only dance to the beat of progressive hands, no song can move me if it’s meant to break my knee” as well as “they came in the heat of rum, to freeze the beat of my drum/oh people take note, I wasn’t allowed to vote… they spoke in the gun & rifle tone, I answered in the language of stone”. The last part deliberately evokes David and Goliath (which the poem mentions), but also tells the story of how Rampolokeng managed to find his voice and use his creative talents as resistance and as a method to fight apartheid.
The title track mixes anti-colonialism with iconoclasm in a very droll manner at times. Looking through the perspective of the Christian morality imposed on South Africans by the British and other colonial settlers from across Europe, Rampolokeng says that “black tits and bums of a nation of strippers & exhibitionists made Jesus die of masturbation” which at once mocks the hypocritical way Africans were viewed by Western colonialists, and also mocks the religious hysteria and moral superiority. It’s all that combined in one very funny verse. This provocative streak makes itself present on most of the songs, often crouched in a darkly humorous irony. Rapmaster contains the line “I only shoot the British with bullets that are English” which I think highlights this tendency in his writing very well, as he mocks the British sense of moral superiority while also pointing to the fact that Britain under Margaret Thatcher supported apartheid South Africa, as well as to the fact that Britain has one of the largest arms exporting industries in the world.
I have not spoken much about Sony’s music as the Kalahari Surfers, and while the music is good, often moody and synth-led, it’s firmly taking a backseat to Rampolokeng’s superlative poetry. Poetry can have an image as being old-fashioned and stuffy, something boring you had to learn at school that bears no relevance to the real world. Rampolokeng’s work shatters that ill-conceived notion. In Rampolokeng’s hands, poetry becomes vital, funny, caustic, shocking, compelling, and commanding. It's hard not to listen to this with a wry smile on one’s face as Rampolokeng’s satirical yet righteously angry gaze takes aim at many of the world’s injustices, all with a firm anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist lens influenced by the Black Consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The album is also worth your time because the poems gain so much from Sony’s apt backing tracks but also from Rampolokeng’s reading of the pieces. He may not sing, but he captures a real rhythm and flow that’s compelling to listen to. As such, the album is much more than the sum of its parts.