At last! But R150M relief for South African artists may not reach the neediest

After a broad promise on March 25th, the Minister of Sports Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthetwa, announced the detail of a R150M relief fund for those employed in the arts and sports sectors yesterday, on Sunday March 29th.

DSAC Minister Nathi Mthetwa

Official acknowledgment that earnings in these sectors have been decimated by Covid-related cancellations and closures is very welcome. That some artists certainly will benefit from these proposals should not be ignored.

But their nature suggests that the Department’s thinking remains imprisoned within increasingly irrelevant concepts of how most South African cultural workers today – and particularly those located in communities rather than formal structures – actually function.

The total amount is relatively small. That was always going to be the case. Government is valiantly trying to stretch already scarce resources across multiple competing demands for an as-yet indeterminate period of time, and should be applauded by all of us for trying to do what it can.

Organisational disparities

Where the amount becomes problematic is in relation to decision-making and disbursement mechanisms. The plan for sports has been agreed via SASCOC, and no doubt payments will involve the various sports discipline governing bodies. Most professional sportspeople are – because they have to be – affiliated to these. Whatever the well-documented weaknesses of certain sports bodies, that implies some payment channels with real reach; much of the sports money will go where it’s supposed to.

The plan for arts was developed with CCIFSA (the Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa), an oversight and co-ordinating body established by DSAC. Unlike the sports bodies, artists and their organisations are not required to be part of CCIFSA. Indeed, its affiliates represent a small minority of working artists in South Africa. Additionally, its operations, accountability and transparency have drawn criticism – see, for example, this critique from 2019 by Thami aka Mbongo , which mentions, among others, failure to submit reports of activities or up-to-date audited accounts. Its current leadership is extremely new.

This disparity presents a risk that the arts sector may be less effective than sports in accessing its share of already very limited funds.

The nitty-gritty

Payments under the relief fund are structured as followed:

  • DSAC- approved projects with a Memorandum of Understanding in place with the department will receive their first tranche of payment (level to be determined by DSAC) after the date of the cancelled event, subject to submitting satisfactory documentation.
  • DSAC institutions (eg the Playhouses and State Theatre) that have booked performers for events now cancelled will be treated similarly.
  • Compensation for cancelled non-DSAC projects will be limited to “the list of 25 productions and 15 live events already submitted by national industry organisations”. (Few people I’ve asked know what these are.)
  • Artists and arts organisations have until April 4 to submit proposals for Fourth Industrial Revolution projects (ie online) that can provide alternative employment for artists. These will only be accepted from “good standing, compliant, sector organisations”.
  • The phrasing in the statement mentions only sportspeople at this point, but this seems to be an oversight; compensation will be available only to those who are solely reliant on their sector activities for income.

What about gig workers?

It’s been noted worldwide that provision for precarious employees is a weak or non-existent area in many Covid relief programmes. South Africa and the proposals above are no exception. Yet we know from two decades of research worldwide that the predominant forms of creative work are temporary and project-based – most cultural workers are gig workers. They must often supplement on-stage earnings with teaching, office work, waiting tables or other side hustles. All of those have also been ended by the Covid lockdown – but if they feature in, say, a SARS return (and you must be tax-compliant too to qualify) they could rule you out of relief.

The Sound of Music on-stage: what South African cultural work mostly isn’t

How does it all stack up?

The relief programme for cultural workers thus faces the risk of being a programme that enacts Matthew 25:29: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” Formal arts sector employees and those with solid contracts for work through the next few months, who earn from nothing except their arts sector activities, will qualify for relief. As, of course, they should. But the majority of working artists, who construct an income week-to-week seeking gigs and filling the income gaps with something else, will find it hard to fit.

What SA cultural work often is….

Community cultural workers, who may not be fluent in English, online tech skills or bureaucratese, will find it hard to put together claim documentation or proposals for future 4IR projects. Normally, they might approach an arts organisation for help and advice, and seek quotations from service and equipment suppliers. All of those have been shut by the lockdown, and the April 4 cut-off date is close. 

Future prospects?

Using existing formal structures as channels is, of course, an eminently sensible way to respond to an emergency situation that breaks out as fast as Covid. The situation could even present an opportunity for CCIFSA to turn around its negative reputation by advocating for all artists (affiliates or not) and getting practical action to remedy some of these gaps. Without that, however, both it and DSAC’s focus on rigid, infrastructural and institutional solutions for a highly agile and informal creative sector (which long predates this crisis) will emerge from the crisis entrenched, as blocks to what cultural workers on the ground really need. And many artists will spend the crisis period destitute.

There will be a time after Covid. To sustain hope we need to be thinking ahead too.

Manu, makossa, memories and me

OK, so the formal obituary for Manu Dibangu has been filed and published

But I’ve also got my own story of Dibangu’s music, from another time and place: before his “discovery” by the American record industry.

My encounter with Soul Makossa, in London in the 1970s, demonstrates the impressive reach of the pan-African musical landscape, the electric Africa that Dibangu constantly advocated, and how music and politics are closer than sisters. It’s quite a long story, because it needs context first.

Shopping at Sterns

There was a shop called Sterns on Warren Street, off the central Tottenham Court Road. At the front, it sold small electrical goods; in the back, impenetrable stacks of cardboard boxes held imported African music LPs, predominantly from Congo and Nigeria, often hot off the presses and the boat.

Sterns original record store

As much as the library, canteen and auditorium of the Africa Centre (donated by the Catholic Church in 1962, opened by Kenneth Kaunda in 1964), it was a hub and meeting place for homesick African students and anti-colonial scholars and campaigners.

The BUFP paper: Black Voice

Partying in Brixton

In South London suburbs such as Brixton, Peckham, Stoke Newington and more, many of these strugglers found affordable accommodation, alongside their Windrush Generation elders. In the same suburbs, campaigning black organisations such as the Marxist-Leninist Black Unity and Freedom Party (BUFP) organised and held meetings. They campaigned against racist atrocities such as the killing of Aseta Simms at Stoke Newington Police Station and the New Cross Fire and built worldwide links (with, for example, Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party in Ghana, and the ANC through its exiled officials in London). BUFP membership was limited to people of colour. But because it situated the key contradictions in society with class rather than race (and took gender very seriously), it also co-operated with white working-class organisations like ARM, the Maoist fragment to which I belonged.

Brixton Market in the 1960s

Which brings us back to music, because there were not only Parties, but parties. The streets of those South London suburbs on a Saturday night shook with community “blues”:

Dancing at a Blues

All a blues needed was a living room; a sound system, and a tireless team of entrepreneurial family cooks generating samoosas, beef patties, curry, fried plantain, fried chicken and more, with Red Stripe beer and Appletons Estate Rum on sale. And we’d all – party people and Party people – scour the streets for the best one. In my case, we often relied on the critical ears of our friend Girleen Williams, who could catch the first four bars from a sound system and move us swiftly on with a dismissive “Tsk! Small island!”  I’ll be honest: there were tensions between African and Caribbean migrant communities, assiduously fostered by the British state. But at the parties where conscious dancers dominated, African music got needletime too.

A roomful of liberation politics

The house parties were magical events. If I were writing fiction, I’d imagine a room that hosted every pan-African liberation luminary at once – but that never happened.  However, over a series of Saturday nights you might find yourself dancing (or equally, arguing theory) with people who included, to name a few, Ugandan scholar Dan Wadada Nabudere, BUFP guest speaker Walter Rodney, British Black Panther Darcus Howe, South African guitarist Lucky Ranku – and the man who should have been Cameroon’s first post-independence President, revered socialist leader Ndeh Ntumazah.

Ndeh Ntumazah

…And Manu on the turntable

With Ndeh around, Manu Dibangu on the turntable was a no-brainer.

When Soul Makossa arrived at Sterns (the French Fiesta pressing, two years before Atlantic), everybody wanted it. When the album sleeve was spotted at a party, everybody wanted it played. And when it was played, everybody – including the normally staid and thoughtful, pushing-50, Ndeh – danced.

That’s one of the memories that has stayed with me: politicos, civilians and Rastas, “police and thieves”, black and white Londoners with roots everywhere in the world, young and old, moving joyfully together to mama-se /mama-sa/mama- ma-koss –a!

Whatever country they  hailed from, all the Africans knew that song – in 1972, two years before the track allegedly went “international”. 

In Africa, it was already international: a whole continent had been buying it, talking about it, sending letters to the student nephew at SOAS urging, “You must get this record.” And when me, the naïve Brit, asked solemnly about “tradition”, I was quickly corrected.  “No, you don’t understand. This is our modern music. This is Africa today. It’s the music of the cities – Radio! Records! – and the working-class people living there: the ones who are going to make our revolutions!”

We may still be on the road to getting those revolutions right – but thanks, Manu, for opening the door on what the parties could be like when they succeed!   Hamba Kahle.

Another giant has fallen: Manu Dibangu 1934-2020 – see obituary posted at

Here’s the link to my full story on Manu Dibangu:

It includes a playlist with some of the musician’s less well known early recordings, including a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek cover of (white singer) Nino Rossi’s I want to Be Black, and three different versions of Soul Makossa.

A second great architect of African music has died of causes related to Covid-19: multi-instrumentalist, composer and leader Manu Dibangu.
My tribute to him will be published at and I will post the link here as soon as it is published. It’s almost impossible to imagine the African music landscape without him. Hamba Kahle.

RIP Aurlus Mabele: the King of Soukous is dead

As the Covid-19 pandemic spreads, it’s inevitable that people from our community – music – will suffer: they are workers and members of society just like us, and sometimes more vulnerable than others because of the precarity of their circumstances.

Aurlus Mabele

Yesterday in Paris the acknowledged “King of Soukous”, singer Aurlus Mabele, died aged 67. His death was precipitated by Covid-19, but his health had previously been weakened by a stroke and he had received treatment for cancer. Mabele had in earlier years appealed the Republic of Congo’s head of state, Dennis Sassou-Ngouessou, for some assistance in his old age and sickness. He had, after all, done as much as (and some will argue, more than) many politicians to build the cultural reputation of the Congo region.

Born Aurélien Miatsonama in Brazzaville on 25 October 1953, he became an in-demand session singer with many of the greats of the earlier generations of Congolese music kings. His own first band was Ndimbola Lokole. By the 1980s, he had moved to Paris and teamed up with guitarist Diblo ‘Machine-gun’ Dibala, master of the breath-taking sebene break, in the outfit Loketo (“hips”).


Mabele’s sharp musical ears picked up the Antillean idioms that also swirled through Paris, winning him multiple fans in the Francophone West Indies as well as in Europe and on the African continent. You can catch the flavour of that decade’s music, as well as Mabele’s commanding vocal presence, on this track, Asta-de, from the 1991 album King of Soukous

Mabele also continued to work as a session singer, and featured on multiple other albums as well as releasing 15 under his own name – the obituary estimates of his sales from those between 1986 and the early 2000s range from ten- to 100-million. (There’s a comprehensive discography here: ) Among those recordings were imageshits such as Extra-Ball, Embargo and – with one of the crown princes of the generation that followed him, Meiway – Freres de Sang Mabele will be mourned by a worldwide community of fans, and by his family, including his daughter, the rapper Liza Monet.

When circumstances are bewildering and distressing, we need more than ever the joy that intelligently conceived, brilliantly sung and played dance music can bring. Thank you, Mr Mabele: kende malamu.

Music in the time of Coronavirus

The virus causing all the trouble

UPDATE 27 March 2020:

See LLoyd Gedye’s survey of South African artists’ plight here:

And, finally, a response from DAC here:

• The National Arts Festival at Makhanda has announced it’s going digital, in way that will provide income to performers. Full concrete details of how this will work aren’t yet available; I’ll post them as soon as they are. But  congratulations to the Festival for a press statement that acknowledges the hardship to artists, and a plan that aims to do something about it.

• Artists in the USA are lobbying ( ) for Spotify to triple its payments to artists to cover the cancellation of live performance opportunities. Bandcamp – always a more artist-friendly streamer – has tripled the royalty rates it will pay for 24 hours from midnight March 20 Pacific Standard Time.  It’s only one day, but it’s a start.

• Meanwhile, there’s still a deafening silence from DACS and its minion artists’ organisation about the plight of artists in a period when everything is being cancelled, postponed, or put on hold. Come on, guys: even “We’re thinking of you” and a call for helpful suggestions would be better than silence.


Finally and sensibly the Cape Town International Jazz Festival has announced the event’s postponement. We should all praise the good sense and public spirit of this decision. The event would have brought together tens of thousands of people: some from, or travelling via, places with far higher case numbers than South Africa; many with immune systems depressed by lack of sleep or intoxicants; all crowded together, with ‘social distance’ a logistical impossibility. It’s the recipe for an infective shit-storm. Swaziland’s Bushfire has postponed for a full year.

Although it’s still a few months away, we must hope that The National Arts Festival in Makhanda is at least thinking about doing something similar. That last event always sees multiple colds and flus, even in a normal season, and the Eastern Cape’s water situation has in recent years made enthusiastic washing seem like a selfish choice.

National Arts Festival, Makhanda: crowded, sneezy and sometimes short of water

Because, even on the most optimistic health projections, coronavirus won’t have completely “gone away” by June. Given both luck and good management, infection numbers should be much lower by then. Those who have survived infection will probably have immunity for the rest of this season, and everybody will be routinely washing their hands like crazy. We should also be closer to better understanding the illness and developing a vaccine. But for a good while longer, risks will remain and taking precautions will make sense.

However, for working musicians, postponing live events (or, as some European countries have already done, closing bars and other venues) is very bad news indeed. Live performance now sits at the top of the music industry value chain worldwide, with the highest earning potential (even in countries like South Africa where performance fees can be insultingly low). An event such as a major festival, although it’s only a once-off, may promise an amount on which to make plans. Without gigs, musicians – like most other freelance workers – are without income.

In the UK, the Guardian has just devoted serious space to this issue (

But in the UK, even though provisions have become progressively meaner over recent years, some attenuated forms of state unemployment insurance still exist. In South Africa, if you haven’t previously held a regular waged job, there’s no UIF: nada, dololo, nix.

So what to do? Is there any way that those of us who love music, and appreciate the beauty and inspiration musicians provide and the hard creative work they do, can help mitigate the hardship that is certainly coming?

UK Musicians’ Union manifesto

First, the fact that musicians exist in the precarious (call it ‘gig’) economy means they have a great deal in common with other workers in the hospitality and entertainment industries. Despite the existence of a DAC-supported nominal entity, there is really no musicians’ union worth the name. Perhaps those music-lovers among us who are active in trade union federations could assist with organising a real one, so musicians could draw on the strengths of solidarity and collective campaigning to improve their situation during this crisis and beyond?

Second, a Department of Arts and Culture (and Sport) that cared could assist with special support – even short-term – for creative workers robbed of their livelihood by Covid closures.

Third, if we can’t attend live shows, we can buy music online. Currently, musicians pay dollars but earn only cents from online sales through international music platforms. But supposing DAC helped create a national distribution and sales platform, with all transactions in ZAR, and easy access for both music-makers and music buyers?

Fourth, why can’t we support virtual shows? An empty venue stages a show. Those who want to attend pay to scan a QR code for online access. Run a chat column down the side of the screen and we can even ‘talk’ to one another about the music while it’s playing. The proceeds reimburse organisers and artists – and you’ve got a live video that can carry on earning. The technology exists, and already works for distance HE lectures, so why not for live music too?

And fifth, when things get back to ‘normal’ and Covid becomes just another Winter flu, with a lower kill-rate than it has right now, and a vaccine available, how about looking again at creative work and its value to society? How about taking action so that those who profit from workers’ precarity are reined in, and our musicians, writers and visual artists are not forever existing only one pandemic away from destitution?

Quarantined Italians sing from their balconies

Because if we do move to a period of social isolation, as we might if the epidemic worsens here, it could well be music that lifts us from despair ( ).

Billy Monama: stringing together South African guitar history

Billy Monama

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” says guitarist Billy Monama. “It’s wonderful. Every day I discover something new.” Monama’s talking about what’s becoming his lifetime project and passion: mapping the history and features of South African guitar playing. Seven years ago, Monama was writing a textbook on guitar basics. It covered all the bases, but had only his own solid reputation as a performer to distinguish it from all the other guitar primers out there. With reception unpredictable, he pressed pause and thought about the book some more.

And in the time since, he’s turned it into something unique.

Introduction to South African Guitar Styles Volume One, due out at the end of this year, will present the comprehensive story of what makes our guitar music special, from the earliest days to the 1980s and from Durban and Giyani to Jozi. Accompanying audio and video will present live demonstrations and musical conversations with veterans such as Themba Mokoena. “I don’t have my own music school,” he says. “But if I do a book, it’s available for everybody in the world. Each and every day since I started discussing this project, I get online messages. Everybody wants to study these styles.”

Monama’s first roots were in gospel style: like many South African players, he began learning his instrument in church. Only after some very tough negotiations with his parents was the erstwhile political science student permitted to switch to music full time. His book, he says, was inspired by the playalong primers of Jamey Aebersold, which he consulted in the period when he was teaching himself. Now, his career has flowered, with one album, Rebounce, to his credit as leader, an engaging duo release, Brothers, with Andy Innes, and multiple appearances on stages near and far.

Despite being short on sleep – there’s a six-month-old baby in his life now too – discussing the project lights him up. He runs out of breath reeling off the magic names he’s discovered: the fathers of various streams of South African guitar playing. He’s moved beyond the players everybody refers to – Mokoena, Allen Kwela, General Duze – to other ground-breaking figures buried far more deeply in historical discographies: Willie Gumede, “Cowboy Superman”, Enoch Thabethe, Frans Pilane and more.

Themba Mokoena

Yet as somebody with no formal background in musicology, he’s met mixed responses to his searches. Some scholars and experts – he acknowledges Professor David Coplan, Dr Sazi Dlamini, musician Themba Mkhize and archivist Rob Allingham – have given him priceless support and guidance. “Others,” he says, “won’t even talk to me unless I give them proof of what university programme I’m registered on – and I’m not, yet!” Among veteran players too, he occasionally encounters suspicion, something he attributes to the exploitative way they and their music were treated under apartheid – and often since. “But on the other hand, I’m honoured to have developed friendships with some of those legends.

“Even people I know say to me: ‘How can you do this? You’re not a scholar!’ Well, I may not have a doctorate, but I consult people and books where I don’t have the knowledge. I may not be a student, but I’ve taught myself to become a researcher.”

Monama started with the books: classics such as Coplan’s In Township Tonight, research dissertations such as Lara Allen’s work on kwela music and much more. “I just studied. Read and read. Now, I’m interpreting what the historians wrote, and taking it into practical steps.” Alongside that, he was listening to every old recording he could access, “but when I took the guitar and tried to play what I was hearing, I was like: ‘Damn!’” And so he needed to meet and observe the veteran players too – Mokoena and Madala Kunene among them – and travel to, for example, Inanda, to get to grips with maskandi guitar on its home ground. The promise of a National Arts Council grant fuels the work, though he’s still covering expenses out of his own pocket.

The result is a new, much more ambitious textbook manuscript, split into eras from the birth of popular guitar music here to 1980. Within each era, there are short biographies of players (“Do you know how hard those are to construct? There’s nothing!”) and transcriptions of their playing.

Allen Kwela
Allen Kwela

“My selection of players is always going to be controversial,” he concedes, “because there were so many great guitarists and everybody will have their favourites – I do too! But I have tried to limit it to the ground-breakers and innovators: people who brought something fresh to a style. For example, Philip Tabane who brought in traditional tuning to change the guitar sound during the Black Consciousness era; Baba Mokoena, who was a great moderniser, Allen Kwela…

“The audio and video demonstrations break down the impro and solos, and they’re done in slo-mo with repetitions and guidance on tuning, so it’s user-friendly. Even if you can’t read music, or you are visually handicapped or you’re stuck somewhere far distant from a music teacher, you’ll find something out of all that to help you.”

Monama himself is still learning too. “I know so much more about South African guitar than when I started. In many of the books, it just talks about the I:IV:V chords. Well, they are there, but they sound different when players of the African Jazz period play them than when popular mbaqanga players do. Sometimes, they’re implied rather than expressed. In many ways, it’s much more a feeling – articulation – rather than just the chord progression that defines our style. But then, to explain those details very clearly to a learner…Especially when there have been waves of fashion in South African guitar styles and there are multiple sub-styles and instrumental variations within each ‘school’.”

The book couldn’t possibly be limited only to South African jazz guitar, Monama says, because even among players who embrace the jazz label, “you can hear things from maskandi, or Xitsonga music, or something else born here.” Nevertheless, “America has been with us from very early.” As soon as there were recordings, he knows, American records were finding their way here.

He sighs. “We’re sitting on such a rich heritage. We give so much praise to other countries preserving their heritage, while here the veteran players are getting older and we risk losing their skill and memories. There’s so much we haven’t got round to learning from them, it makes me afraid.”Billy

That “so much” is why this publication will be only Volume One. “To do justice to what I already had, I needed to stop somewhere. Volume Two needs to go through the 1980s and beyond, coming closer to today. And probably the choice of guitarists there will be just as difficult, although one obvious name is the late Frank Leepa from Lesotho…”

Monama recalls the last time he and I discussed publishing his textbook, back in 2013. “If I’d published that book seven years ago,” he reflects, “ooh, I’d be so regretting it now!”

NOTE: This story was corrected 15/03 to reflect that it was 2013 when Billy & I first discussed a guitar textbook — the man keeps careful records!


A titan falls : RIP McCoy Tyner


Magnificent pianist McCoy Tyner, last surviving member of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, a player whose keyboard technique produced a sublime combination of assertive strength and quiet beauty, died last night aged 81. Too soon – but it’s always too soon.

See Nate Chinen’s obituary here: