In 2016, Soundway presented the sounds of Boogie, Pop & Disco from 1980’s Nigeria on their incredible Doing it in Lagos compilation. It was an album that perhaps even Frank Ocean got his hands on, as in 2017 not long after the release of the compilation, he was performing live covers of Steve Monite’s ‘Only You’. This time the seasoned crate-diggers Miles Cleret (Soundway) and DJ Okapi (Afrosynth Records) have turned their attention to the unheard sounds of South Africa, handpicking the best selection of Bubblegum Soul & Synth Boogie from the 1980’s, none of which have been reissued or available digitally before.
The music captures a period on the record in which the disco-boom was slowing and mutating and morphing into something else, something entirely new. The sound that was forged was often ubiquitously described as bubblegum – usually stripped down and lo-fi with a predominance of synths, keyboards and drum-machines and overlaid with the kind of deeply soulful trademark vocals and harmonies that South African music is famous for. The 18 tracks here highlight a period that nestles in-between the ‘70s (where American-influenced jazz, funk and soul bumped shoulders with local Mbaqanga) and the ‘90s when Kwaito and eventually house-music ruled the dance floors of urban South Africa. It is the excavation of a time, place and sound that remains truly unique.
However, whilst these pop-kissed grooves, shimmering synths and glowing vocal melodies all radiate a sense of joy and burst with dance floor energy, they actually soundtracked a period of severe political turmoil in the country. A national State of Emergency lasted half of the decade but amidst the chaos, the country’s music industry was thriving like never before. Driven in part by a policy that required content for the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s network of ethnic radio stations (designed to ensure so-called ‘separate development’ during apartheid), as well as thriving live scenes in both urban and rural areas, the South African music industry enjoyed several years of unmatched prosperity and creativity. Vast catalogues of music were recorded on various labels and millions of records were sold throughout the country.
A condensed version of this boom period results in this compilation, one that digs heavily into the output of Teal Records (as well as other labels) an 80’s label whose output was representative of this sound across the decade. However, whilst this release brings to life rather unknown genres as a whole, the variation across the album remains vast. From The Survivals’ electro-funk strut to the slowed down tropical grooves of Ozila, the album explores the caveats of a sound and era still very much developing and experimenting.
Whilst some of the names on the compilation may appear obscure, more people will be aware of Stimela more than they were perhaps aware of. Whilst Stimela were arguably the biggest band of South Africa during the era, they also crossed over and played a key role on a record that would sell millions and millions: playing and touring Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’. It’s easy to hear across the rest of the album, such as on tracks like ‘Hayi Ngodlame’ by Zasha, that Simon was clearly taking heavy note of the vibrant scene taking place during that period.
The album takes its name from the band Ashiko’s track of the same name ‘Gumba Fire’ that features on the compilation. It is derived from ‘gumba gumba’, the term given to the booming speakers of the old spacegram radios that broadcast music into South Africa’s townships and villages. The phrase later evolved into ‘gumba fire’ to refer to a hot party. Whilst the title may be based on a specific song it is of course ultimately emblematic of the whole album, 18 tracks that radiate a glowing warmth in both tone and in the hot intensity of some of the rhythms that spark throughout.
Whilst the term bubblegum implies something fleeting, a temporary sugar fix to be cast away once its served its purpose, the tracks across this compilation have not only survived intact – and offer an important and intoxicating insight into the history of South African music – but they sound dazzlingly contemporary in places.