Tom and I have documented many meetings of the spiky and the dread since SBB’s inception – some sparkling, some stinky, some just plain bizarre – but I can’t think of any yet in which this wonderful collision of worlds could be deemed potentially life-threatening to its participants. Such was the case, however, for South Africa’s jawdroppingly ballsy National Wake.
It doesn’t need mentioning that life in apartheid S.A. in the early 1980s was horrific for a great many people, particularly if those people happened to be black, so to form a politically-charged multi-racial punk band amidst this social turmoil was a risk that almost defies contemplation.
Formed in a Johannesburg commune circa 1979, National Wake comprised two black brothers, Gary and Punka Khoza, and two self-confessed white ‘outsiders’, Ivan Kadey and Steve Moni, all of whom shared a passion for Afrobeat, UK and US punk, and the socio-political poetry and fiery rhetoric of Linton Kwesi Johnson and The Last Poets.
Despite constant suppression, harassment and violence from authorities and communities alike, the band created a brief but serious buzz, and somewhat astoundingly were courted by Warner Bros for whom they recored their sole LP in 1981.
Although heavily censored, the album still provides a sense of NW’s charged message, though it wasn’t until very recently that some of their more incendiary selections saw the light of day. Walk in Africa, the title track from last year’s career-spanning compilation, is just one of several works that could place NW in the SBB canon, but I feel this one in particular captures the band’s anger and frustration most poignantly.
Musically reminiscent of Jammin’, but played with a speed and urgency that seems recorded with the sense that the band might be apprehended at any minute, Walk in Africa implores the listener to ‘stand by me, stand by me to the end’, despite there being ‘a price on my head’.
Guitarist Ivan Kadey recently said that much of NW’s material was written “From a sort of naive belief that we could miraculously change everything to realizing what a struggle it was, and what the country was going through and what it would go through.”
Both invigorating and chilling in equal measure, the track is a testament to the unifying spirit of reggae and punk, and a stark reminder of just how dangerous music can be.
Their blistering anthem:
An excerpt from Light in the Attic’s recent documentary about the band: