PAT SHANGE (1956-2021)

“Music is my love, you know. I’ve got passion for music. So I think I know all the aspects of music. You talk about recordings, you talk about performances, you talk about media. You talk about anything that has got to do with music, I’m there, I know.” – Pat Shange

Pat Shange passed away on Tuesday 13 July 2021 at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto due to Covid-19 complications. The following is a transcription of an interview with him at Ezomdabu studios in Jeppe Street, downtown Johannesburg on 4 December 2009. It has been edited for clarity.

Actually to be honest with you, I started professionally - when I started recording it was in 1977. But my first album was released in 1979. I can say that this year, 2009, I’m celebrating my 30th anniversary in the music field. 

I was born in 1956. I think at about the age of 9, 10, that’s when I started playing the guitar. Because my father bought me a guitar. Then I taught myself how to play the guitar. And then I think after 2 to 3 years from then, I started joining the local groups in Pietermaritzburg. I started joining the local groups, I was playing the drums by then, guitar and also singing. I carried on like that up until the end of 1976, and the beginning of 1977. There was a producer by the name of Wilson Ndlovu, he was working for the record company, that was called Jo’Burg Records. That’s were Margaret Singana, Clout, me, Rabbitt and them were recording. They were operating from Yeoville. 

So this Wilson Ndlovu he was a black producer working for them. He came across me when he was talent scouting down in Pietermaritzburg, he said ‘Ei! You are good! I’m not sure about your group, but you are good! I think we must organise something. We must take you up to Johannesburg”. Which he did. Then he brought me to Johannesburg, it was myself and a group called the Juveniles by then. Then we started recording in 1977. But what they realised is that although they thought I was good, my backing group was not good enough. They were good for performances, yes, but not for recording. 

You remember, at that time, when you are recording, you were only using 4 tracks. Meaning you have got to be good to start with, in order to qualify as a recording artist. Secondly, you must know your story, because if a single is about 3 minutes and 50 seconds, then we are recording. Towards the end, lets say towards 3 minutes, then you decided to cough, or something happened, you have got to stop and start from afresh.  You know what I mean. Coughing, whatever, cos its only 4 tracks. So you have got to know your story. 

So with my backing band, some of them, they were not punchy enough, they couldn’t keep with the pace, the timing, and things like that. So they were disqualified as recording artists. 

So the producers said to me ‘OK fine, Pat, don’t worry. This is what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna organise a backing band for you. Even if you cannot organise a backing band, we will form a backing band, so that you can be able to record.’ So my guys had to go back to Pietermaritzburg. I had to go back with them, then come back again. Start working with the new band. With the new band I then recording my first album, which we finished towards the end of 1978. Then it was released in 1979. That was ‘Kudala modlivu’ (?). well it didn’t do that much good, but it sold well because it sold about 15,000 units. It was mbaqanga music. So I did about 15,000 units, which was good. They said it was good enough to be signed up to record another follow-up album. Which I did in 1980. That’s when… that was my first gold disc which I managed to touch with my hands. It was a 7 single ('Hlengiwe') and also the new album, it sold gold.

Then everything that we did, either it was turning gold or platinum. I recorded ‘Hlengiwe’, ’Hayi Bo Ntombi’ (etc)… until 1985. Then I was still young, at the age of 18, 19, somewhere there. So the music that I was doing, as I said, it was mbaqanga. My age group, they started complaining. They said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with your music, but it seems as if you don’t cater for us, people of your age, you cater for elder people, what’s your problem?’ I said to myself, now that my fans are complaining, I think I must do something for them. 

That’s when I decided. I didn’t actually change, but I decided to do also what was called Disco music. Others refer to it as bubblegum music.  But I’m not quite happy with that term, I’ll tell you why… bubblegum is something that you chew for a while and then you throw it out. But that bubblegum music, that was called bubblegum, from 1985 up till now, is still selling. I’m not sure whether the term is correct or not. I was using 'disco'. I even prefer using 'disco' even now. 

(How did the bubblegum name start?)

I think it was somebody who was trying to criticise the type of music that we were coming up with at that moment. (most fans and musicians were calling in disco). But somebody just came up with the term bubblegum. I don’t know whether … Let me leave it at that. it was called bubblegum. Anyway, its OK. (if) they prefer to call it bubblegum, that’s OK. 

So I recorded a maxi-single, it was entitled ‘Sweet Mama’. It was massive! And after ‘Sweet Mama’, it was ‘I’m not a Casanova’. Then things started happening. Because ‘Sweet Mama’ sold more than 100,000 units then. But even now, it's still selling. And I started opening my eyes. Now I can see why the youngsters were complaining. But that’s why (clicks fingers) I did that type of music. ‘Sweet Mama’, ‘I’m not a Casanova’, ‘Tonite you gonna give’, ‘Shine a time’, ‘Undecided Divorce Case’, ‘I’m accused’, ‘Love is like a Bank Account’… you name it! (All big hits). All the time 

(In the) 80s I was still working very seriously back then – there was no Christmas time for me, no Easter. Believe you me, recording, performing. We could perform about 6-10 shows, only on a weekend. If I say weekend, I mean Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Performing about 10 festivals. You just imagine: one in Durban, the other one in Johannesburg, the other one in Swaziland. The other one in Botswana. (week after week). It was tough! In between, indoor shows. We were only offered, having our offs (off-days) on Mondays. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday – day and night, day and night. OK, during the week, it was only nights, indoor shows. But at the weekend, day and night. During the day, festivals. At night, indoor shows. It was a hectic kind of a life. But I cannot regret (it), it was very much interesting... 

(You were living the dream). 

Definitely, there’s nothing wrong about it. I cannot complain even a bit about that kind of life. I was not actually tired…as I said to you, (I eventually slowed down because) I wanted to actually experience the (family life). 

(Did the 1976 youth uprising have an impact on SA music?)

Yes of course. The problem was, you couldn’t put up a show now. Because they would suspect that yes, we might call it a show, but all in all, it has got something to do with the politics. (so it became harder to peform live) Definitely. 

(Did the music change?) What I can say, there was more of the toyi-toyi music. There were those liberation songs. Most of the groups at that time were recording that type of music. Although some of the artists they were still recording love songs and things like that. but there were groups that were only catering for these liberation songs. (ie. musicians became more conscious, aware, outspoken).

(Traveling around SA, what were some of the difficulties you faced?)

Ja it was always like that. because you’ve got to remember. Politicians they were also working hand in hand with the musicians. or they were acting like musicians sometimes. Because it was easier to move from point A to point B as a musician than as a politician. So it was a matter of ‘where are you gonna perform?’ ‘but we didn’t see any banners or posters stating that you’re gonna perform’. ‘are you sure these are musical instruments, or you’ve got something in there like AK47s? just get it open and lets check.’ You know, it was like that. After checking, they would let you go through. 

(So no major problems?) 

Not really, because actually we were not lying to them when we say ‘we are musicians’. We were musicians, so when we say we are going to perform at such and such a place, definitely we are going to perform there. Even if they send their agents, ‘just go and make sure whether there is any show that is taking place’ at a certain hall, a certain artist by the name of Pat Shange, is he performing there? When they come, they will see, the hall is packed. And Pat Shange is sweating over the stage. So nothing is (not as it should be) ...You know what I mean.

(Were things changing during the 80s?)

It was still the same. It took us a very long time to be calm, to get to know a situation, if I may put it that way. Because they (police/authorities) are suspecting you. But after checking, they feel that ‘No, these are really a bunch of musicians.’.Mmind you, don’t forget, of those police, black police where there. And most of the black police, they knew their stars. If you say ‘I’m Pat Shange’, (they'd respond:) ‘Ooh ja, I know, hi!”

(Anything else you remember about the repression of musicians back then?)

It was not easy, let me be honest with you. It was not easy. For example, if you are a musician, you could earn good money, then you could buy yourself a nice car. And then being a black man, driving a nice car on the highway, it was always problematic. Because the police would stop you, ‘who’s car is this?’ The first question: ‘who’s car is this?’ If it’s your car, (you’ll have) hassles all the way. So most of the black people then, they would prefer (to say) ‘no, it's for my boss’. It was gonna be better if you say the car was for your boss.  Because they will leave you. But if its yours, they will look for this…papers of the car. “where did you buy this car from? Where did you get the money to buy this car? Are you sure this car is not a stolen car?” Things like that, we were used to those things. Definitely, we were used to those things.

If you were in a hurry, it was better for you to say, ‘This is my boss’s car.’ If you are not in a hurry, you could claim this is your car, provided you’ve got the papers and things like that. because they will ask you to produce the papers, IDs, licence, you name it. You could be delayed there for about an hour, up to two hours, on the highway, trying to explain. Phoning the dealer where you bought the car, if it’s during the day and they are there, phoning and asking, ‘are you sure a person by the name of pat bought the car from you people? When was that? what colour is the car?” (always suspicious)

(In the 1980s could one write political songs?)

Some of the songs, yes (were political). I mean you couldn’t ignore what was happening. But in most cases, I was writing things that are happening (in everyday life), writing about love, trying to calm people down, you know what I mean. Although some of the songs they had to (deal with politics). They had to, you cannot ignore the environment, that was the point.

(Was censorship a problem?)

Yes, most of the songs, yes. The songs that they (censors at the SABC) thought ‘mm-mm” (no), this one wouldn’t be good for the listeners. Not because it takes the wrong direction, but because then, it was gonna tell the listeners something that they wouldn’t like the listeners to observe or to listen to. 

(For example). ‘I’m Accused’, for something that I didn’t do, is the song that I did. Not only myself, most of the musicans that were recording songs – Chicco ‘Manelo’. Which was supposed to be Mandela. ‘We miss you manelo’. It was supposed to be ‘I miss you Mandela’. Most of the musicians (did similar things)…

(Did censorship stop you from saying what you wanted to say?)

No, it didn’t. It was either changing the lyrics to suit me, but the listeners would understand exactly what I’m trying to say. Although the censors wouldn’t understand what was taking place. Because most of us musicians, that I what we’d do. They (listeners) would understand exactly what we were trying to tell them.

(Was the SA music industry segregated or did some artists cross over?)

Some of the songs were crossovers. But not all of them. For example like Sipho 'Hotstix' Mabuse had Burnout. Which was a crossover. Margaret Singana also had a crossover song….they used to call it ‘the click song’. But normally you had to know your market. You had to direct your music to a certain kind of people.

(What kind of people were typically in your audiences, eg. at festivals?)

Yes (mainly black). (coloured and whites) sometimes, there was a reason for them, why they should come over there, it’s either maybe there’s a white band that will be playing – because there were also white bands also then who were performing with us, like Hotline, and … Clout… Margino – it was a white lady. And Cindy Alter also, that was a white lady. And who else…. They were not trying (to sell to blacks), they were selling. They were definitely selling. Hotline…most of the groups that I mentioned, were selling very big. And they were very popular within the black market. (and in white market too?), yes.

(Any memories of bad/racist vibes at a festival?)

No, when it comes to music, you could observe something differently. When it comes to music, they didn’t care whether it was a white a performer. If you were good, you were just good. They applaud for you. Then that’s it. In fact, let me put it this way: in the music industry, that’s where we didn’t feel apartheid. That was the only place. Definitely.

(Was there socialising between races, after hours?)

It was a problem. You could go with a white man, because he is performing with you into a white club. But you are not allowed…. Well some of them, they could negotiate until (they say its ok, but most of the time not). 

(Performing to white audiences?)

It was never a problem. Because in most cases, if you’re gonna perform in a white area, its obvious its gonna be a white promoters who’s gonna promote you over there. So you could do all the preparations and everything… you know what I mean.

(It seems often the engineers were white, even for black artists – why was this?)

Actually, I don’t know whether it was because of apartheid or what. But let me be honest with you. This is from my heart now. It has got nothing to do with politics. That was a very good combination, believe you me, that was a very good combination. I’ll tell you why, even now, you check, if a black musician is working with a white producer… a white producer brings that white flavour into the project. And then a black musician brings that black flavour into the project. It becomes a bomb! (hit). I can name plenty musicians who are working like that. it was happening in most cases, it was  a success. I don’t know how it was formed (started). Maybe it was formed because of the apartheid. But the results were not like that.  

Look at Juluka. Juluka it was a black guy and a white guy. Even if it was formed because of the apartheid, but the results were very good. Because the kind of music that they were doing was excellent.

They (white guys in the industry) knew what they were doing. That was the main thing. They earned respect because they knew what they were doing. they were not taking chances. If he was an engineer, he knows his sounds. And he could help you. ‘OK, you know what, I understand what you wanna do, but how about trying this? And putting this type of sounds? Don’t you think…? Ja ja ja, now it sounds better!’ 

They knew what they were doing. It (race) has nothing to do with anything. They were there because they had skills. They were not there because they were white. 

(What about Phil Hollis, for example, who you worked a lot with?)

When it comes to music and the know-hows of music, and promoting music, he is wise. Let alone (nevermind) what they say about him – 1, 2, 3. When it comes to music….I enjoyed working with him. Although people will say, blah blah blah. You’d never survive in this industry if you’re not a tough business(man)

(Was there exploitation in the SA music industry in the 80s?)

Although it was getting more professional, but it was still happening. Even overseas, it was happening. Because I remember then I had a producer by the name of Rick Wolff. He was a musician then. He went overseas. He stayed there for… they had a very big hit. He never got any royalties. And when he was talking about that, you could see he was very sad (upset). It was a sad story for him. so it was happening all over. (it was a business thing, not political or racial). 

(Was there a sense of international isolation in SA during apartheid?)

Actually, let me put it this way. Although they were not coming in for performances, but there music was here, full time. There was never a time when South Africa was not playing foreign music. Never.

(International influence on local sounds?) Yes of course. There were plenty musicians who were imitating Michael Jackson locally (eg). (going for the synth/drum machine sound) yes definitely. (also African local sounds?) Ja it will always be like that because if you are not bringing that into the music industry at the particular moment, then it means you cannot claim that that music is black. So the elements are supposed to be there, so that you are able to claim, this is black music. 

(Did your music sell in other parts of Africa?)

Definitely yes. Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Tanzania. 

(What was is like travelling outside SA during the 80s? Did it teach you about SA?)

Of course. The first thing, before they can even talk about your music and your appearance, is what is apartheid like in South Africa? In most cases I think it was paying to be honest. Because if you lie.. OK, you can lie today, but somewhere along the line, the lies of yours will catch up with you. So it's not wise (to lie). It was not a matter of criticising the government, it was a matter of telling the truth. 

(Did you tour outside Africa – eg US, Europe?) 

Not that much, (mainly) in Africa. (People loving the music?) a lot. I was treated like a king, I must be very honest with you. Even when I’m arriving in those places, at the airport, they would have a guard of honour. People waiting for me. There’s singing. It was very much exciting. 

(Weren’t you ever tempted to move overseas during apartheid?)

Let me be honest with you, if you are man enough, you’ve got to face your problems, not run away from your problems. And there’s no place like home, anyway. To go and perform, yes. But not to go and stay there. There’s no place like home.

(What else was selling besides disco?)

Traditional, mbaqanga, maskandi, all these different genres of music were there. (Everything was selling) well, very well. The only thing is that the disco, or the bubblegum was an IN thing at the moment. It was like (cool).

(For how long?). It started, those years, around '85, up until '94, '95, '96, somewhere there. Then kwaito came in. 

(Was this related to the political changes in the country?)

It had to. Let me put it this way, people who were singing toyi-toyi music, I mean liberation songs, they were no longer welcomed in the 90s. because now the audience would say ‘but now what’s your problem? Come on, Apartheid is over!’. 

(Was it was clear apartheid was coming to an end?)

Definitely. People started singing about love, celebrating, you know what I mean.

(After the '80s) I decided to slow it down a bit because as I said to you, I started at the age of 18, professionally. So when I got married, I didn’t enjoy the life of being a married man. So I said to myself mm-mm (no), if I’m gonna carry on like this, there’s a part of my life that I’m gonna miss – how to be a parent, and things like that, taking your kids to the crèche and things like that. My aim was not to stop altogether, but to slow down, keep a very low profile. That was in the 90s. 

But even now, I’ve gone back to music again. Ok, recently I was busy producing again ... But this year, as I said, I’m celebrating my 30th anniversary. I decided to come up with a new album. Which is entitled Umlilo. It means fire. Its finished now. We are started to release it now. By Friday next week it will be released. 

(How were sales in the '80s - better than now?)

Definitely, there’s no doubt about that. It was better. And there’s a reason for that. besides that everything was run in a proper way, piracy was not there. Even if it was there, it was very minimal. How would you pirate (an LP)?

(What is the industry like now, in your opinion - is it healthy?)

Not at all. Let me be honest with you. If you’ve got a big hit that is supposed to sell, lets say 100,000 units. You can expect 16,000, up to 20. With the very same project that was gonna sell 100,000 units ten years ago, you will only sell 16 to 20 (now).

(What does the future hold for the SA music industry?) 

If something is done, it will be better. But something must be done (to combat) this piracy. (But what?) Well, something is gonna happen, believe you me, something is gonna happen. And this thing is gonna be sorted out. Because this piracy thing, it’s like it’s fashionable, its like an in thing at the moment. Because before you can enter the door of a record bar or a music shop, you could come accross the stores (stalls), there are about 6 or 10 in front and behind and on the sides of the shop. So how do you expect the shops to do their business? Because the very same CDs that they are selling at R10 each, inside the shop is anything from R50 upwards. So now, who’s gonna prefer going to the shop and spending R100 for a CD, and yet he can obtain the very same content on a CD which is R10?

(Is it the police’s responsibility to combat piracy?) 

Definitely. I think they’re working on a policy, how to work on it. Because it’s not that easy. Because although there are those people who are pirating, there are also those musicians who cannot get the record deals from the record companies, they are selling their own music. So you cannot also sit down and claim that that person is pirating. But now, a policeman, how is he gonna draw the line? This is musician who is selling his own music. Or this is somebody who is pirating.. it's very difficult.  So they’ve got to work on a policy. 

(How does today’s music compare to back then, in your opinion?)

Music is still good music. Let me be honest with you. There’s nothing wrong with the quality of the music at the moment. But if you can’t make money out of that quality music of yours, somewhere along the line, you’ll end up… you know what I mean. Put it this way – you spend a lot of money with your project. And you spend a lot of money promoting it. And you cannot be able to sell it because of the facilities. When I say facilities, I mean like record bars etc. You cannot be able to sell it. You spend again, for sure on (by) the third album, you’re gonna start reducing now. It’s either you’re gonna go for cheap recording, or whatever. But now it’s gonna be cheaper, cheaper all the time...

RIP Pat Shange 1956-2021

© Afrosynth

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