Johannesburg - #Trending looks at the album art that captured our imaginations and distilled a moment in time, reflecting the South African zeitgeist. We also roped in some local music experts and vinyl collectors, who reveal the covers they believe shaped our audio landscape.
Brenda Fassie: Mama (1997)
It may not have the hits (this was MaBrrr’s Ama-Gents phase, with Higher and Higher being the biggest thing on the album), but the cover of Brenda Fassie’s Mama is the most iconic of them all for me. With its pop art tones, the photo is everything we love about the queen – she’s revealing flesh, yet is a “good black woman” in a doek and traditional beads. And she has that look on her face showing that she’s a siren who’s also feeling and singing the pain of a nation. – Charl Blignaut
Prophets of Da City: Boomstyle (1991)
The menacing thump of the TR-808 drum machine is largely responsible for the direction this record took. The album housed an attack on the apartheid government with songs such as Ons Stem done in response to the former national anthem. This group is probably what we could refer to as ground zero for conscious rap in South Africa. – Phumlani S Langa
Brett Dugmore is the owned of one of the most popular vinyl stores in Johannesburtg - Mr Vinyl at 44 Stanley Avenue in Braamfontein. He's also the creator of the long-running vinyl fair #VinylSundays. The host of Mix FM’s The Vinyl Show, his knowledge of South African music is vast. We asked him to share his favourite local album covers. These are his picks:
Juluka: Universal Man (1979)
To have a white South African (Johnny Clegg) in Afro-inspired attire alongside a black man (Sipho Mchunu) in similar dress on an album cover in 1979 was hugely contentious under the apartheid regime. Album covers are works of art in and of themselves – especially the vinyl record cover: it’s like a 12-inch blank canvas – and it’s great that Juluka were not scared to challenge the oppressive regime in the most simple way possible; by just being together on the cover.
Dollar Brand: Underground in Africa (1974)
I love this album cover, not just because it’s a beautiful painting by artist Hargreaves Ntukwana, but because there’s an interesting story of friendship and creativity between Hargreaves and jazz enthusiast, producer and label owner Rashid Vally. Vally owned Kohinoor Records, the old jazz record store in Cape Town’s CBD, and was also the man behind The Sun and As-Shams Records, which released Underground in Africa. Over the years, Ntukwana would give Vally paintings in exchange for help with finances and for records. These paintings would appear on the walls around the record store, and one of them would even be used on arguably one of the most sought-after and iconic Dollar Brand records.
Various Artists: Concert in the Park (1985)
This was apparently a fantastic concert (I don’t know, I wasn’t there, nor alive) and a lot of people who went to it have this record. The reason it’s so recognisable is that it shows a huge, sold-out stadium rock concert vibe at Ellis Park. As South Africans, we always saw these giant, sold-out mega-stadium shows on TV and in the press that seemed to only happen overseas – the likes of Woodstock and Queen concerts, where the band had to be flown to the stadium in helicopters. For South Africa, this was one of our first big attempts at the same thing, and we have a really cool photo and album cover to prove that we could also do big stadium shows.
Black Disco: Night Express (1979)
Night Express is a highly prized, extremely collectable jazz/jazz-funk record. Many young people today overlook jazz as a form of protest music, but it was a different story during apartheid, and this blend of free-flowing jazz, with funk and township influence, was a hugely stirring release and is one of the most notable jazz releases to come out of the country. To even just be a black jazz musician in South Africa during apartheid was an incredibly difficult thing. You were restricted in where you could perform, what you could produce and how you could promote it, so the fact that some of this music made it to recording is a big deal. The Night Express train, with the ominous figure and almost swirling moon, is a bold album cover that evokes hard emotion, just like the music on it.
Freedom’s Children: Astra (1970)
If you’re a fan of progressive rock or an international music collector, the mere sight of Astra is enough to give you goosebumps. In recent times, Astra has been looked upon very favourably and as a hugely significant progressive rock album that came from South Africa, of all places. Not many people knew it at the time and international press has referred to Freedom’s Children as one of the best undiscovered bands to have existed. The album cover screams psychedelia and progressive rock, and when collectors see it at a record store, it is like one of those holy grail, eureka moments. It’s that rare – with its weird, obscure cover.
- Catch Dugmore on The Vinyl Show (93.8 FM) on the last Sunday of every month at 5pm
The conversation's arts and culture editor Charles Leonard is a well-known vinyl DJ and an avid collector. He shared his favourite covers with us:
Dollar Brand: Manenberg (1978)
Then there’s artist Dumile Feni. He did quite a few of the Dollar Brand covers. Manenberg obviously comes to mind. What a stunning cover and an iconic offering from one of our brightest stars.
Benjamin Jephta: Homecoming (2018)
It is good to see some of the younger guys preserving the approach. Some of these new covers I see, I mean you just have to laugh. The Kendrick Lamar record, damn. What a bland cover, really.
Hugh Masekela: Colonial Man (1979) and The Boy’s Doin’ It (1975)
Bra Hugh Masekela’s artwork is absolutely stunning. A few weeks ago, I got Colonial Man record with Hugh dressed up as Christopher Columbus, which is crazy. There is also his record with Quincy Jones, The Boy’s Doin’ It, which reminds me a bit of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. Hugh was a decadent man and this came across in the artwork.
Leonard also mentioned some international albums among his favourites:
Thundercat: Drunk (2017)
My album of the year last year was Thundercat’s Drunk. I bought the box set and if you open it, it's eight records and each of those records have their own inner sleeve with their own art. The vinyls are different colours. I mean, who could say no to that?
Kamasi Washington: The Epic (2015)
A few years ago one of my favourite listen was Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. It was a triple album beautifully packaged and each record with its own sleeve. Separately these records could stand alone quite well.
De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
De La Soul, their first album funnily enough, was the last record I bought in 1988. The bastards in the music industry were already doing poorer and poorer pressings of vinyl so as to force us to buy CDs. I took it back, of course. This record was one of the first I owned on CD. Fortunately they have reissued it and it's the most amazing and beautiful cover art.
THE MAKEBA ALBUMS
Durbanite Siemon Allen, who is based in the US, is an artist, thinker, historian, creator and compiler. He was one of the curators and contributors in last year's Tribute to SA Musical Heritage exhibition, which showcased some of our country's most interesting, important and beautiful album covers. In 2000, Allen embarked on the “Makeba" project, where he collected over 200 items of her recordings and presented them at Bank Gallery in Durban in 2009 followed by a number of venues in the US. As an expert on Makeba's discography, here are his picks for his favourite Makeba sleeves:
Pata Pata (1979)
Worldwide, Makeba’s 1967 Pata Pata LP is without a doubt the most iconic album and cover. If you search online, you will most definitely find more images of this record than any other. Ironically, though, many of Makeba’s later 1960s issues were banned and therefore (in theory) unavailable in South Africa. I suspect some were still available as imports or maybe even on the “underground” market. Interestingly, the Pata Pata LP was a major global hit and thus was issued and available in South Africa.
Pata Pata (1960)
The next most popular (in my opinion) would be her 1960 self-titled debut LP. This album was recorded and produced in the US by RCA Victor, however because of contract complexities it was issued in much of the world under the management of Gallo, SA on the London Label. All US and US affiliated pressings have the full cover design while SA and British commonwealth pressing are slightly edited. Makeba talks in her biography about preferring to keep her hair “natural” rather than straightened or permed while performing in the US. Subsequently many authors have pointed to this decision as a influential moment in the Black pride movement. Below images of a signed US cover and the South African pressing.
My personal favorite cover (and album for that matter) is her 1968 Reprise album simply titled Makeba!. I am not sure if it was available in SA. It shows her silhouetted profile adorning the same hat (I presume) from the Pata Pata album. It’s both minimal and iconic.
Voice of Africa (1964)
Another favorite of mine is this rare French version of Makeba's 1964 RCA album Voice of Africa. The composition of the image used is different from the more common global version of this cover making it quite unusual. Makeba's dress is identical in both versions and the image most likely comes from the same photographic shoot. This image was also used on some of her EPs.
French singles (1971)
Finally I included these two singles from Miriam’s Guinea period. Issued on the Syliphone Conakry label in 1971, both were pressed in France. Simply beautiful designs!
Photos: Supplied/City Press