Track ID with DJ Okapi

South African Pop, House, Kwaito and Disco from the late seventies, and up until the early nineties has garnered associations with a kind of disposal music under the catch-all term bubblegum. Made to be unwrapped, chewed and disposed of in quick succession, the music was only ever meant to satiate audiences for about a long as the duration of a song with labels, artists and producers pushing out tracks as quickly as they could in a kind of musical assembly line. Built on some rudimentary fundamentals of accessible music with an effort to work as efficiently and productively as possible, bubblegum was supposed to be a functional commodity, rather than artistic endeavour.

That at least had been the rhetoric about this kind of music and its artists for the longest time, until a blog called Afro Synth came along and re-approached this music with a fresh set of ears that heard something more substantial in the music. Born out of the esoteric record collection DJ Okapi (Dave Durbach), the blog turned record label and store started exporting this music way beyond South Africa’s borders. Through Afro Synth and his sets, Durbach has been tirelessly sounding the clarion call for South African music that would have otherwise  been lost to history. 

His work as a DJ is an extension of the Afro Synth ideology, bringing this music to new audiences, highlighting artists and records that disappeared into obscurity after their initial release. He’s revived music from the likes of Ntombi Ndaba and Olive Masinga, re-issuing records that have never been listed on Discogs and giving these records a second life way beyond South Africa’s borders. Alongside re-issues and compilations, Afro Synth has also placed a vested interest in emerging music from South Africa with its release of Mabuta’s debut LP, “Welcome to this world” and more scheduled for future release. 

Between the shop, the blog, the label and DJ Okapi’s sets, Afro Synth and Durbach has become a singular ambassador for these styles of South African music, garnering early support from Antal at Rush Hour. With the help of Rush Hour Durbach has brought these records out of dusty collections and back into circulation, making them accessible again for anybody with a vested  interest in rarefied music. 

Durbach has worked hard at cultivating a new following for this music and has recently put his efforts into bringing the sound further afield in a special tour with Ntombi Ndaba and Esa Williams. It was during this latest tour that we were able to get DJ Okapi over to Jaeger for a set at Untzdag and finally bring the Afro Synth sound to Oslo. The tropical sonic hues of the lively South African music kept the rain at bay in our backyard as he played through the archives, going from the deep grooves of Stax’ “Nothing for Mahala” to the energetic snares of “Finish ‘n Klaar.”

We were lucky enough to hit record on his set, and listening back to his set even shazam came up empty, so we reached out to DJ Okapi to ask “track id” and more in an extensive Q&A with the South African DJ.

I want to start by asking you about the last song in your set, “Finish ‘n Klaar”. I remember hearing that song being played on SA radio back in the mid nineties, but I’d completely forgotten it until you played it again. How did you come across this track again and what attracted you to it? Maybe you should also tell people what Finish ‘n Klaar actually means. 

This is Edward ‘Magents’ Motale, a famous soccer player in the 90s who released an album with a producer named Dr House. It was released on a label called Music Team, who I’ve worked a lot with over the last few years. I found the album when I started going through their catalogue. ‘Finish en klaar’ is an Afrikaans expression just emphasising when something is over. I often play it at the end of the night. 

This set came after a tour you’ve been doing with Esa Williams and Ntombi Ndaba, celebrating SA music from that era. What was the response like around her music and Esa’s presentation, and have you experienced an increasing interest in this music from the rest of the world since Afrosynth came about?

Esa has put together a band of UK-based musicians and made it possible for Ntombi’s music to be played live for the first time in 25 years. Over the past few months they’ve played 5 gigs in Europe (France, Netherlands, Sweden) as well as in Morocco. The response has been great and hopefully they’ll be able to put together a proper tour in 2020. Esa’s Afro-Synth Band will hopefully be a platform for other SA artists who I’m working with, such as Kamazu.

It was interesting seeing a European audience dancing to a track like Finish ‘n Klaar, especially considering this would have been completely new to them. What have been your experiences with playing these kinds of tracks to European audiences and their reception of this music?

The songs I’m playing are pretty much all either disco/bubblegum from the 80s or kwaito from the 90s. Kwaito is different to disco and creates a different vibe. Sometimes it’s easier to get people dancing with a few kwaito songs, although sometimes it’s the opposite. In the Netherlands or Belgium in particular people might pick up some of the Afrikaans words in a kwaito song, which might make it easier to get into.

Is this music that has always been in your collection or was it an extended period of discovery/re-discovery that led you to a track like Finish and Klaar?

I’d say most of the songs in my set are new discoveries from the past 2 or 3 years. Very few tracks if any I would’ve been familiar with more than about 5 years ago – except for a handful that were hits in SA back in the day, like ‘Tempy Pusher’. As a DJ there was a long period where I was only playing records. And kwaito records are often not in great condition so they’re not always good to play out. I started playing digital files after I started travelling more in 2016, that’s when things opened up a lot because I could rip songs from cassettes, CDs and DATs.

In general there have been specific events over the past 5 years where I’ve gained access to a lot of music over a short amount of time. At the same time it’s also been a gradual thing, finding a tape here, or buying a CD there.

That track isn’t on youtube and you can’t Shazam it either, and if it wasn’t for you playing it, it would be forgotten. It was a kind of disposal music, but through you and Afrosynth a lot of that music is living on. Why are these pieces so timeless in your opinion?

I think it’s simply the quality of the music – the production, songwriting, musicianship, lyrics etc. It comes from a time when pop music was more vital and more important than it is today, at least in a South African context.

Is all of it worthy of being released again, or are the pieces that you play just the best examples from this era?

Yes certainly the argument against both bubblegum and kwaito was always that they are formulaic, so one can expect that certain artists were more innovative while others were more derivative. There’s definitely a lot of music from that era that is middle of the road. It’s the same with any pop music. 

Are you still finding new, old pieces and how do you distinguish between some of the better songs and the stuff that make it into your sets or the label?

Yes I’m still finding new old songs and I’m always striving to add songs to my set that I haven’t played before. But it’s not always a case of digging for more records. Often I’m simply finding songs in my own collection that I haven’t really appreciated before. There’s a lot of music out there so any DJ’s sets are going to be what they consider to be best. In terms of the label there are other considerations too – will it sell? Is it available to license? Are the master tapes or WAVs available?

The music you play covers quite a large period from the late seventies to the mid 1990’s. Is there a process to the way that you find this music or decide what you want to play on a night? 

The music I play does cover a period of time but it’s also very specific compared to most other DJs. There is a process but it’s not really possible to put into words, that’s the beauty of DJing. In general I guess it depends where and when I’m playing, what kind of vibe I’m trying to build or maintain. 

You played Stax’ “Nothing for Mahala”. Øyvind was particularly interested in that track, and I imagine there is a lot of interest from collectors and enthusiasts like Øyvind about this music, but a lot of that kind of music has been lost to exorbitant discogs prices today. Is it exclusivity or something else that’s drawing these DJs to this kind of music?

Again it’s the quality of the music itself. It’s immediately familiar and easy to relate to – the musical influences as well as the lyrics. This song is a good example: the lyrics and the music are both super uplifting, even if the tempo is slower than what people might be used to on a dancefloor.

I suppose that’s what you’re doing somewhat at Afrosynth, trying to put this music in the hands of more people by re-issuing it?

Yes… it is frustrating for collectors that rare records can be so expensive. Reissuing is a way to reach a wider audience, particularly if one looks beyond vinyl to digital too.

I know that even in South Africa these records are getting super expensive, and that you’ve been finding most of that stuff on cassette lately. Is there a lot of music in SA that was only ever distributed on cassette?

Any SA music released up until the late 80s is generally easier to find on vinyl. But from around 1992 this changes and gets more complicated. In 1995 the record pressing plants in SA shut down, so any records after that are much rarer, as they would’ve been white labels or DJ promos pressed in Zimbabwe. That’s obviously when CDs came in too. South Africa’s cassette market was big and outlived most others in the world – until quite recently a lot of them were still getting manufactured and sold. So for music of the 90s and beyond, including kwaito and house, cassettes and CDs are definitely a better option to find music, rather than vinyl.

I’m thinking specifically of Doc Shebeleza’s “All the ladies” that you played; I see there was a promo vinyl, but I imagine the only way you’re coming across that track today is through a cassette or a CD version. As you dig a bit deeper closer to the mid nineties, is this the only way to find this music today?

Yes there is a vinyl promo of Doc Shebeleza but I’ve never owned it. I got these tracks from the label, probably on CD, otherwise just the files themselves. I do have plenty of kwaito records at home but the condition of most of them isn’t good enough for me to play them out. I’ll travel with a small bag of records but only maybe 1 or 2 are kwaito records. The huge majority of kwaito in my set is on USB, meaning it’s been ripped from cassette or CD.

Is there anything exclusively released on cassette that made it into this set?

I can’t really be sure of what songs may have had a vinyl promo, but songs in this set that come from my cassettes include three in a row in the middle: 

Kamazu – ‘Lorraine’ (51:00) 

Iyaya – ‘Was I Rite or Wrong’ (55:40) 

Alaska – ‘Hosherr (inst)’ (1:01:00)

Afrosynth has also released some new music from Mabuta. Is that a direction you would like to explore further with the label?

Yes, I’ll hopefully be able to put out more new music in the future, particularly from SA’s jazz scene which is really thriving.

And what else is in the near future for Afrosynth and you? 

I’ll be putting more effort into the label compared to the shop and DJing, so you can expect plenty more Afrosynth releases in 2020, and probably fewer DJ gigs. Before that, the latest release is a Shangaan Disco 12” – ‘Ta Duma’ by Obed Ngobeni & The Kurhula Sisters. Then before the end of this year there will be a six-track anthology by one of my favourites, Kamazu – and maybe even a chance for him to perform in Europe next year with Esa.