Meet Iain Thomas, the 36-year-old South African poet who is famous all over the world except in SA

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4 Factor: Heritage Day Heroes

2007-09-23 09:00
This week’s four factors rated out of 10 are:
Roots Factor: do they have a distinctive South African sound? Or are they aping overseas acts?
Rainbow Nation Factor: are they embracing Mzansi's multicultural mix and bringing people together? Or are they catering for cliques only?
Keeping it Real Factor: Does their music have a meaningful message? Or is just about having a phat jol?
Proudly SA ambassador factor: have they put Mzansi music on the global map? Or are they just big goldfish in their small SA pond?

Roots Factor: Lead singer Zolani Mahola is a pure Mzansi sister. She is a proud Amandla sista. She gives the band its X-factor, singing several hits in her mother tongue Xhosa. It’s the multicultural mix of Zimbabwean Simon Atwell (mbira, flute, harmonica), Mozambican Julio “Gugs” Sigauque (guitar), Kyla-Rose (iyo! this chic can boogie) Smith (violin), Josh Hawks (bass), Peter Cohen (drums) and Aaron Turest-Swartz (keys) who give the band its freshly ground sound. With hints of mbaqanga and maskandi in the Afro-pop mix, Freshlyground has its roots planted firmly in Mzansi’s fertile style! - 8

Rainbow Nation Factor: Back in the day Mango Groove and Juluka did it! And now FG is doing it! BIG Time!! Described as “the band of our time”, everybody just loves FG as they represent what the new South Africa strives to be. Music is always the best way to bring people together and FG has managed to have a damn good jol while doing it! Even if it’s just for a moment. - 8

Keeping it Real Factor: Yes, they make us get down and boogie but if you listen to the lyrics of their songs you’ll realise that this band actually isn’t just about having a good old phat jol! Songs like “Mowbray Kaap” and “Nomvula” from their album, Nomvula are Proudly South African stories. Zolani sings about her mother - Nomvula who passed away and how she had to be raised by her father. In “Pot Belly” she talks about having fat thighs, flabby arms and a potbelly that still give and need good lovin’ too! This is one group who keep it real by being themselves. - 7

Proudly SA ambassador factor: FG is BIG in Mzansi, around Africa and internationally. They’ve performed sold out gigs across the globe and their second album Nomvula was distributed in Germany, France, Italy and the UK. They pretty much put Mzansi Afro-pop on the nu-millennium map by being awarded the “Best African Act” at the 2006 MTV European Awards. They may have not been the first SA stars to be nominated but they were the first to actually win!! Enough said! - 9

Mzwakhe Mbuli
Roots factor: Ask anybody in Mzansi who the king of spoken-word is and they'll tell you: Mzwakhe Mbuli. His atypical rhythmical tone is widely praised for revamping AmaZulu oral tradition of praise singing to ease the pain of mourning into a recognized genre, both in Mzansi and abroad! His wise words accompanied by catchy marabi and mbaqanga rhythms, and sometimes up-tempo jazz beats, raised the bar for performance poetry. He’s become an inspiration to young poets, and many memorize and perform his poetry keeping his message alive. Mzwakhe grew up listening to nothing but mbube (traditional choral) tunes which resonates in most of his songs. – 9

Rainbow Nation Factor: Nicknamed “The People’s Poet” and the “Voice Of Reason” he is our most respected musician and poet. His music speaks for a wide range of people: the voiceless, the poor, the abused, politicians and ordinary citizens. Mzwakhe writes about the past, the present and the future, commenting on the old and the new South Africa. He sings about widely felt emotions making him reach a wider audience. Most of his songs have a “universal” theme element. He caters for everyone: young or old, conventional and unconventional, urban and rural. Everyone has something to learn from his poetry, written in English, Zulu, Xhosa and Venda. – 9

Keep it real factor: Apartheid authorities detained him eight times. They banned his albums Change is Pain and Unbroken Spirit which he wrote while in prison. He survived several assassination attempts and the new South Africa imprisoned him for over a year for a crime he says he didn’t commit! But he refuses to be silenced. Mzwakhe is well-known for his uncompromising social-commentary lyrics. He's spent his whole career fighting injustice, racism, corruption, women abuse and promoting positive attitudes. – 10

Proudly South African ambassador factor: While the always-controversial Mbuli doesn’t tow the political party line, he still represents. He’s shared the international stage with Miriam Makeba and Thomas Mapfumo. BBC radio invited him to narrate S.A’s apartheid history, in 1991. His Resistance is Defence album was so popular he toured throughout the US and Europe. He was asked to introduce Nelson Mandela at his inauguration, in London (1996). He’s also collaborated with other African artists to record an anti-piracy fundraising album. - 7
Johnny Clegg
Roots Factor: Does he sound South African? In many ways SA’s white Zulu is the dude who made ‘South African’ a popular genre internationally. With classic multicultural combos Juluka and Savuka he invented a uniquely South African sound that fused Western folk, pop and rock traditions with a roots-fuelled canvas of traditional Zulu maskandi worker’s blues, kwela, and mbaqanga sounds. Following his lead, crossover Afro-pop other bands like Mango Groove, Freshlyground and later even 'ou Afrikaans ryperd' Dozi continued the trend of mixing Western pop music with African rhythms. – 9

Rainbow Nation Factor: “Multicultural crossover” could be Johnny’s middle name. In the dark days of separate deveopment, Clegg challenged the apartheid government's brainwashing of the myopic white masses by embracing Zulu song, dance and culture completely. Massive crossover smash hits like “Impi”, "December African Rain", and “Third World Child” were the building blocks of the Rainbow Nation which helped bring white and black South Africans together. - 9

Keep It Real Factor: While many white musicians alienated by apartheid immigrated overseas, Johnny Clegg kept it real by staying at home. His righetous ubuntu-pop flow for freedom helped desegregate South African audiences from their generic listening prejudices on a string of seminal socio-political anthems including “Bullets for Bafana”, “Asimbonanga” and more. Sure, critics might say Johnny’s musical recipe hasn’t evolved much since albums like Juluka’s Universal Men and Scatterlings back in the 70s and 80s. He may be 50-something but he’s still a Third World Child at heart – and hey, why fix the mix it if it isn’t broke? – 10

Proudly South African Ambassador Factor: Savuka's debut album, Third World Child has sold more than 2 million copies around the globe! Even more impressively, 1993's Heat, Dust and Dreams was nominated for a World Music Grammy. Sure, there are still some cynics who reckon Johnny’s more pop-oriented Savuka diluted ‘real’ African music's roots in order to airbrush it off to Western white ears. But does it really matter if you look at the positive chords his music continues to strike with audiences from Pofadder to Paris? For standing up and being counted for the past three decades, Clegg definitely deserves the title of Proudly South African Ambassador. - 8

Bok van Blerk
Roots Factor: Bok van Blerk produces mainstream Afrikaans music, call it brannewyn-en-coke pop rock if you will. Some people might argue that his music is not proudly South African in the ‘rainbow’ sense of the word because it only caters to one group of people. Nevertheless, in the spirit of good will and all things heritage, we’ll vote ‘yes’, Bok has a uniquely South African sound. Do you really think you’ll find similar music on the shelves of a CD store elsewhere in the world? – 8

Rainbow Nation Factor: The only ‘rainbow’ factor in Bok’s life is the Rainbow Chicken he eats for dinner. Ok, that was a joke. In all fairness, he did once in an interview say that if he had to do another song about a South African hero, he might pick Mandela. He also has a song dedicated to Bryan Habana. And there is the ‘Vodka and OJ’ song, catering to a youthful generation of brandy-and-coke snubbers. Still, his music sidelines our other ten languages so we have to give him a low score. Sorry Bok! – 3

Keep It Real Factor: Bok’s hit single “De La Rey”, about a heroic general from the Boer War days, teaches young Afrikaners about a heritage they seem to have forgotten or never learned. Bok once said that he feels it is his duty to sing the song because Afrikaans kids aren’t taught about the Boer War history in schools anymore. It was gutsy to open up the debate about Afrikaner identity in the new South Africa and he should get credit for that but we can’t give him too much credit for the song itself, mostly because he didn’t write it, Louis Pepler and his two friends did. – 7

Proudly South African Ambassador Factor: The world definitely knows about Bok and the “De La Rey” controversy. Even Americans who are notoriously ignorant about world issues published an article about the effect of the song in the New York Times. And so the plight about injured Afrikaner identity and Afrikaner pride became an internationally debated topic... Cool, but to brand Bok a “Proudly South African ambassador” might be a stretch. – 7

Score (out of 40):
Bok Van Blerk: 25
Johnny Clegg: 36
Freshlyground: 32
Mzwakhe Mbuli: 35
Okay, so they’re clearly all Heritage Day Heroes, but the biggest Hero of them all is…Johnny Clegg!

-Gugu Mkhabela, Annel Malan & Tiisetso Tlelima

This week we pose the question: Freshlyground or Bok Van Blerk? Johnny Clegg or Mzwakhe Mbuli? Will the real Heritage Day Hero please stand up?

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