Vice in the RSA
Looking back at South Africa's post-punk musical landscape of the 1980s, one is tempted to casually dismiss the decade as a bizarre and often unpalatable period because of the often intensely disturbing sociopolitical undertow. Out of these uneasy and often dim times, however, sprang some of the most compelling, original and enduringly evocative and thought-provoking contemporary music to have been conceived in South Africa. Some of this alluring music is encapsulated in Via Afrika's two albums “Via Afrika” and “Scent of scandal”.
Founder Rene Veldsman recalls the band's genesis and early development: "Via Afrika erupted on to the South African music scene in the early 1980s. Looking back, I still believe that Via Afrika's music was conceived by some of South Africa's most creative and underestimated minds of the time. All involved were artists in their own right. Via Afrika was a living force that encapsulated sex, politics, magic and imagination - a freedom of expression that was us. We didn't make Via Afrika happen. It happened to us."
During 1982 and 1983, Kensington Mansions, an apartment block on Noord Street in central Johannesburg, became the musical and spiritual home of Via Afrika - Rene Veldsman, Lukas Crouse and Michele Rowe. It was here that Rene, Lukas and Michele rehearsed, ideated and generally experimented with style and art in their quest to create a sound that would remain distinctly fresh, original and indisputably Via Afrikan. It was here, too, that this, the first album, was written and planned for studio production.
Looking back, there is little doubting that Via Afrika was uniquely outstanding in many aspects. Viewing Rene, Lukas and Michelle beyond their hypnotic music, their tantalising costumes and bodily adornments and their hedonistic and, sometimes, erotic dance routines, there was that special otherworldliness about them. Asked about the inspiration behind the band's songwriting, Rene says: " … A glamorous protest against government policy, homophobia, the constraints on freedom of expression and, generally, the rules in place during the apartheid years. We wanted our music to be a visual experience of textures, cultures and language - a celebration of the wonders of being African and the realisation of this privilege. "Our work was ahead of its time, but in later years we were recognised for our work with a United Nations award presented by Beyers Naude in New York City. Our style of music was strictly South African - no boundaries, just a unique sound that grew from a free-thinking group of musicians and artists."
Within a year of the band's formation and, by now, well seasoned playing extensive club and concert gigs to a growing base of urban neophytes desperate to appreciate a novel, yet enduring, South African rock fusion music, Via Afrika entered RPM Studios in downtown Johannesburg to record the first of two albums.
"Picture us: Via Afrika arriving in full war drag as if about to perform to a full stadium," Rene recalls. "Friends of the band would also be there, ready and equipped for a night of total hedonism. Richard Mitchell, our engineer - although a very serious and regular man - was very much a part of the hub. He would prepare the studio. Anything could happen, and he'd be ready, finger poised on the record button. "Richard and I would labour on till the sun came up. Like alchemists, we were having the time of our lives. For us, time meant nothing. The backroom work on the album played a large part of the album's success.".The band's self titled debut album was an instant success with the fans ,generating hit singles in “Hey Boy” and the irresistible title track.Both singles were remixed in the US and featured in the dance charts there.
"Our first album, Via Afrika, was the most pirated music around at that time," says Rene. "We took this as a compliment. We were not money-mad - we liked the stuff and needed it for the equipment, sound, clothes and the fun it bought us. We didn't make much money out of record sales - maybe five, six or seven grand.
"It seems unimportant right now. I don't know what the record company made because that sort of information was guarded jealously by big-company lawyers. It was easy to pull the wool over our eyes of any musician of that time in South Africa. But, sadly, it killed something for our next album, Scent of Scandal, which had some really great tracks on it, but it didn't have as much impact on fans as our first album.
Scent Of Scandal was recorded by Rene Veldsman, Lukas Luislang and Spider Wider during 1983 and released in 1984. The songs on the album were a travel guide of Africa from The Nile to Zanzibar (not a cover of the Wanda Arletti pop hit from the 70’s) to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia with a sidetrip to Bombay. Rene had gone to the US to promote the band and supervise the American remixes of the singles, Hey Boy and Via Afrika which were later released on the Vice In Bombay 12” single release. Offers for gigs poured in, but unfortunately the other members were still in South Africa. When Spider and Lukas finally did make it to America, the impetus has been lost, and personality clashes in the band caused the friends to part company.The album failed to set the charts alight and shortly thereafter the band fragmented. Despite enduring their share of trials and tribulations - and lacking the inspiration and drive to write and record what could easily have been an excellent third album, Via Afrika was a band that always seemed to be glowing with pleasure, excitement, vitality and joy.
Lukas Luislang recorded a solo album, Revenge, which was released in 1985. The title track was lifted as a single and released on a 12” single.He passed away in April 2002 .Rene continues to work in the recording business with her own studio in Cape Town,Kitty too lives and works in the Mother City.
Whether their aural tones softened or intensified, there was an intrinsic sense of hedonistic celebration and an uncompromising artistic stab at so many of the prevalent holy cows of South African life at the time. Here, arguably, was the ultimate "good times" party band with a lot of sociopolitical conscience and streetwise savvy. Via Afrika dared to be different and, on a good, late-night club date in downtown Johannesburg, they were wholly unbridled in their quest to take South African music in a direction no one else had previously attempted. Their daring, free spirit of experimentation and artistic permissiveness is, perhaps, their greatest legacy.