In September last year, SAHA celebrated the rich legacy of Shifty Records in commemoration of the often controversial record label’s 30th birthday and the 25th anniversary of the ground-breaking Voëlvry tour of 1989. Established in 1984 as a mobile recording studio with Lloyd Ross at the helm, Shifty records recorded music that no other institution would during the height of state repression and censorship. These recordings resulted in an eclectic, yet most comprehensive collection of South African political and social commentary music.
As ‘Shifty’ festivities continue during heritage month in Cape Town this year, we take a look at the Shifty Records Project collection (AL3296) at SAHA.
While the collection includes materials emanating from a variety of sources the core of the collection originated from Lloyd Ross’s endangered Shifty Records archive. As much a testament to the passion and determination of the Shifty Records founder, the archive also signifies the diversity of the ‘Shifty’ catalogue as every solo artist and band recorded by Shifty Records is represented in the rich archives of digitised audio recordings, artists’ correspondence, lyric sheets, press releases, photographs and t-shirts. Most artists from the ‘Shifty’ stable are represented in the collection and include amongst others André Letoit (also as Koos Kombuis), Corporal Punishment, Illegal Gathering, James Phillips (also as Bernoldus Niemand), Johannes Kerkorrel en die Gereformeerde Blues Band, Kalahari Surfers, Jennifer Ferguson, Radio Rats, Simba Morri, Cherry Faced Lurchers, Mzwakhe Mbuli, Sankomota, National Wake, Tananas, Fosatu Workers Choirs, Lesego Rampolokeng, Noise Khanyile Vusi Mahlasela, Die Kêrels, Genuines, Urban Creep, Van der Want and Letcher, Robin Auld, Tony Cox, Warrick Sony, Winston’s Jive Mixup and Roger Lucey.
Among the many gems in the collection are notebooks of James Phillips which contain early drafts of lyrics of some of his most icon songs such as ‘Snor City’ and ‘Reggae Vibes is Cool.’ The collection further documents the emergence of the so-called Alternative Afrikaans Music Movement (AAMM) and the Voëlvry tour, as well as Shifty Records' involvement with trade unions and the End Conscription Campaign (ECC).
An oral history component of fourteen oral history interviews with Lloyd Ross and artists from the ‘Shifty’ stable, including Simba Morri, Mzwakhe Mbuli, Warrick Sony (of Kalahari Surfers fame) and Koos Kombuis, to name but a view, form part of the collection. The interviews were conducted in 2014 by Professor Michael Drewett on behalf of SAHA and Rhodes University Department of Sociology for the Shifty Records Archives Project.
During the course of the project SAHA made an appeal to people to support the project by donating any ‘Shifty’-related material they may have to complement the existing collection. This resulted in the pulling of artefacts from many different sources: from ‘Shifty’ artists, ‘Shifty’ workers, ‘Shifty’ friends and even ex-girlfriends of Lloyd Ross who all very enthusiastically contributed to the ‘Shifty’ legacy. One such donation was from the former public relations and media liaison person for Shifty Records (1987-1989), Toni Joosten, who added a vivid and colourful account of her days at the record label and a digital copy of the rare and sought-after ‘Shifty’ calendar, a collage of the ‘Shifty’ stable of characters. Another former ‘Shifty’ staff member, Catharina Scheepers donated a digital copy of the Voëlvry poster.
SAHA also obtained copies of materials from the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) Record Library. These materials document the restriction of airplay of most of Shifty Records’ releases. This includes lyric sheets with comments by the Central Record Acceptance Committee (CRAC) on why a particular song was restricted, and copies of a number of vinyl records with covers and inner sleeves containing the ‘Avoid’ stickers next to song titles and scratched tracks to prevent DJs from playing the songs on air. The materials from the SABC Record Library relate to a large number of ‘Shifty’ albums, including Sankomota by Sankomota, Live at Jamesons by the Cherry Faced Lurchers, Goema by the Genuines, Change is Pain by Mzwakhe Mbuli, Niemandsland by Koos Kombuis, Eet Kreef by Johannes Kerkorrel en die Gereformeerde Blues Band and Untimely by Jennifer Ferguson.
SAHA further attempted, using the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2 of 2000 through its Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) to obtain copies of police records around the surveillance of Shifty events, particularly the Voëlvry concerts, and copies of Security Legislation Directorate (SLD) files originally kept by the Department of Justice on Lloyd Ross, James Phillips, Warrick Sony and Mzwakhe Mbuli. Unfortunately not much was released and what was released shed very little light on the surveillance of ‘Shifty’ artists.
SAHA developed an exhibition ‘What you won’t hear on the radio’. The exhibition draws on historical artefacts from the archives to explore the various ways in which Shifty Records created a musical outlet for South Africans to express their resistance to the apartheid regime. A selection of digitised items and transcripts of the oral history interviews are also accessible on SAHA’s website, as is a virtual exhibition entitled ‘What you won’t hear on the radio’.
SAHA director, Catherine Kennedy emphasises the collection’s significance when she said: “As an activist archive with a keen interest in what neglected or at-risk records can reveal about how people have struggled for justice in South Africa, Shifty Records has added an amazingly fitting, not to mention delightfully noisy, dimension to our archives at SAHA. The rich material deposited by Lloyd Ross with SAHA come together to form a striking musical assertion of the right to be heard, to challenge and demonstrate defiance of injustice, and to claim public space to fight for human rights in South Africa.”
See inventory for the Shifty Record Project collection (AL3296)
Visit the SAHA online exhibition ‘What you won’t hear on the radio’
Visit SAHA's Exhibition page to learn more about SAHA's exhibition kits