Forget about Searching for Sugarman and Sixto Rodriguez for a moment. Put down your desires to follow the crowd into the mainstream alt-stream and ask your parents who the greatest local underground rock stars of South Africa were. They probably wouldn’t be able to tell you unless they were the privileged few to have made the enlightening discoveries but if they were they’d tell you tales. They’d tell you tales of bands like Wild Youth, Screaming Foetus and Safari Suits who were the powerhouses of middle fingers to the establishment but none could be more riveting than those which involved National Wake.
Some of you might have even seen them but because we’re catering to the millennials here…and because our basic education history syllables is full of war and conflict, if you were born after the mid 90s, you’re likely to be unexposed to what was once the outcry of the privileged and unprivileged youth against the system.
A multiracial punk band, National Wake formed out of the ashes of the 1976 Soweto riots and defied the South African government in playing songs challenging the regime. The founding members consisted of Ivan, a dude from the burbs, and Gary and Punk, two okes whose family was forced to relocate to Soweto.
Their signature song, International News, took the South African underground scene by storm and afforded a voice to those who had no manner of expressing themselves against the oppression of the time.
The band only released a single album, Walk in Africa, which initially was commercially unsuccessful…mostly due to a clamping down by the state…to the extent that the police reportedly advised the band to leave the country.
National Wake then became to South Africa what Empire Records was to the kids of the United States. Bootleg copies were passed around and the cult status of the band kept the memory of the band alive even after some members left the country while others passed away.
Lead singer Ivan, survived and rereleased the album causing another surge of interest. The band features prominently in the Punk In Africa documentary yet still, many of my millennial generation haven’t gotten over even the Springbok Nude Girl boundary to reach these guys.
The music has a hint of third wave ska with influences of the Clash. Listening to it grants insight into just how deeply rooted the anger at the South African establishment was that it could bring the people (and their differing styles) that the state sought to keep apart…and defy the state not only in their music, but in making that music together.
In true punk rock style, National Wake, seems destined to be lost on the mainstream but to those who really needed it…to those who had lost their voice in a time of national turmoil…and to those found solace, comfort and much needed outlet in music…National Wake was there…and continued to be there in the decades following their disbanding.