‘Gallo Vault Sessions’ unpacks rich history with the likes of Hugh Masekela and Simphiwe Dana

Simphiwe Dana. Picture: Supplied

Simphiwe Dana. Picture: Supplied

Published Sep 18, 2022


One of the first things Zara Julius did once she got access to the Gallo Vault was to explore its vast archives for apartheid propaganda music and music that is sympathetic to the apartheid regime.

Having just come off an episode of the “Talking Drum” podcast, where Sudanese musician and ethno-musicologist, Alsarah, spoke about the weaponisation of music as propaganda by a repressive state and how the government tightly controls music production, she was eager to interrogate the same theme in South Africa.

“I think we don’t often think about South African music history in this way," she says.

"I was thinking about that and how those questions apply to the South African context. And that for me is really, really interesting because we never think of the construction of Afrikanerdom and the construction of white superiority.

“We just know that it is a thing but what is the nitty-gritty of how this thing got built.”

Julius’s access to the Gallo Vault was granted as part of her podcast series titled “Gallo Vault Sessions” that takes listeners through the Gallo Records’ rich history as home to some of the continent’s greatest legacy artists.

The series, which started rolling out in March as part of the iconic record company’s 95th anniversary, explores themes such as race, expropriation and exploitation in South African music, while also celebrating the rich history of South Africa's longest running record label.

With a roster that includes the likes of Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Lucky Dube, Simphiwe Dana, Oliver Mtukudzi, Thandiswa Mazwai and Skwatta Kamp, the Gallo Vault is a vast reservoir of information on all sorts of stories about the country’s rich musical history.

Through six intriguing episodes, “Gallo Vault Sessions” unpacks the journey of the songs and the artists through the lens of the people who were close to the process when the music was made.

Julius’s interest leads to an exploration that unfolds neatly in episode 2 (“Radio, Race and Genre in South Africa”) as well as episode 3 (“Afrikanerdom: Dysfunction and Aspiration”).

Episode 3 is a fascinating look at Gallo Music’s Afrikaans language catalogue that considers how the sound of whiteness and in particular, “Afrikanerdom”, was a conscious construction by the SABC and by extension, the Broederbond.

It explores how music was used as a means of forming Afrikaner conscience in the wake of the Anglo-Boer war, and how various musicians reacted against the Broederbond’s idea of what it meant to be a “good Afrikaner” through chats with the likes of musician and music historian Schalk van der Merwe, critical whiteness studies scholar Thandiwe Ntshinga, legacy artist Anton Goosen and Gallo Music’s resident archivist Rob Allingham.

The final episode in the first season of the podcast wrapped up a few weeks ago with an episode looking at the music industry under transition post-independence through bubblegum, kwaito and, now, amapiano.

It neatly brings to a close a sprawling re-examining of South Africa’s complex musical past with insights from Don Laka, Simphiwe Dana and Dr Sipho Sitole.

The episode unpacks South African music from the late 1980s by considering how technology affected its sound and how music finally broke free of SABC radio censorship to the rise of powerful black female voices.

Despite these giant strides, it reflects on how we still tend to hear more American music on the radio than South African.

Gallo Vaults Sessions unpacks the label’s rich history with the likes of Simphiwe Dana. Picture: Supplied

This period also saw the rise of black women occupying new spaces in the wake of household names like Miriam Makeba.

A short while later, Brenda Fassie kicked down the doors of respectability politics in the bubblegum era paving the way for icons like Lebo Mathosa to walk right through them.

Mathosa’s legacy and influence on aesthetics can still be seen today with how women in amapiano are dictating the fashion and dance styles of the scene.

Nuggets of insightful information on not just Gallo’s history but also the history of South African music are given throughout the season.

One particularly insightful episode is the fourth one, which explores how talent scouts, producers and loafers shaped the sound of township music.

The episode shares how they were used as proxies for white-owned record labels and their influence in shaping the sounds of “black music” in South Africa.

It also unpacks how labels exploited black recorded music and artists bore the brunt of a financially exploitative industry.

Here, the legendary penny whistler and organ jive player Bra Lulu Masilela from The Boyoyo Boys shares how despite writing many major hits he never received any song writing credits.

Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, Bra Mike Swaratle, Gallo archivist Rob Allingham also speak on the journey of Mam Hilda Tloubatla, the original soprano from The Mahotella Queens.

These and other incredible stories on many of the most impactful artists on the continent, makes this a one of a kind podcast series.