DJ Okapi’s Afrosynth specialises in African electronic music from the 80s

Digging up rare vinyl grooves in the city of gold, DJ Okapi brings a forgotten era of South African pop music back to life via a website dedicated to preserving South African pop music from the 1980s and early 1990s.

Afro-Synth focuses primarily on the genre known as bubblegum or disco, the majority of which was never digitized and remains largely inaccessible. The labels that released the music have folded and many of the artists have passed away, with only a small amount of this music ever available outside the country, due largely to South Africa’s international isolation during the apartheid era.

Curated from DJ Okapi’s collection, the aim of the blog is to provide an online presence to the music and musicians of a hugely vibrant yet largely forgotten era - at least through words and images if not always sounds - before their legacy is lost forever.

We caught up with the man behind the DJ Okapi moniker, Dave Durbach, after his European tour, and fortunately for us because soon he’ll be touring the UK again, starting with a Boiler Room gig in London on 10 November and ending in Edinburgh on 27 November, with shows in London, Brighton, Leeds, Sheffield, Glasgow and Rotterdam in between. You can check out his Facebook page for more details and read our interview with Dave after the jump.

You just got back from Europe. Please tell us about your trip.

I was in Amsterdam and Berlin for some DJ gigs there, as well as one night in Brussels. That was in late August 'til mid-September. Then I went back for a night at Paradiso in Amsterdam with Konono No.1 and Invisible City on the 8th of October. I also used the opportunity to pick up some new records for the store, mainly re-issues from other parts of Africa.

How did you set this all up?

I managed to set up the tour partly because I compiled an album for an American label called Cultures of Soul. It's called Boogie Breakdown, and it came out in September and features South African music from the early 80s. I’m currently working on licensing tracks for another compilation of SA music, this time with Rush Hour in Amsterdam, then next year if things work out I hope to work with them on some re-issues on my own label.

What started this musical journey of yours?

Around 2007 I picked up a few albums from the early 80s in Cape Town that got me started, including Harari’s Heatwave, Brenda & The Big Dudes’ Touch Somebody, The Cannibals’ Put Your Dancing Shoes On as well as a Zambian band called The Witch, their album Kuomboka. Before that I was collecting mainly American funk, which opened the doors to African disco.

What’s the Afro-Synth story?

I started it around 2009 after I’d built up a small collection of South African records. I realized there was no information available about this music, so it was simply a way to document my collection and share some information, not always the music itself, but at least the cover art and label information. Over the years I’ve added info on around 700 albums, so it’s become quite a unique resource – mainly covering South African music from the 80s and early 90s, but also including some albums from other parts of the continent, like Zimbabwe and DR Congo. Through digging and research I’ve gained access to extra copies of some albums, a lot of them still sealed and unplayed, so about a year ago I start selling them, mainly to collectors and DJs who contacted me through the blog.

You’re something of a historian, preserving South African pop music, why is it so important that you do this?

For various reasons this music is at risk of simply disappearing, which is tragic. Music has played such a central role in South African culture and politics, particularly during that era, so this music is closely tied to our history and identity as South Africans. It’s not like everyone has a duty to enjoy this music but it needs to be accessible to those who want it, both in SA and the rest of the world. On top of that, the quality of a lot of the music from back then is just incredible, it’s far more interesting than most pop music today, in my opinion. And it’s still relevant to contemporary and future sounds - bubblegum was the beginning of electronic dance music in this country.

And there’s now a physical store in Maboneng, too. Quite an empire you’re building.

Joburg doesn’t have a lot of record stores and dealers seemed preoccupied with foreign rather than local music. An area like Maboneng, where I live, is the ideal place to have a store that promotes local music. My goal is not only to be selling South African albums, but also to bring in music from other parts of Africa and the diaspora. And there are also plenty of affordable second-hand records of all genres, so there’s something for everyone, although African music is the priority. In terms of the growth there are other examples of music blogs that have evolved into stores and labels, often promoted by DJing – many of them in the African music market. I’m trying to do the same but focusing particularly on bubblegum and kwaito.

How big is your personal record collection?

At the moment I must have around 2000 records on my shelves at home. Since I’ve started selling though I’m more concerned with buying stock for the store, so it’s unlikely my own collection will get much bigger. In fact the store is also a way for me to unload some of my old records. I don’t believe in hanging onto music you never listen to.

What is it you love about the vinyl format?

People get sentimental about the feel or the sound of vinyl but for me it’s really just been for practical reasons. The music I want to listen to is only available on this format. And initially when I started collecting, records were more affordable than CDs. But to gain access to certain types of music it’s not like one can say ‘vinyl only’ or that it’s ‘better’ than any other format. I don’t have a CD player but I’ve recently acquired a lot of cassettes and even DATs that I’m listening to. It’s not like you can choose the format. Some of my favourite tracks I only have as WAV files, so if I want to play them in a set I have to bring a USB stick. The music is what matters, not the format.

You DJ as Okapi, where can we hear you and what do you like to play?

I play mainly around Maboneng and at Kitcheners in Braamfontein. I like to play mainly South African music, either bubblegum or kwaito, mixed with some American funk and other African stuff, but all from the same era, late 70s to early 90s, played on synthesizers and inspired by funk and disco. There is growing interest all over the world in this music so outside of clubs and other live gigs I’m having some success reaching a wider audience online through Soundcloud, guest mixes and online radio, which I’ll be doing more of in 2017.

For someone who isn’t too in touch with the various genres that you specialize in, how can we start our journey?

It’s sad that most young South Africans tend to be more familiar with American music, but it’s not unique to this country. South African music really has something for everyone. It’s just about listening to what’s out there and finding what speaks to you, rather than paying attention to trends or what other people are listening to. It helps to deliberately shut out the American stuff we’re bombarded with. These days we’re spoilt for choice and so much music is accessible for free online. But as a starting point for this particular kind of old SA music, people can listen to a lot of stuff on my Soundcloud, then follow up on what interests them.

What’s in the playlist you’ve made us and when should we play it?

It’s a downtempo mix for any time of day or night - here’s the tracklist:

0:00 ‘Come On Down’ (1979)
2:20 Eruption – ‘Movin’’ (1978)
6:40 Makwerhu – ‘Phexeni’ (1987)
12:10 Shakara – ‘Famba’ (1989)
15:40 Eric D – ‘Lobola (Party Mix)’ (1987)
20:40 Marcus Miller – ‘Juice’ (1984)
25:00 Sensation – ‘Mabakethe’ (1987)
29:25 Benjamin Ball – ‘Paulina’ (1984)
35:40 Kool & The Gang – ‘Hi De Hi’ (1984)
39:00 Kumasi – ‘Anomakoliwa’ (1983)
46:25 Harari – ‘Party’ (1980)
51:02 Chic – ‘You Are Beautiful’ (1981)

* photograph by Anastasia Muna