Mark Winter welcomes a new exhibition celebrating Namibia’s unsung musical heroes, and remembers the time when the artist Jackson Kaujewa came to stay with his family.
Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, and its history, people and culture are unlikely to be familiar to many of us. A new exhibition at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery aims to shine a light on the musical legacy of the country. Its aim? To share with the world at large songs and artists mostly unknown even in their own country.
Previously known as South West Africa, Namibia was occupied by German imperial forces who arrived late at the land grab for Africa. It served as a training ground for key leaders of the Brownshirts in Nazi Germany, as its population became the victims of a war of genocide. Germany’s occupation was ended by forces of the Union of South Africa, acting on behalf of the British Empire, at the beginning of World War One. South Africa annexed the territory and continued to rule until independence in 1990.
Namibia’s borders are the straight lines drawn onto a map by her occupiers. The apartheid regime aimed to control Namibia’s geographical space and natural resources, but also its music and culture. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) was notorious for its censorship, which included scratching a nail directly onto vinyl discs which were deemed immoral or subversive. Western artists like the Rolling Stones came in for this treatment, as each copy of their Sticky Fingers album had to be secured with duct tape to prevent ‘impure thoughts’. Those of us who later tried to prise the cover open were left disappointed. Bans and censorship were commonplace in the 1960s and 70s, when the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus’. Rock musicians were often regarded by white conservative Christians as the spawn of Satan, and hippies and flower power were no better than communism (which was a bad thing).
A person of colour in Namibia who hoped to make it as a musician faced obstacles on many fronts: a small target audience compared with South Africa, a hostile administration and a conservative broadcaster. SABC might record an artist, but only release the music to a single language group.
One of the artists featured is Jackson Kaujewa, who was a political exile in the early 1970s. Jackson came to live with my family in Sutton Courtenay (near Oxford) as part of a contingent of exiles placed there by SWAPO, the movement for an independent Namibia. He studied at the Further Education college in Abingdon, but spent his weekends as front man for a local group of musicians who toured the pubs and clubs playing a blend of disco and funk. With his natural height augmented by the chunky platform heels that were de rigueur at the time, he cut a formidable figure. He went on to become a local star on his return to Namibia.
Lastly, if you get a chance, take The Winds Of Change 12-inch vinyl from its sleeve, place it on the turntable provided and listen to the chorus ‘Namibia is our country, go back colonialist, back back where you come from’, which sounds a lot better in OshiOvambo. The track was produced by Jerry Dammers, who also had a hand in the song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.
What to expect:
an extensive photographic collection, a 120-min video projection that revisits the dance styles of the period, 14 listening stations featuring Namibia’s music legends, a sound installation that explores a selection of over 100 hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses, and a large collection of record covers and music memorabilia.
Cerys Mathews features the Stolen Moments exhibition on iPlayer. She plays some great Namibian music and the curators have good things to say. Link here (the interview is 35 mins in).
The Stolen Moments – Namibian Music History Untold (1950s-1980s) exhibition is held in the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG and runs from 12 July – 21 September 2019. Opening times: Tuesday – Saturday: 10.30 – 17.00. Late night Thursday until 20:00. Admission is free.
 See: David Olusoga, The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism (London: Faber & Faber 2010).