Album Review: Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul and Synth Boogie in 1980s South Africa

There was a time where music from the Africa fell under the catch-all phrase of “world music”. Despite trendsetters such as Fela Kuti creating such lavish works which to this day still influences an incredible number of musicians, to explain tropicalia or afro-beat was to be met with heads cocked sideways and an utterance of “oh, you mean world music.”

Though for many music and the internet is a polarizing conversation about how we consume things in this day and age, there is always the argument that thanks to things being readily accessible it has given more of a spotlight to music that perhaps laid dormant on a global scale. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible work of Brian Shimkovitz and the Awesome Tapes from Africa label, along with the painstaking work he has accomplished. For many of us music anoraks, that was our first venture into the continent outside of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul and Synth Boogie in 1980s South Africa very much unearths a cornucopia of works during the apartheid era; where there was incredible divisiveness in the country at the time, a directive from South Africa Broadcasting Corporation’s inclusion of works for their ethnic stations gave rise to an incredibly popular disco-esque movement termed “bubblegum”. Musicians became celebrities in the country, crossing over the racial divide and creating works enjoyed by all South Africans and went on to sell millions of records. However, be it the country being quite insular throughout the years or ourselves being a little insular to what is omnipotent in regards to music, only recently has this booming period in a music community been given it’s rightful treatment.

Politics aside, the compilation plays out as a who’s who of popular bubblegum artists at the time – a number of which from the country’s very own Motown/Daptone Records, Teal, who housed the likes of Ashiko and Zasha. At the risk of sounding hypocritical, the artists distinctly have drawn upon influences around the world (especially disco-era North America) and while some may argue they can be derivative of their counterparts, derivative is too strong of a world. Yes, there is some heart-on-sleeve moments and comparisons are always going to be made, but these are works that have taken elements and made them distinctive to their locale – which in many ways prevents them from being carbon copies but rather homages from impressionistic young South African musicians.

Gumba Fire is an important zeitgeist into a time of incredible social turmoil throughout the dark ages of South Africa. Aside from the incredibly upbeat musical output that emerged from the country is the equally magnificent, powerful story of how art, in this case music, is all embracing in its ubiquity and bellows a rallying cry against oppression. It’s very fun to listen to above all else – despite the backdrop it’s set to.

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