DJ Okapi: Saving Bubblegum

These days, AfroSynth almost never gets mentioned without the name DJ Okapi in tow, for it is largely thanks to the latter that this forgotten era of South African pop music continues to see the light of day. His real name is Dave Durbach. Through his AfroSynth blog and a record store specializing in South African music, he has carved out a niche as the authority on this 80s synth-fuelled bubblegum pop. Most recently, he was here in Amsterdam to perform at Strange Sounds From Beyond 2017, where he sat down with Maan Jitski for a little chat.

On many counts, Durbach is the perfect candidate to feature on a platform as Strange Sounds From Beyond. Even within the confines of South Africa, his home country, the types of music he has dedicated more than a decade to promoting are considered rarities. Do check out his set at the festival while continuing your read.

“I’ve always been a DJ that plays what other DJs don’t play, even in South Africa,” says Durbach. “Strangeness is definitely something that I’m looking for. I enjoy weird sounds, I enjoy playing what people haven’t heard before and I’m trying to be a little bit different and offer something fresh. Because I come from South Africa and I’m proud of the fact that I do, I try to represent my country through music. Not just by playing pop music from my country, but also by playing weird, more underground stuff. Not weird in the sense that it is difficult to enjoy, just that it’s not widely known.”

AfroSynth was a genre of South African bubblegum pop that surfaced near the end of a trying time in South Africa’s history – the Apartheid. Though initially heavily borrowed and inspired by Black American pop music of the 80s, it adopted more local flavors as time went by. The saccharine label given to “bubblegum pop”, when juxtaposed with the harsh realities of life under the apartheid regime, belies the sort of escapism – or perhaps even subtle defiance – South Africans used at the time as coping mechanisms. It was also the only way the music could continue to thrive under heavy censorship, with political messages skillfully disguised within its seemingly non-provocative lyrics.

“In South Africa, the music that I play is sort of forgotten,” says Durbach. “People back home are more and more concerned with American music and American culture, consequently people are not really looking at their own past for inspiration. This of course has to do with the fact that our history is very painful and brutal; as we all know, apartheid is still on our minds. At the same time, especially during these bad times, music is (and was) a vital, beautiful and inspiring part of our culture. A part that I don’t want to be forgotten, so I kind of have taken it upon myself to represent my culture through music. By DJing, but also through my record shop in Johannesburg.”

The bubblegum music that dominated much of the 80s in South Africa represented a shift from Western influences increasingly towards a more local sound. It may have been Durbach’s focus of late but there is in fact much more musical diversity and uncovered gems coming from such a diverse country as South Africa, as he explains.

“As a white South African, music is what connects me to other South Africans. Music has always been a language that united us after apartheid, just like sport does. For me it is a way for people to relate to each other, when they otherwise wouldn’t. It makes people proud to be South African, collectively, and breaks down the barriers that have been forced on us by history.”

He went on to stress that he plays not just certain kinds, but all kinds of South African Music, including music in different languages, from different times. He is also aware of the different setting in Europe, where the “non-Western music market” is currently ruled by DJs of in fact a Western background, who generally have a poor grasp of the foreign lyrics or the song contexts.

“People from my country look at my music differently than Europeans, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad,” explains Durbach. “For a lot of young South Africans the music that I’m playing is the music that their parents listened to and it’s just not that cool for them. Here in Europe I’m less restricted in that sense.”

DJ Okapi and Maan Jitski backstage at Strange Sounds From Beyond 2017

On how he adapts when playing to European audiences, Durbach continues: “Sometimes I feel like putting different songs in my set; perhaps a bit of American music and some music from other African countries. But then I realize that people in Europe have booked me solely to play South African music. The South Africans are very aware of the context of the songs I play, and feel a certain connotation with it. So there is more baggage attached to the music. Sometimes that is good, for example when people know the song from their youth and it brings back a certain memory and people even get quite emotional by it. But when the song is politically loaded, people don’t want to hear it anymore.

“In Europe the music is free of all this political and emotional baggage; the audience judges it purely by its musical qualities. On the one hand people don’t fully appreciate the meaning of a song, which is a pity, but on the other hand, for me as a DJ, I have a lot more freedom with these songs in Europe, with an unknowing crowd. It basically gives me the license to play whatever I want. And ironically enough, these gigs in Europe give me more authority in South Africa, resulting in bigger gigs and more listeners. That way, I will not only represent my culture through music to Europeans, but also to a new generation of South Africans, who hopefully won’t forget their diverse musical past.”

“People back home are more and more concerned with American music and American culture, consequently people are not really looking at their own past for inspiration."