This week Tune Me What? introduces a new spot - one we hope to repeat from time to time - in which we take a look mid-show at an iconic South African album. The first album to be featured is Hand Around The Heart by singer-songwriter Jennifer Ferguson, released on the Shifty Records label in December 1985. Shifty Records itself is a fascinating story we hope to explore in a future show.
For many South Africans, their first introduction to Jennifer Ferguson was by stealth. She played the singing telegram fairy in an Interflora TV advert, serenading the surprised recipient in a comedy soprano voice. Few would have guessed that the voice behind this jingle was poised to write and record one of the finest albums of her generation.
Most of the music produced by the white alternative music scene centred on more direct political protest and generally focussed on male issues like conscription or 'big ticket' issues of politics and economics. Ferguson was more quietly subversive. Hand Around The Heart deals with the humdrum tedium of suburbia and the diminishing opportunities for women within South Africa's suffocating Calvinist society. 'Song About Cake', for example, is nothing of the sort and looks beneath the white icing of the society where "they shoot all the enemies of The State down dead."
Where it does touch on military conscription (the chief way in which apartheid negatively impacted the white community), 'Letter To Dickie' tells the tale of a woman's reluctant role in "supporting the troops" with her unwavering affection. An impossible expectation with tragic consequences, it all plays out in a lower middle-class suburban soap opera:
"When he got me in the back of his Cressida, Dickie, I just had to let you go."
In 'Suburban Hum', Ferguson details the mind-numbing boredom of a typical housewife, but as the song progresses it twists and it seems the woman's mind isn't numb at all. It is actually plagued by a litany of concerns about the present and the future and longs for the detachment of the past. 30 years later it is still capable of drawing one right back to that terrible time in the country's history.
Ferguson's strength is that she never resorts to polemic where poetry will do.
The album's undisputed tour de force is the beautiful solo piano ballad 'Bay of Bombay', recorded live and introduced by the artist:
"This is a song for my mother and it's about the dreams that women have when they didn't become opera stars and they have kitchen sinks with lace curtains around them and a pot plant and a back garden with peach trees..."
But if you think that these dark subjects make for broody listening, you'd be wrong. The album boasts a blend of pop and jazz in the best songwriting tradition. It features some startling melodies and some marvellous vocal performances.
For the recording, Ferguson assembled a stellar cast of musical contributors, including guitarists Johnny Blundell, Edi Niederlander, pianist Rashid Lanie, drummers Lloyd Martin and Ian Herman, and bassist Victor Masondo.
It is almost as if the effort of writing and recording the ten tracks of Hand Around The Heart exhausted the artist's creative energies. It was four years before her next (and to date, final) album Untimely. Regardless, Hand Around The Heart remains a classic South African album.
In 1994, following the country's democratic elections, Ferguson took a sabbatical from music and became a member of parliament for the African National Congress (ANC) until 1997. She is married to Swedish composer Anders Nyberg and they divide their time between Sweden and South Africa. From time to time there are rumours that a third album is finally in the works.
Hand Around The Heart is available for preview and purchase at Bandcamp.
Also featured in the episode, is music from the African Jazz Pioneers, Amampondo, Black Coffee, Hip Hop Pantsula, Piet Botha, Robin Levetan, Savuka, and Wonderboom.
Tune Me What? is a podcast and blog by Brett Lock and Leon Lazarus that highlights South African music and artists at home and around the world. For more information, visit tunemewhat.com or facebook.com/TuneMeWhat.