Heritage Day, celebrated annually on 24 September, gives South Africans an opportunity to rejoice and reminisce about our country's rich cultural heritage. At the Just Conversations event held at the Stellenbosch University (SU) Museum this week, light was shed on an extraordinary cultural gem.
Not many people know that one of the most valuable music treasures in South Africa is kept in the heart of the SU campus at the Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS) at the Music Library. The Hidden Years Music Archive houses one of the biggest collections of popular music in South Africa and includes more than 6000 vinyl records, 7000 reel-to-reel and cassette tapes as well as a multitude of invaluable photographs and documents.
The story behind the creation of the Hidden Years Music Archive is as fascinating as its content. Behind the priceless collection are two heroes – an eccentric music lover David Marks who meticulously collected and recorded music created and performed in South Africa from the 1960s to the early 2000s; and Prof Lizabé Lambrechts, a SU academic who worked tirelessly for over a decade to preserve, research and document his life's work.
Marks, who turns 80 next year, is a songwriter, singer, producer and publisher who spent much of his early career recording and archiving a broad cross-spectrum of South African music. He even had a taste of fame in the late 1960s when his song “Master Jack" hit the international charts.
Marks' music collection is truly remarkable, says Lambrechts. “He made the first recordings of Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu; recorded Laurika Rauch's version of “Kinders van die Wind" in 1979; booked Ladysmith Black Mambaso to perform for the first time in front of a white audience in the Market Theatre in Johannesburg; and started a record label, Down South, with Hugh Masekela."
In addition, he was one of two South Africans at the Woodstock music festival in America in 1969. He brought this sound system to South Africa in 1970, with which he set up some of the first big outdoor concerts with sound reinforcement in South Africa. He went to record Madosini in the Transkei in 1974 with the first mobile sound studio in South Africa and from 1971 organized the Free Peoples concerts at Wits.
Marks founded the Hidden Years Music Archive Project in 1990 to share and make available the material he spent his life creating and collecting. He maintained a website with information about musicians and events from the archive and other historical material he put together. The website was closed in 2021 and is now hosted on the new Hidden Years Music Archive website as a searchable database in its original form.
Until Lambrechts started her long-term involvement with Marks' material as a doctoral student in 2011, its future had been precarious, Prof Stephanus Muller, Director of the Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation at SU, explained at the launch of the Hidden Years website. “Lizabé has selflessly devoted more than a decade of her scholarship and organisational abilities, to bring this material to the safety of its current home in Stellenbosch." The Hidden Years Archive has grown into a dynamic academic project with a cohort of interdisciplinary postgraduate students working towards unlocking the multiple histories housed in the collection.
Lambrechts raised considerable funding for the ordering, description and digitisation of the archive, and continued adding the smaller archives of artists, record companies and collectors in what has become a commonwealth of archival interests centred around the Hidden Years Music Archive. “Throughout the years that I have known Lizabé, she has been richly and rewardingly involved with the pleasures of discovery afforded by the archive," Muller said.
Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and the Africa Open Institute (AOI), the collection constitutes more than 10 tonnes of material representing diverse musical styles ranging from urban folk and township jazz to country rock, maskanda and traditional music. As such, the archive offers unique glimpses into southern Africa's counterculture and alternative music movements.
After the Volkswagen Funding ended in 2022, Lambrechts joined Nuuseum as CEO, a non-profit company set up to create an educational tool and innovative digital platform for the preservation of a diverse cultural heritage. She is also affiliated as an Extraordinary Associate Professor at the Africa Open Institute at SU where she is part of an international research group funded by the Riksbank (Sweden) on a project entitled Decay without Mourning: Future thinking heritage practices. This project draws on aspects of the Hidden Years Music Archive.
At the Just Conversations event, Lambrechts said as the project grew, more and more musicians started donating their collections and became involved in constructing their memories and histories through the archive. “One of the consequences of the close collaboration with David is that his family and relatives began to support the work; friends arrived to help me move material around, and the network around the archive expanded enormously. Eventually, it included national as well as international musicians, music producers and individuals.
“Through this network, many valuable collections have been donated to find a home under the umbrella of the Hidden Years project: the archives of Shifty Records, Roger Lucey, Darius and Catherine Brubeck, Des and Dawn Lindberg, Jeremy Taylor and the Silver Creek Mountain Band, to single out a few. I was also able to activate this network to assist David and his wife Frances financially when she fell ill, as well as help several other musicians in these networks who needed help."
Many artists whose music has been preserved in the Hidden Years Music Archive are relatively unknown due to the political content of their music which was suppressed during apartheid or because their music was not considered commercially viable. It's tragic that some of these artists now live in poverty, Lambrecht says. “They made incredible music and played at big shows, but now they are forgotten by history. In later years, they were holding concerts for each other to raise funds for medical care."
Archives are a window into what people's aspirations and dreams were, Lambrechts says. “It opens up a different narrative into how we can understand the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa. By actively gathering collections that in the previous dispensation were not considered valuable enough to preserve, archivists can play a leading role in the process of transformation. So much of South Africa's heritage has not been valued, and systematically adding this material to the historical record not only makes it available for research but also gives recognition and value to the contributions of all South Africans in creating our country's history and culture."