Every August in the quiet northern German village of Wacken, a gathering of heavy metal bands and fans unites at the Wacken Open Air festival in celebration of the music they value so much. If you’re not a metal fan, you might not have heard of it, but it is the largest heavy metal festival in the world, attended by roughly 80,000 fans.
Cape Town’s Infanteria, will be among the many artists performing at this year’s festival, one of the first to represent South Africa as a result of a recent showcase in the country, the Wacken Battle. The showcase allowed bands from all over the country to participate in a series of performances and get the chance to win a spot at the prestigious Wacken Open Air festival, representing the country on metal’s biggest stage. The Wacken Battle is a great step forward for heavy metal bands and fans in a country that wants nothing more than to break out of the shadows of its tumultuous past.
Away from the eyes of the world, the sub-culture of heavy metal has been healthily bubbling under in South Africa, the result of a generation of musicians and fans growing comfortably with the country’s post-apartheid identity. South Africans have been enjoying rock and metal music for years, yet with a tincture of coverage outside the continent. The metal and heavy rock scene served as a voice for anti-government protests during the apartheid years, but the new generation of bands that have been coming up and performing freely since 1994 are eager to reach beyond the country’s and the continent’s borders.
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During apartheid, acts such as Urban Assault, Voice of Destruction and Agro kept the country’s heavy metal scene vibrant, despite efforts by the government to silence such movements. Former Urban Assault band member Dirk explains, “Our influences came from all the thrash bands we could get our hands on. Metal was difficult to get because of all the censorship laws in this country.” Agro vocalist Clifford Crabb confirms, “The police here monitored what went on closely, if you stepped out of line, you got messed up.”
The awareness of the plight of black South Africans motivated bands to push their anti-apartheid messages.
“Oppressing people already so disenfranchised, and raiding their shacks under the state of emergency was unforgivable,” explains former Voice of Destruction drummer Paul Blom, “The government was more concerned with keeping the black population under their thumb, and with that mind-set comes the fascist attitude that anyone different is an enemy, so fans (of metal) and supporters were often harassed by cops.” Voice of Destruction, like so many other early metal bands, was a protest band, as Clifford Crabb recalls, “(our) role as a metal heads during apartheid was to speak out against apartheid, and we did it blatantly.”
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Since the end of apartheid, acts such as Bloodbeast, Junkyard Lipstick, Juggernaught, Facing The Gallows, Ree-Burth,Chromium, ING, Conqueror, and many more, have not only begun to carve and expand a niche in their country, but have also started to expand their audiences in the rest of the continent, and beyond.
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Infanteria’s victory at the recent Wacken Battle, was just the next step in the evolution of South African metal, whose reach in international markets is still relatively minimal. On their victory, guitarist Adriano Rodrigues elates, “The real prize is being able to expose Infanteria to Europe, and through association hopefully start turning some heads towards the insane explosion of metal we are experiencing in our own country at the moment.” The South African metal scene is in the best condition it’s ever been and things are looking up, adds Infanteria vocalist Chris Hall. Local Wacken Battle organizer, Louis Du Pisani explains the significance of Infanteria’s inclusion in this year’s festival, “I think it just shows the rest of the world that we have a scene here and we are just putting our hands up.”
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Infanteria’s appearance in this year’s festival will be the third by a South African band. Previous bands to appear from South Africa were Sacraphyx and Agro. Alec Surridge of the disbanded Sacraphyx, recalls his band’s performance at the legendary festival, “The reaction overseas was tremendous. It was the first time we had radio and television interviews. We didn’t have enough EPs to hand out; it was awesome.” Former band mate Adam van der Riet remembers, “it was like we’d stepped into some fantasy universe where all our dreams had come true,” though as he laments, “the idea that we were coming home to nothing was deflating.”
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Other acts such as Diety’s Muse, and Truth And Its Burden have also had a hand in taking South Africa’s current generation of metal forward and out of the continent, both having had recent European and American stints. Commenting on South Africa’s step forward, Wayne Longbeard of Diety’s Muse says, “it is growing, there are bridges being built now. It was always a weird pipe dream, (but) there are bands able to do it, things are speeding up here. I see more positive things coming out of it than I do negative. We are only helping to lay the bricks for the next generation.”
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The next generation of bands includes acts such as Demogoroth Satanum (Soweto), whose members grew up with a passion for metal, and who feel that the growth of metal in South Africa might have something to do with honesty. “Metal forces people to look at the world they live in”, says one of the band members. “In the townships, a lot of ideas that allow freedom are viewed as the devil’s work, through metal we’ve learnt to confront and question that which lies beyond what we’ve been told and what we’re accustomed to.”
Though attitudes are changing, the progress of heavy metal from Africa (as a whole) in becoming part of the global metal conversation still evades the acts involved. Kgame Mkwahanazi, of the Johannesburg based Under The Chernobyl Cloud explains, “there is hope for metal in Africa, but we need to bring it up ourselves; it is reliant on us.” Patrick Davidson, one of the judges on the Wacken metal panel, explains, “should the Wacken metal battle continue to become an annual installation, it will raise the bar in terms of quality of bands our nation is able to produce. Younger and less experienced bands are being given the gift of a yardstick by which to measure themselves. The future is ripe with possibilities. Every nation has its good and its bad, and despite our difficulties, we have also developed very strongly on our own. We hope that this can serve as an example to other communities of metal heads across the continent.”