Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul & Synth-Boogie in 1980s South Africa

Soundway Records' latest compilation is a fantastic introduction to the party-starting bubblegum sound from South Africa

Album Review by Peter Simpson | 05 Mar 2018
  • Gumba Fire
Album title: Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul & Synth-Boogie in 1980s South Africa
Artist: Various Artists
Label: Soundway Records
Release date: 9 Mar

Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s doesn’t sound like the ideal breeding ground for extremely danceable pop music, but that’s where the infectious bubblegum sound showcased on Soundway’s latest compilation originated.

As a genre, bubblegum sits at the intersection between Mbaqanga guitar music – brought to Western attention in the mid-80s via Paul Simon’s Graceland and the hugely successful Earthworks compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto – and the out-and-out dance music that would follow in the 1990s. Socially, the music provided a homegrown alternative to American influences, and offered a chance to dodge apartheid-era censorship restrictions and add to the country’s growing underground music scene.

The results are funky, bouncy dancefloor fillers featuring layer upon layer of lo-fi synthesizers and drum machines. Gumba Fire – compiled by Johannesburg native Dave Durbach, aka DJ Okapi, and Soundway’s own Miles Cleret – is an exciting introduction to a genre that sounds otherworldly and grounded, both retro and bang up-to-date.

Whether it’s the Kung Fu Fighting-esque refrain of My Brother by The Survivals, or the fiery guitar solo five minutes into Ozila’s Wola Wola, this is a compilation that’s packed with surprises. Starlight’s Picnicing is driven forward by a yawning, squelchy synth lead that would go down a storm in most clubs in 2018, while The Black Five’s Selallane bops along brilliantly on a fantastically smooth bass groove.

As with any selection of its kind, Gumba Fire isn’t the most cohesive listen in the world, jumping between artists and sounds at will with magpie-like zeal. However, as a snapshot of a scene that has gone largely unreported, it’s an ideal starting point. In trying to get going with the rich and complicated world of bubblegum, consider Gumba Fire your kindling.

Listen to: Wayawaya by Zoom, Wola Wola by Ozila