Captain Mosez is celebrated by the essential Afrosynth label – ‘Fly Cherry Fly’ and ‘Hey Hey Hey!’ – further define South Africa’s bubblegum sound from 1985 on this first-time reissue

Afrosynth reissue the essential Fly Cherry Fly – by South African musician Captain Mosez – alongside Hey! Hey! Hey! from 1985 and once again are able to further highlight the range of international influences on the bubblegum sound, such as Italo disco, electro-funk, even rock.

These killer cuts are re-issued for the very first time. Until now, the Captain Mosez 12″ remained a highly sought after South African disco obscurity – “apparently going for the big $ on the collectors’ market,” according to label boss Dave Durbach. Both cuts are highly reflective songs about the break-up of a relationship and our singer’s transition.

In 1985 a young musician named Moses Mafiri walked into EMI Studios in Johannesburg. Working with Selwyn Shandel, then one of the label’s prolific in-house producers, they recorded two tracks.

“I remember Moses as a very quiet, talented and gentle guy. He never really had a great voice, but he used to come up with excellent melodies and lyrical concepts,” remembers Shandel today. The producer never saw or heard from him Moses again after that session and he never released as Captain Mosez again, although he would later resurface in the backing band of the internationally renowned, Vusi Mahlasela.

Moses was born into the once thriving area of Lady Selborne in 1953, in the capital city of Pretoria. Initially established in 1905, Lady Selborne was once one of the few urban areas where black South Africans were permitted by law to own land. This came to an end in 1960, when the area was razed to the ground by the apartheid government and its residents shunted to the nearby townships of Mamelodi and Atteridgeville. South Africa’s cities still bear the scars of the forced removals and planned destruction of many thriving black and mixed neighbourhoods in the 1960s – most famously District Six in Cape Town and Sophiatown in Johannesburg. The suburb of Lady Selborne has, in recent years, slowly started to recover, at least for those former residents who can afford to return.

Now, salvaged from the archives of Universal Music SA and restored from the original U-matic masters, Fly Cherry Fly is being reissued on vinyl and digitally by Afrosynth Records this month. Pre-order it now via Rush Hour (https://www.rushhour.nl/record/vinyl/fly-cherry-fly) or Bandcamp (https://afrosynth.bandcamp.com/album/fly-cherry-fly)

Dave Durbach, head of Afrosynth Records, has kindly supplied this interview with Moses Mafiri, aka Captain Mosez:

“I was born in Lady Selborne – just next to Mamelodi, not far. But in 1960 we came here to Mamelodi – that’s where I’ve been now, for ever,” Moses recalls, looking back on a lifetime in music.

Around 1969, a young Moses won a radio in a local competition and soon began listening obsessively to LM Radio, which offered him a glimpse at the world outside of South Africa. Broadcasting from the Mozambican capital just across the border, the station played international soul, rock and pop that the otherwise overarching SABC radio – intent on using music to maintain its ideology of ‘separate development’ and uphold perceived ethnic ‘purity’ – was unwilling to play.

The Commodores endure as Mafiri’s favourite from that era. Then there were “the rock bands … there was Led Zeppelin, there was Supertramp, Journey, there was Boston – from LM Radio. The radio, man, it helped me a lot. I listened a lot.”

Mafiri started playing in bands, teaching himself bass, guitar, keys and saxophone. In the mid-80s his demo reached Ken Haycock at EMI’s CCP Records, who, suitably impressed, signed him to record with in-house producer Selwyn Shandel at the company’s studios in Johannesburg.

Here Shandel would add his own touch, in line with other top-selling artists of the burgeoning local disco scene, often referred to disparagingly as ‘bubblegum’. Mafiri would handle bass and vocals, though he wanted to play all the instruments himself. “I had to play bass only. Selwyn programmed the keyboards, then he called this Brenda Fassie & The Big Dudes guy (Sammy Klaas) to play the guitar. The drums were programmed.”

Though his home-recorded demo had included several tracks, only two were selected – to fit in with the company’s strategy to meet the growing demand for bass-heavy, dancefloor-ready 12” singles to service the country’s new nightclub DJs.

“I had some good stuff at that time, but they only wanted those two, because they had a name for it, they used to call it a maxi at that time,” he says.

Both tracks they recorded – Fly Cherry Fly and Hey! Hey! Hey! eschew politics in favour of more palatable romantic issues, featuring lyrics that alternate between the profound and the impenetrable (“I paid my bills in solitude”, “Fortune knocks at the door, you’re standing right in her way – get lost!”).

Both songs focus on letting go of one’s partner, albeit for different reasons. Mafiri explains: “Cherry, we were dating. Those are the girls who want to go see the world, but I’m bringing her down, you know what I mean. So I wrote Fly Cherry Fly about that.”

The B-side – featuring the equally memorable line, “Get yourself another fool, someone you’re gonna rule,” according to Mafiri, “was about a girl who maybe you’ve been with for a long time, but now she has changed”.

In Shandel’s hands, Mafiri’s tracks took on tinges of the latest international influences that were shaping the bubblegum sound – Italo disco, electro-funk, even rock. The formula had earned the producer a constant stream of hits in this period, working with Supa Frika, Condry Ziqubu (Gorilla Man) and The Winners, as well as one-hit wonders CC Beat (Mapantsula) and Stax (Nothing For Mahala), among many others.

Despite their best intentions, the project didn’t take off. While independent labels where mushrooming in South Africa, Mafiri had signed to arguably the biggest label of the day, CCP Records, initially established by future Jive/Zomba billionaire Clive Calder and by the 80s home to a revolving door of the biggest names in the local industry – Brenda & The Big Dudes, Chicco, Condry Ziqubu, Blondie & Pappa, Steve Kekana, Supa Frika, Cheek to Cheek and others whose albums would typically sell over 100,000 copies – numbers unheard of today. Here, being a relative unknown put Mafiri at the mercy of financial favouritism for big-ticket names.

“Nothing much happened,” he recalls of Fly Cherry Fly’s initial release in 1985. “Those times were hard for musicians. Because if you were not known… If you record and Brenda Fassie records … they would promote a lot of the big stars, and afterwards maybe they would try to promote you … I heard nothing of that recording really. I don’t even know how many copies it sold.”

Fly Cherry Fly comes from a time when South Africa’s music industry was finally breaking free of state restrictions and censorship – and of overseas dominance. By the mid-80s local artists were selling in big numbers, propelled by the nascent bubblegum scene. Yet somehow it didn’t quite catch on.

“During those times, apartheid was loosening up, just a little bit … People were writing a lot of songs, you know, about ‘release Mandela’, [such as] Yvonne Chaka Chaka – even if they sang it in a way that you’d never know [by disguising overtly political messages]. And Jonathan Clegg, I was with him at CCP Records … People were saying things about this [anti-apartheid] movement, but in the location [townships like Mamelodi], we were wearing bell-bottoms, going to parties, where maybe we’d talk about apartheid and all that … But [politically] it wasn’t so heavy, things were loosening up.”

Being a working musician under apartheid, however, was not without its pitfalls – including severe restrictions on movement for all South Africans, particularly black men in urban areas. “Those times, man, if you stayed in Pretoria and you have to commute to Joburg, you come there 10 o’clock, tired of the train. And then the people are not there – you can’t call them, there were no cellular phones at that time, it was hectic. It was this difficult thing to be heard.

“When I went to EMI/CCP, It wasn’t in downtown [Joburg], that was were you found the RPMs and the Gallos.  But CCP Records was in Steeledale [15km south of the Joburg CBD]… So when they’re in Steeledale, you must catch a train to Park Station. From there you must get a taxi to Steeledale. It was a hassle.”

The entire experience – the difficulty of being an out-of-towner hustling in Johannesburg, a lack of creative control, the label’s apparent unwillingness to promote the release – left a bitter taste in his mouth, and he decided to park his solo ambitions and instead focus on his instrumental skills.

Asked why, he is clear: “The voice. I don’t have that voice… I’m playing saxophone as well, that’s for the voice. I can sing, you know, to be in key and all that, but my voice doesn’t reach the pitches I want it to … That was my big disappointment.”

Dave Durbach is also a world-leading selector of South African music, alongside his Afrosynth label work – the prolific label has released 13 records, a combination of reissues and new music, since 2017, following the global success of the blog of the same name. He also works as a journalist in South Africa. © 2021 Afrosynth Records

As Captain Mosez he never recorded again. The project was so short-lived that the tracks were never performed live.

Undeterred, Mafiri found a home in the backing band of Vusi Mahlasela, also of Lady Selborne via Mamelodi – and, fittingly perhaps, an artist whose vocals are indeed so sweet they earned him the singular nickname “The Voice”. Mafiri plays guitars and alto sax on most of Mahlasela’s albums, including Jungle of Questions (2002), The Voice (2003), Guiding Star (2007) and the Taj Mahal-produced Say Africa (2010).

While fame and fortune as a solo artist may have proved elusive with the short-lived Captain Mosez project, it was in Mahlasela’s group – sometimes referred to as “The Proud People’s Band” – that Mafiri nevertheless managed to secure his career as a professional musician, and travel the world. He also worked as a music teacher at a local school for the blind.

“After that Captain Mosez thing I’ve never done anything [else as CM). What I did do was with Vusi, when he recorded his albums. He’s shown me a lot. I’ve been everywhere with him.”

Unknown to Mafiri, in recent years original copies of his solo record had resurfaced on Discogs, and grew in demand among global DJs and diggers turned on to the bubblegum sound, pushing the price of the few surviving copies in good condition to eye-watering levels.

© 2021 Afrosynth Records

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