FOSATU Worker Choirs

In the winter of 1985 myself and Brian Tilley, then of Video News Services, travelled across the Transvaal and Natal recording songs for this compilation of worker choirs affiliated to FOSATU, the predecessor to the trade union federation COSATU. – Lloyd Ross

Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU)

The Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) was the first South African trade union federation that organised mostly Black employees that aimed to be a national, non-racial umbrella organisation that could coordinate Black trade union movements. It came into being after the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and Federation of Free African Trade Unions (FFATU) disintegrated in the 1960’s. It had 12 partners representing 45 000 workers.

The organisation aimed to ensure that its partners were democratic and that leaders were elected from the working class. This approach encouraged the development of properly organised, democratic trade union movement in South Africa. FOSATU remained removed from affiliation with political parties, unlike SACTU, who joined forces with the African National Congress (ANC) and the FFATU, who aligned themselves with the Pan-Africanist Party (PAC).

RECORDING THE FOSATU WORKER CHOIRS -Lloyd Ross

Fosatu Workers Choirs“In the mid Eighties, at a time when the unions weren’t really centre stage, I had been filming the resistance that was building against apartheid for my outfit Video New Services. My friend Lloyd Ross was wanting to find vital music outside the mainstream and what was obvious in my line of work was that wherever resistance occurred there was song. At a rally we had seen a trade union choir and I raised the idea with organisers in FOSATU that we make recordings of some of their affiliate’s choirs. They were surprised, but thought what the hell, why not?

“Soon we were on the road to meet a choir in Brits at a community hall. They sang some resistance songs and some that felt like disco. We found that this type of eclecticism was not uncommon as, together with Fosatu organisers, we set up trips to shop floors on the east Rand, then on to Natal, recording in Mooi River, Durban and Maritzburg. On the whole, the songs were a mixture of church rhythms and worker aspiration. Of the large body of songs that were recorded, only the more political made it onto the Fosatu Worker Choir compilation. It was a small idea at a time when no one else was doing anything like this”.
Thus remembers Brian Tilley, then of Video News Services.

Me, I remember even less, but a few moments stick out, One of which was when we went to the Dalton Road Hostel in Durban on a Saturday night to record the Clover Choir only to discover that they were part of a scathamiya singing competition. The Danger Boys were co-contestants and were renowned to have the best soprano singer in Natal. They were not a “trade union” choir, but I recorded them on the sly anyway because they were so damn hot. An interesting thing about this recording is the perspective one gets as a listener. I had set the stereo mics up on stage, thinking the guys would at least be somewhere in that vicinity when they delivered their performance. “Shit” I thought, “can’t use this” as they began singing at the back of the hall and then proceeded to not stand still once throughout their entire set. On listening to it a quarter century later, it of course sounds brilliant. You hear the men walk/dancing from the back of the hall, onto the stage and then you hear the individual voices passing back and forth in front of the mics. Put on some headphones, turn it up loud and enjoy an immersive experience. A rough translation of the title is: “Where’s the money, boss”.

In the Danger Boys you hear quite clearly the incredible soprano singer that gave this choir the reputation of being the best of the bunch in the Durban scathamiya scene.