Umoja - 707
Brand new. Sealed album.
A monumental career in pop music isn’t easy when the system is built against you. But South African songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist “Om” Alec Khaoli managed to do just that. As apartheid reached its violent peak, Khaoli pursued an escapist form of dance music that resonated across his complicated country, influencing countless legends and releasing recordings across the world.
Khaoli first made his name as bass player in the Beaters and later Harari—both legendary, scene-defining Afro-rock and soul outfits. The Beaters played a very late-60s blend of worldly pop and folk, building a scene for creative and experimental rock made by blacks. Their affect on South African popular music cannot be exaggerated. The Beaters evolved into Harari, which played big shows across Africa in the late 1970s, from Namibia to Lesotho, Malawi and Zimbabwe. They had a deal with A&M Records in the States and their records were available in Europe and elsewhere. But it wasn’t until that group eventually birthed Umoja that Khaoli met with multi-platinum success, growing into his own as a creative production powerhouse in the synth-drenched South African pop music of the 1980s and 90s.
Starting in 1982, Umoja recorded a succession of hugely successful recordings that reached a crescendo with 1988’s 707. Every song on the short album reached #1 on the South African pop charts and the record went double-platinum. The band changed personnel over the years but Khaoli remained producer, bass player and chief songwriter. Whereas Harari was an all-star group, Umoja was an evolving manifestation of Khaoli’s creative ideas with band members working more as sidemen than collaborators.
Umoja, which means oneness or unity in Swahili, was clear in its message to the public despite the lack of expressive freedom at the time. “Oriented towards society, advocating uniting of people. Race was the big thing,” Khaoli says. “We wanted people to come together and unite and just form a oneness.” Indeed the band’s fanbase was mixed among black, colored and white fans. However, their lyrics were not overtly political. “If you wrote songs about apartheid, we would disguise them. If we used language as it was, we would get arrested.”
The band helped define a commercially powerful emergent style, bubblegum. “Bubblegum music was about escape,“ according to Khaoli. “If you had grown up in South Africa at the time, there was nothing more in your life than oppression. It was even in your dreams. Anything that was a way out was welcome… When this music was playing everyone just wanted to dance, just have a good time.”