Members of National Wake Photo courtesy of National Wake

There’s a reason why repressive movements and governments attack music. Music finds a home in the young. People coming awake to injustice, corruption and unfairness of all stripes are uniquely receptive to messages delivered in irresistible beats and raucous lyrics, the youthful exuberance of rebellion providing its own potent soundtrack.

Every society has bred its own protest music, the innumerable styles culled from the very culture being so loudly and disrespectfully torn down. Punk music still resonates in its irreverent, fast and defiantly brash broadsides against The Man, in all his myriad, censorious forms, but, just to pick an example, a quick look at American conservatives’ recent tizzy over the gleeful sexual liberation of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” reveals just how the forces of repression rear up in fury at a hit song that challenges hidebound ideas, from sexism to racism, and beyond. Music engages the soul, and the soulless are terrified of that.

Of course, this is America in 2023. And while a resurgence of censorship, bigotry and authoritarianism might make bands question the so-called progress we’ve made as a society, at least said bands’ very existence isn’t literally and dangerously illegal.

That was the world in which National Wake was formed. The subject of director Mirissa Neff’s stirring, painful musical documentary “This Is National Wake,” playing on Monday, Aug. 7, at Space, National Wake was a punk band. In unearthed Super 8 footage from the band’s early 1980s heyday, the original five-piece group belts out anthems like “International News” and “Everybody,” referencing everything from government censorship to racism to unjust wars, the young, energetic musicians whipping appreciative crowds into a dance floor ecstasy.

Nothing new for an ’80s punk band, except that National Wake was formed in Apartheid-era South Africa, its integrated lineup of Black and white musicians lived together in defiance of that country’s hateful laws, and the crowds they gathered were young, angry – and integrated. No offense to that era’s punk bands from America and England, but there’s oppression and then there’s oppression.

Formed by an alliance of young Black and white radicals in the late 1970s, National Wake became a musical force in South Africa, even though their members were repeatedly arrested, they were evicted, club owners canceled gigs as soon as they saw the band’s interracial makeup, and the police were ever threatening to shut performances down at any moment. Again, not to belittle contemporary punk outfits elsewhere, but their “Inside the Music” episodes don’t include the crushing pressures of a violent Apartheid state as part of the hardships of stardom.


Neff’s brisk documentary covers National Wake’s brief, glorious career and seemingly inevitable collapse with an eye toward both the band’s music and the members’ constant efforts to survive under Apartheid. Not to spoil the ultimate fate of National Wake, but the director is hobbled by the fact that only one voice remains to chronicle and interpret the band’s tumultuous near-success. Ivan Kadey was a white South African university student and guitarist whose suburban house became the hangout for like-minded white radicals – at least until a charismatic Black South African musician named Mike Lebese showed up, quickly introducing the fledgeling guitarist to brilliantly talented brothers Gary and Punka Khoza.

People of different races living together was illegal. They did it anyway, transforming the house into a melting pot of musical and social revolution. National Wake took form with a series of illegally integrated club shows, including a vibrant street performance whose celebratory vibe was cut short by the cops. Neff gained access to exceedingly rare footage of these gigs, revealing National Wake as a worthy and unique flowering of punk music (with signature tinges of reggae, funk and African rhythms). To interject from my old white guy, 40-year-later perspective, National Wake rocked, the band’s immediate peril and defiant existence just making their genuinely excellent songs that much more potent.

With guitarist Kadey, now an aging architect in Los Angeles, acting as the film’s dominant storyteller, “This Is National Wake” must contend with a white perspective on the band’s fraught and contentious existence. Neff and Kadey get that, with Kadey describing a pivotal incident where his lack of awareness about a white club owner’s attitudes caused a rift with sensitive bassist Gary Khoza. “I wish I had the wisdom to have had the clarity of not growing up having lived my life in that system,” the older Kadey confesses, explaining how living as a white person in segregated South Africa meant “it was easy not to know what was going on.”

It’s a fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking story, with Kadey joined by National Wake fans, relatives and dedicated followers in relating just how truly punk the band was in its time and place. Detailing the origin of the name, Kadey says, “ ‘National Wake’ was to wake up and dance on the corpse of Apartheid,” explaining of the band’s mixed-race and grooving audiences, “Form and content became totally one.”

You can see that. Or, more accurately, hear it, as the old footage captures white and Black fans, men and women, thrashing in joyous unison to National Wake’s storm of music and politics. “While we were dancing, it was like there was no Apartheid,” proclaims Vusi Shimabo, a housemate who became the band’s dedicated roadie, with Kadey adding, “It was one of those pure, pure moments.”

As a rule, rock and roll moments are fleeting, and National Wake’s precarious existence proved no different. The film teases us with glimpses of possible worldwide success (a glowing review on BBC’s John Peel show, a record deal), before Kadey’s mournful tone reminds us of how inevitable the band’s fall would be. As we await the onscreen confirmation of the reason behind Kadey’s position as sole spokesperson, the harsh truths come all the harder for being so inevitable.

But never mind that. Punk is a match. And National Wake lit the fuse on a whole lot of young South Africans’ consciousnesses, Black and white. And now Mirissa Neff’s fine documentary gives a lost and forgotten band its due, National Wake’s messages of liberation and defiance never more relevant – or thrilling.

“This Is National Wake” is playing at Space in Portland at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 7, with an appearance afterward by director Mirissa Neff. Tickets are $9/$7 for Space members (which you really should be by now).

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