‘Why did you do it’ Margaret Singana (Tribal Fence, Casablanca, 1977)

This is one of the most covered songs, originally by UK white funk merchants Stretch released on their 1975 album Street Life. Some of the artists include Sam and Dave, offering up a perfect soul-inflected disco groove (covering all the elements, strings & horns included natch)

A 2011 article in the Guardian on the Stretch original states that ‘lyrically, it comes close (…), in its reproachful fury to Dylan’s scabrous masterpiece, ‘Positively 4th Street.’ To then add, ‘still more surprisingly, it was the rarest of birds: a work of lasting genius from a mid-70s white funk band.’

Thinking about the lyrics then, they are easily what make the song for me. Something about their ambiguity comes through the version by the South African singer, Margaret Singana, who was known as ‘Lady Africa’ (here’s some info on her background, career and discography). The uncertain perspective comes from the central premise of who was ‘wronged’ (to use an old-fashioned word) and how.

Singana states that she was was the one who was hurt, as she sings ‘the damage is much deeper than you’ll ever see/Hit me like a hammer to my head/I wonder were you pushed or were you led?’ This makes you think she is a cheated-on partner, but later this becomes less clear as the gender of the third party to her betrayal is a man not a woman:

My friends they listen to the things I say
They listen and they hear more everyday
But I know they never understand it
Because it was no accident you planned it

Why did you do it? Why did you do that thing to me?
Why did you do it? Why did you do that thing to me?
The only one who knows the truth
Man it's him me and you

The only one who knows the truth/Man it's him, me and you

Within the canon of soul/R&B and funk/disco this perspective is truly original. Most of the time it’s a woman or man singing about how she/he discovered her partner with another and works through how they will react (disco/funk songs often take another path, frequently riffing on notions of attraction and attractiveness). This performance feels deeper, more primal linked to a profound betrayal.

Singana's rendition has a remarkable internal quality to it, especially in the way she under-sings, keeping it low in a way that is extremely powerful. She is not singing out of her outrage as most singers do when covering the song, basing it on shock to the ego (how could you do it to me?) but invokes something else. The nature of the blow is so hard, so unexpected that it affects her entire sense of self.

Yet this betrayal is never spelled-out and laid out for our edification and entertainment - Singana's performance is private, secretive. Reinforcing this impression, the 10 seconds from around 2'08" when the music goes quiet is pure brilliance.

Here’s a live performance of Singana singing her 80s hit, ‘Hamba Bekhile’ (We are Growing) which was the theme song for the TV series Shaka Zulu and in a surprising quirk of history reached the top of the charts in … Holland.