It often comes as a shock to hear that South Africa is the global capital of house music. It’s consumed with such voracity you’d swear it was invented here. In a way it is a defining sound in the Johannesburg music scene, tweaked for the local ear to become Kwaito, once referred to as township house and associated with predominantly black dance clubs (one definition is “slowed-up house beats with South African vocals”). Considered ‘a celebration of the streets’, it’s still the soundtrack of choice for many, and played with equal enthusiasm in shebeens (taverns) and shared taxis. Simply put: It’s everywhere.
Yet, while statistically house music is bigger here than anywhere else on the planet, it’s only one part of a very diverse and stridently eclectic music landscape. "Don’t come to South Africa looking for just one idea of what music is," says Spoek Mathambo, one of the key influencers in contemporary urban music. A stand-out artist--producer in the current electronic music age, rapper-singer Spoek says there are too many music scenes to bother pinpointing any one musical pulse. Spoek himself draws on a diversity of influences and genres – from 60s South African jazz and 90s hip-hop, to soul and traditional music, to British pop and R ‘n’ B. His hip-hop music references as widely as Queen and the Pixies, but you’ll hear township beats and African rhythms in there, too. It’s the way contemporary electronic technology reinvents traditional African sounds, such as Zulu maskandi, that makes him vital listening when trying to understand where South African music is right now. In a way, his mash-up sonic sensibility reflects a fractured, fragmented South African past, yet his sound is absolutely the pulse of the future.
“South African music is well post-industrial, post-technology,” says Spoek, who is known for his genre cut-up style that falls outside definitive boxes and categories, and is cutting a path known as Afro-futurism, and what he calls “township-tech.” Whatever it is, it’s fresh, vital, and suggests the array of inspirations that contemporary artists have to draw on. “Our music is the result of a huge fusion of influences. The pulse of South African music is about understanding that our country is made up of many stories. And there are so many great and exciting musical stories.”
Still, if you ask virtually any hotel concierge where you can go to hear kwaito or Shangaan electro, they’ll probably look at you with confusion. It’s not their fault – Johannesburg doesn’t have a culture of great music venues; the most cutting edge African sounds and musicians tend to get heard at festivals and events, which happen anywhere, and all the time. They can pop up in people’s backyards, or at mass gatherings in public places.
If you want to safely track down either an established band or rising star, try venues such as Bassline in Newtown, where there are regular jam nights, ragga nights, and – besides sprinklings of jazz by legendary artists – varied genre line-ups, although nothing in the league of innovation fostered by the likes of Spoek Mathambo. Or Tanz Live, where rock, blues and folk-sounding musicians perform, but virtually any live genre is supported. Amongst the names that have been associated with Tanz are Arno Carstens (frontman of major South African band, Springbok Nude Girls), Locnville, Freshlyground, Yoav, and Civil Twilight – all playing to quite different followings. Also in Newtown, Town Hall hosts festive soirees that often include major bands (Fokofpolisiekar, Desmond and the Tutu's, Shortstraw, Van Coke Cartel, Kid Of Doom, Fuzigish) and hugely successful DJs – Science Frikshun is their biggest event and one to look out for, especially if you don’t mind partying alongside masses of students.
The Johannesburg music scene is all about diversity. There’s no point looking for any specifically “South African” sound, Spoek tells me, because the influences come from everywhere; Johannesburg is just as much a part of the global village as anywhere else. “The state of the nation now is that people are a lot more open-minded. The idea of a black South African rock group, for example, is now a lot more acceptable. And a black South African rock group doesn’t have to sound like rock music from everywhere else – it can incorporate a lot of very black South African experience, and that’s equally valid. People’s mentality in this country has opened up as far as identity is concerned. The old roles aren’t there anymore.”
Interested in what Spoek Mathambo has to say about some of his own music? Take a look here.
And watch the super-slick video of his sparkling 2013 tune, Awufuni, here.
Header photo: Spoek Mathambo, partying in Paris © Spoek - escapefrom85
Written by Keith Bain
Have you experienced the Johannesburg music scene in any local clubs? Who are some of your favourite South African musicians?
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About the author: KeithBainKeith Bain
Cape Town-based writer Keith Bain has co-authored guidebooks to India, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Kenya & Tanzania, Ireland, and Italy. He also co-wrote A Hedonist's guide to Cape Town, and is the co-founder of Best Kept (www.bestkeptshhh.com), a bespoke trip-planning company that tailors holidays in India and Africa.