South Africa: New adventures in the old country

Growing up in post apartheid South Africa I remember a palpable creativity in the air. A surge of local musicians came to the fore in the wake of democracy with sounds that defied the traditional constraints of the apartheid regime and its followers. My first encounter came from the alternative rock scene as musicians fused everything from Jazz to African rhythms in music that conflated the very essence of a South African sound. Bands like Springbok Nude Girls and Bed on Bricks disregarded the music of their traditional Afrikaans elders and threw caution to the wind with a hybrid alternative rock sound that was uniquely theirs. I also became aware of an indigenous music that had been hidden behind the locked doors of a culture I was not permitted to acknowledge. I was flipping through some channels one Friday evening and came across a bright scene with a hoard of musicians pounding out a lo-fi funk sound that I came to know as Kwaito. The rhythms were captivating and the melodies strikingly simple but weaving in and out of each other in a rich tapestry made them appear incredibly complex. It was the sociability of the event that really struck me, the solo musician was negated in favour of the creative hive; even the vocal came in the form of ensemble or choir. At around the same time, some of the country’s national musical treasures were allowed to return home with the cultural sanctions lifted and musicians like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makemba became household names once again and infiltrated many of the white households for the first time. It was an interesting time for South African music and when electronic music reached our shores it seemed to expound the situation even further. South Africa found a new and exciting voice in House and experimental electronic music, thanks to the accessibility of the music and the affordability of the instruments. It came by way of the operatic vocals from Lark and the glitchy rhythms of Felix La Band, while House found a very welcoming audience in South Africa from disparate sides of the scale. Brewing inside the townships, this form of House infused elements of Kwaito and Jazz into something completely unique to South Africa, which was eventually brought to the world’s attention by artists like DJ Mujava. I left South Africa for a life in Europe so time before Township Funk broke out and would only hear it in the context of UK funky mixes. Die Antwoord and BLK JKS too would give me a rare glimpse of the perpetual melting pot that is South African music from time to time, but ultimately I would loose touch with the music of my youth. It was with this in mind that I recently took an extended trip back to the country I called home for the most part of my adolescence. I wanted to completely submerge myself in South African music again, to see if it could ever be anything like those formative years.

A few things have changed though. South Africa has been a democracy for twenty years now and the inequality that used to exist between black and white has morphed into a contrast between rich and poor. The current government is a disgrace to their legacy, battling accusations of corruption and abuses of power, and dissent is much more evident amongst citizens than I could ever remember after the 1995 elections. Power cuts happen regularly as the national supplier, Eskom cuts its supply to different neighbourhoods at different times to quell the demand on the grid. The Internet, although slow and capped, has led to a cultural awareness that stretches far beyond the countries borders (hasn’t it everywhere really) and many of the citizens that left their country as maturing adults have slowly trickled back, bringing with them the culture from places like the UK and south-east Asia. I made my way into South Africa via Cape Town, and although the city still looms under protection of Table Mountain, I could immediately perceive a significant change in the cultural landscape of my hometown. It wasn’t the same volatile creative explosion that accompanied the post-apartheid years, but rather something more refined. I had my first taste of this when I entered ERA, a new state-of-the-art venue in the heart of the City Bowl. The city’s conservative DA-led government has not been kind to venues of this kind in recent years by narrowing opening hours and enforcing stricter alcohol laws. It has lead to mass-exodus from most promoters taking their events outside of the city limits to the outdoors. ERA came as a big surprise in light of this, but it also set itself apart from anything I had known from the city before. It was world-class establishment. Funktion one systems across two floors cater for both the opening DJ and the headlining Techno fiend, while the cool decor and disco-esque lighting rig is subtle and gives the music centre stage at all times. It was on a busy Friday night we made our way to the venue in only its second week in existence. A substantial crowd was in force but a couple of lacklustre tech-house sets from a couple of local DJs at the start, had me somewhat despondent. Where was that sense of that devil may care attitude that I grew up with? This was a soulless sound, stripped from any character pandering to the dance floor like a matriarch her young infant. The stagnant crowd seemed to agree too and I came under the impression that the country has fallen into the same mass-produced gentrified habits of Europe and the UK. South Africa’s creative scene was always susceptible to whatever was happening elsewhere, but bar a few acts that merely ripped off their UK/USA counterparts, they always made it their own. Had our colonial forefathers finally driven that nail home and subverted any form of cultural identity in the country? These thoughts were fleeting with the help of some cheap tequila as the DJ went from innocuous track to another, but when Killer Robot finally took the booth with a bone-crushing sound that nitpicked it’s way through the annals of Techno, my faith was restored. I had the opportunity to interview Bruno Morphet – one half of Killer Robot and a leading light on Cape Towns scene from the very beginning – a few weeks later and realised that the sentiment I had felt at ERA doesn’t have it’s roots in South Africa, but more likely is just a result of the current universal trend in dance music; music made for the functional demand of the dance floor losing any inimitable identity along the way. But then again everything unique coming out of South Africa hasn’t always had positive associations for me. In the early part of the new millennium Cape Town was over-run with a form of lounge house that incorporated live improvisation, usually supplied by a saxophone. Bruno, quite appropriately, called this music coffee-table-house and it was as dull as it sounds. I had thought for a moment South Africa had fallen into the grip of something boring again as I left ERA that night and it was the old guard like Killer Robot still bringing the edge to the party, but then just as quickly as the thought had crossed my mind, I was happily reminded of what the country really has to offer when it comes to music.

I met Siphe Tibeka through the South African arm of Bridges for Music, an organisation that intends to narrow the divide between the superstar DJ and the impoverished. Driving through Langa into Gugulethu, I was surprised to find a better quality of homes around the informal settlements from the ones I remember, the quiet legacy of our recently fallen hero, Nelson Mandela. Some of the homes in these informal settlements even sport solar panels today, alleviating some of the demand caused by the mismanagement of Eskom – I hope they sell it back to the bastards at an exponential rate. Siphe’s room in the heart of Gugulethu was a modest concrete building with the simplest of amenities, but most of it was taken up by a desk adorned with a computer screen, a midi keyboard and a couple of studio monitors. It took centre stage in his living environment with his life completely revolving around music. Before the interview, I listened to some of his music on soundcloud, but nothing quite prepared me for Uzondilinda a song he’d been working on that’s since been released. The busy percussive section securing a core for the slow modulating keys and the infectious vocals from Amanda Mavundla, was completely refreshing for me and it showed a professionalism his home studio did not convey. It was an inherent talent, something that transcends social circumstance. I left out a crucial quote from the bridges to music piece, I later wrote. It’s something that Siphe mentioned which only strengthens my resolve on Siphe’s talent and might have actually put BFM in a different light. Siphe received a bursary to do an introduction course at SAE through Bridges and after I noticed that he was using Fruity Loops, software not taught at the institution, I had to ask if he thought the bursary had helped him at all. In his opinion it did not and I would have to agree. An introduction course would be of no use to him, from what I witnessed in his studio compared to what I saw at SAE. The divide is still too great between the township and the CBD. The point really gets driven home just outside SAE’s headquarters, where I met Trenton Birch, head of Black Mango and African arm of Bridges for Music. Located in Woodstock, the multi-million rand institution, which also boasts a SL desk worth over a million, is not only a world away from the poverty of Gugulethu, but even a complete contrast from what’s a arms-length away beyond the walls of the building. My scepticism on charitable organisations in South Africa, which often just throw money at a problem they don’t understand, was unfounded on this occasion, I am happy to report. Bridges for Music does intends to throw a fair bit of money at the problem, but unlike most charities there’s a concerted effort to try and get in at ground level to try and stem the problems of poverty at its source. That’s why I hope the school in Langa will eventually be built, and make a discernable difference in the community. But then again, while Siphe is welcomes with open arms in big venues like ERA, he’s an unknown in his own community where Kwaito still reigns supreme. Could it be that a project like Bridges for Music is only advantageous to the individual? Or maybe the divide that still exists is just a Cape Town thing?

A couple of weeks later I was off to Johannesburg, a city whose suburbs I’d only visited briefly as a kid and as a result knew very little of. On this occasion I avoided the suburbs in favour of central Johannesburg and made the Maboneng district my home for a week. I was immediately struck by the sounds pouring from the city below my friend’s apartment. The local shebeen’s playlist floated through the cacophony of taxi horns and strained voices from the busy street below. Somewhere a djembe drum was flexing along to a House track while the intermittent whale from the local mosque hovered above all. The whole city was making music in counterpoint. It reflected the essence of the different cultures that make up the city and I was keen to get out there amongst it all. There was once again a palpable creativity in the air, not too dissimilar from my formative years growing up in Cape Town, but even more familiar as London’s east end circa 2008. People are re-appropriating empty building as art galleries or offices and on the weekend parties are thrown in the vacuous spaces that would otherwise stand empty. I attended one such evening on the roof of an empty office building. A makeshift sound system was reverberating off the concrete walls and floors. The beer-drenched sofas at the back were empty with all the bodies crammed around the DJ booth for a good selection of Trap and Hip-hop. Out on the slightly wet terrace, a mattress was cordoned off in the corner, keeping the secrets of some unknown past atrocities I did not really want to investigate. The beer was warm but cheap and the atmosphere was quite laid-back in the spirit of a House party. There was no pressure on the DJ to make a statement, and he obliged by playing party music and the audience reciprocated by dancing in full-force. I soon learned however that there was sad reason for the gathering. It would be the organiser’s last event there, and possibly ever, as rent prises were being raised by the gentrification taking hold on the surrounding neighbourhood. It has forced him to find a new location for his studio-cum-venue. I get chilling reminder of what happened in Hackney Wick just after the Olympics and hope Johannesburg won’t suffer the same fate. I got the impression that even if property developers bulldoze everything and set up generic markets on every abandoned lot, the city’s creative energy would always bubble up to the surface there. Johannesburg is unique in the fact that it is completely made up by Diasporas; people have came from very different cultural origins to occupy the same city for mining work in its early years. As a result its identity is mixed up in a variety of different people that each bring something from their own culture to the city, melding together as one identity within Johannesburg. As a result everything from progressive rock to Kwaito comes together in strange and interesting amalgamations of music. House is sill big there as it is all over South Africa, but I what I really found interesting is the rock musicians coming out of the city. Made up from mostly talented black musicians, bands like BLK JKS and The Brother Moves On delve into the progressive side of the rock spectrum, fusing elements inherent in their own cultural background with that of an imported sound. The world’s media has often portrayed them in the past as those black guys playing guitars, but they are not the novelty they are made out to be. I had the chance to catch Mokooomba, a band that has certain similarities to those other bands, in the sense that they are black and they play guitars, but the similarities stop there. The basement of the Bannister hotel was packed to the rafters as the Zimbabwean imports swathed our ears in rich rhythmical textures from as the big group of musicians spilling over the small stage. My memories spilled back to those early Kwaito scenes on the television. Mathias Muzaza’s vocals were powerful and his tonal range amazing. The crowd was definitely in agreement as they bobbed up and down with Mokoomba as they went through different dance formations.

It put me in an excellent mood for the trip back to Cape Town and Sonar’s upcoming appearance in the city. The line-up was varied and it had it a healthy mixture of local talent in amongst the international stars. I was looking forward to hearing Jon Hopkins alongside Felix La Band and had my hopes quite rightly high for what I assumed would be an event of international standard with Sonar backing it. Making my way into the Goodhope centre I was eager to get into it, but the first thing that greeted me was a bad sound and an empty auditorium. As a result Spoek Mathambo’s Fantasma project lacked the energy and professionalism that I had witnessed previously from his solo act. At one stage a guitar solo sounded like it was being played through a tin can while Mathambo’s usual lyrical assault was indistinguishable from the clatter of, well everything else including the small audience’s voices. Although the Pet Shop Boys managed to salvage a little of the first night, drawing a very healthy varied audience of all ages and all inclinations, the second night revealed more issues for Sonar Cape Town. The festival hardly drew a crowd and it is not surprising since the tickets were overpriced for the region at R700 a pop. The line-up was in complete disarray and no discernable theme could be made out for each stage never mind each day. Jon Hopkins following Bloody Beetroots was probably most of the confusing experiences of my life. It did however remain true to its ideal if shedding a light on local artists and Mr. Sakitumi and Grrrl, which brought with them an interactive AV show that was fully entertaining. I especially enjoyed their sign-off as they threw their hands in the air and rode the rollercoaster projected on the screen behind. Felix La Band managed to steal the show for me though, as we floated through his brand of electronica that borrows from everything from house to glitch. His sound had definitely matured from my first encounter with the artist, but it hadn’t lost any of its progressive charm. His latest stuff has also found a new component originating from his environment, exploring some of those unique rhythmical patterns Africa has to offer.

James Webb refers to La Band’s music as collage. I had been meeting up with James during various intervals during my stay in South Africa and he had been an invaluable source for me to get back into music there. James is a visual and sound artist based in Cape Town and his work often deals with identity, especially the complexities of it in the country. He also represents the true avant garde of South African artists. Artists like he and Felix La Band and Lark that have always pushed the boundaries in a unique voice that transcends the constraints of a singular environment. This is when South African music works best and always has. It doesn’t rely on a singular influence. It’s the reason Sonar, a distinctly European institution, doesn’t transpose easily to South Africa and why artists like DJ Mujava have transcended the borders of the region with a sound that is indubitably his. My point was finally driven home when I closed off my stay in the country with visiting the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival. Well, what can I say about CTEMF that I haven’t already said here. It’s an event that made it so much harder to say goodbye to the country of my youth. Artists like Munni Brotherz, who explore the progressive side of electro house, showed that South Africa still has that palpable creativity in the air. This creativity stems from within itself and can quite happily feeds off the influences without ever succumbing completely to them and loosing their edge. It took me some time to come to this conclusion and it took some time away to approach South African music with a fresh point of view. If you are looking for some kitsch interpretation of “African” music with an emphasis on the primitive, you will find none of it in South Africa. The country is once again exploding with cultural flair and this time around the rest of the world wont be able to ignore it for much longer. It might not be the country of my youth but the foundations that were laid by the first wave of artists have evolved and the air is still palpable with creativity.