"It’s not this happy-clappy energy. That’s not how we get down"
For those who imagine South Africa’s music scene to be all tinkly guitar pop and Ladysmith Black Mambazzo: guess again. In South Africa, there’s one sound that blasts loudest from township stereo systems and taxi radios, and it’s House music.
House is the most popular music in South Africa, period. But South African house isn’t exactly the same stuff played at your friendly neighborhood discothèque. Sure, it has the four-on-the-floor kick drums driving the rhythm and the big digital synth-leads you know and love. But the similarities stop there. South African producers take those raw ingredients, add some serious swing in the form of shuffling snares and syncopated blips of all variety, and flip the sound into something fresh. While looking for a way to describe the stuff to foreign audiences, electro-rapper Spoek Mathambo coined a term for the sound that fits nicely – “Township Tech.”
However, there wasn’t always tech in the townships. When House music first hit South Africa in the 1980s, it was in the form of imported 12-inches from classic Chicago artists – people like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard. The first person to import this stuff was a South African DJ of Greek descent from Pretoria named Christos Katsaitis. The music eventually got to the legendary Ganyani Tshabalala, who dubbed it onto cassette and passed out copies to taxi drivers as a way to promote his parties in Soweto. From there, it spread quickly rapidly around the townships.
At first, people called the new sound, simply, “international music.” This was at a time when the Apartheid government was promoting an idea of separate development – that Zulus had to listen to Zulu music, Xhosas had to listen to Xhosa music, etc. “People were so isolated and separated,” says Gavin Steingo, a South African ethnomusicologist at Columbia University working on a book about Kwaito and House. “To have this music that seemed to be so international and modern – you can see how powerful that would have seemed. It just seemed to break down all these boundaries.”
House was becoming huge in South Africa, possibly bigger than it was back home in the States, but none of the original House artists in the U,S. had any idea that this was happening. Gavin Steingo remembers talking to American producer Louie Vega, who went to play South Africa for the first time in 2000. “He expected to have to take a taxi. He got to the airport and there were bodyguards waiting for him. They took him to a stadium, where he played for 20,000 people. He was a major celebrity there, and had no idea,” says Steingo.
By the early 90s, House had taken root in South Africa, but it soon slowed down from around 120 BPM to an average tempo of 100 BPM, mutating into the local variant called Kwaito. Kwaito dominated the pop music scene for about a decade and a half, but in the mid 2000s, club music then began to speed up again. Now, it can be hard to find out where Kwaito ends and house begins. Many of the same artists do both genres, and some people even refer to House with the term “Kwaito.”
Whatever you want to call it, the biggest music in the country is being made today by artists like Black Coffee, DJ Cleo, and Oskido. Many of these top artists are, surprisingly, still coming out of Pretoria, a fairly small city a few hours from Johannesburg. But there are other hubs as well, especially Durban, on the KwaZulu-Natal coast, home to artists like DJ Cndo, DJ Tira, and the group Big Nuz. House is popular in Cape Town, but the seaside city isn’t a particularly big player in the scene.
As for the sound – South African house isn’t afraid to get dark. Much of the music has a minor-key, slightly ominous sound that differs from the House found in Europe, for example. “South African House has so much energy,” says Spoek Mathambo, who is a big fan of South African House music and often spins it when he performs as a DJ, “But I think the society is so dark and dense and weird, so that it’s not this happy-clappy energy. That’s not how we get down. It’s more aggression and angst. We have some of the highest murder rates and rape rates in the world. There’s a lot of tension in society.”
South African house got some shine abroad for the first time in 2008-2009, when DJ Mujava and DJ Spoko’s “Township Funk” became a global club hit, garnering countless remixes from big name producers. The song combined slippery portamento synth bleeps with a growling bass pad and an off-kilter, almost DIY-sounding drum track. Club crowds went wild for the track, and DJs clamored to find out where it came from.
Though the South African house music world doesn’t interact frequently with the world beyond, there are new bridges opening up for international collaboration, and Spoek isn’t the only one interested. Theophilus London was just there performing his electro R&B hip hop to local audiences. A 2010 track from the UK’s infamous Hyperdub label features South African rapper Okmalumkoolkat.
Where is it all going? Maybe South African House music’s biggest impact is in other parts of Africa, where electronic music has been steadily gaining ground in recent years. Kids in places like Luanda and Bamako are developing new strains of futuristic music made on computers. South African House is mutating and spreading, going global and local at the same time.