9 June 2015
Do you have any early memory of first being inspired by Kwaito as a movement? Who you heard, when you heard it and what that meant to you?
I guess one of the earliest significant moments of Kwaito’s relevance in my life is hearing it via my school mates lunch break sessions, singing the songs because access to radio was scarce at the time when I didn’t have electricity in my childhood. Particularly Boom Shaka’s ‘Its About Time’ was the favourite of this 3-girl crew who would sing it everyday at school and that’s pretty much how I go to know of then latest music. That power to transport itself to me regardless of whatever was significant, it felt like a gift. To hear the song ‘Kwere Kwere’ back in ’95, before the so-called ‘xenophobic’ violence is also quite significant for me. In fact, ‘Kwere Kwere’, ‘Kaffir’, ‘Traffic Cop’ were some of those politically charged songs I was exposed to in the early days of both my life and Kwaito; hard tracks – lots of speaking out. Lots of message, advice, it was really cool to give advice with music. Sadly some of it was misinterpreted, like; ‘“Kwere Kwere” is a vulgar song’. And yet here we are today.
When did your interest in Kwaito come about? Specifically doing work and research around it come about?
Since Kwaito was my coming of age soundtrack like many SA matric class of (plus or minus) ‘98, it has been a love-hate relationship. It was an organizing tool in high school. Me and friends were literally mentored by Kwaito in our own writing of lyrics. This forced us to organize platforms for our own performances, using existing structures like schools, churches and community halls to host and perform at our own gigs. It was bigger than the classroom, way before Life Orientation and all of these, yet in post-94 South Africa. Kwaito did all of that for some of us. Yet I think I missed out on access to full albums and to YFM for a bit back there before I moved to Joburg. So since I have always wanted to be in Joburg from an early age, somewhat Kwaito and the city makes me want to share my interpretations, while catching up with past albums through my search and to play for people who enjoy my research. Real investment in the Kwaito story started in 2009 when I played music for people for the first time, at the Drill Hall rooftop. Since then, I started collecting consistently and obsessively, playing more, writing more and speaking to some Kwaito artists and those who relate to it in varying degrees. I use the name Mma Tseleng, a popular name that suggests someone who is on the road/the streets. Under this name, when I play Kwaito I never play it without a broader family tree of sounds past, current and unreleased; broader than house and hip hop, but not excluding these two. The first writing inspiration came from folks at the then YMag especially in its first year (98-99), who yanked me off the slumber of my then Drum and True Love staple-diet, before the internet.
When you think about Kwaito. What ideas about its influence as a musical genre and reach come to mind? Can you share a bit about the social-political context out of which Kwaito emerged?
The context that is widely described is that of euphoria. So it goes that the youth were tired of struggle songs, and wanted to dance. Well people had always danced, regardless of ‘whether’ the genre/song was ‘dance’. Anyway, the release of political prisoners from Robben Island, as well as the accessibility of electronic music making afforded people the opportunity to make what they like, and share it. What they like had influences from the UK and the US. Most importantly though, most of the Kwaito pioneers had greater access to the preceding sound called Bubblegum. People like Mdu Masilela, Sbu ‘Ma-Lawyer’ Ntshangase, Jairus ‘Jakarumba’ Nkwe and Mandla ‘Spikiri’ Mofokeng trained from and worked with people like Chicco Twala, Senyaka Kekana [RIP], Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Brenda Fassie [RIP]. The way I see it is like this: Kwaito was destroyed by economic factors, like all popular music. Madala Thepa commented a while back that Kwaito does not have its own underground the way one would observe with say hip hop and jazz. It only had a commercial wing, I remeber how insightful this persepectove felt to me at the time. I found it valid as I thought knew all the songs to know in Kwaito. Until I saw something else as I dug deeper. I see that Kwaito had an underground; some of the most prolific, prominent and commercially significant Kwaito making artists made underground ‘Kwaito’. In fact they called it Gong (and/or D’Gong). People like Joe Nina, Mdu, Lindelani Mkhize and Donald Duck made some very beautiful side projects that had a different sensibility to what they made for mainstream circulation. Bongo Maffin, Mafikizolo, Alaska and Skizo as well as some artists at Arthur’s 999 Music claimed Gong and D’Gong in lyrics and in album sleeve notes. These artists and those who attempted to push Kwaito to another direction could not at the time manage their vision, with the hegemony of record companies and their different, capitalist visions. I have commented elsewhere about the amazing story of Mafikizolo, a group that made; what could be called ‘underground’ Kwaito with their first album back in 1995; one of the then biggest ‘house’ tracks with ‘Lotto’; what is known as ‘Afro-Pop’ with hit albums that vibrantly returned Sophiatown back into the living; the current house-drenched latest release ‘Reunited’ of 2013 made famous by their international hit ‘Khona’. I know many find ‘Kwaito is dead!?! Quite a fatigued occupation. I agree. Freely I also believe that Mafikizolo and endless stuff coming out of South Africa right up until now is Kwaito growing. Really, if we think about it broadly South Africa is purported as 21 years old. Look at Kwaito. Look at South Africa. What had really changed? I agree with Phumla Ncgola that we have an moer lot to learn from Kwaito. South African Music Conference, an annual gathering of mammoth proportion is one of the few black owned products of this 21-year-old country, established by black co-founders of an industry they call Kwaito. This industry made a lot of money for white companies who inherited means of production, communication and consumption for the whole nation.
At the moment Kwaito as a genre is no longer as prominent as it used to be? Do you feel like it lives on in present day South African Hip Hop and New Age Kwaito? Has it lost its relevance?
Just the fact there is something named New Age Kwaito is significant in art historical terms. It means that the ‘turn-up culture’ youth of today can connect the dots to the ‘get down’ days of this struggle, post-94. In other words, the post-94 struggle of Kwaito artists is relevant, as it is their efforts that enable/d Durban Kwaito Music and New Age Kwaito to exist. Crucially, the struggle continues lest we forget. There is a sound called Durban Kwaito Music (although contested) and whether or not the New Age Kwaito/Durban Kwaito Music artists themselves claim this naming does not matter, what matters is these new developments actually reference Kwaito in their overall aesthetic, both sonically and visually. This is impact, and the impact is as much economic as it is spiritual and political. Most of the New Age Kwaito and Durban Kwaito Music artists identify with and participate/d in hip hop and house. In this sense, old school Kwaito achieves a far greater historical relevance in their own backyards without negating global influences. This way Kwaito lives, and this is the kind of living we can ever ask for. Growth. Economically, I would say it does not thrive at all but I am also not informed enough. As a researcher who plays music for an audience I receive a lot of feedback on how ‘underground’ the Kwaito I play is. In this way old Kwaito songs that are generally unknown yet sound like 2015 get a new life, a life that exist outside of popular music, also known as media. ‘Free 100k Macassette’, Okmalumkoolkat’s reliving of Mdu’s classic ‘Amabankbook’ is my current milestone in this music history classroom. Busiswa is channeling the future with this interesting video and song
Kwaito suffered from toxic masculinity granted inherited but this doesn’t seem to change. At least in the messaging. I hope that economically and philosophically there is a change, but this is not represented in terms of integrity of the image we see; men write women sing men make beats women dance men sing women wash men drive. The picture is skewed. Its part of much broader environment but every mshoza-pantsula must catch up with the climate out there politically, spiritually, economically and socially. Shout Out to the ‘Skeem Sam Foundation’ courtesy of Tseliso Monaheng. I would end with two songs: ‘Salute’ by Skeem and ‘Skeem Sam’ by Spikiri. Or, Brown Dash ‘Vum Vum’ and Oda Meesta with ‘Fosholo’. Eish, sounds like a playlist so it will have to start with ‘Tsodio’ by mohu Lebo Mathosa.