The heartbeat of South Africa

Published by High Life (8th January, 2015)

As we drive into Ivory Park, the sprawling township that clings to rolling hills on the edge of Johannesburg, Aero Manyelo asks to stop the car. ‘Look at those shacks,’ he says, pointing to a shabby collection of homes built from wood, plastic sheets and corrugated iron. ‘That was what this whole place was like when I first moved here.’

His family arrived from a small rural village in Limpopo in northern South Africa when Aero was four years old, shortly after the township sprung up on a farm just as apartheid started to crumble and liberty was finally looming for the oppressed majority. Today, there are more than 45,000 people crammed in to Ivory Park, mostly in brick homes, and Freedom Drive — the main street — is bustling, noisy and frenetic.

‘It was fun growing up here, but seeing this place develop was the best thing,’ says Aero, 28, smiling and shaking his straggly dreadlocks at the memories. ‘There used to be just one pump for water, but then we got proper water supplies and electricity.’

We pull up at his home. Outside, three young neighbours are practising dance moves on a breezeblock stage in front of their house, to songs blasting through the windows. Inside, Aero’s teenage sister is doing her maths homework with music videos blaring from the television — and minutes later, pumping bass lines are pounding from Aero’s bedroom while his mother cooks in the kitchen next door, the rooms separated by just a thin beige curtain.

Aero’s gentle nature seems at odds with the hard-edged electronic sounds he creates on the huge computer squished into his tiny bedroom, tunes that have made him a hot local DJ and led to the release of an album and gigs in Europe. In many ways his life reflects his nation’s complex journey, while his music shows how South Africa has some of the most thrilling DJs and producers on the planet, who have taken house music on a strange evolutionary journey from its roots in Chicago to create something special.

Some of the songs are fused with hip-hop, R’n’B, even traces of jazz or traditional music. Aero tells me he is influenced by German techno, showing how globalised music is in our digital age. But the rhythms tend to be unmistakably African. On the surface this is simply some of the best party music around, the soundtrack for days in the sun with beers around the braai or evenings on the streets in the khasi. But often underneath can be detected dark echoes of the rainbow nation’s recent history, giving the music an unusual intensity.

Perhaps this is inevitable, since house music hit South Africa as the shackles of apartheid were loosened. ‘There’s lots of joy and a sense of freedom in both the music and the country,’ says Spoek Mathambo, a former medical student and now one of his country’s most innovative artists, who has won international acclaim. ‘But then there is also the reality of the crime, the corruption, the wild party culture. You have to remember we were the last to be liberated and this country was like a pressure cooker.’

I first came across Spoek four years ago when I saw his stunning cover of Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control, the sinister video directed by celebrated South African photographer Pieter Hugo capturing a ‘township tech’ interpretation dripping with deep foreboding. Shot in black and white and starting in a graveyard, the surreal images feature fleeting shots of ritualistic practices such as head-shaving while the white-suited singer and a cast of Cape Town children are covered in white powder and liquids. Buildings burn, people are beaten and heads shake maniacally before it ends with the singer curled in a fetal position.

Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa, Spoek says he related to the angst and tension of post-punk British music. ‘I liked the way they described a society that was not all happy-clappy but a bit dark and edgy. It seemed evocative of my country too.’ Since then, this wildly inventive rapper, singer and producer has collaborated with Damon Albarn, played with Joy Division’s Peter Hook and made a documentary about his country’s electronic music called Future Sound of Mzansi. He recently formed Fantasma, something close to a conventional band.

His compelling music ignores conventional boundaries. Perhaps this is unsurprising, for when I ask him to list his own favourites he names Johnny Cash and Kraftwerk, then tells me a tale of first coming across Western music aged 12 when given a stash of records by his neighbour. ‘It was my secret,’ he says. ‘I never told anyone what I was listening to — it was just not cool.’

Neither Cash nor Kraftwerk feature in his set when I see him DJ in Braamfontein, a central suburb filled with students, restaurants and art galleries beside Nelson Mandela Bridge, which is emerging as one of the coolest parts of Johannesburg. Kitcheners, the city’s second-oldest bar, feels bizarrely reminiscent of a British pub, with its flock wallpaper and wood furnishings. But it is buzzing on a Friday night as the multiracial ‘Freedom Generation’ drink, dance and flirt happily to some heavy house music.

Spoek is joined by DJ Spoko, another producer who is also in Fantasma. Spoko has huge fun on the decks, his exuberant arm-waving and epic tunes clearly enjoyed by the crowd. His real name is Marvin Ramalepe, and after his set he tells me about his childhood in rural poverty before moving, aged 12, to join his father in a Pretoria township. ‘Music is saving me from a life of crime,’ he says. ‘When you are poor, what else can you do when you are hungry?’ Yet now he has worked with the actor Idris Elba, performed in Paris and is about to debut in New York.

The Braamfontein district where we meet shows how fast the city of Johannesburg — and indeed the country — is changing. Just take a stroll on Sunday lunchtime down to the market at Maboneng Precinct, where a hip young crowd munch on grilled meat and salads while drifting in to see art displays at a newly converted, century-old warehouse. This former mining town, which claims to have the world’s biggest man-made forest, has a new confidence — and house music is heard everywhere here.

It seems rather random that house music found a new home in South Africa as the sound of an emergent nation. Legend has it that the scene started with DJs playing super-fast Western dance singles deliberately slowed down to 33rpm — and out of that developed kwaito, an offspring of hip-hop with chants and shouts in local languages. This then speeded up again to become house music, with its trademark tempo of 120-130 beats per minute, yet transformed into something original.

Initially kwaito flirted with controversial content — one of the first big hits in 1993 referenced a hugely derogatory and inflammatory term used by some white South Africans for black compatriots; another attacked police for arresting black people in smart cars on the grounds they must have stolen them. Eventually, Nelson Mandela asked the artists to be more positive — and in return their songs were played at ANC political rallies, boosting their appeal. It tends now to be apolitical; as one key figure explained, few want to upset a government which remains the most influential promoter of performers at concerts, rallies and sporting events.

Instead, it is uplifting dance music that provides escape from the daily grind. Several performers tell me they wanted to offer optimism to their troubled nation, which still has massive unemployment, despite its huge natural wealth and obvious rapid development.

‘We are singing about our own lives,’ says Sibusiso Khomo of Durban-based superstars Big Nuz, who produce infectious songs in Zulu over distinctive tribal-influenced rhythms. ‘We are thankful to house music for changing our lives as people coming from the ghetto and want to give hope to others.’

As it pours from the bars and cars, it is clear that mainstream South African radio plays music that might struggle to escape club culture in many other countries. ‘People from Europe come here and get blown away when they hear the kind of super-deep soulful house music being played on drive time when it would be underground music anywhere else,’ says Allan Nicoll, the Dundee-born label manager at the influential Soul Candi (as Kid Fonque, he’s also a well-known local DJ).

Now the most popular acts — such as Big Nuz, Black Coffee, Mi Casa and Mafikizolo — aim to break out of Southern African markets to become big further afield. But perhaps ultimately it is the next generation that is the most likely to find global fame, given how they are mixing South Africa’s take on house music with ever-expanding new international influences, downloaded via their laptops and phones.

Some of the most striking songs I hear in Johannesburg are the creation of Cuebur, a 24-year-old producer who passed through Soul Candi’s school for DJs. His bass-heavy tracks layer European dubstep and jungle over driving local rhythms.

When we meet at a burger bar in a  suburban shopping centre, I ask this likeable young musician why he thinks South African house music is so successful. Cuebur thinks for a moment, then replies, ‘All I know is that every time I listen to it, no matter how angry I am or stressed by life, I am suddenly much happier about the world. Maybe that’s the secret — it simply makes you happy.’ Maybe he’s right.

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