As a kid growing up in South Africa, I remember my first experience of a uniquely original beat came from a ritualistic television habit – a Friday night of flicking through the four channels available out of sheer boredom. It was the early nineties and there was very rarely anything to distract the public from their beer drinking ritual around an open fire on a Friday night so the kids were left to their own devices and the Television offered the escape from the monotonous drone of guitar music playing in the background. I would sit on the floor flicking through the channels like this until one evening something stopped me dead in my tracks. It was the sound of a peculiar rhythm, counterpointing the lazy rhythms of a blues guitar coming from somewhere outside. There was a 4/4 kick, but it was unusual in the way the snare accented the offbeat and more than that it was completely mesmerising for a young music fan like myself. It was an infectious rhythm accentuated by the rhythmical expressions of the Zulu dancers in their colourful attire, moving to this provocative percussive musical language. It was a musical language I would come to know as Kwaito.
Kwaito, although influenced by the sound of Chicago, is South Africa’s own with the development of electronic music in the country almost perpendicular to that of the states. House music found an immediate audience in South Africa in the eighties, with the percussive music especially enjoying popularity in townships like Soweto, but much of the basis that formed Kwaito came from local music, and House merely offered the electronic means for it to exist in a modern context and develop. It went hand in hand with Stokvel parties –informal gathering in townships – and Pantsula, a popular dance form, which displays a kind of athleticism very rarely encountered on the dance floor. In the context of this social gathering and the time of House music’s arrival in South Africa, many scholars believe it offered a platform for people to unite in the perpetual struggle against apartheid. People were dancing in the street when Nelson Mandela was released, and Kwaito was the soundtrack. People would celebrate deep into the night when the ANC was elected in 1994 and Kwaito would be on the jukebox. Kwaito was in some ways more about the celebration of the achievement than fuelling the fire of discontent, and the music delivered that message in upbeat arrangements with a very accessible party narrative. The music expounded in the nineties as the sanctions of apartheid lifted and exposure to “western” music increased everywhere in the country. But Kwaito was as much about R&B and Hip Hop as it was about House, and it grew as a completely independent anomaly, influenced, but not determined by the genre’s development elsewhere. More so, Kwaito offered an accessible platform for those who didn’t enjoy the white privilege of being able to entertain a leisurely pursuit like music. The political agenda was not contained within the literal form of this soulful music, but rather in the convenience of this music. House music was the bridge to equality through cheap keyboards and a simplified musical language that the average person tapping his foot to the beat could understand and Kwaito was South Africa’s interpretation of this form of accessible music.
Kwaito took on the rich musical heritage of South Africa’s many local cultures, and stirred it into a variably mixing pot of influences channelled into something uniquely South African. Music from “western” developments was appropriated for local audiences, incorporating elements like those offbeat snares from indigenous musical developments, and arrived at music that was distinguishable, yet universal enough to lose the kitsch exotic tag, where by western music is the standard by which all other music follows and anything from the Africa is considered of an “other” dimension. South African House music as Kwaito excelled in this regard, because it became impossible to stick it with that “other” tag, where it’s appreciated for its exoticism like a tribal mask. In House music, South Africa found a level playing field with the rest of the world, and as the professionalism grew, artists like Black Coffee emerged at an international level –more so than at a local level even – without adopting the form of an unusual curiosity to be admired by the rest of the world. Many of these artists overcame a life of poverty, discrimination and life-threatening events, to get to the point they arrived at, but they’ve never played on this aspect for the advancement for the sake of their careers. For these artists it is, and it’s always been about the music.
With the advent of computer music, Kwaito and House music was made more accessible than ever in South Africa and the genre grew to overshadow the magnitude of its US counterparts, locally. In the early to mid 2000’s I remember almost every bar in Cape Town was playing House in one form or another. They weren’t exclusive, playing everything from Kwaito to Deep House, to a type of Lounge House where live instrumentation would often accompany the DJ set. It’s towards the end of this era, on the back of the first decade of this new millennium, where South African House music and Kwaito would find larger audiences in the rest of the world. DJ’s like Culoe De Song, DJ Mujava and DJ Clock would emerge out of the country on the back of the path paved by Black Coffee, with each generation inspiring the next in a type of upward social mobility through music. Two strains emerged at the same time, with some DJs like De Song preferring an European and Stateside aesthetic to House, while others like Clock stayed true to the Kwaito sound that started it all in South Africa. And where the two distinctions meet, you’ll find a new artist like Sipbe Tebeka, making stripped down House with a slight Kwaito influences running through it in the same way Mujava’s Township Funk bridged that gap between UK Funky and Kwaito for a international audience.
Today House is the biggest music market in South Africa with the distinction between it and Kwaito becoming ever more conflated. It’s the most popular form of music practised by South Africans, and has taken on something of an umbrella term for those that make electronic music. And while the rest of the world turns to Techno, it’s still House music making the most waves in South Africa, with artists like Spoek Mathambo and Felix La Band flying the flag for South African House and Kwaito. It might have been modernised along with rest of the world, but to me that first experience I’ve had with music falling upon it one lazy Friday evening has stayed with me for the rest of my life.