Sound And The City
The generations of migrants who came from across Africa to seek their fortune in Johannesburg, the City Of Gold, also brought musical gifts that have been synthesised, alloyed and polished, forging a unique culture of sound that has done much to shape the city itself. By Hagen Engler
[This piece appeared in The Note at the Red Bull Music Academy Weekender Festival Johannesburg. It won a Silver Award in the 2016 Arts Journalism of the Year Awards.]
Kid X is just wrapping up a video shoot as he ponders the nature of the Johannesburg music scene.
“Jozi really is the City Of Gold,” muses the rapper, until recently of hip-hop collective Cashtime Life. “People come from all over to find opportunities here, to make their fortune. What you end up with is a mash-up of so many languages and cultural practices – and of course the music.”
That music is something quite unique. For decades, the city of Johannesburg has distilled the indigenous sounds, styles and genres of the thousands, the millions of migrants who flock to find their fortune on her streets.
In Selby, just south of downtown Joburg, Booysen Road passes a former mine dump, now being re-processed for the gold content of the tailings. As the catalysing chemicals combine with the yellow dust, a glistering, golden stream escapes from the reclamation pond and trickles down the road. In Johannesburg, the streets are literally lined with gold.
Whether physically, metaphorically or musically, this has been the case since before Solomon Linda made his way to Johannesburg from Msinga in Natal province. In 1933 Linda came to find work – eventually becoming a furniture salesman, a hotel porter and a record packer at Gallo.
But the gold was as much in the veins of Solomon Linda as on the streets of Johannesburg. Linda brought the culture of his Zulu clan, the syncopations of his rural Christian choral tradition and when he began recording with his Evening Birds, created a new style of music – isicathamiya. As noted by journalist Rian Malan, from that style emerged the song Mbube, which begat Wimoweh, The Lion Sleeps Tonight and a dozen derivatives.
The musical gold on Jozi’s streets flowed out, enriching the world just like its mineral namesake.
And still the migrants came. Philip Tabane from Mamelodi in the 1940s, Hugh Masekela from Witbank in the 1950s. Brenda Fassie from Cape Town in the 1980s… They entered the melting pot with locals like Todd Matshikiza, Miriam Makeba, Sipho Hotstix Mabuse and others, building a rhythmic, melodic mountain of musical gold that would be added to, mined, reclaimed and reprocessed for generations to come.
By the time Oscar Mdlongwa made his way from Zimbabwe via Brits to Jozi’s Razzmatazz nightclub in Hillbrow in the late 1980s, Joburg’s musical goldmine now incorporated a smattering of early house beats. As Oscar told Aryan Kaganof in a 2006 interview, one night the resident Razzmatazz DJ failed to arrive, and the young Oscar, who was selling boerewors rolls outside the club, seized the chance of a fill-in DJ slot.
Chicago house, hip-hop and township jive sensibilities were already acquaintances, and when fused in the petri dish of the Joburg club scene, they became kwaito – another of Joburg’s unique musical exports.
Oskido is still DJing to this day, the Kalawa Jazzmee label he co-owns having bequeathed the nation – and the world – kwaito, afro house and afro-pop gems like Bongo Muffin, BOP, Mafikizolo, Zonke and Heavy K.
But even now, the sound of the city is elusive, hard to pin down. What exactly distinguishes kwaito from kasi rap? Where does hip-hop become electro? House, kwaito, pop? What exactly is the name of the type of house Heavy K has brought us from Veeplaas, Port Elizabeth? And does he really care?
“Nguban’ osnik’ a lento?” “Who gave us this thing?” Speedy so eloquently asked on the Professor classic. When after all, it was everyone.
Johannesburg gives and she takes. She processes influences and she creates new ones. She is a process, a reaction in progress.
Moonchild came to Joburg from Port Elizabeth, via Durban. She had an interest in spoken-word poetry, design, dance and Joanna Newsom. She found her way to Kitchener’s, that talent-processing lab in the heart of Braamfontein, and set about dominating their open-mic hip-hop nights.
By the time she’d met Tshepang Ramoba of Blk Jks fame, there was something altogether fresh in the works. He was producing beats, and Moonchild was a turquoise-haired, sex-positive, future ghetto-funk phenomenon.
“Eventually Reason and Akio stopped me from doing open-mics,” she recalls, mentioning two mainstays of the Jozi hip-hop scene. “They said I was winning too much. It was time for me to go to the next stage.”
That next stage has meant an album, an international career and a luminous, indefinable artistic creation, a sexual, singing, dancing, designing musical phenomenon, that’s almost impossible to put your finger on and therefore so Joburg!
“I don’t want to be like anyone,” she says. “I’ve got to be totally unique.”
The Joburg open-mic scene that Moonchild mentions is an engine of musical growth that has been incubating fresh styles of creative expression and pumping out superstars for decades. The alternative-Afrikaans Voëlvry movement kicked off at Yeoville’s Black Sun in the late 1980s, just down the road from where Oskido was synthesising the elements of kwaito. Monday Blues is a travelling open-mic that has been appearing, disappearing and reappearing since the 1990s. There have been 206, Bassline, Pata Pata, Horror Café, Afrikan Freedom Station, House of Nsako, Amuse, Kitchener’s… These elusive nights pop up for a few months, then disappear. Then reemerge. Even in the age of Facebook, it’s mainly those in the know who will know. But the alumni are basically a list of Jozi music illuminati.
Tumi, Simphiwe Dana, The Soil, Bongeziwe Mabandla, Blk Jks, BCUC, Kwani Experience and dozens more have fought their way up from obscurity to some kind of success in this scene that is nurturing, but at the same time brutally competitive.
Back at his crib in Fourways, rap phenomenon Kid X is wrestling with a similar quest.
“There is a supportive community in Joburg,” he says. “Especially in hip-hop. You can build affiliations, and there are people you can call on for features, or to be in your videos. But you’ve gotta have your own identity.”
“There’s a community, but also a spirit of rivalry that drives the whole scene. You’ve gotta keep your head down and stay grindin’!”
Fellow rapper, Jozi MC-turned global music export AKA, notices some discrete facets to the Joburg musical landscape.
“You’ve got the Soweto township scene,” he says. “They’ve got their own sessions and cyphers going on there. Then you’ve got the North – Sandton, Bryanston and those of us who’ve gone to school here – we’ve built a bit of a profile… and then there’s Braam, with that whole super-hip, electro crew.”
But for all the micro-divisions, there are many paths into the light. AKA knows. “Ag,” he chuckles. “In Joburg everyone is some kind of celebrity with a contact into one of the showbiz industries. So as long as you don’t suck, there are many channels to making it. It’s not so hard to get in if you’re good.”
What exactly constitutes “getting in” is a debatable point. For many artists it means graduating from Jozi’s clubs, where anyone with as much self-belief as talent can blag themselves a five-minute slot. Even some of the pros, with record deals, videos and Twitter communities, will find their paying gigs are still 10-15 minute slots at Kong, The Sands or Taboo, delivering the hits over backing tracks to a crowd more interested in looking fresh than listening.
“Making it” has come to mean playing the bigger festivals. Playing stages, delivering full, evolved sets of 45 minutes to an hour, with arrangements, dynamics, peaks and valleys, taking your audience on a journey through your music.
“Ja, mate,” winks AKA. “It’s a lot. At a festival you get to work your craft, and the people are ready to let loose. You get to push yourself – that’s where the action is in Joburg.”
Chopper Reedz, aka Scott Towers of festival headliners Fat Freddy’s Drop, identifies with Jozi’s loose and diverse music culture.
“Coming from Wellington in New Zealand, I completely get it. When we were coming up in the 1990s, our city was full of so many styles of music. Punk, disco, techno, reggae, you name it. There was no attempt to enforce any kind of musical theme – everyone just did their thing. It makes for a more varied scene, and the music that comes out of a scene like that will also be more interesting and unique.”
While there is no obvious Joburg version of Fat Freddy’s, “interesting and unique” lies well within the Jozi repertoire. The city that gave the world Pata Pata “the name of a dance that we do down Johannesburg way”; the foundry that blended, smelted and forged kwaito, sound of the New South Africa; the home of afro-house culture, that city is a place apart, and its sound reflects that.
“Joburg is Joburg,” says South African deep-house producer and DJ Black Coffee, a sometime Jozi resident. “It’s a law unto itself. When you arrive in town, you see who else is around, you listen to what they’re playing. Then, if it hops in Joburg, the rest of SA will follow.”
“There are deep roots to SA music, but the mainstream house scene is young. It only goes back to DJ Fresh’s Fresh House Flava Volume 1 from 1998. That’s basically Year 1. So you can’t come drop some old-school Chicago house and think that’s gonna fly in Jozi.”
Joburg is indeed a young city – at 130 years, it’s among the world’s newest. So tradition has little currency here. The Fresher the Flava the better. People move here to make their fortune, they process the scene, the atmosphere… and they get something new happening. And no matter what is filling the clubs or the airwaves or the stages, there will always be something else bubbling up to replace it.
As with the mines that encircle the city, entering Joburg’s musical underground will always generate the most fascinating yields. Gqom/electronica artist Okzharp is based in London, where he’s signed with Hyperdub, but he still finds the Jozi scene intoxicating.
“Going to Jozi now is like… It’s a bit like… imagine diving into the sea. That micro-moment between hitting the water and the arrival of the cold, wet shock? Joburg is like a strange, volatile energy source, a pleasure/pain thing. I always leave inspired or energised, but I never feel like I actually know the place any better.”
A producer like Okzharp, who makes a living mining for musical gold, he also knows there are levels to this thing. What you see on the surface is not what you get three kays below the earth on Shaft 13.
“The sound of Joburg to me is like… imagine a shop playing that standard piped-in international mall music that you get anywhere? But parked outside there’s a taxi blasting maskandi heaters at max volume and parked right behind it there’s a massive German whip with tinted windows playing a gqomwave refix of Young Thug and revving its engine!”
Levels. Layers. There are many of these to Johannesburg. They say the area has the deepest mines in the world. The gold sits deep. But music is as much part of the Johannesburg firmament as the mining industry that built the city.
From before marabi pedal organs lured drinkers into the shebeens of Alexandra township in the 1920s, before Eric Gallo set up Africa’s first recording studio here in 1932, sound has been part of the city.
The city has shaped a litany of sounds – marabi, kwela, the mbaqanga that so bewitched Paul Simon on Graceland… Pantsula, kwaito, kasi rap, afro-house, afro-jazz, afro-pop, township tech… And every one of those sounds has in turn shaped the city.
Respect to Cape Town jazz, ragga, hip-hop and breaks, and the gqom-inflected Durban sound, to Shangaan Makwaya electro… But even these alluvial gems on the river of sound that is South African music, they also flow to Johannesburg. They will also become part of the sound of this city.