House finds a new home: South Africa, a hotbed of contemporary musical innovation
From its beginnings, house music has eluded definition, refusing to be categorised as a single sound. Yet, almost intuitively, you know it when you hear it. Indeed, one of the genre's's earliest tracks, Can You Feel It? by Chicago's Fingers Inc, famously concluded that "House is a feeling", while LFO's warehouse-rave anthem What is House? stuck to simply repeating the question, suggesting that the answer was impossible to reach, or self-evident, or both …
That house is so difficult to pin down is largely a result of its adaptability. The basic template that was laid in Chicago 25 years ago - the solid thump of the kick drum and the skip of the hi-hat - has now been adopted and twisted to meet the particular needs of youth cultures across the world. Much like hip-hop, its become a kind of pop music lingua franca, yielding a global panoply of movements, each with distinct local identities, from the hypersensuality of 2step garage to the rough bounce of Angolan kuduro. To make a culinary analogy, think of bread; how a few simple core ingredients are used universally but with a bewildering variety of results, each one a reflection of that society's particular culture and history.
Few societies, however, have taken to house music as enthusiastically as South Africa. The German label Outhere Record's Ayobaness! compilation brings together some of the biggest names on the South African scene, making an irrefutable case for the nation as a hotbed of contemporary musical innovation. As detailed in the 20-page booklet that accompanies the CD, house has become the sound of young South Africa. In fact, nowhere else in the world is electronic dance music so deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life. By way of illustration, the country's biggest names sell hundreds of thousands of CDs in the domestic market - something which all save a handful of similar artists in the West can only dream of - on the back of a thriving and long-established radio and club scene.
House-music culture exploded into the South African consciousness after the end of apartheid, in a wild, new variant of the sound, known as kwaito. The genre's name came from the Afrikaans word kwaai (meaning "angry", or, in street slang, "cool"), and its beginnings were in parties held in Johannesburg's black townships during the early 1990s, where local stars such as DJ Christos would play underground dance records, imported from Chicago and New York, slowed down as far as their turntables could go. (Many attribute kwaito's languid pace to the widespread use of the prescription tranquiliser Mandrax as a recreational intoxicant.) Soon enough, homegrown talent - including artists such as Brenda Fassie, Bongo Maffin and Mandoza - began to emerge, taking the rhythms of far-flung dancefloors and making them their own with boisterously clattering drums and carnivalesque vocal chants. This scene would eventually fracture into a number of regional styles - such as mzansi, meaning South African, homegrown; Pitori from Pretoria; and Zulu - which hew closer to global house music's accepted 120-beats-per-minute blueprint, but continue to make dazzling departures from its rigid 4/4 pulse.
The timing of Ayobaness! is impeccable. European and stateside interest in South African house has been on the rise since 2007, the year that the UK's Warp Records released DJ Mujava's Township Funk: a glorious single that sounded like 1990s bleep techno melting in the sun. Despite this one song's massive success, until now, a decent primer on this music has been hard to find outside of specialist African mail-order stores and the benevolent postings of MP3 bloggers. Also, there's the small matter of the World Cup to consider. If this tournament has come to embody anything, it is the vitality of South African street culture. The now-infamous vuvuzelas are one undeniable example of this exuberance, but the sounds collected on Ayobaness! paint a far catchier and more tonally varied picture of the country's musical landscape.
Although such sprawling and rapidly developing scenes resist easy pigeon-holing, it is fair to say that South African house is broadly defined by two things: its rhythms and vocals. Here, beats are driven by merciless swing and filled with jerky syncopations that make one think of West Indian soca, pitched down and lent the weight and momentum of peak-period Detroit techno. Meanwhile, vocals tend toward sung-spoken recitations in local dialects and ghetto slang. Beyond these stylistic tropes lies a less tangible but equally powerful characteristic. On tracks such as DJ Clock's Xavatha (Woza Chynaman and Pastor Mbhobho's clownish titular song, Ayobaness (a colloquial term used to express enthusiasm or happiness), the gradually building linearity of US/European techno is replaced with an admirable sense of impatience. In South Africa, house music twists and turns, full of split-second breakdowns, scattershot drum rolls and bursts of chorus. This is dance music with all the instant gratification of the three-minute pop song; spectacularly visceral and fuelled by celebratory imperatives. For proof of the music's physicality, just embark on a quick YouTube search for Township Funk or Sbu's cheeringly topical Vuvuzela Bafana, then wonder at the bodily contortions on display.
Kicking off with the wonky polyrhythms of L'vovo Derrango's Resista and closing with DJ Bongz and Mampintsha's sublime Bayakhuluma - a bittersweet techno epic that Cologne's Kompakt records would be proud of - this album does exactly what a good scene overview should. Ayobaness! presents a cohesive narrative that, in its complexity and variety, hints at greater discoveries yet to be made. For all its sophistication, though, what strikes the listener immediately is how wonderfully direct this music is; the way its melodies blare out like advertising hoardings and its rhythms ram-raid your muscle memory.
In a collection groaning with upfront party tunes, the insouciantly catchy Nisho Njalo by Johannesburg's DJ Cleo deserves special mention: a breathless back-and-forth of male and female vocals on top of the hottest synth line you'll hear this summer, it is indisputably and all-conqueringly funky. Meanwhile, Mujava's Mugwanti/Sgwejegweje showcases Pretoria's tinder-dry, martial percussion sound, and Aero Manyelo's Mexican Girl brings the gurgles and squeals of vintage acid house back to life with a huge jolt of adrenalin.
From these three tracks, it is easy to see that contemporary South African music deserves to make a significant mark in the wider world. And there are, indeed, some early signs that this is happening. UK funky, a house-based style that emerged around 2006 to form the latest branch of London street music's deep-rooted family tree, has many formal and stylistic parallels with African dance scenes, from Ghanaian hiplife and Cote D'Ivoirean coupé-decalé to these mzansi sounds. Although early days yet, this may be an indication that something analogous to the cultural assimilation of Jamaican music that took place in the 1970s - resulting in a rash of diasporic fusions, from drum and bass to the blistering rhymes of Dizzee Rascal - may be occurring, as expatriate African communities in Britain increase in both number and cultural influence. Given these convergences, it is even possible to imagine house music's centre of gravity shifting from its traditional heartlands in the American Midwest and Northern Europe to altogether sunnier climes.
Beyond its obvious sonic merits, Ayobaness! rewires fundamental preconceptions of what African music is and should be. Thanks to the developed West's longstanding fascination with "traditional" folk cultures, the sounds of this massive continent have, for the last two decades, largely been viewed through the distant and distinctly folksy lens of "world music". Yet, here, an African nation is convincingly held up as a world leader in a forward-thinking and resolutely 21st-century context. What's more, this seems not just credible, but entirely natural - inevitable, even. Now, that's a thought that leaves one yearning to visit South Africa - World Cup or no World Cup.
Simon Hampson is a music critic in London. His work can regularly be found in FACT magazine.
Published: July 9, 2010 04:00 AM