How South Africa became the center of the house music world
It may have started in “The Warehouse” club, Chicago, but the center of the house music world has relocated.
But not to Ibiza. Miami? Not even close. Today the biggest house market per capita anywhere in the world is South Africa.
Home-grown acts such as Black Coffee and Euphonix are world renowned, following a path opened up by the likes of ground-breaking vocalist Lebo Mathosa in the 90s. In November three-year-old DJ Archer Jnr claimed top prize on variety show South Africa’s Got Talent, showing just how embedded the genre is into popular culture.
But how did South Africa get to this point? We take a look at the journey towards cultural dominance, and the influences house music has picked up along the way.
Is there anything more euphoric than a trumpet on a house record? Many a track’s breakdown is indebted to jazz, and in South Africa there’s no bigger name than Hugh Masekela.
An iron-lunged legend of the scene, Masekela has been active since the fifties, primarily playing in jazz ensembles, but rose to prominence in the sixties and seventies with crossover hits such as “Up, Up and Away” and “Grazing in the Grass,” which sold over four million copies.
One of the brains behind Zaire 74, the celebrated music festival organized to coincide with the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Masakela went on to record protest song “Bring Him Back Home” in 1986, alluding to Nelson Mandela and an anthem for the anti-apartheid movement.
A figure with astounding longevity, Masekela is still performing and moving with the times, collaborating with Black Coffee on his 2010 album “Home Brewed.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo were introduced to the world via Paul Simon’s 1986 album “Graceland,” and the male choral group from Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal have gone on to become one of the nation’s most famed groups.
Their vocals, drawing on the isicathamiya and mbube genres that originated from Zulu singers, were immortalised on Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al,” controversial at the time as the collaboration broke the cultural embargo in place on South Africa that dissuaded foreign artists from performing or working in the country.
They’re still a source of inspiration for the current crop of House talent, South African Euphonikpaying homage with a 2012 remix of “Homeless”:
Black Mambazo’s rich vocal heritage is an avenue being explored by other players too. The Soil, an acapella group formed in 2003 and signed to Sony, have invoked the voices of their ancestors in recent songs.
From Soweto, The Soil won South African Music Awards for Best R&B, Soul or Reggae Album in 2014 for “Nostalgic Moments,” with a tracklist that featured none other than Ladysmith themselves.
An urban genre originating from the townships in the post-apartheid era, interestingly Kwaito music often draws in Afrikaans words. Described as “slowed down garage music” by U.S elctro house star Diplo, its initial flagbearers included breakout star Arthur Mafokate and band TKZee, with the current king of the genre DJ Cleo.
TKZee, a trio formed of old school friends, had hits with “Palafala” and “Shibobo,” the latter featuring a sample from band Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” At the time it was the fastest selling CD single by a South African artist.
The South African Afropop scene cannot be addressed without mention of the titanic figure of Brenda Fassie. The late star’s music blended pop inflections with Kwaito and reached mass audiences. Her outrageous performances saw Fassie compared to the likes of the Queen of Pop herself, and was affectionately known as the “Madonna of The Townships.”
Freshlyground have assumed some of that pop mantel with upbeat hit “Waka Waka,” the 2010 World Cup anthem, although their other output blends folk and blues elements too.
Fassie’s influence has been vast, and her catchy hooks leave the likes of DJ Mujava indebted to the songstress. Mujava’s 2009 global hit “Township Funk” went on to receive acclaim for its laidback rhythm, typical of South African house, and became one of the biggest tunes of the year, wherever your dancefloor happened to be.
The newest batch of artists such as Culoe De Song are pushing boundaries even further, but you can bet that they’ll be drawing from their roots each time they reach into their record bags. House music has come a long way in South Africa, but judging by the current vibe on the airwaves and in the clubs, its here to stay.