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What's The Name Of My Nation? Dancing Shangaan Electro With Nozinja
Melissa Bradshaw , July 30th, 2013 07:39

Melissa Bradshaw likes dancing, writing and writing about dancing, so was the ideal person to learn Shangaan dancing for the Quietus...

All photographs courtesy of Cat Stevens

Nozinja is acting as a kind of ambassador for the Shangaan people. Seated at a small desk in a spacious room in Hoxton Hall, where a semi-circle of children and their parents have drawn around him, the South African producer and vocalist is explaining the Shangaan "nation" to them. (He uses the term nation where in the UK we would say "tribe" or "people", though he also uses "tribe"). His voice bellowing, he explains that the Shangaan people don't like violent people. "We wish", he says, "to preserve our nation with music!"

"I always tell people I'm not a politician," he later tells me, when I ask him to expand on this statement about violent people. "Politicians take positions that suit them at that particular time. Being a musician [means] you just do things on your own and you just pray that [the audience] love that music. So violence for me is just... I'm not into that." (Perhaps something is lost in translation, but I notice the association Nozinja assumes between politics and violence.)

At this workshop in Hoxton for Shangaan Electro - the rapid fire 180bpm South African dance phenomenon - Nozinja keeps his explanation of the geographical location and history of the nation brief: they are one of the smallest tribes in southern Africa, living in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, as well as in the Limpopo province of north east South Africa, beside Kruger National Park. In South Africa, where Nozinja and the dancers with him are from, they are a minority. One thing he doesn't mention in his brief history is that the Shangaan people who live next to the National Park do so because in the early twentieth century they were forcibly removed from their ancestral land to make room for it. Shangaan men also migrated to Johannesburg to work in the gold mines.

Their music, he explains, comes from a generation before them. From his laptop on his small desk he plays the old Shangaan music, with real guitars and big, swinging drums. He acts out playing the drums. Then he plays the Shangaan music that arrived after that, which he refers to as disco, but also reminds me of old kwaito, the electronic music genre born in post-apartheid townships. Then, he says, his eyes and smile widening and widening, they decided to speed it up.

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As Nozinja cranks up the tempo his dancers step into the semicircle. First up are two women in polo shirts and great big brightly coloured, heavily pleated skirts. Nozinja clearly wants us to remember that these are called "xibelani", because he makes his whole audience repeat it after him, several times – "xi-be-la-ni, xi-be-la-ni!" He has brought two spare xibelani and gives them to two girls in the audience: they instantly become hypnotised by what is going on around their own hips and barely stop spinning all hour. The two women in the middle of the circle shake their waists, twisting on one foot and kicking out with the other; from the movement of their skirts, their waists appear to revolve beyond the bounds of physical possibility. Then Nozinja cranks up the tempo further, as he tells us, to 189 bpm. The music is airy, percussive and brightly coloured with marimba melodies and vocal samples.

The two young male dancers, from the group the Tshetsha Boys, wear specially tailored orange boiler suits - one of them has little orange cut out tassels down his legs - with the arms tied round their waist. They dance; they dance as if they don't have bones, as Nozinja has put it. They jab their elbows, knees and bottoms in the air, clapping their hands behind their knees, and tapping their feet in sync, grinning wildly. Sometimes they remind me of cartoon characters.

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Standing in front of his desk and shaking his rotund belly in front of him, Nozinja projects his smile around the room, telling us to join in. The audience learns moves by following the lead of the Shangaan dancers, and each audience member has a turn at dancing in the middle of the circle with the dancers. The girls with xibelani are having a whale of a time. The children are better at dancing than the adults. Years of conditioning are visible in the jerky movements of the adults' limbs. There are a couple more choreographed and freestyle performances, to give the audience a break, and more group dancing. Nozinja also gives a Q&A session and at the end of the workshop he sells a CD/DVD double pack of Shangaan Electro music and videos of their dancing events. They hold these every weekend at home in South Africa. The dancers dance in teams, outdoors, for hours and hours at big outdoor events ('competitions', though without any actual winners), and also perform at weddings and other ceremonies.

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Nozinja is the brains behind Shangaan Electro. The story of how Shangaan Electro reached Europe and the US is a unique mixture of discovery and enterprise, although there are already conflicting, contradictory of the story. One is that Nozinja, who had actively vowed to take Shangaan culture global, was sought out by radio producer Wills Glasspiegel, who was initially greeted with scepticism by the South African vocalist; understandable enough. But then another version of the story has Glasspiegel first encountering Shangaan Electro while randomly YouTubing music in New York with BLK JKS drummer Tshepang Ramoba (the Guardian); another still has Ramoba asking a friend in Johannesburg to upload the videos in order to prove a point to Glasspiegel in a conversation (the Mail & Guardian).

Either way, the YouTube videos became a hit, and a compilation on Honest Jon's titled Shangaan Electro, featuring several of Nozinja's productions, was released in 2010. The label followed it with a compilation of remixes by a host of revered names from the electronic music world, including Theo Parrish, Actress, Hype Williams and Anthony 'Shake' Shakir. (In a pleasing synchronicity, Shangaan Electro emerged at the same time as the similarly rapid-fire Chicago dance genre footwork was starting to become popular globally).

In the time since Nozinja has played all over Europe and America, and he informs us in the workshop Q&A that the best reception to his music has been in Europe.

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Later, I ask if he thinks English people are good at dancing. He says, diplomatically they are when they have been to his workshops. "As long as after you've done the workshops, you've got a CD, then you will understand, and you will become addicted. And the DVD, once you get addicted to it, you won't spend a week without seeing it!" I'm being marketed to. As someone who participated in the dance workshop and bought the CD, I am part of the plan to make this dance phenomenon a global craze - and that fact befuddles any desire for there to be an authentic, original, 'real' dance craze. Lanre Bakare's description of Nozinja as "a township Simon Cowell" perfectly encapsulates how Nozinja spans the local and the manufactured.

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Nozinja grew up in Soweto, but his father was from Malamulele in Limpopo, so he now lives between the two. Before going into music he was a businessman, and he has a mobile phone business and a hotel, which his wife helps him run. No-one in his family was a musician – his father was a painter – but he loved music and used to play it loudly in his car. In interview he masterfully steers the conversation to the points he wants to make – how his friend, an organ player called Max, persuaded him to go into music because he was so good at spotting hit songs; or how he originally hired some studio engineers but then secretly took private lessons in studio engineering, and surprised them by showing them that he could mix his songs better than they could (at which point they were out of a job).

These boasts are sometimes presented in poetic narratives. Explaining why he decided to speed up Shangaan music, for example, and the scepticism of his friends, he says: "When this thing started to sell, they said, 'How did you know?' I said people's ears are sick and tired of hearing the same thing. I said an ear, it's like you when you are eating, if you eat the same thing every day you get bored of it. So in music, the ears want something new to hear or to listen to. So I said to them, 'Look, let's do something new, and the ears will say, 'Oh, what is this?'' For you to say, 'What is this', which means the ear did hear something different!"

Sometimes, however, he's more direct. When I mention that one of the tracks he played reminded me of old kwaito he exclaims, "Exactly!" He used to love kwaito, he tells me. "I was a very, very powerful kwaito dancer."

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But Nozinja has also had his setbacks. He says that his "worst experience" was when his music was rejected both by Sony South Africa and CCP South Africa (an EMI subsidiary) because they didn't think he had an audience. "Because, as I said, we are the marginalised nation, these very big companies, they are a little bit sceptical of taking Shangaan music to put it on the market."

The history of Shangaan music before its electro reboot seems currently to be largely orally preserved, although you can hear the likes of Thomas Chauke, General Shirinda, Peter Tangwena and Thomas Gezani Mzamani on YouTube. Chauke has received a heap of awards, including a doctorate for his contribution to Xitsonga language and a SAMA Lifetime Achievement award, while General Shirinda's appearance on Paul Simon's Graceland helped make the style known in Europe. Currently, Nozinja says, his music only gets played on Munghana Lonene FM, a Xitsonga language station broadcast around Limpopo and Johannesburg.

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When I try to establish later whether it was Nozinja's idea to go global - I only noticed the discrepancy after our interview - or whether the Glasspiegel/Ramoba gave him the idea, Nozinja states that he would have thought of selling his music overseas without Glasspiegel, because two weeks after Glasspiegel had contacted him, some more people came and tried to sign his music. In any case, Nozinja seems to have internalised the idea that there is an international market for Shangaan music, rather than a South African one. "Let's say a poor boy from Limpopo has got a hit, where will he take it?" he asks. "It will be known around the place that he stays and that's all. So I want to change that - that's my goal in future. They will bring it to me and I will mix it, master it, take it overseas, and see whether there will be a market for it."

He has made plans to sell Shangaan music online – in South Africa, the percentage of the population who are 'internet users' is around 14% (in the UK it is 80%). In 2010 Mail & Guardian writer Lloyd Gedye, attending one of the Shangaan dancing competitions in Soweto, admitted that "it took a white hipster from New York to show me that something this fantastic was taking place in my own home town".

Nozinja owns a sound system that he bought in the Carlton Centre in Johannesburg. He says they have to let the police know two weeks in advance when they have a party – they will take over a street or sometimes a football pitch – and sometimes someone who doesn't like Shangaan people will make them go somewhere else. But none of their parties have ever been completely stopped, "because they know this is us. We're not doing something bad, we're just doing our own culture." I mention that we can't have street parties like that here anymore, because they're illegal, and he says, "Jesus!" Followed by: "I am going to have to go and think about this."

Nozinja's aim was always to preserve Shangaan identity. When Max first asked him to do the music he agreed, but only if they changed it. He decided they had to update the beat. "I said the new generation doesn't want drums - their drums are disco!" Shangaan electro possesses the melodies and timbres (notably the marimba) of old Shangaan music, chopped and repeated at such speed, and with enough variation and attention to detail, that the effect is totally hypnotic. There is also something strangely childlike to it – it has some of the cartoony feel of early '90s hardcore, albeit lacking the connotations of narcotics. In changing the music, Nozinja wasn't replacing the message of the old Shangaan music, but making a place for it in the new dance market. If Shangaan electro parties are them ("this is us"), then this sound system culture is one way of stating their identity. Nozinja tells me he will retire in Malamulele, by Kruger National Park.

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Upon being invited to attend two Shangaan electro dance workshops, I decide to try and create a London answer to the Shangaan electro style. I have no chance! In preparation I travel to as many West End high street shops on Oxford Street as I can manage, trying to find a big, bright skirt before having to settle for something small and turquoise. The morning before the workshop I have to return to exchange it, because it starts to fall apart at the seams; the replacement, too, falls apart the second it comes out of my bag. (I ended up getting my money back.) I wear it with a bodysuit from a new company London Dancewear, who aim to bridge fashion and dance. The bodysuit is really comfortable, but my skirt feels impoverished in the face of the xibelani skirts, the boiler suits, and most of all Nozinja's striped vest - white with patches of pink and green, purple patterned stripes and gold embellished cotton. I ask him where he acquired it, and he explains that he designed it himself and had a tailor make it. The good news is that he's also planning to sell these online – give me a bespoke boiler suit and an embellished vest every time!

Having observed the first workshop I dance at the second, which takes place in an empty gymnasium with a climbing wall on one side. Here the resonant acoustics fragment Nozinja's already thick accent into booming echoes. Again I don't get a xibelani, so I have to make do with shaking my ass - which fortunately is not too small - but I quickly get bored of the women's moves and abandon them in favour of attempting to mimic the decidedly more hyperkinetic men. It's hot and sweaty but I find the music provokes an inclination to mess around like a child, and I don't even feel too put off by the fact that Cat, the photographer, keeps laughing at me. (I try to repeat some of the moves I learned a week later at a barbecue at the Nike 1948 shop, and for my troubles get laughed at there, too.) It's funny, because normally if people laugh at your dancing you'd be embarrassed, but the very nature of Shangaan electro dancing is that it puts you in a jubilant mood. I just need to practice more with the DVD.

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Shangaan Electro play Bring To Light festival in Birmingham this weekend from October 25-27; for full details and tickets, head to the event's website