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The Apartheid After-Party: Matthew Collin On The South African Club Scene
The Quietus , February 10th, 2018 13:02

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music, Matthew Collin dives into the club scene of South Africa, a country fast becoming the house nation

A spectral apparition rises from the clouds of dry ice billowing through the humid Cape Town air, pipe-cleaner limbs contorting wildly as he leaps and prances to a zigzagging drum groove that sounds like hammers battering out a metal tattoo on a tin roof. This undulating wraith, or DJ Spoko as he is known, flashes a toothy grin from beneath his baseball cap and scarlet bandana and pokes a skinny finger towards the sky as his comrade Mujava teases out the wonky synth melody from one of South African electronic music’s biggest international hits – the one they made together, ‘Township Funk’.

This pandemoniacal display on the terrace of the grand Edwardian city hall building at the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival was a masterclass in what Spoko was calling ‘Bacardi House’. With its clattering percussion, urgent snatches of chant and lurid melodies, his vivacious sound was one of several indigenous South African variations on the house groove that had developed since liberation from apartheid in the nineties. Geographically isolated from the global electronic mainstream, the southernmost African country unequal, racially divided and disfigured by poverty, violence and political corruption.

DJ Spoko was just one example of how all this was possible – a story of how young South Africans employed a mixture of do-it-yourself inventiveness and entrepreneurial verve to make themselves heard. Born Marvin Ramalepe in the rural north of the country, Spoko began making music after he moved to live with his father in the Atteridgeville township, west of the country’s administrative capital Pretoria. Using his father’s personal computer and a pirated version of the early music software FruityLoops, he and his friend Mujava (Elvis Maswanganyi) started trying to emulate the hip-hop sounds they loved. They failed – but in the kind of serendipitous accident that has led to so many musical breakthroughs over the years, they ended up creating something else entirely, a kind of raw, minimalist electro-funk with all the blinding brightness of a flashing strobe.

‘Something went wrong, but it still sounded good,’ Spoko recalls. ‘So I said, we can’t be no Dr. Dre, we can’t be no Snoop Doggy Dogg, we’ve got to be ourselves. At the time we couldn’t play no synthesizer so we were just making drum music. No bass, just drums – bang! I just banged those drums. Hard! We would put five kicks together to make sure this shit is distorted, so we can feel it. And five snares, so we can make sure this shit is crazy.’

His father was unimpressed with his punkish efforts: ‘My old man would say, “You’re making noise, you make me want to go stay in a hotel.” Even my neighbour said, “Can’t you play something soft?” I said, “I hate soft music. I just love noise.”’

‘It’s a very functional, real freedom, not just freedom of expression. Being able to be in the street, 2,000 of you with a sound system without the army shooting you down – that’s what it’s about.’

Spoko’s township friends were also dismissive of this peculiar brand of house music that he had developed by accident, with its militaristic snares and off-kilter tonalities: ‘People would come to my crib and listen and say, “This is shit, Spoko, you’ve got to play something that is real.” But I say, “This is real to me. It’s new, I like it.”’

He first started to attract some local renown when he began to test out the music he calls his ‘poison’ at a neighbourhood shebeen. He then spread his sound throughout Atteridgeville by giving out tracks to minibus-taxi drivers to play as they plied their routes – a method used by many young producers in the townships where the drivers sometimes function as local taste-makers, playing the hottest tunes to entertain their passengers. ‘So when they go to town and come back to the hood, they’ll be pumping my shit. If they’ve got something they like, taxi drivers are going to turn it up. Schoolkids would overload in the taxi because the driver has my songs,’ Spoko says, savouring the memory of how his ugly ‘noise’ became a local sensation.

He also generated income by selling job-lots of ten tracks at 100 rand a time to what he describes as local ‘gangsters’ as soundtracks for their parties. His shady patrons even gave his music its name: Bacardi House, because it was perfect raving gear for dancers wired on strong booze. Not that Spoko had much choice in the name; the way he tells it, the bad boys made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: ‘I said, “OK, OK. If you like it like that, it’s going to be like that.” Even if I wanted to give it another name, I couldn’t. I just had to bow to them – “OK it’s Bacardi, guys, I feel you!”’ He chuckles at the recollection: ‘So since then, it’s been Bacardi.’

Spoko was a voluble, jocular kind of character but with his cap pulled low and his bandana trailing beneath it, partly concealing his face, he could move through a crowd like a phantom, as if raindrops couldn’t touch him or even douse the spliff perched smouldering between his lips. There seemed to be little doubt that the young Marvin Ramalepe was an unusual teenager; he picked up the nickname Spoko – ‘Ghost’ – while growing up in what was known as the Ghost Town neighbourhood near the Atteridgeville cemetery: ‘Maybe they were dissing me because I was a thin young boy and I liked to walk through the dark alone to get some fresh air and do some thinking. They would say, “You are like a ghost, man – a ghost!”’

His gang tattoos also attested to some darker times in his youth that he only vaguely alludes to: ‘Kids in my hood say they want to be like me. I say, “No don’t be like me, I am a bad man. Go to school, get educated,”’ he tells me. His computers were apparently stolen several times by people needing drug money. But for Ramalepe – King Spoko, the War God, as he has sometimes called himself – adversity seemed to be an everyday perennial that existed to be overcome, again and again: ‘Music – you’ve got to be willing to die for it,’ he says. ‘It’s like a black hole you fall into. It’s crazy; one minute you’re up, the next you’re down, it’s heaven and hell – but I must do it.’

His sidekick Mujava had his times of suffering too; just after ‘Township Funk’ was released by Warp Records in Britain in 2008 and started to attract international attention, he had a mental breakdown and was forcibly hospitalised. In a poignant scene in the South African music documentary Future Sound of Mzansi, Mujava evoked echoes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as he recalled how anyone in the mental institution who spoke out was heavily sedated in order to silence them: ‘When you talk for yourself, make them angry, they inject you with lots of medication… I used to tell them, “I am Mujava.” I used to tell them I was famous and my music is popular overseas…’

Perhaps it’s not surprising that South African electronic dance music developed so differently and inspired such unusual characters in an environment that would seem alien and confusing to many western Europeans. But what was truly astounding to an outsider like me was its ubiquity – because South Africa really was a house nation. ‘If you drive across the country, you’ll realise the power of house music,’ says Culoe de Song – real name Culolethu Zulu – a DJ from KwaZulu-Natal province, an hour and a half outside Durban, who made melodic tribalistic house and dressed like a hip priest in a long sombre coat and dark fedora.

‘A lot of the house music that people love here has a lot of soul, with lyrical content and melodies and a groove. It’s deep and quite intense for a mainstream sound,’ he explains. ‘Originally it was this cool thing; if you were into it, you kind of belonged to this secret society – it was not your normal nine-to-five guy who watches prime-time. It was vibeseekers, people who love the cool stuff – the underground, the drug world – people who want to express their freedom. It was like an alternative community of some sort.

‘Then it just went really ballistic across the country, although it wasn’t supported by the mainstream scene or the celebrity culture, but by the people. So when it got really big, even guys like me in remote areas could access it.’ Culoe de Song was from one of the country’s ‘homelands’, nominally independent or partly self-governing territories set aside for black ethnic groups under apartheid. ‘There was no “scene” there. If someone got a CD we would get a tape of that and it would be passed on, or I would just tape things off the radio.’

Away from the bohemian downtown scenes in Johannesburg and Cape Town, there were huge raves attracting thousands of dancers in black townships like Soweto, playing purely deep house. ‘They’re not playing stadium house, but good, tasteful deep house – the deeper the better,’ explains British producer Charles Webster, who became one of the most popular DJs on the South African deep house circuit after his soulful anthem ‘Better Day’ was a national hit in the late nineties. ‘The people really know their music; if the DJs play too hard, people leave the dancefloor,’ Webster says.

During the nineties, cult record shops in Johannesburg like Soul Kandi and House Afrika developed into record labels that nurtured the early South African house producers, while the new youth radio station YFM offered a broadcasting outlet for domestically made grooves. ‘YFM played house music most of the time and that was unheard of on radio before,’ says Vinny da Vinci (Vincent Motshegoa), one of Johannesburg’s first house DJs, who also co-owned House Afrika. ‘People gravitated to it in a big way… it was like a calling.’ Heather Mennell, the former editor of the South African edition of DJ magazine, remembers it as a revolutionary moment: ‘It was a huge expression of hope and freedom.’

The fervour for deep house turned foreign DJs like Charles Webster, who had enthusiastic but relatively small cult followings elsewhere in the world, into genuine stars in the country. Ethnomusicologist Gavin Steingo remembered talking to US producer Little Louie Vega of Masters at Work after he went to play in South Africa for the first time in 2000. ‘He expected to have to take a taxi. He got to the airport and there were bodyguards waiting for him. They took him to a stadium, where he played for 20,000 people,’ said Steingo. ‘He was a major celebrity there, and had no idea.’

Part of the reason for the popularity of deep house was political. Arriving not long before the country’s liberation from apartheid in 1994, it was perfectly placed to occupy the cultural free spaces that opened up as white minority rule finally ended.

‘A lot of electronic music is party music, and for the last 20 years we’ve had a big reason to celebrate,’ says Nthato Mokgata, alias Spoek Mathambo, the Soweto-born producer and vocalist who became one of the most inspirational performers on the country’s avant-garde electronic scene. ‘Being a democracy for a first time, that creates a culture all of its own, people being free to move around where they used to not be able to.’

The subtitle to Future Sound of Mzansi, the feature-length documentary that Mathambo co-directed in 2014, was ‘Welcome to the Apartheid After-Party’. He argues that electronic dance music was the soundtrack to liberation for the country’s youth in a similar way to how techno became the new pop culture of reunified Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

‘A lot of the music culture and party culture comes directly from the fact that it is a freedom party – not just any party, but a freedom party,’ he explains. ‘It’s not just the freedom to express oneself but the literal thing of being able to go to different places at different times because there were curfews before that. Because of their race, people wouldn’t be allowed into certain establishments.

‘It’s a very functional, real freedom, not just freedom of expression. Being able to be in the street, 2,000 of you with a sound system without the army shooting you down – that’s what it’s about.’

Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music by Matthew Collin is published by Serpent’s Tail