The linchpin of Durban kwaito has solicited the help of his pals for his comeback album, The Headmaster.
In Bayang’sukela, a single of L’vovo Derrango’s first album, simply titled Derrango, the narrative kicks off in the middle of a night gone wrong when the faceless girls have milked our self-styled don but won’t go home with him. But instead of pursuing the theme of indignation, the song’s hook is a celebratory summation of his crew’s weekly routine of feasting on easy pickings.
The nursery rhyme feel of the boastful chorus was infectious precisely for its singalong crassness. In one disjointed cinematic clip of shisanyama culture, Durban entrenched itself as kwaito’s centrifugal force with L’vovo as its axis.
Then he breaks into a slowed-down halftime — the beat flow of his other early hit, Resista — to show how uncomplicated the whole thing is.
L’vovo was a pseudo raconteur and people connected with his disarming conversational style rather than the arc of his narrative, but a pioneer he was not. The groundwork for Durban’s emergence as a kwaito capital was laid primarily by its house DJs and transplanted vocalists, who had long been paying dues in Johannesburg, either performing ghostwriting duties or laying down the odd vocal. DJs controlled the tempos in the clubs and up-and-coming vocalists had to slot themselves in the 120-plus-beats-per-minute songs to get noticed as house slowly overtook kwaito. The signature tune by Durban’s Finest (DJs Tira and Sox), T’zozo en Professor, called Woz’ eDurban and released in 2005 by Kalawa Jazmee, affirmed this phenomenon. The easy-to-chop isiZulu syllables took care of the rest.
Soon, the term Durban kwaito music began being bandied about, championed by Zakes Bantwini, an early mentor of L’vovo. “When we started we were calling it DKM. I think it was a bad idea,” said L’vovo, whose real name is Thokozani Ndlovu, in retrospect, in an interview at the bar of an Illovo hotel. “When you do music you don’t do it for Durban people. And there was kwaito before we started doing music. I felt it was tribalist and provincialist.
“There was a point when people were only working with Durban artists. They didn’t want to feature other artists. That was bad because we needed that competition. That’s why now you see us working together [with people from other places]. There was too much excitement in the beginning and we didn’t see that it would kill us in the long run.”
Professor, a poetic figure whose involvement with Kalawa Jazmee (South Africa’s premier independent dance music label) dates back to the 1990s, currently occupies a pre-eminent position in South Africa as a vocalist. Current, his famous collaboration with kwaito producer Mandla Spikiri, dates back about seven years and displays his mastery of the then nascent Durban template. Listeners and fans note his knack for situational nuance and, lately, a taste for the odd double entendre. Besides being the prototypical lyricist, Professor can also be a benevolent figure, extending a helping hand to struggling homeboys.
L’vovo recounts how Professor phoned him out of the blue with a beat that would eventually become the biggest song off L’vovo’s new album, The Headmaster. “This was the first time I had taken a beat from Kalawa,” he said of the Maphorisa and Clap track they shaped into Palesa. “I just loved that beat. Prof said: ‘I want us to work with this beat.’ I could definitely feel its vibe, so I said: Prof, are you sure you’re giving me this beat? He said: ‘The beat is yours.’ I blessed it and he blessed it. You know how well the song is doing.”
The story L’vovo’s tells is a personal tale about a girl who would not settle down with him. He mourns the one that got away with a typical sense of detachment and the presence of Professor completes the song with pitch-perfect, lecherous scheming.
One has to concentrate to find a compelling vocal performance from the star of the show on this, his sixth album. The release is laden with guests who, in the case of Brickz and Professor, steal the host’s thunder. On some tracks he fares better, though. LOL, about a prospective weekend special, is infectious, mainly because of a nifty little call-and-response hook. On Lavo, bouncy synths and the presence of PRO, Zakwe and Danger seem to galvanise L’vovo’s energy levels because he turns in a decent performance. Izolo, another propulsive track featuring pretty standard synth arrangements, is another example of how he can excel when given just the right beat. But the more one listens to L’vovo’s music, the more one realises that his appeal lies outside the studio.
On October 26, flanked by his hype man Faraday, L’vovo took to the stage at MTV Base’s Live Urban Smooth Sessions at Melrose Arch. Up against two South African crooners, the house-inflected style of Donald and the Nguni R&B of Afro’traction, one wondered how L’vovo would fare, because he appeared like something of a comeback kid, having pretty much sat out 2011. As it turned out, he emerged on top. Dressed in a tight-fitting salmon-coloured T-shirt, a matching unbent trucker cap and what one would call skinny jeans were it not for his Santa Claus physique, L’vovo tore through Palesa, Inamandla (a track from his 2010 collaboration with DJ Tira’s Afrotainment stable, Irresistable) and the Monwa and Son-evoking EzakwaDerrango. Drenched in buckets of sweat from executing choreographed moves with a commitment beyond the constraints of his weight, L’vovo was in his element, stopping just short of the deprecating moves of overweight dancehall fixture Skyjuice.
At some point during the propulsive house-kwaito mashup of Palesa, an androgynous, plus-sized figure made its way from the back of the crowd to the front of the stage, making a point of dancing approvingly to the song. It is this magnetism, a mixture of minstrelsy and down-home affability that kept him a fixture on the Durban scene for the better part of the past six years, even as sales wavered after his overwhelming platinum-plus debut album, Derrango.
In a sense one can understand L’vovo’s constant scramble for relevance. Because Durban kwaito is essentially politically incorrect party music in which fat wallets and virility are interchangeable and women are spoken of and not to, the Darwinist themes espoused in the music tend to mirror life in the genre itself. Longevity and stability rests with those who control access to production (think Bantwini or DJ Tira) and those who have mastered the art of saying nothing and everything simultaneously (Professor).
For L’vovo, this means looking after his family’s fleet of taxis and growing Derrango Records and Entertainment, a company that does events at university campuses and nurtures young artists keen on the music industry.
“After being under Zakes I decided to grow on my own — to understand what’s happening in the music industry,” he said of his self-reliance of the past few years. “I needed to believe in myself again, to believe in my capacity, to believe that what I was doing was the best and not to depend on other people. There were albums that hadn’t done well and I changed my style to fast beats, which wasn’t my style. I decided I was going back to Bayang’sukela. I couldn’t cope.”
Even though the Durban style continues to influence kwaito, L’vovo feels that the scene has hit a ceiling as an industry. “There aren’t as many artists as you need to grow an industry. You’ve got Professor, L’vovo, Big Nuz, Bha, T’zozo, Tira, Bongz, Zakes, Siyanda, Cndo,” he said, noting that most of those names are DJs. “So it can’t be a movement if there are only a few artists. We need to recruit more.”
For now, though, L’vovo is dancing his way back to the centre of the circle, even if it’s only for one summer.
L’vovo’s new album The Headmaster (Derrango Records) is out now