Brand new classics

Bongo Maffin’s new album brings together the old and the new in South African music – and could well be the next big thing. They speak to Maria McCloy speaks to the group

The legendary Miriam Makeba’s 1950s hit Pata Pata was the last thing I thought I’d hear getting heavy rotation on radio or witness sweating up dancefloors around South Africa in 1997. And one really can’t help but wonder what the hell four funky Jo’burg twentysomethings called Bongo Maffin are doing lifting Makeba’s tune – or singing their own version of The Eagles’ 1970s soft rock hit Hotel California – on their new album, The Final Entry. Then again, there’s something different about Bongo Maffin.

Anyone listening to the radio right now is probably getting sick of remakes a la the Fugees’s Roberta Flack original Killing Me Softly or the hip-hop producers sampling everything from David Bowie’s Let’s Dance to Diana Ross’s Upside Down. It’s a very Nineties thing, taking Eighties hits, sampling or covering them and feeding them to a new audience.

So I guess it’s only natural that local groups would do the same. Who could forget Skeem’s Waar Was Jy? that took people back to the Eighties with references to hits like Chaklas Chaklas, Korobella or Weekend Special? And Letta Mbulu says she digs the 1997 version of her 1985 hit Nomalizo, by Dee Dee, which reached number three on Radio Metro’s charts.

But Bongo Maffin have reached way back to the Fifties, taken Makeba’s Pata Pata, given it new life and called it Makeba. Their youth, audience and influences ensure that they add something funky to the song – completely new beats, new lyrics and elements of ragga and rap. The song, like Hotel Kali, hasn’t been murdered. It works.

And Makeba, who has inspired countless artists, thinks so too. “I’m quite honoured that they sang my song. I don’t know who the girl is, but she’s singing it very nicely and they’ve got their own rap and so on, it’s nice … It’s an acknowledgement that they like what you do,” she said when she heard the CD. At first she was surprised “because you know there’s this thing that we’re called the oldies. I didn’t think they’d appreciate the music of the oldies.” Perhaps the strongest indication of how the song has crossed eras is that Makeba’s grandaughter likes it – and the very young kids in the Makeba household were dancing about to the song too. Makeba commented: “Every one of us had someone who inspired us … I’d like to meet them. Tell them I say thank you.”

Sitting in ragga rapper Apple Seed’s Hillbrow flat before they’re off to a bash in Transkei, the band explain their reasons for the remakes. “The old school need to be given the respect they deserve,” says vocalist Thandiswa. Rapper Stoan adds that part of the appeal of doing Makeba was that, like everyone, they’d heard the classics; they’ve also been told stories about Sophiatown’s style and vibe, about “how phat the shebeens were”. With Janet Jackson using Sophiatown imagery in her latest video and what Thandiswa describes as the “pseudo-African” style of Nu-Soul Queen Erykah Badu, Thandiswa feels that “if we didn’t do it, they’d do it. We want to own our Africanness.”

Stoan sees Bongo Maffin’s generation as one that “cannot deny we’ve been influenced by America and Europe, but at the same time we have our own culture and we’re hooked to the Internet too”. And, as he says, if this “African renaissance” is to work, it must also be driven by youth. He questions the South African selection at the 1997 Kora All Africa Music Awards, which didn’t include any youth- culture element, unless you think rave poppers QKumba Zoo count.

But in their baggy-ass jeans and fondness for Tommy Hilfiger gear and Kangol hats, the accusation that they are Americand clones has been thrown at the group. Yet their music is a fusion of all that local kids listen to: a ragga element and local house in the remixes; lots of R’n’B and hip-hop in the redone version of last year’s breakthrough tune Summa Tym – and, aside from English, they also sing in Zulu and rap in Setswana. In Makeba Apple Seed does a ragga verse in Shona.

In 1996 Bongo Maffin recorded their first album, Leaders of D’gong. Thandiswa did backing vocals on that album as well as for Brothers Of Peace, but only became a group member around two months ago.

Though they, like the rest of their record stable Kalawa, classify their music as d’gong (as opposed to Arthur’s 999, who call their local dance product kwaito), the two new singles have not gone the easily marketable dance route. Hotel Kali, the song they found hardest to master, is a slow jam, and though Makeba is uptempo, it’s not at all like the usual stuff.

Unlike many local acts who are carried by one talented frontperson, Bongo Maffin all have skills. Which is probably why Hugh Masekela used Stoan and Apple Seed on his latest album and why the group feature on Ntokozo’s new album. And yes, that was Stoan on Mango Groove’s Eat a Mango, and Apple Seed on Wendy Mseleku’s Never Forget. Before this Apple Seed was DJing and chanting along to ragga tracks in Zimbabwe, Stoan was best known as a dancer for Thebe, and singer Speedy was in hip-hop group Intimate. Thandiswa (her dad is Enterprise editor Thami Mazwai) was lead singer in Jacknife.

As in any group of friends, there’s a lot of lighthearted dissing and laughter that goes on between them, but there’s also support and the kind of debate that I wish they’d add to their lyrics (which currently focus on fun and love). Like Speedy’s response to one local rapper’s assertion that Speedy punked out by leaving hip-hop for d’gong, he dismisses this. “Fine I punked out, but I’m paying my own rent and not depending on my parents, that’s how punked out I am.”

The “sexism in music” debate causes fireworks between the three boys and one girl. Divas like Boom Shaka’s Lebo and Abashante’s Queen have always given local music its spice, but stables like 999 and Kalawa still remain boys clubs – and the women members have seldom said anything about sexist lyrics. So what does Thandiswa think of the sexist-as-hell lyrics on some of the products of stablemates Thebe and Brothers of Peace? “I think the total disrespect for women is bullshit.” But this sister has no problem with her Bongo Maffin brothers: “I would not work with sexist men.” And she’s not homophobic either.

Not sexist, but they are sexy – though they’re moving away from the shiny hot pants and exaggerated hip-gyration appeal. As the fly boys bounce around her in their shades and gear by local designer Preston van Wyk, Thandiswa, in her leather trousers and jacket, represents a new kind of female singer: instead of showing flesh she stresses African pride and beauty, wearing a turban and Xhosa make-up on stage.

With Boom Shaka having left Kalawa, it’s evident the label is going to push Bongo Maffin as their new golden group. So is it true that their new singles Hotel Kali and Makeba were actually meant for Boom Shaka?

No, they say. Besides, if Boom Shaka had worked on the same songs, their lyrics, delivery and flavour would be very different to what Bongo Maffin came up with. Apple Seed sums it up: “Everyone gets a time to blossom, and now it’s our turn.”

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