I met Wills Glasspiegel over a game of pool at the Bohemian, Richmond’s grungy live music haven. I can’t even remember if we had been there to see a band or not. It was December of 2009 and that glazed Highveld holiday spirit had hit Johannesburg with a force.
Glasspiegel, with greying curly hair and a light beard, was dressed in black jeans and a plaid shirt. He was eyeing his host, BLK JKS drummer Tshepang Ramoba, who had been cleaning up on the pool table after a bunch of us challengers had fallen by the wayside.
An artist manager and producer back in his native New York, Glasspiegel was in South Africa to do a radio documentary on world-renowned ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey, who had collected and archived music from Southern and Central Africa for more than 50 years.
Chiawelo Dance (Paul Botes, M&G)
An extra bonus was that Glasspiegel was getting to hang out with the BLK JKS, whom he had met at the South by South West music festival in Austin, Texas, earlier in the year.
But the BLK JKS and the documentary were not the only things on Glasspiegel’s agenda.
When he first met Ramoba, they started a conversation about the similarities between Sierra Leone’s Bubu music and the music of South Africa’s Limpopo province, particularly from the town of Giyani. To make his point, Ramoba got a friend in Johannesburg to upload some video clips of Shangaan songs to YouTube so that he could show Glasspiegel what he was talking about. Glasspiegel went nuts.
“I loved it,” he told me over the phone from New York. “I showed it to some friends and they freaked out. Something resonated with the direction of new music in my immediate culture here in Brooklyn.”
The other mission on his trip: To find that Shangaan music — called Tsonga music by some — with the aim of getting it released internationally. But first he’d have to find out where to go for the goods.
Dog and the Tshe-Tsha Boys
Richard Mthetwa, aka Nozinja, aka Dog, is a 41-year-old record producer and reluctant recording artist, whose label is credited with revolutionising the sounds of Shangaan music. His first album, released in 2003, was a collection by Shadrack Masinge, also known as Mancingelani.
“I said, guys, this is the 21st century, we need to leave the guitar behind and revolutionise this music,” Nozinja told me recently when I visited him in Soweto. “We need to change the bass — let’s play the bass with marimba on the keyboard and let’s lose the guitar.”
It wasn’t until he recorded a song called Tshetsha, which Nozinja composed after witnessing a style of dance by the same name back in his hometown of Giyani, for a new album with DJ Choir, that he hit pay dirt.
“People went bezerk,” says Nozinja. “That song became the national song of Shangaani; everyone went crazy for it.”
After that, Nozinja’s label took off. He put together a band called the Tshe-Tsha Boys, made up of his sons and their friends dressed in clown outfits. “I was targeting the kids market, like McDonald’s,” says Nozinja. “I thought, once I’ve grabbed the kids, I can grab the parents and I’m in.”
But the outfits worn by the Tshe-Tsha Boys are hardly child-friendly. With a selection of clown and skeleton masks, and pillows shoved inside bright orange overalls, the characters have a slightly deformed look. And when they show off their dance moves — which involve a lot of wriggling and jerky movements — they look especially bizarre. “When you see them dance you feel like they have got no bones,” says Nozinja.
Zombie Shangaan dance party indeed. And one on the verge of an international explosion.
A partnership is formed
It was a random find. While on the hunt for the source of the music, Glasspiegel and Ramoba found a cellphone number on the back of a Tshe-Tsha Boys DVD — they found Nozinja on the other end of the line.
When they arrived at Nozinja’s Soweto studio, they showed him the videos — the same ones of the Tshe-Tsha Boys that Ramoba’s buddy had uploaded to YouTube earlier in the year. By that time it had been viewed more than one million times.
Nozinja was dumbstruck. “What if those were sales?” he muttered.
Ramoba and Glasspiegel put their proposal forward to license tracks for a compilation but Nozinja was wary.
“I thought they were fly-by-night guys who were telling me all kinds of stories,” Nozinja said. “I did give them hassles because I didn’t believe them. I said guys, people come from overseas and take our music and you never hear from them again.” But a contract was inked just before Glasspiegel’s return flight to New York.
A few days before he left, he popped into my flat for a listening session. Over those many games of pool a few weeks before, when he told me about his quest, I was astounded that a hipster from New York was so captivated by this music — but also really chuffed because I had, a few years before, laid my hands on a collection of about 10 or so vinyl records, released between 1978 and 1990, that had the tag Shangaan Disco stamped on them.
The records had fascinated me — the fast-driving rhythms, the call-and-response vocals. It was like mbaqanga on high doses of speed. Names such as General MD Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters, Samson Khosa and the Giyani Disco Queens, Samson Mthombeni and the Gazankulu Sisters, and Elias Baloyi and the Mamba Queens had become a regular part of my listening habits.
General Shirenda (Paul Botes, M&G)
Glasspiegel sat on the floor of my lounge that December devouring the sounds and staring intently at the record covers. But he was confused. This sound was very different from the Tshe-Tsha Boys. It was not the Shangaan music that he knew.
Culture as high art
On July 6 2010 Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music from South Africa was released to rave reviews on the Honest Jons label. Influential website Pitchfork.com gave it 8.3 out of 10; Popmatters proclaimed it “temporally pre-occupying, dazzlingly confusing, thrillingly insistent and utterly possessive”. Online music retailer Boomkat noted: “Ask us about Shangaan Electro a week ago and we’d ask you to speak slower; ask us this week and we’ll rave about one of the most astounding records we’ve heard this year.”
I asked Glasspiegel if it seemed bizarre to him that hipsters were dancing to this music in clubs in New York and London. “Yes and no,” he said. “Which is the point – that someone in a small studio in South Africa could be at the forefront of what people who supposedly have access to everything are seeking. It’s just fascinating that the development of Shangaan traditional music could somehow align with the development of more mainstream and Western indie music. It’s like meeting someone who has a lot of the same ideas and ideals as you, but they’ve gotten to that place from an independent perspective.
“Shangaan electro has a retro charm without being retro. Similarly, the videos are psychedelic but it’s not trying to be psychedelic. This isn’t just music from a hermetically sealed studio in Times Square; this is a people and a culture. It’s culture as high art.”
Top international DJs Radioclit’s recent Club Secousse compilation features a track by the Tshe-Tsha Boys. In the liner notes, Etienne Tronn writes: “Some say dance music was born in the 1970s New York disco scene, others talk about those famous German robots — Over the last few years it became clear that this trance-inducing, percussive music could be traced straight back to the African continent – and that this culture was flourishing there more than anywhere else.”
But the Shangaan Electro compilation is taking the music where it’s never gone before. In June 2011 Nozinja is taking the Tshe-Tsha Boys on tour to New York, London and Amsterdam. Shangaan music has finally gone global.
A trip to Giyani
But all I kept thinking about, ever since that night when Glasspiegel had sat on the floor of my lounge, was that he had not been able to see the link between those artists from Giyani on my old vinyls and Nozinja’s Shangaan Electro.
So I decided to head to Giyani, five hours north of Johannesburg, near the Kruger National Park in Limpopo province with a handful of village names and some telephone numbers I managed to scramble together from some music contacts.
Number one on the hit list: General MD Shirinda, the composer of one of the most famous Shangaan songs known outside of South Africa, I Know What I Know. Well, at least that’s what Paul Simon called it when he recorded it in the mid-Eighties for his Grammy award-winning album, Graceland.
I called the General from a Shell petrol station in the centre of Giyani. After some difficult negotiations, because of the language barrier, and some very kind assistance from a petrol attendant, I found my way to Shirinda’s village.
When I arrived at the family homestead, the 74-year-old came out to greet me with a beaming smile and a hint of the naughty boyhood persona. Introducing me to his six wives, Shirinda was ever the showman — the entire visit felt like it was being stage-managed by a man who had spent years building his legacy.
A few of his wives unloaded a large white bakkie, while others crowded around a potjie on an open fire. Children sat in the shade of the network of buildings that made up the homestead, or played football in the distance. A blast of music streamed out of a nearby edifice where, we were told, the General’s son, Ndongwe, a music producer and engineer, was busy recording a local gospel group.
The General held court in a small room, resplendent in his leopard-skin traditional garb and a pair of khaki shorts, two intricately carved walking sticks by his side.
Shangaan music is all about the changing rhythms, he told me and he sees himself as the Shangaan guitar pioneer. It’s a pretty accurate depiction. It was only after Shirinda that Samson Mthombeni and William Makhubela emerged, followed by Elias Baloyi, George Maluleke and Thomas Chauke, the current king of Shangaan guitar.
Shirinda began playing in his youth, first learning to play the mbira. Back then, he said, Shangaan music was only played with the bongos and other traditional instruments, including the xitende, a long, thin bow strung with a taut leather thong or wire, and the fayi, a small, stubby wood flute.
“Before Shangaan music had bass and drums they used to play it slow, then it got faster with electric instruments,” said Shirinda.
It wasn’t until 1958, at the age of 22, that he got his hands on his first guitar. “I was the one who introduced the combination of rhythm guitar, bass guitar, lead guitar, keyboard, alto saxophone, flute and drums into Shangaan music.”
His first record was produced in 1961. Since then his band has produced more than 100 recorded songs. But what I wanted to know was what the General thought about Shangaan Electro. “I respect everyone who makes Shangaan music. But they must learn how to play guitar and not rely too much on these technologies,” he said, referring to the use of keyboards and computers in the new music.
Then, as if almost conceding defeat, “If people like the new Shangaan music, then it is its time.”
The next generation
Later that day, I spoke with Ndongwe Shirinda about his dad. “The older musicians learnt to compose with guitar,” he said. “Nowadays we start with creating a beat on the computer. The audience that listens to the new Shangaan music are people from five years old to 35 years old. Today, most of the people I am making music for want music they can dance to.
“My father composes songs as lessons on how to live. But myself, I don’t have all that life experience. My main focus is on making people dance.”
He tells me that in the old days the music was intertwined with Shangaan spirituality and religious beliefs and that the music was used as parables to warn people about life’s evils, encouraging them to stay on the straight and narrow; the new electronic music talks about dancing, drinking and love.
Nozinja and his label of new Shangaan stars are an urban phenomenon, a product of Chiawelo, a suburb in Soweto that is commonly referred to as a suburb of Giyani.
There, where Shangaan music exists in a world of other pop culture phenomenon, it stands its ground among kwaito, house, Afro-pop and hip-hop.
It seems these changes to Shangaan music are merely a reflection of urbanisation, much in the same way that Shirinda and his peers turned what was essentially traditional music into pop music by adding electric guitar, bass and drums.
Before I left, the General held an impromptu performance in the yard. With just his voice and that of his wives and the primal blues quality of his guitar, I tried to imagine Shangaan people sitting around playing songs around a fire hundreds of years ago. And I wondered. What would the ancestors think of Shangaan Electro?
Losing the message
The next morning we found Thomas Chauke busy at work mixing his new album. His house is the largest in the village of Saselamani just outside Giyani. On the wall hang numerous awards for platinum-selling albums and next to the window looking down into the sound booths are three South African Music Awards.
Chauke, who is 57, made his own tin guitar with nylon fishing line when he was 11. Inspired by Shirinda and Mthombeni, he began to develop his own unique guitar style, getting his big break in Johannesburg in 1980.
We talked about the history of Shangaan music and the new electronic music and I asked him about the abandonment of the guitar. “There’s no guitar on the music?” Chauke asked me. I nodded. “Well, then I think it’s not music. The youth today like to dance in a very fast way, that’s why the musicians today like to play faster,” said Chauke. “This music is disposable, because in three months you don’t like it, you want another song.”
While in Giyani, I tracked down other legendary Shangaan guitarists who all expressed similar sentiments.
Makhubela and Khosa both bemoaned the fact that the spirituality or “the message” was being lost. “We were playing music for the message that we were passing on,” said Makhubela. “The younger people are playing music for money.”
Said Khosa: “These new songs can make you dance, but there is no message. But with our music, the message was good, to help people with life.”
I thought back to that chat I had with Ndongwe. This was about a major change in the music of a people. But it was also about a changing way of life.
Chiawelo’s dance competition
A week after I returned from Giyani, I headed to Chiawelo, the predominately Shangaan suburb of Soweto, to witness the last Shangaan dance competition of the year.
I had some rough directions but didn’t really know what to expect. Driving up a side road, I got to a place where the road was blocked off by cars. Loud Shangaan Electro was blaring from a mega soundsystem. More than a thousand people of every age were drinking, dancing and having fun. An MC announced the groups of three or four dancers along with their tracks and the DJ took it away.
The teams were randomly joined by drunken audience members who could no longer contain their urge to dance. There was no winner — the dance-offs are mostly used by music producers to debut new recordings and gauge the audience reaction.
Nozinja once told me that, when the crowd goes crazy for a new song, he gets the CD from the DJ and breaks it right then and there because he knows he has a hit.
I sat back soaking in the full experience, making friends with local punters and enjoying the incredible speed and skill showed by the dancers as they let it all hang out. And as I sat there on that crate in the sun, I thought about Wills Glasspiegel and the fact that it took a white hipster from New York to show me that something this fantastic was taking place in my own home town.