By the time I drag Durban kwaito celebrity DJs Tira and Cndo kicking and screaming “backstage” to The Cube in upmarket Umhlanga Rocks, I have lost count of most things.
I have forgotten how many double vodkas I have gulped at the open bar, how many forkfuls of salmon nigiri I have swallowed in futile attempts at sobriety and exactly who I have interviewed since arriving.
What I do know is that I have not made any unanswered prayers to the porcelain gods and my tape recorder has already been waved away by a sneering, unimpressed Professor, who gives me the same scowl that dominates his pensive videos.
My quest for understanding the alchemy behind the icy, sometimes bass-kick heavy beats that lie at the core of the Durban kwaito sound has somehow taken me about as far uptown as one can go before wading through the stretch of sugarcane fields that comprise much of the KwaZulu-Natal north coast. And that, my friend, is anything but “urban”.
I find myself in the uppity confines of The Cube on the brink of Good Friday because MTV Base has paid my ticket. But I have my own agenda to pursue.
Later, I may have to find a creative way of weaving in something about the MTV Africa All-Stars campaign — which uses concerts across Africa and subsequent TV shows to widen the audience for African music — when I eventually do get down to writing.
But right now, with Zakes Bantwini and Afrotainment’s Big Nuz, Cndo and Tira prancing about, it is about surfing the moment.
Backstage (which is actually an underground parking lot), Tira and Cndo, the doyens of the Durban scene since day one, are giving me a five-minute, tongue-in-cheek rundown of Afrotainment’s party-till-you-flop philosophy.
I throw Cndo, one of the only female DJs in the genre, a curveball about the debauched sexual politics of the genre.
Sometimes it seems that’s what Durban kwaito is all about, I say. About guys getting to pick who they want to take home.
“That’s the part that you get to listen to properly,” she says. “My part is that of an independent woman saying: ‘Listen guys, you’re all about that, we’re all about being independent. We are women of South Africa who are working hard, who love themselves. It’s all about having fun and, at the same time, we make money, just like you guys make money. Fifty, fifty baba’.”
I turn to Tira, whose grip on the Durban’s nightlife seems to tighten with each new moon.
The diminutive, trickster-like Tira owns two venues (a suave lounge and a hard-core club), a bulging record label and has deep links (with local radio station Gagasi FM, for example) and connections that have seen him corner the Durban market over the years. He wears his trademark anticipatory grin as I shove a tape recorder in his face.
For six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years this thing’s been going and it is still going on. The music is so popular, but what is it saying? I ask, goading him. What is it saying, Tira? I insist, prodding for variation in the subject matter.
“No man, the music is just talking about the party,” he says as if taken aback by the question.
I like that you say that, but can South Africa ever only be about the party, considering where we come from?
“Actually, it’s not really all about the party,” he says. “But, you know what, we need to celebrate.”
What are we celebrating?
“Life. Life,” Cndo shouts, beating him to the punch.
Tira, as if overtaken by a spirit, half screams: “Freedom, baby! Freedom, baby!”
Not all of us have freedom, some of us are suffering, I say.
“Look,” he says, tiring of my line of questioning. “I think we [Afrotainment] bring some colour to these cloudy days of South Africa. Livelihood, my man, speed up the tempo. You know that before we arrived, the tempo was slow, neh?” He exaggerates the drawl of Trompies’ Magasman, a typical, first-wave, 90-odd-beats-per-minute track for effect. “We came and injected some energy, so now everybody is on a high. And when everybody is high, everybody is happy, ha, ha.”
I have been had and Tira is enjoying every last moment of it. For the rest of our conversation, we talk about how the music will probably scale the beats-per-minute-meter as it hops over the border “into Africa”, probably speeding past kuduro, but stopping far short of Shangaan electro.
“We want to conquer Africa,” Tira says, with a hint of seriousness. “And after that, we take it worldwide.”
He thwarts my question about what happens on Sunday morning, when the club/drug comedown sets in, with a boast about possibly opening Afro Bible Church.
“You’ve got your answer now,” Cndo says, as they disappear back into the smoking section, pleased with their backstage performance.
I must have muttered inaudibly into the tape recorder: Ja, sho. I’ve got my answer.
The great Umlazi takeover
A few days after our conversation, Tira and Big Nuz head “into Africa” — Nairobi to be precise — for the second stop of the MTV Africa All-Stars campaign. It turns out to be Big Nuz member Mampintsha’s first flight, but not before being placated by a psychologist who talked him through his fear.
The capacity gig they play at the Tree House in Nairobi features a bill of local American-style hip-hop acts such as Camp Mulla and Xtatic, alongside older fusion acts such as Madtraxx.
Big Nuz go last, with DJ Tira hopping on the decks to set up the great Umlazi takeover.
But the ultimate proof that Tira’s mission “into Africa” is going according to plan is found in MTV Base creative director Tim Horwood’s observation that if fellow hefty Durban kwaito artist L’vovo had filled in for the aerophobic Mampintsha, as he did during 2009’s MTV Africa Music Awards in Nairobi, people would have actually noticed this time. Horwood tells me that Big Nuz’s scorcher Umlilo (a song about Big Nuz as a raging fire) is big in Lagos and people do not even care what it means.
“Kwaito-type house is the next thing and it can take the opportunities that kwaito never capitalised on,” says Horwood.
But althogh the leery spectre of globalisation hangs over all this seemingly innocuous sonic miscegenation, Horwood insists that something altogether more organic is taking place, beyond the fickle flicker of minute-by-minute ratings. Something more “internally African”, he suggests, is exhorting the masses towards “celebration” as opposed to “intellectualisation”. Something more organic is shortening the distance between the Lagos of Naija star Flavour and the sprawl of Durban’s Umlazi township, from whose license plates Big Nuz got its name.
Meanwhile, around Easter in Durban, a forensic examination of the new kwaito’s DNA continues to throw up red herrings and fault lines.
In the city’s airwaves and clubs, where its purveyors are serving up increasingly nuanced variations, the genre’s features are starting to become unrecognisable, even to itself.
While some of the early architects such as Zakes Bantwini — who actually took the trouble to name this bastard child “Durban kwaito music” sometime around 2006 — speak of it as a template founded on ad-libs and spontaneous crowd participation, take away the vocals, as veteran DJ Sox says, and the “elements of electro, deep house and tribal” that have crept into the production confound you, so that “when you hear it, you would think it is international”.
“So, igqom lase Durban [the basic, hollow, slightly off-kilter Durban drum sound] has revolutionised,” Sox says later, after I dropped him a line following my inconclusive Durban trip.
“It has deep-house elements and even Jo’burg people are doing it. Like Maphorisa and Clap [a Kalawa Jazmee-production duo responsible for hits such as L’vovo and Professor’s Palesa]. Clap is from Durban and he met Maphorisa in Jo’burg. So, what used to be Durban beats, guys have taken that and made it more musical.”
The God part of the beat
But the metaphysical impact of unexpectedly walking into a DJ Sox set in the Tira-owned “house freak” haven that is Afro Fashion Lounge in Durban’s Stamford Hill district is visceral and paralysing in an epiphanic sense. This is even without Durban’s drug of choice (ecstasy, last I checked) turning one into a flooded river of libidinous intuition.
Having only rarely experienced a DJ put on an extended, seamless exhibition of breakbeats — even as I came of age around hip-hop — the most fitting description of the sensation evoked by my first entrance into the club’s hallowed halls would be Afrika Bambaata’s declaration that “the break is the God part of the beat”.
But this is not the neat and ordered mechanophilia of a sped-up Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express. The front end of American house couple Mu’s jangly, insistently cacophonous Let’s Get Sick is a closer relative.
But even with vocals, the genre is less structured than one might expect. Ask Big Nuz what we are to make of its hip-hop origins and Danger, one of the three vocalists, answers: “In actual fact, we are into music. If you check, we have a song we did with Bongani Nkwanyana [Ntombenhle, famously initiated on mash-up TV show Jam Sandwich]. It’s maskandi. We deal with music, we rap, we do gospel, kwaito. For now, we’re deep into kwaito, but we try to give our kwaito legs because we don’t want to limit it by calling it Durban kwaito.”
A psychedelic house track played by DJ Amenisto on a recent Tuesday evening on Gagasi FM makes it sound as though Big Nuz is delivering its lyrics from dicing spacemobiles.
Elsewhere, R&B-style vocalists like Joocy further complicate matters by widening the sonic palette, while veterans such as Professor show that the style can even surpass most hip-hop in terms of metaphor and wordplay.
Through albums such as University of Kalawa Jazmee and The Orientation Professor has carved a niche — in fact a genre within a genre — characterised by persistently dark, minimalist production with matching lyrics that seem to sift through the moral fibre of the nightlife as opposed to getting lost in the revelry.
Zakes Bantwini, meanwhile, has opted for primordial travels in extended groove, tipping his hat to Fela as he shakes his shoes.
Vukile Zondi, Gagasi FM’s head of marketing and programming, believes that the genre’s best years are still ahead. “For me, its gonna be interesting, it’s gonna be unpredictable, because the playing ground is becoming more and more level,” he says. “It’s much easier to make a break if you have a good team or if you’re smart. Before, there was always a reliance on getting a deal.”
But for all its manifestations of brawn and ubiquity, and its visual suggestions of upward mobility, Durban kwaito, at its stripped-down core, is getting shut out of the very clubs it once broke its way into.
Like the kwaito that spawned it, kwaito 2.0 remains, in essence, a victim of the upward mobility it yearned for.
When DJs were perfecting their Dennis Ferrer and Charles Webster mixes, and vocalists were honing their couplets, one of the people who had enough vision to facilitate it was Kgolo Temba.
Then an advertising copywriter and an event enthusiast, Temba teamed up with DJs such as Chinaman to offer a vehicle to the emerging culture. For close to half a decade in the early to late 2000s, Skyybar, which Temba ran as a promoter, was synonymous with the fledgling Durban house scene.
Full of tales gathered from at least a decade of helping brands to get up close to their target audiences, Temba says with a degree of certainty that the club culture has largely given way to new expressions of comfort.
“The nightlife has taken a knock,” he says from a leather couch in a shopping mall not far from The Cube, the venue of my vodka and sushi-roll indulgences of a few days prior, where he still promotes events.
“People now can afford better houses. They can afford to have a comfort zone. And why do guys go to a club? To get chicks, to get drinks, get them drunk, whatever it is. Now, I’ve got a hot spot, I call you and say: ‘Please organise some chicks. Come to my place. I’ve got a jacuzzi. I’ve got a garden. I’ve got a swimming pool.’
“So what’s trending now in nightlife, funnily enough, is guys chilling in hotels, in expensive hotels. They bring hot girls and they’re just there.”
Temba says that in Durban once women hit 30, they’re like: “I don’t do clubs because there’s young kids. They wear short stuff. I’m 30 years old. I’m looking to get married.”
For the younger and more affluent who find novelty in stepping beyond the velvet rope, “honestly, hip-hop has taken over,” he says.
“Exactly, the style, the swag, the whole lifestyle these guys are living. The MTV life. The Channel O life, these videos they see.
“And you know what, even a guy who doesn’t like hip-hop, the fact is that when he’s out there with the girls, the guy will say: ‘Please play hip-hop.’
“The culture has also changed from bigger dance floors to smaller dance floors. Now, we’re sitting down. People want a seat, they want a table, they want to put [down] their champagnes, their whiskies. In those days, when we were at the bars making Durban what it is, so there could even be a hype and something called Fact Durban Rocks [an annual mid-year Durban party], it was through our [body] movements.”
So, the question is: Where is the music at its most exciting, where it is unaffected by clubbing’s shift into uppity, plastic-town territory?
If you are around Durban’s city limits, the answer is seemingly limited to the wood-panelled façade of Tira’s Afro Fashion Lounge.
At places like The Yard in Umlazi, the music is more the lingua franca for navigating “urban” beats than it is the lifeblood sustaining all around it.
One would have to trawl message boards, drive around the entire KwaZulu-Natal province or accept that the genre is now an amorphous beast with a gene pool stretching beyond the narrow confines of geography to come up with an answer other than Tira.
From speaking to operators in the scene, there are other movers and shakers such as 745 Records, Touch Afrika and Loxion Records, but they don’t quite have the block sewn up like the other guy.
“More business-minded people need to get into the music industry, or the music industry needs more business-minded people,” says Zondi from Gagasi FM.
“We’ve got a whole lot of talent, but the problem is that people end up saying that only a few artists are coming through. That’s because the business side of that talent is not taken care of.”
A hip-hop associate I speak to during my blurry few days in Durban says that the scene relies too much on the infrastructure of government-sponsored gigs, radio and the muscle of the Afrotainment stable to be considered healthy and autonomous.
While that might let it coast through the lean times, it might, sooner rather than later, lead to strangulation.
Return flight and part of the accommodation in Durban for the writer was paid for by MTV Base