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Future sounds mine the past

About 15km outside Kimberley in the Northern Cape is a place called Platfontein. This is where members of two Bushman tribes – the !Xun and the Khwe from Angola and Namibia – were settled at the end of 2004, according to the South African San Institute.  

Although contemporary life has obviously had an impact on their culture, which stretches back for some 20 000 years, some of their traditions have  been preserved through their rituals and music, as globally renowned local artist Spoek Mathambo found out.

Mathambo, whose real name is Nthato Mokgata, recently set out on a journey to discover indigenous African sounds to fuse into his own music, which has often been described as "Afro-futurism". The starting point was this rural community.

"My interest from the beginning was to explore," he says. "After so much time travelling around the world and experiencing other people's cultures, [this was an opportunity] to get into what's always been happening at home."

Mokgata says Vodafone, under its  Global Firsts initiative, rang him up to ask what project he wanted to do. The initiative, according to Vodafone, is partly "focused on the ambitions of individuals from around the world to do something amazing for the first time". 

"This has been a plan of mine for a long time. It's what I wanted to do for my next album, collaborating with different people," Mokgata says.

In the video for his latest musical pilgrimage, Mokgata can be seen among members of the Platfontein Bushman communities. Men, women and children dressed in traditional attire, perform, as Mokgata and his colleagues pick up the sounds they are making on a device that transmits them back to a studio in Johannesburg where the artist's producers are waiting to receive and mix it.

Mokgata's interest in the traditional sounds of the Bushman people was first sparked by !Ngubi Tietie's music. Tietie is a Bushman musician whose album The Bushmen of the Kalahari was released in the early 2000s. 

But the pilgrimage did not stop in Platfontein; Mokgata and his team also went to KwaZulu-Natal. Mokgata is a huge fan of maskandi music, which traces its origins to the province. 

"I got to work with [maskandi star] Phuzekhemisi some time ago. I'm just a huge fan of his. He came and he was like: 'Wow, you're a fan of my music?' and he was super humble. 

"What I've always liked about him is that he is brave, he is not afraid to challenge convention and even government."

Phuzekhemisi, whose real name is Zibokwakhe Mnyandu, is known for his politically charged lyrics and unmistakable guitar rhythms that have made him a maskandi superstar and one of the the genre's most legendary artists. 

Early in his career, back in the 1990s, Phuzekhemisi was responsible for hits such as Imbizo (Conference) and Amakhansela (Councillors), both of which take traditional and state leadership to task on undelivered promises. 

Mokgata himself is no stranger to political commentary or at least to touching on the subject, having released an album called My Machine Gun, a title that takes the mickey out of President Jacob Zuma's infamous Um'shini Wami song.

"The story I wanted to tell about KwaZulu-Natal is just how rich the culture is as far as the guitar goes," he says, adding that he has upcoming projects with Mnyandu's son Thulasizwe, whose work Mokgata obviously admires. "Thulasizwe's style is quite different. The texture! He brings something else. You can tell his influence is quite wide. He is around my age and it was great just to hang and be fellow musicians."

In a world where being truly original is quite rare, with artists sampling music from bygone eras to influence new sounds, perhaps tapping into indigenous music that is largely ignored by South African youth puts Mokgata miles ahead of his peers as he seeks to challenge what he calls "the perception of what South African music really is".

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