​What does foreign validation of SA music really count for?

Spoek Mathambo performing at Bassline in Newtown, Johannesburg, in 2013. (Kevin Sutherland, Gallo)

Spoek Mathambo performing at Bassline in Newtown, Johannesburg, in 2013. (Kevin Sutherland, Gallo)

Last Thursday, an event in Johannesburg, the name of which told you everything and nothing you needed to know about it: “Subterranean Wavelength Presents: Polarity Prism EP”. The hosts, Subterranean Wavelength, are a purposefully underground-as-possible collective or label of Johannesburg-based beatmakers. The music being launched was Polarity Prism, an EP by a sister duo of producer-vocalists Nandi and Nongoma Ndlovu, who make up Kajama.

Nothing here hints at expecting a massive reception, but the tide of attention afforded to the sisters’ soulful blend of electronic and organic music has been swelling.
The week before, for example, the United Kingdom’s Fact magazine premiered a Spoek Mathambo single featuring Kajama and his band Fantasma, piquing the interest of “in the know” trendsetters globally, including those in South Africa. It’s a cycle we’ve seen before.

In 2012, British underground producer and tastemaker Kode9 visited Cape Town and facilitated a similar moment. Kode9 was one of those who had been DJing long enough for pivotal changes in musical direction to be inevitable.

He began DJing disco and funk in 1991 — both currencies that would depreciate quickly. Jungle music is where he made a name, but as even that moved out, Kode9 became something of a nomad whose moves were watched as signs of the times. And so here he was, in Cape Town, playing his latest infatuation to a room full of wide-eyed, enthusiastic types. I nearly fell over when Mujava’s Township Funk came out of those speakers.

Mujava had gained notoriety with the now classic Pretoria house track, and then promptly disappeared from the country’s musical radar. Years later his story would finally be told as a part of Lebogang Rasethaba and Spoek Mathambo’s Future Sounds of Mzansi documentary, spurring a late career resurgence, touring with the collaborator on that track, DJ Spoko.

Spoek was also in the band Fantasma with Spoko at the time, playing a role in music similar to that of Kode9’s, as the consummate taste-maker. Spoko and Mujava had had their own pockets of success, but by shining the international spotlight afforded to him and offering a context for their art — Spoek let both of their styles breathe into the lives of many more people — many of them hip music nerds within the “cutting edge” of the documented portions of electronic music culture.

It’s a part Spoek plays with aplomb. His new single I Found You features Kajama and when it made it on to the internet, was immediately picked up by Fact, which gushed over the sisters’ performance. This, combined with their serial underappreciation locally, will raise questions about what it takes to authenticate music, especially music with left-field appeal, or from marginalised sectors of the music industry.

“It sounds a lot like some UK Funky tunes,” Kode9 said in describing Township Funk — somehow feeling the need to contextualise this music from Pretoria’s townships in terms of a British subgenre to legitimise it (which worked like a charm, by the way). I’ll admit to feeling superior to everyone in the room who was nodding unthinkingly, hearing the song. The guilt came later, when I had to admit that I knew the song but had never taken it seriously.

It’s a tale I’ve heard so many times — South Africans needing to hear their own music given to them by foreigners before they appreciate it. The sentiment wouldn’t draw too much ire if said out loud in a crowded night club. Those saying it, though, are often as guilty as they are momentarily lifted by the implied superiority of the position. The truth often resists simplicity.

When South African gqom producers first started doing the rounds in the UK press, the music was, funnily enough, often accompanied by quotes from Kode9 and Spoek collaborator Jumping Back Slash. Think pieces popped up decrying the music’s selling to South Africans via these foreign channels — slamming probably everyone who would have been in that crowd in Cape Town that day, for whom a Brit’s thumbs-up qualified a local artist’s music worth.

What this approach is missing,  though, is the thousands of non-Fact magazine-reading, Kode9-idolising local fans of the music in its cities of origin — and how these fans were won over. When considering this narrative of artists supposedly only being won over after an international endorsement, it’s important to recognise who those endorsements reach and not to implicitly raise the importance of their attention.

If Mujava, for instance, had thousands of fans in South Africa before touring abroad, and only hundreds more afterwards, who does the fault lie with, if anybody?

My sin in this case was apparent — having already heard and disregarded his music until the end. I could argue preference and changing tastes if pressed, but that would be facetious. The recontextualising of the music as “UK funky-ish” worked on me too — and in no small part a result of a sort of Afro-pessimism in my younger days. Mujava’s hard work at winning local fans at the time was lost on me — and therein lies the key.

Kajama have been decidedly underground in their posturing thus far — aiming for cult reverence as opposed to a widespread appeal. When their music finds its way to us via tastemakers such as Spoek, it’s probably part of the design. From all evidence available so far through a handful of compelling performances and a pair of singles of their own, their EP will be worth its weight in gold, and propel them forward as an act.

Only time will tell who their success should be attributed to, but at least some South Africans whose interest is piqued, are watching in anticipation because of some external validation.

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