The opening song on Jo’burg-based duo Radio 123’s debut EP is an anomaly. Vocalist Simangaliso Mfula croons with a swaggering drawl, his vocals drenched in reverb. They are accompanied by a trumpet played by the other half of Radio 123, Nyameko Nkondlwane, and an incessant bassline that’s sitting under high-time hi hats and 808 snares now synonymous with trap music.
“That thing happened by mistake, man,” says Mfula. “The song, when it started you could tell this is a band sound. Then the 808 drums started playing but in the same BPM, and it sounded cool, and we thought let’s keep it, it sounds cool.”
Before the first minute of the song, which is called Manga Manga, elapses, the computerised drums die out and are replaced by robust live drums.
“We also like trap music,” Mfula continues. “We feel like the force is unstoppable. We relate with a lot of stories rappers talk about, so we thought it would be cool to mix that Eighties vibe and trap in the same song.”
Such is the sound of Radio 123, which is displayed on the Manga Manga EP. It blends the duo’s individual influences — it’s part 1980s rock ’n roll and part 21st-century electronica with the personality of a South African millennial sprinkled over it.
It still manages to be minimal, as has always been the aim for the two long-time friends, who grew up in Vosloorus but are originally from the Eastern Cape. Mfula is from Sterkspruit and Nkondlwane is from Gcuwa (Butterworth).
The duo were part of the group Impande Core, which was a staple in the Jo’burg live music scene in the mid-2000s. Though Impande Core was known for more and complex chord progressions and song structures, Radio 123 aims for simplicity.
The two guys recall coming up with some of the songs while still part of Impande Core.
“Those days, everyone was depressed,” says Nkondlwane. “We used to chill at the Drill Hall starving, hung over, other people sleeping there.
“This other day, I took the guitar, played the chords and he started singing along. So it started as just a guitar and vocals song. But n*ggas weren’t feeling this joint.”
“The group [favoured] complicated song changes,” Mfula recalls. “But this one was simple. It’s a pop progression. And it freed our minds; it made us feel good.
“So rather do a song right now that makes you feel good, rather than try do a song that has five changes, and when you get those changes you’re still depressed.”
Those were the last days of Impande Core. As the members got a bit older and some became parents, the pressure to make money grew, and music was not lucrative.
“So we parted ways,” says Nkondlwane, “but me and him thought there is nothing else we can do, we have no other choice, this must work.”
Three years ago, when Radio 123 was formed, they approached Tshepang Ramoba from the BLK JKS to show them the way. He recruited them to his music imprint POST POST Production.
“We respected him and knew he was open-minded and wasn’t just about one specific sound,” Mfula says. “We told him, we wanted to do this sound, it’s drum and bass, and not drum ’n bass the genre, but literally we wanted drums and bass and then add vocals and a trumpet, no keys, no nothing, and he understood that.”
They christened their genre Mandela pop. Apart from their veneration of the struggle hero, the duo believe their music is a depiction of an ideal South Africa.
“We also got tired of not knowing what to call our music,” says Mfula, “because we play different sounds and we were, like, how about we call it Mandela pop? Because we’re South African, two Xhosa boys, and we relate a lot with Mandela, and just how cool he was.
“It’s the sound of liberation, freedom and peace. Hippie shit.”
But in the South Africa we live in, Mandela’s saviour status is slowly being diminished, and the freedom and peace associated with him is a farce to many black South Africans. The artists are fully aware of this.
“There are so many views about uTata. Others say he sold us out, you know,” Nkondlwane says and pauses before continuing: “The way we see it is this thing is a relay. He wasn’t the return of the Christ, to wash away all evils. But he managed to put us in a position where we can relate to the opposition in a better way without blood being spilled. The rest is up to us.”
He says that, through their music, they are subtly telling their listeners that love is the solution. “We have our issues and don’t always get along but there are things that unite us. So we believe that our kids will take it from where we leave it,” he says.
Manga Manga is indeed a pack of four happiness pills with love as the focal point.
The title track is a tongue-in-cheek swipe at liars. Mapakisha is a cute love song with comical lines like: “Nunu, Mama Mia, Mapakisha, uyismomondiya, iikhiya z’ka Alicia.” In Nomathemba, a woman who seems hurt is being promised to be healed by love and affection. Thando, the lead single also included on the soundtrack of the 2017 Samad Davis movie Love by Chance, is reminiscent of Outkast, with a skittering drum loop and light-hearted lyrics about the infectious nature of love.
All four songs of the EP would be perfectly at home on the heavy rotation percentile of a major radio station playlist but, similar to the idea of the South Africa that the duo model their music around, mainstream music media is complicated and full of challenges. Radio play hasn’t been easy to come by for Radio 123. Rather, live performances have been the main outlet in getting their music to people’s ears. They have performed at festivals including Oppikoppi, Back to the City, Afropunk Johannesburg and Primavera Pro in Barcelona.
They recall performing in high schools and smaller venues. “This whole thing of playing in a tavern opened my mind,” remembers Nkondlwane. “Even in this one high school, there’s a song called Puppet Show that the kids loved. So I realised that we are quick to rule out that people will reject this thing without even trying. So it would be nice if we take this EP to taverns, because we must take the music to the people. If radio won’t play it, we must take it to the people ourselves.”