/ 6 April 2020

Thath’i sgubhu usfak’ es’ketchini: (Re)making theatre with Jefferson Tshabalala

Jefferson Tshabalala
Jefferson Tshabalala leans on a Kippie Moeketsi statue near Kippies, in Newtown, where he held a series of theatrical interventions titled Ama-Piece-Piece-Nyana. (Mlungisi Mlungwana)

In 1998, KingTha (then popularly referred to as Thandiswa Mazwai or Red) of the beloved music group Bongo Maffin, affirmed the idea that in kwaito music there is an intricate link between isgubhu and ingoma. This is not to say that the relationship between these two sonic elements is limited only to kwaito, however, KingTha was purposefully identifying one of the key tenets of a music genre (and culture) that some critics disregarded as inane at the time. 

This disdain is noted by Bhekizizwe Peterson in his paper, “Kwaito, ‘Dawgs’ and the Antimonies of Hustling”. In this text, he observes: “The guardians of society — often led/flanked by black adults and intellectuals — always invoke the ‘moral imperative’ when confronted with the ‘rough-sides’ of popular black youth culture. Not surprisingly, kwaito has been disparaged as being no better than its predecessor, the ‘bubble-gum’ disco music of the 1970s and 1980s. Like this phenomenon, it was also expected to be transient and have a limited shelf life. The common conservative description of kwaito is that, apart from being repetitive noise, it is ‘music with no meaning or purpose’ that glorifies ‘thuggery and self-abuse’.”

In consideration of Peterson’s reflection on the pathologisation of kwaito in the early 1990s, it becomes critical to politicise this assertion by KingTha found in Bongo Maffin’s acclaimed single Thath’ iSgubhu (from the album The Concerto), “Ubekad’ engayazi ukuthi ishaywa kanjani lengoma. Ubekad’ engayazi ukuthi ishaywa ngebhes’… ngesgubhu … Thath’ isgubhu, isgubhu us’fak’ ezozweni.”

In the universe created by Bongo Maffin and their kwaito contemporaries, isgubhu is not solely “into esamphongolo evalwe ngezikhumba nxazombili” [a cylindrical object enclosed in hide on either end] — as seen in Sibusiso Nyembezi and O. E. H.  Nxumalo’s book, Inqolobane YeSizwe — but it may also be understood as resonant sound that hits you in the gut as you are seated in the back of a thunderous Zola Budd. It is in this same space that kwaito is at the centre. It is here that Bongo Maffin orientates the listener and locates them right inside izozo — a place that epitomises the day-to-day struggles of Black, working-class people in South Africa. And it is in this marginalised place where isgubhu and ingoma meet.

So what happens when a New Brighton-born young man, who was exposed to ingoma and isgubhu seBongo Maffin, Boom Shaka, Abashante, Lebo Mathosa, Sharon Dee, Andile, Trompies, Joe Nina, Alaska, Chiskop, Skeem, TKZee and Mdu (to name just a few), takes a hold of kwaito and situates it right in the middle of his practice as an award-winning theatre-maker, director, performer, writer, poet and self-proclaimed “sketcher on the move” seen pha napha? Jefferson Tshabalala. J Bobs. J Bhoboza. Jeff. Whatever you call him, one thing is for sure — he has come to ukuhliphiza and ukubanga i-gemors in a theatre world that is known for its maintenance of the “high/low” art dichotomy. 

This is an argument that Njabulo Zwane’s honours thesis, “Thin’ekasi: Township youths’ attempts at fashioning a post-colonial/apartheid black subjectivity in Johannesburg, 1994-2004”, makes in relation to kwaito as a movement that destabilises this binary. Through sk’etching/s’ketsh’ing (a Black colloquialism that may be loosely interpreted to mean “theatre”), J Bhoboza decentres “highbrow” theatre that serves to disconnect theatre-making from everyday lived experiences. 

In this “highbrow” context, theatre is for the “cultured”. Here, theatre comes with tacit codes and conventions that may not be disrupted unless it is “allowed”. In this “setting”, you (the audience member) cannot caution Othello, “Baleka nja yami! Inamanga le-outtie engu-Iago”. And this begs the question/s, “I-waar i-play? When does the audience become izinja zegame?”

The idea of the disruption of the “fourth wall” is one that Credo Mutwa says is central to theatre-making practices in Africa. In his article “On the Theatre of Africa”, Mutwa proposes: “In a traditional African ‘umlinganiso’ the audience was deeply involved in the play from the very outset. Members of the audience could join in … but this had to be done in such a way as not to interfere with the STRUCTURE and the length of the play. The audience had to assist in the smooth flow of the play — ‘audience involvement’ was exuberant, noisy but tempered with discipline.” 

In this regard, umlinganiso — which Mutwa defines as a “living imitation” in the article “UMlinganiso: A Living Imitation” — necessitates the recognition that the audience can critically contribute to meaning-making, while maintaining the integrity of the structure of the theatre piece at hand. The deep involvement of the audience is part and parcel of umlinganiso as a performance-based praxis that takes place on an ever-shifting stage, which Mutwa refers to as ishashalazi. 

And in the case of performing eshashalazini, acting (by performers who may be “actors” and “non-actors”) does not necessarily take place in a “traditional” theatre but it may happen in a homestead (which Mutwa conceptualises to be amphitheatre-like) wherein the “stage” is literally in the centre, while those who sit around it bask in and out of its warmth. 

Mutwa’s ideas may be found in how J Bhoboza makes sense of theatre. Often, he pulls the audience out of the dominant voyeuristic (and somnambulistic) regime of looking. Here, the audience is expected to actively participate. At this place, they are understood to be spect-actors. And because Tshabalala states that he “make[s] … theatre, through kwaito”, it is no surprise that some of his shows feel like a Jam Alley set. 

Between January 8 and January 26 2020, Tshabalala presented a masterclass that he called Ama-Piece-Piece-Nyana. This event took place at Kippies, Market Theatre — a venue that, ironically, carries multiple musical Black histories that inform kwaito as a genre and a culture. And so, you can imagine walking into this previously jazz-centred space and the spect-actors are on their feet chanting “5, 4, 3, 2, your time is up, sooorrrryyyy! Tsu! Kucim’ i’ibani!” 

If you grew up watching Jam Alley every Friday evening, then you will know this expression. For the audience to say “Soooorrrryyyy”, a contestant had to display inadequate knowledge of mostly Black-centred musics and popular cultures at large. It was not the kind of “sorry” that made you a victim, but it was one that was said in jest to encourage you to immerse yourself in the creative production of Black people from all over the world. 

As both Ntombizikhona Veleko’s review of the book Born to Kwaito: Reflections on the Kwaito Generation (by Esinako Ndabeni and Sihle Mthembu) and Ntombenhle Shezi’s article, “Boom Shaka, Braids and Boom Boxes” (published in Vanguard magazine) suggest, the Jam Alley game show played a critical role in the formation of kwaito as a culture. Both Veleko and Shezi write about how Jam Alley was a launching pad for some of South Africa’s celebrated music stars. And, in many ways, Jam Alley mimicked kwaito’s ability to “reference its own history like hip-hop, jazz, and … music of African descent that came after it” (as described in Rangoato Hlasane’s article “Sghubhu Solidarities: Sonic family trees as Kwaito writing for itself”, featured in Keleketla Library’s publication Thath’i Cover Okestra Vol. 5 notes).

Although J Bobs’ Ama-Piece-Piece-Nyana was purported to be about the “shar[ing] [of] some of his experiences, ideas, formats, and concepts”, this masterclass was structured like a gameshow-cum-history lesson on kwaito. It was through a multimodal approach that J Bobs challenged the idea that kwaito is antonymous to hip-hop. As Hlasane states, the origins of kwaito are in themselves rooted in multiple forms of music which include hip hop. In many ways,  Ama-Piece-Piece-Nyana  was a reminder that Black musics and cultures are not only archival but they are also self-referential. 

And, in a style analogous to J Bobs’ play-ful nature, orature in the form of Black children’s games and songs were incorporated into the masterclass. Often, audiences were in collective conversation out of the joy of being reminded of their shared (albeit different) childhood experiences. 

J Bobs’ centering of Black children’s games and songs in a space that is often adult-orientated is critical, not only because Black children are being taken seriously as “cultural subjects” (as Stuart Hall noted), but also because this radical act is reminiscent of how Okot p’Bitek’s book The Horn of my Love conceives of children’s orature as an important introductory tool that orientates the African child to “cultural and moral education”, as well as expression through body movement, song and poetry. p’Bitek also highlights that these games and songs “develop … a sense of rhythm as [the child] keeps in time with the rest — a very significant training for the complex dances, music and poetry of the adults”.

Jefferson “J Bobs” Tshabalala’s multimodal art practice not only creates a conversation between forms that are predominantly peripheralised, it also aptly captures his vision, which is closely tied to the work he makes. He boldly states, “Kwaito. Theatre. Is’gubhu. Is’ketch. These things are me. I am these things. I am the achuse (Tsotsitaal for close friend, chomee, ntja ea ka, kau, mpintshi)”. And, in declaring himself the achuse, J Bobs suggests that he is i-skeem (a Tsotsitaal term that Hlasane beautifully frames as a “right-hand compadre, a confidant”) of the people whose lives have been touched by is’gubhu. I-bass. Ingoma.