Kwaito: South African Hip Hop
Stern's Africa/Earthworks </P align>
"ARE YOU A lesbian?" inquiring minds at a Jo'burg tab wanted to know. Responded kwaito queen Brenda Fassie obligingly, "I use both sides of the toilet paper." That's the new South Africa for you, I guess, where nothing is quite as it seems. Fassie, who sounds about as predatory as Dionne Warwick on disc, is a self-generating swirl of controversy in the flesh. Nothing in her seductive purr suggests that she has made death threats on her former boyfriend and kicked a serious drug habit just a year back. Similarly, nothing in the cheerfully celebratory mélange of house, ragga, and mbaquanga known as kwaito would indicate to an outside listener that you're more likely to be jacked outside of the poshest S.A. club than you are in the seediest part of any U.S. city.
Then again, nothing about "Le Freak" in 1977 indicated that New York was then the bankrupt financial capital of a nation mired in recession and reeling from political scandal. Disco is an escapist music by nature, and kwaito is disco, no matter how ace compiler Trevor Herman fibs in the title to draw Western attention. Though there are indeed Zulu rhymers commenting on the hard knocks of postapartheid society, you won't find them on this snapshot of a current dance hybrid.
You won't find much social commentary at all, in fact, with the dramatic exception of a closing track whose sole lyric consists of a trilled "Baas, don't call me Kaffir." That's one of the three tracks from the scene's premier producer, known simply as Arthur, who refers just as simply to the music he makes as "ghetto dance music." With its popular title derived from a gang's nickname, its business run by independent black-owned labels that aren't much more fair to artists than their white predecessors, and its shameless commercial tendencies, this music has some slippery politics at best.
Regardless, this collection is the best overview of South African recordings since Herman's first Indestructible Beat of Soweto compilation back in 1986. (He has assembled five others since, including last year's fine South African Rhythm Riot, which premiered Fassie's indelible "Vuli Ndela," available here in remixed form). South African music has always been relentlessly omnivorous, discovering affinities between the nation's indigenous music and the international pop it encountered. Simply by slowing down a standard house beat, tinkering with the noises up top, and focusing more on melody than their Euro counterparts, these musicians have found a link between techno and mbaquanga that no one could have anticipated. And yet no match has seemed as preordained since township jazz explored the overlap between American swing and Sowetan jive. As with that earlier style, the giddy propulsion of the beat masks the social, economic, and political upheaval that has made this music possible--and to some extent, necessary.