"You are not going to believe your eyes," assures Richard "Nozinja" Mthetwa, as we drive up to the car park of a food market behind a police station on the outskirts of Soweto. "The way they dance and move; it's like they don't have any bones!" He's trying to describe the Shangaan dance style, but he can tell I'm struggling to picture what boneless dancing might look like. "Just wait," he says. "You will see. The people go crazy."
There are about 3,000 people crowded around a soundsystem in the middle of the car park on this warm South African evening. The atmosphere is boozy and boisterous, with people climbing on top of a Kellogg's truck and the roofs of the market stalls to try and get a better look. Over the next five hours, we see groups of half a dozen dancers sprint on to the makeshift dancefloor and make the most of their 20-minute slots. There are rapid-fire, limb-rattling individual turns and hip-shaking group routines, all set to face-meltingly fast electro rhythms. Spectators throw money at dancers they like, fights breaking out as they jostle for position around the edges.
This is Shangaan electro, and Nozinja is the 44-year-old self-styled kingpin of a scene that he has taken from township backstreets to countries as far-flung as Finland and Australia. He's a larger-than-life character: just over six-foot tall, rotund, affable and with a wardrobe of brightly coloured pinstripe shirts, tailored trousers and the shiniest of dress shoes.
If that doesn't sound like your typical niche music aficionado, that's because Nozinja isn't. He grew up in the rural Limpopo province, nearly 600km from Johannesburg, homeland of Shangaan culture. Later, he moved to Soweto and set up a string of successful mobile phone repair shops in the township. Then, in 2004, after noting the size of the crowds at local Sowetan Shangaan dances and speaking with some of the artists who thought his business acumen might translate to their world, he swapped Sim cards for soundboards. He vowed to take Shangaan music and dancing worldwide – all from the confines of a soundproofed shed in his back yard. Nozinja is now a producer, artist, video director and promoter, and over the last decade he's made around 25 albums in the Shangaan style. He still finds time to run a hotel back in Limpopo, too. "I told my friends I was going to build an empire," Nozinja says, proudly, although it didn't happen overnight. Traditional Shangaan music is a mix of fluid guitar lines and live drumming made popular by artists such as Thomas Chauke and one-time Paul Simon collaborator General MD Shirinda, who appeared on 1986's Graceland. It took a couple of albums before Nozinja's own harder, faster, electronicised version of the sound – some of his tracks are a breakneck 190 BPM – was accepted. But in December 2009, he was tracked down by Wills Glasspiegel, a musicologist studying in South Africa, who helped Nozinja hook up with Damon Albarn's world-music-friendly Honest Jon's label in London.
Six months later, in 2010, Jon's released a Shangaan electro compilation album featuring six of Nozinja's productions for different Shangaan artists, including the orange boilersuited, clown-mask-wearing Tshetsha Boys. Another album, Shangaan Shake, soon followed, with remixes by such DJ royalty as minimal overlord Ricardo Villalobos and UK techno don Actress. The Shangaan crew performed at the Barbican alongside Albarn's Rocket Juice And The Moon and at Barcelona's Sonar festival in 2011. Now there's a new album in the offing and a European tour starting this week, including workshops for anyone keen to learn how to dance in Shangaan style.
Back in Soweto, Nozinja is using the fortnightly Top Ten Dance – the name refers to the 10 best Shangaan dance groups – to audition dancers for the tour. Nozinja adopts a Caesar-like position as he inspects the dancers, occasionally tutting in disgust when someone displeases him or yelping with pleasure and elbowing me in the ribs if someone nails a routine. The women mostly dance with their heads towards the sky and a slight grimace on their faces, as if they're trying to figure out a particularly tricky Countdown conundrum. Their feet move in an awkward-looking shuffle, with one leg straight out in front as the other shakes and dips. But the real focus is the waist. The dancers' xibelani skirts – knee-length, multicoloured and with a sort of bead-encrusted Jacobean ruff sewn on top – accentuate every movement and make it look as if the dancers are double-jointed at the pelvis. For the guys, it's a stomp-led affair in matching shirts and Converse, with animal skins hanging off their tracksuit bottoms.
Dancing the right way is important to Nozinja. Fast movements and enthusiasm are to be encouraged ("The faster the better"), but anything risqué or non-traditional is anathema ("She dances too bitchy"). When a male trio dance with beanie hats on, Nozinja shouts at them like a teacher who has spotted pupils smoking a pack of Mayfair cigs behind the bike sheds. Eventually he gets up to remove the hats himself, while they're still dancing.
"I'm a man of principle," Nozinja says. "If I don't like something, I say so." A good performance can mean a plane ticket, but one unfortunate wardrobe choice or suggestive hip-shake too far and months of work can be for nothing. There is reasoning behind his Simon Cowell level of cut-throat micro-management. Nozinja feels that Shangaan people and their culture have been marginalised in South Africa, the focus instead being on more marketable musical exports such as kwaito, the hip-house hybrid made famous by DJ Mujava's club hit Township Funk, or the ubiquitous local house music, which is blasted out by nearly all the customised boy racers in Soweto. He wants only the most committed dancers to showcase his tribe's culture and dancing to the world.
"People were afraid to be called Shangaan," says Nozinja. "They were twisting their tongues and trying to speak different languages because they were ashamed. Now they walk tall, and I'm proud because I was part of that." Today Soweto, tomorrow the world.-From Lanre Bakare, The Guardian, 5 July 2013 (click for original story)