In the townships of Soweto, crowds of locals gather to dance for hours to a synthesized mix of traditional drums, marimba played through an organ, call-and-response vocals, and trap drum fills at speeds of close to 190 bpm. Even though it comes from Africa and is sung in an exotic language, I doubt fans of WOMAD and people who say they like “world music” will like this.
This is Shangaan dance music. A scene that actually shares a lot in common with early rave cultures, except that abandoned warehouses and fields in northern England are swapped for hot and dusty courtyards in rural South Africa. Here, contemporary synth-driven dance music is combined with traditional rhythms and percussion to produce a eminently danceable, frantic, and fast-paced music that seems like it won't stop.
Popular South African music is known for its hybridization of styles, especially in the post-apartheid era, where it melded traditional rhythms with styles borrowed from global genres. Shangaan dance music is its latest incantation.
Mobile phone entrepreneur-turned-music producer and engineer, Richard Mthethwa aka Nozinja singlehandedly created and popularized this music almost 10 years ago from his studio in Limpopo, a rural region of South Africa 600 kilometers from Johannesburg, and the home of most Shangaan people in the country. He took elements of Soweto’s kwaito hip-hop and house scene, added a large dose of marimbas, and sped it all up.
"Before, Shangaan music was much slower, and the voices weren't modified…But who's gonna buy it? That one's for old people," said Mthethwa, speaking with The Wall Street Journal in 2010.1
Indeed, the Shangaan dance style and its jerky moves are as much crucial to the genre as the music itself, and dancers shake their asses to the polyrhythmic, electronic MIDI sounds, like belly-dancers at 180 bpm. As Mthethwa describes it: “If you can dance, you can sell. Shangaan dancers, they dance, they can go on for almost an hour with that speed, without getting tired. When you see them dance you feel like they have got no bones.”2
With its origins in rural South Africa, Shangaan dance music takes its sound from the fast-paced traditional Shangaan music, (though eschewing its live guitars and drums) but also Mbaqanga, a South African form of music with Zulu roots, and Tsonga traditional dances. Its roots can most clearly be heard in the slower-paced spiritual harmonies of Foster Manganyi, a pastor from Limpopo who also moonlights as a Shangaan recording artist.
The Shangaan people form part of the Tsonga tribe. The Tsonga, originally a nomadic and refugee population from East Africa moved southward over the years and populated parts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa, assimilating other tribes along the way, one of which was the Shangaan.3
Unlike other popular or dance music, these are not slick productions with fancy music videos. Afro-pop and bass-driven elements are noticeably absent. This is music from the townships. The videos depict street dancers, often from the streets of Soweto or Mthethwa’s hometown of Malamulele, shaking to the music in their traditional xibelani skirts.
Shangaan dance music music gained international fame with the release of the compilation Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music from South Africa in 2010, still the definitive document of the genre. Wills Glasspiegel, an Austrian student who was then studying in South Africa, put Mthethwa in touch with Blur frontman Damon Albarn, who also helms the Honest Jon’s record label that later put the record out. Since then, Shangaan electro tracks have been played and remixed by musicians and DJs worldwide, including The Knife, Actress, and Anthony “Shake” Shakir.
A man of many talents, Mthethwa can be seen in the video for the track N’wagezani My Love, the closest thing to a hit in the genre, in which he provides vocals for. His son is also a member of the Tshe-Tsha Boys, a Shangaan act marketed at children, with their pot bellies, over-the-top dance moves, orange boiler suits and clown masks, and whose vocal samples are taken from children’s television programmes.
While the music is making waves abroad, Mthethwa, now based out of Soweto, is still the source for anything new in the Shangaan dance music scene, talent-scouting and marketing new acts, and putting out new videos on YouTube and tunes via his label Nozinja records, most of which are produced by himself. His tours have also taken acts like the Tshe-Tsha Boys, vocalists Tiyiselani Vomaseve and Nkata Mawewe, and dancers across Europe, the U.S. and further afield.
Various - Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music from South Africa (Honest Jon’s, 2010)
Foster Manganyi - Ndzi Teke Riendzo (Honest Jon’s, 2010)
Various - Shangaan Shake(Honest Jon’s, 2012)
Tiyiselani Vomaseve - Vangoma: Vol 3 (Nozinja Records, 2009)
1 Connors, Will. ‘Nozinja’s Beats Help Soweto Dance Faster’ in The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 2, 2010. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748703940904575395113100893000
Timothy Misir is a Russia-based Singaporean writer and researcher in urban planning and architecture. He is currently working at The Moscow Times where he is a copy editor and writes for the arts section. He can be contacted at email@example.com.