Zandi Tisani’s Rave & Resistance - The birth of club culture in 90s Johannesburg
Zandi Tisani’s documentary ‘Rave & Resistance’ charts the development of a unique South African electronic music and dance scene. It gives a sense of why house music remains the most popular music form in the country. I was involved in the production of electronic music from its early inception during the mid 80’s and was excited by the liberation it promised the artist: a liberation from the dictates of time and money that mainstream record companies and studios imposed on the artist. For the first-time technology existed which enabled independent artists and producers to set up and develop albums entirely outside of the mainstream and — similarly to punk and reggae during in the late 1970’s — enabled free spirited ‘outsider’ record companies and distributors to grow into powerful forces in the music industry. The African (diaspora) embrace of these technologies (what Louis Çhude-Sokei calls; echo chambers of modernity From “When Echoes Return” Transition, No. 104, Souls (2011), pp. 76-92 changed the way music was created and consumed world wide.
Electronic music and sounds always feel like the future. From the sounds of the theremin and radio static to synthesizer bleeps and drum machines, the promise of an electric future is confidently assured and intrinsically linked to the imagined and to the not-yet-realised. Moby’s `GO’ (1991) is an apt choice for opening a post-apartheid-club-scene documentary film.
‘GO’ promises a future, a turning towards new technologies that will rescue us from our shameful past. The menacing synth-pads (sampled from the Twin Peaks theme) sits well beneath interview voices reflecting on South Africa’s 1990 road to Damascus moment. the music guiding us along the way. “…everything is loaded and everything is charged” says Charl Blignaut over footage of police state-bully-boys doing the other kind of clubbing that apartheid South Africa was famous for.
As the regime was being dismantled in 1989/1990, other totalitarian states went the same way. The wall came down in East Germany, precipitating the collapse of the entire east bloc, including the Soviet Union. This brought about the end of the Cold War. The 1990’s were ushered in with a huge sigh of relief and a sense of joy. Optimism flooded the world, and dancing was the first response. The people danced from the Berlin wall to the Mandela rallies in soccer stadiums. Dance was a way of expressing a new joyfulness and the music that fuelled it came from Moby’s generation: the post-cold war kids. They embraced the new easy to use personal computer technologies, moving into derelict spaces to create a do-it-yourself electronic music and a dance culture that celebrated life, community and togetherness.
Laura Palmer’s Theme from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series, was an important bridge between the past and the future. The series heralded in a new era of art/television, a stylistic signifier of the 90’s. It had its debut in 1990 and, like GO, it was a perennial cult hit. Twin Peaks was a parochial, pleasant little place which had a sinister and violent underbelly, a perfect metaphor for South Africa, whose charm as a tourist destination is always undercut by violence and crime. The violence stems from years of resistance to an uncompromising police-state and, ultimately, during the last push to liberation; the civil unrest due to the resistance movements’ policy to ‘make the townships ungovernable’. The ‘defiance campaign’ straddled the late 80’s and early 90’s and was the physical realization of this policy. School-kids once more found themselves on the battle front with state forces and our society, today, is reaping the side effects of these psychological scars. Lerato Khathi (Lakuti) looking back to the 80’s tells us there was ‘always a reminder that danger was around the corner’. That reminder is still relevant almost twenty years on.
The street bash (or block party) performances gave birth to an explosion of musical innovation. Junior (from Boomshaka) says that “it was Tembisa and Pretoria they were, like, the capitals of street bash” Bob Mabena describes a handing over of the baton from one generation to the next; from the bubble-gum artists of the 80’s like Brenda, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Kamazoo who, he says, were fading and “there was this new breed; of Mdu’s … or Trompies or Arthur … and so it went; from hiding people who were involved in the struggle to; let’s have a party…let’s have a street bash and from street bashes it went to little stadia, arena that sort of thing.”
Roughly mid-way through the film there is a fascinating step by step outline describing the evolution of local house. This was a by-product of the clash between first and third world economies. In much the same way as licensing restrictions prevent the dissemination of (movies, eBooks, music) from the U.S and Europe today, so too DJ’s, importing vinyl, found it impossible to secure licences for local release. They had created a demand, however licensing laws were so prohibitive and expensive, that the only way to guarantee supply was to illegally manufacture simulacra of the originals. Beats and grooves were simply copied or directly transferred from the vinyl, reworked and sold on cassettes. To get around copyright issues, and to suit the preferences of black audiences, the imported House tracks were slowed down and altered. Kwaito music of the 1990’s mostly played at around 110 beats per minute (bpm). As the original 120 bpm vinyl was a bit fast the slowdown was achieved by manipulating the speed control on the DJ deck. Vernacular vocals were laid over this thus creating an original track. DJ Pedro describes stealing thus: ‘if we took records and played them at 33 and pitched them up they actually sounded pretty cool’ (these would be 45rpm, 12” singles then popular for DJing which when played at 33 and then sped up slightly on the pitch slider of the SL1200 deck achieved the desired feel).
It is interesting that the cassette was the medium of choice for sales during this period. DJ Christos describes (and we are shown) car boots full of cassettes that they are selling at the clubs for cash. Cassettes were then a robust and relatively inexpensive way of mass producing music. CD writing technology, then, was in its infancy and was glitchy with many ‘buffer overrun’ warnings ruining a burn and resulting in an expensive CDRW being trashed. The digital analogue divide was beginning to close and as computers started replacing hardware not only music became more controllable but the mass production on CDs too. By the late 1990s cassettes had joined vinyl records as obsolete (only to be resurrected a decade later). Mid 80’s hardware sequencers, such as the Roland MC500 —on which Chico, apparently, was an expert—quickly became redundant in the early 90’s with more fluid computer systems and software. Arthur Mafokate is described in the film as being particularly competent working with the Atari computer on which he began to programme his beats. This was the move from analogue to a totally digital working environment and the beginning of African music programming styles which would lead the continent in music creation—the recent Gqom explosion being the most recent example of this.
The film brands itself with a banner of ‘resistance’ whereas the feeling of the period— articulated through the interviews— seems to be more of relief from the old order and a careless optimism regarding the new. Put differently this club culture was born from resistance and moved towards an apoliticality, a burial of the unpleasant past and a celebration of less-resistance in new-found freedoms. DJ Danny da Vinci says: “The negative atmosphere contributed to the success of this whole thing” and later —over a video of Brenda’s Weekend Special— ‘it was a dangerous time but the music all the artists and producers made sure the country didn’t burn’.
South Africa had never before known the freedom experienced with Mandela’s government and resulting new constitution. It was a totally new freedom in that it affected not only the oppressed majority of the country, but also thousands of LGBT citizens from all walks of life. This had a massive impact on the arts in general and specifically the club scene to this day.
The suburb of Yeoville is a cornerstone in the narrative and addresses the black/white cultural divide. During the early 90’s it was a place of much optimism and cultural crossover. A number of ANC activists who had been in exile moved into Yeoville upon their return to South Africa and it became a hub of hipness and opportunity. There were legendary night clubs, record companies, film companies, recording studios. Yeoville was where you could bump into Hugh Masekela at two in the morning having a quiet drink at a 24-hour bar like Rockerfellas, Elaine’s or Rumours Jazz Club. The first ‘Rave’ party at the derelict Piccadilly cinema is shown in the film and how it is developed into rave parties all over Joburg.
With the collapse of apartheid, South Africa embraced the new constitution and sexual freedoms with an optimism that was evident in the dance clubs where new alliances were formed. Race and gender were put on the backburner, as Lakuti says, and the music united everyone. The gay scene was integrated into house music, and indeed, was the original impulse of its birth in Chicago. She noticed that it was a time when the sons and daughters of white supremacists ‘were kind of going through some self-discovery themselves….and would come up with things like: we never thought it would be possible to party with black people and find it OK’ — through clubs and music— these people were finding out that black folk were cool and hanging out with them was more fun than sulking in the laager. ‘DJ’s at Work’ was a 1993 partnership between Christos and Danny da Vinci (Vinnie) which looked at the separateness and oneness of the white rave scene and the black house music scene and interestingly overlapped their audiences and styles.
The Bob Mabena interview is insightful and articulate and provides a handy link throughout. Towards the end of the film he discusses how the apartheid era radio categories all started ‘crumbling’ when kwaito happened; and white and black stations all decided to play what people wanted to hear. Radio and its importance to all music marketing can never be underestimated and has always been a controversial battleground of conflicting opinions.
Through the businesses of these pioneering DJ’s and club entrepreneurs much wealth was generated and South African music industry benefited immensely. As Charl Blignaut says: ‘..thanks to this house scene that became the kwaito scene that became the black house scene we have one of the only truly transformed business sectors in South Africa where black-owned independents owned the local music scene and made the most money from it.’
Needless to say, the movie bounces along to a great soundtrack. From Brenda to Black Coffee the rights clearance sheet will make a great playlist. The music selection while always staying within the narrative offers enough light and shade to work with the emotions of the given filmic situations: the breakdowns and atmospheres provide good cover beneath interviews doing away with the need for traditional score or ‘buzz’ tracks to plug sound holes.
This sonic aesthetic follows into the style of the sound mix itself which—when listened to without picture—felt like a well edited podcast (though I’m listening to an extracted Youtube download and Youtube do their own compression—which I actually like—a bit like cassette compression in the 80’s). Audio edits felt very dynamic; a clear and present integration of sound and voice – almost like a plunderphonic
cut-up album in its experimentalism—but one can do this in film.. film allows much more experimentation in its segmentations. We traverse the landscape at aircraft speed, bumping through the story as we move along. Emotive tensions are created where — as in dance music where the use of ‘build-ups’ creates tension and silences the corresponding release — the mix utilises these techniques to strong effect; ie: at certain points the music disappears and lets a particular phrase hang in the air……and then boom we are back—creating emphasis.Very effective!
Rave & Resistance is a thought provoking collection of interviews, music, and historic footage, woven together with an illuminating soundtrack. A movie where the past informs the present which is in the past (the movie) and which is informing our present.
|1.||↑||From “When Echoes Return” Transition, No. 104, Souls (2011), pp. 76-92|