Shangaan Electro: shaping desire @180bpm
By the time we entered the Ostertent at PITCH Festival, Westerpark Amsterdam, Shangaan Electro had already kicked off their show. Four performers were lined up on stage, two women and two men, their heads bowed, hands clasped at their chests in prayer: a humming, resonant Tsonga incantation to sustain Nelson Mandela’s ailing health. It filled the room with suspense as hundreds of curious Dutch festival revellers streamed in, eager to get down to this African spectacle.
Shangaan Electro’s aesthetic appeal was immediate, colourful and compelling. Glitzy and playful, the orange prison-style jumpsuits, glittery masks and fringed skirts, accompanying the portly figure of the wide-eyed DJ-cum-choreographer framed the arresting visual package. It spoke simultaneously to the ancient and hyper-modern, the traditional and the nouveau, the serious and the sarcastic. The creative verve carried through in the crackle and fire of their show. When the music kicked, it did so with the force of a bristling cascade of pulsing beats ringing like the incessant, piercing screech of a 90’s video game. The singers broke into fierce salvos of jumping, jackhammer stomping, twisting, shaking and whirling that whips up whoops of excitement from the crowd. Watch them drilling it here:
Shangaan Electro plugged into a zeitgeist in the international music scene that was lapping up new, different ‘world music’ forms. In its spectacle, its performative framing composed of rapid fire lyrics, frenetic Afro-beats and steatopygic-costumed dancers their show could also be unnerving. In a tent full of white European revellers it had resonances of archaic; painful African spectacles such as Saartjie Baartman and Franz Taibosch the Wild Dancing Bushman. This is hyperbole to be true. Yet the band’s over-aestheticized styling of tradition may be just that, a playful innovation on the traditional. And it was all staged and curated by local performers themselves as we will see. With a little digging, it would appear that the band was the product of a fascinating series of cultural innovations that relate to the position of traditional, performative cultural forms in the history of South African modernity and their contemporary place in the circuits of the global economy of cultural entertainment.
The performance made me think of a peculiar academic journal entry I’d come across years before. It was a reminder that the styling, staging and performance had a history connected to the shaping of indigenous identities under colonialism and later apartheid. The passage that bothered me is a flourish in Alfred Haddon’s summary of the Anthropological presentations at the 1905 South African Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, where he makes special mention of H.A. Junod’s presentation on the “Thonga tribe”.
Junod was a Swiss Missionary stationed among what are today known as the Tsonga people between the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. An amateur botanist and entomologist, Junod became fascinated with the plant and animal life around his Mission Station. He became an enthusiastic collector of specimens, later expanding his interest to include the cultural practises of the indigenous Tsonga people, or the Thonga, according to his older orthography. Junod took up the mantle of ethnographer following the encouragement of historian and politician James Bryce, who pointed out his ideal position as a ‘man on the spot’ who could generate an invaluable corpus of data for anthropologists such as J.G Frazer, stationed in the metropole. Junod became a dynamo of scientific knowledge production, collecting, classifying and dispatching reams of primary data. As the historian Patrick Harries put it:
This missionary would amass a herbarium of well over 3000 plant species in southeast Africa. He collected 384 different species of moths and butterflies and vast numbers of beetles, bugs and other insects. From a makeshift “museum” outside his mission station, he sent these and many other specimens of nature to the Natural History museum established by Louis Agassiz in Neuchatel [Switzerland]. Initially a pioneer in the fields of botany and entomology in southern Africa, Junod would later become the doyen of early anthropologists in the region.
Junod demonstrated this fieldwork experience by putting on a special performance for the scientists travelling with the British Association. As Haddon explained, Junod “still further enlivened his bright paper by singing native songs; he also provided a native to sing and play on the xylophone”. This mimesis was a kind of “invention of tradition” through cultural performance. Through a display of emulative mastery of indigenous vernacular and careful staging of an ‘authentic’ indigenous performance, Junod’s demonstration of ‘Thonga’ performative culture created the image of the group as being an ethnically distinct ‘tribe’. It also defined his position as expert and broker of knowledge about them. We will hear more about him throughout this piece. Tsonga cultural performance, song and dance would go through different re-interpretations through the 20th century. One of a range of outcomes would be its reappropriation, rebranding and staging, as seen in Amsterdam in 2013.
‘Discover and Record’
Shangaan Electro was first promoted internationally by the documentary film-maker, scholar and music producer Wills Glaspiegel from Brooklyn, New York. In the late 2000’s Tshephang Ramoba showed Glaspiegel similarities between Sierra Leone’s Bubu music and the sounds coming out of Limpopo Province, South Africa at that time. As it was described in the Guardian online,
“For Wills Glasspiegel, the discovery of Shangaan electro came after an evening of random YouTubing in his Brooklyn apartment. His sofa was then acting as a bed for Tshepang Ramoba, drummer with South African band BLK JKS, and the pair were looking at clips online”.
“Tshepang knows I manage a musician from Sierra Leone called Janka Nabay,” explained Glasspiegel, “and he said ‘you know, we have music like Janka’s in South Africa too’, and that’s when he introduced me to Shangaan electro”.
In the feverish music and images of township kids bouncing about showing off fancy dance moves, Glasspiegel said he observed a kind of musical force of the future. This was a “retro charm without being retro”, accompanied by a visual aesthetic that was “psychedelic without trying to be psychedelic”. “I showed it to some friends”, he explained, “and they freaked out … something resonated with the direction of new music in my immediate culture here in Brooklyn”.
The opportunity to discover more came in 2009 when he took on an assignment for Afropop worldwide, a US based ‘radio programme and online magazine dedicated to music from Africa and the African diaspora’. They wanted to do an insert on the legacy of Hugh Tracey, the English Ethnomusicologist, and commissioned Wills Glasspiegel to produce it. Hugh Tracey, it so happened, is an outstanding figure in southern African music history. Tracey’s biography makes for interesting reading as a detour through the technologies and enterprise that historically inform the shape of contemporary Shangaan music.
Born in 1903, Tracey travelled from Devonshire England to Mashonaland in present day Zimbabwe to farm tobacco with his brother Leonard. Wounded during WW1, Leonard had received the allotment in compensation for his war service. Supervising labour in the fields, Tracey became fascinated with the workers’ musical expressive culture, and, as a hobby, began recording their music and songs. He learned the Karanga Shona dialect spoken in the region and sang their songs. Through emulating local expressive culture, Tracey wanted to demonstrate his compassion for and concern about the preservation of their musical heritage. He was especially fond of the mbira, an idiophonic instrument of metal tines attached to a wooden board and played with the thumbs. He popularised a modified version called the kalimba.
Tracey believed in the now defunct and patronising idea that the steady, destructive encroachment of Western modernity across rural southern Africa was eradicating local culture and he needed to “save” it before it disappeared forever. Decades before, Junod too had sensed the presence of modernity and its power to erase the unique ideal customs of the Thonga people:
“Colossal changes are now taking place amongst the South African tribes. Civilization has taken fast hold not only on the coast but in the interior … Amongst those races so long stagnant, an evolution has started which is proceeding with great rapidity and a kind of fatality” (1912: 10).
While colonial authorities dismissed indigenous groups’ song and dance as insignificant, Tracey recognised its significance for humanity, and emerging African modernities. He complained, “At that time the public showed little interest in African music and did not understand why I constantly stressed the social and artistic value of the music for future generations of Africans”. He returned to England in the early 1930s and presented some of the recordings to members of the Royal College of Music in London. It was enthusiastically received by Ralph Vaughn Williams and Gustav Holst who urged him to continue to “discover & record”. Upon his return to Zimbabwe, Tracey secured funding through the assistance of Mr Harold Jowitt, the Director of Native Development. The Carnegie grant funded his first official stint of fieldwork research between 1932 and 1933 in the Mashonaland area. He captured as much African music as he could using the best modern technology available to him. In his many field recording trips, he would sometimes traipse Karanga men 500 miles south to Johannesburg for recording sessions with a US recording company. At other times travelling into the interior with his field crew, as shown here:
Towards the late 1930s Tracey headed to Cape Town to embark on a career in voiceover artistry, and later to Durban to work for the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio division, leading the division until 1947. Working with local African groups through the 1940’s, figuring the preservation of indigenous expressive culture as a problematic within a burgeoning urban African modernity. He wondered, for example:
The question remained … how funds and equipment were to be obtained and what techniques should be employed to ensure that the unwritten compositions of genuine African musicians would not be ignored or thrust aside by the artificially stimulated demands of commerce and radio, and the intrusion of non-African popular music on films and records.
Tracey’s field trips would result in a monumental library of field recordings generated through the 1940’s and 50’s, called Historical Recordings by Hugh Tracey, that are partially accessible here.
Fortuitously or not, Mr Eric Gallo, owner of the legendary Gallo Music empire, also stepped forward and offered to fund Tracey’s projects under the auspices of the African Music Research Unit. This was a strange collaboration. Gallo was exclusively interested in the future commercial value of the recordings. Gallo had, for example, already struck gold with remastered African sound. In the 1930’s he recorded, produced and sold Solomon Linda’s rendering of the Zulu song “Mbube”. Sold as Wimboweh, the song was purchased by Disney and translated and made famous by the American band the Tokens as The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
Here you can watch the trailer for the documentary, A Lion’s Trail, about the story of the appropriation, and decades long struggle of the Linda family for compensation for the use of the song.
During the 1940’s, Tracey also entered into a partnership with Dr Winifred Hoernle, respected anthropologist and liberal anti-racist at the University of the Witwatersrand. Adding further scientific weight to his enterprise, the collaboration would lead to the establishment of the African Music Society, an organisation that “was founded with the primary objects of encouraging research both in African music and its modern use in the rapidly changing social life throughout [the] continent”. In 1953 while on a lecture tour in England he fortunately secured a Nuffield Grant, which, supplemented with funding provided by South African mining houses, provided for the establishment of one of his most enduring institutions, The International Library of African Music. Here is a video of Hugh talking about his music research:
In his decades long work Tracey appeared to be fulfilling a mandate Junod recognised previously. This was an obligation inspired by a misguided sense of compassion and a drive to save indigenous people’s culture. As Junod put it, “I aim at being a faithful and impartial Ethnographer in the study of customs which still exist but will soon have passed away … I belong to that body of men who, with Native Commissionners [sic] and liberal minded Colonists, feel they have a sacred duty to perform towards the weaker race” (1912: 10).
On 10 March, 2010, Afropop Worldwide published Wills Glasspiegel’s radio documentary, Hugh Tracey: discover and record. It is a rich, textured portrait of Shona music, Tracey’s recording expeditions, its historical complications, its traces in various southern African archives and its ongoing legacies. The title, of course, is interesting in itself. It references the contemporary critical approach to the colonial archive, one that points to the dubious motivations of figures such as Hugh Tracey, and their role in expanding colonial projects and power, particularly as it relates to the invention of primitive society.
Here is one image from a rich photo essay that supplemented the radio documentary. It visually documents the minute details, flourishes and intricacies of Tracey’s work in and on the Shona musical archive. It is Tracey’s stature as a figure on the documenting and promotion of Shona music, and its ties to apartheid political and economic apparatus that makes for interesting reading. His is a story not of discovery so much as
through networking, funding and promotion of indigenous sound. At the other end of the 20th century, Shangaan music producers had taken control of their sound, from production to promotion, and were ready to steer their route into the global arena of independent music.
The Number at the Back of the DVD
Steeped in atmospheric, palpitating synthetic rhythms and a sincere, colourful, yet crude digitized visual style, Nwa Gezani My Love, an iconic, early electro-style Shangaan track, brings the craft of synthesized traditional sound to bear on the human problem of unrequited love. Catchy, easy listening, the track is a tragic reflection on the urgent, self-effacing appeal for love and the promise of existential fulfilment a loving bond suggests. Arriving in Jozi, Wills Glasspiegel and Tshepang Ramoba had little to go on other than that Shangaan music was popular locally.
By chance they happened upon a mobile phone number on the back of a DVD by a Shangaan band called the Tshe-Tsha Boys. It took a week of calling, but eventually Richard Mthethwa (aka Hlungwane, aka Dog), producer and manager of the Tshe-Tsha Boys answered. He was a key player in the local music scene. They arranged to meet him.
Arriving at Richard’s Soweto studio, Glasspiegel and Ramoba explained their interest in the electronic Shangaan sound. They also wanted to collaborate. The music had a vibe, and overseas audiences were tuning in, they said. They showed him some of the Shangaan music videos circulating online and drew his attention to the thousands of views they’d accumulated. It was astounding.
Seeing the thousands of hits the music videos had attracted, music videos of artists and tracks that he’d produced, Richard Mthetwa could not but help wonder aloud “What if those were sales?” Astonished by the astronomical financial possibilities presented by going global, Mthetwa, exercising his shrewd business mind, approached the enthusiastic offer to collaborate with some suspicion.
“I thought they were fly-by-night guys who were telling me all kinds of stories”, he recalled. He resisted and hassled them. He also had to stake control over the sound, “I said guys, people come from overseas and take our music and you never hear from them again.” Despite his reservations, Mthetwa agreed to a contract with Wills Glasspiegel, agreeing that the American be the official manager of his band, Shangaan Electro.
Richard Mthetwa was more businessman than musician at the time. From Giyani, in Limpopo Province, he was a mobile phone repair shop ‘magnate’ of sorts. Mthetwa took up music as a business venture on the suggestion of a friend in the mid 2000s. Adopting the artist name Nozinja (but also popularly known as Dog), he carved his place in the South African music industry as a novice using a dynamic, enterprising, innovative and hands-on work ethic as his formula for success. That is to say he did everything himself. As he explained in correspondence addressed to Wills Glasspiegel,
I’m an engineer. I’m a producer. I’m a composer. It’s my record label. I’m the marketing manager. I transport them [the dancers] – I’ve got a micro-bus. I do everything on my own. I’ve got manufacturing. I buy CDs. I will silk-screen myself. I sing, too.
Despite his work ethic, Richard found that, in the beginning, success was hard to come by. His first album did not do too well. Gradually, from there things changed. The second album registered the first ‘hit’, and after that, it was hit after hit. Gradually he transformed the new Shangaan sound into a booming business. Here is Nozinja telling the story in his own words:
He attributed his commercial success to the innovation he brought to Shangaan music and his astute marketing acumen. The four aesthetic interventions he would contribute to Shangaan music would mark a significant shift in the course of popular traditional Shangaan music and come to define the entertainment package that he would promote to a European audience in the future. Firstly, whereas traditional Shangaan music was played with guitar and bass, he abandoned these elements and relied exclusively on the organ and the marimba to sustain the sound. Secondly, whereas Shangaan music was traditionally played at around 110bpm, he notched up the pace to a breath-taking 180bpm. It marked the creation of a new genre of popular traditional music that he could claim as his own under the moniker Shangaan Electro, which referenced his particular style of cycling traditional music through a modern electronic idiom. It is important to note that Shangaan music as a popular cultural form had a heritage that stretched back to the 1970’s and through the 1980’s.
Artists such as General MD Shirinda, Samson Mthombeni, Thomas Chauke and Elias Baloyi are some of the names gracing the Shangaan Hall of Fame. These artists became famous for the innovation they brought to Shangaan music, by, for example, introducing the electric guitar into their traditional ensemble. Here is a video made by the Mail and Guardian that tells the story of the early roots of Shangaan music, the artists, their traditional ways of making music and the challenges they face in contemporary South Africa in the face of the new sound:
As David Coplan shows in his essay on ‘popular traditional music’, the apartheid state also saw value in promoting ideas of ‘traditional’ music. The assertion of distinct ethnic groups was a central pillar upholding apartheid racist social architecture. The state provided broadcast platforms for groups and bands to ‘perform their culture’ through television shows such as Ezodumo. This particular television show would go on to be hugely popular, surviving the change in political dispensation and attempts to cancel it in the early 2000s, demonstrating the South African public’s unabated interest in traditional music forms. Nozinja’s innovations therefore represented one more complicated, different contribution in the scheme of transformation and continuity of popular traditional Shangaan music in South Africa.
The new fast-paced sound also had consequences for the style of Shangaan dance. Before it was gentle, rhythmic and labile. Now it was energised, frenetic, harmonious in the quick changes in the sequence of movements. Noticing the excitement surrounding the new dance styles, Nozinja promoted and became a major player in a weekly Shangaan dance competition called Top Ten Dance in Soweto. Here teams would compete for an opportunity to perform on the big stage in one of his bands. Indeed, Nozinja became the main adjudicator, not only of the ultimate winners of the competition, but also of primary facets of the new Shangaan dance more generally. As a journalist for the Guardian newspaper reports, “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’)”.
As such, the third innovation he brought to the Shangaan scene was helping to inspire a communal passion for fancy footwork and complex dance routines linked to the new Shangaan sound. These dance routines were ‘a Shangaan thing’, a shared cultural practice that Shangaans could take pride in. Junod noted in one of the first scholarly references to the term Shangaan, that it was “much used amongst white people to designate the Thongas”, speculating further that “Shangaan or Tshangaan was one of the surnames of Manukosi” a Zulu chief, and that it may have had even older roots, perhaps referring to a chief that once resided near the Lower Limpopo river” (1912: 15). It was a derogatory term, an association that held currency for a large part of the 20th century. Through Nozinja’s interventions, however, Shangaans were presented with the opportunity to reappropriate the designation, destabilise the negative connotations and find a sense of pride in being Shangaan. As Nozinja said, “People were afraid to be called Shangaan; they were ashamed. Now they walk tall and I’m proud because I was part of that”.
Finally, linked to this was Richard’s careful styling of the dancers he used for his acts. This was a marketing decision. As he explained in reference to the Tshe-Tsha Boys, a group dressed in orange jumpsuits, accentuated bellies and bums and clown wigs and masks, “I was targeting the kids market, like McDonalds … I thought, once I’ve grabbed the kids, I can grab the parents and I’m in”. Drawing on the iconic power of Ronald MacDonald, the official McDonalds mascot, to style his artists, Nozinja cycled the traditional Shangaan performative aesthetic to attract a new, young South African audience drawn by the appeal of such popular Western images of consumption. In that sense, the refigured style of Shangaan performative culture featured not merely as playful mimicry, but rather as a powerful subversive appropriation of evocative Western representations of consumption.
What is clear is that Nozinja took traditional Shangaan music and transformed it into a popular form of entertainment that could be circulated and sold as a product as part of his personal business vision. “I told my friends I was going to build an empire,” he stated in one interview. But this also featured in Wills Glasspiegels vision of Shangaan Electro as an aesthetic product: “this isn’t just music from a hermetically sealed studio in Times Square: this is a people and a culture. It’s culture as high art”. Whatever the aspirations of the two leading figures of the new sound, for stalwarts trading the traditional Shangaan sound, Shangaan Electro was superficial popular music. One musician would declare, “We are making music for the message … The younger people are making music for the money”.
Of course, in the case of Shangaan Electro, it is the interest of an international audience in 2010 that helped brand the sound. Wills Glasspiegel arranged a big release that led to their success. The band’s first international release was put out on the respected independent London-based music record label, honest jons under the title Shangaan Electro: new wave dance music from South Africa. The title registered a sense of enthusiasm about the melding of the ancient and the modern, the fresh and the retro, and discovery and revelation as the first international release of an as yet uncovered African sound. The album was critically acclaimed.
Reviewers remarked that it was strange, new and ‘African’, a sound that they had not quite encountered before. A reviewer for Pitchfork media for example wrote, “None of Shangaan Electro sounds quite like anything else we have at our disposal”. A Boomkat review declared, “This is genuinely some of the most exciting music you’ll hear this year, and alongside the Footwork/Juke craze currently taking hold, you’ll have heard little like it before”. The Quietus wrote, “The future sound of Africa…[and] a curveball for UK dancers”. And the liner notes written by Etienne Tronn supplementing a compilation featuring a Shangaan Electro track declares, “Over the last few years it became clear that this trance-inducing, percussive music could be traced straight back to the African continent – and that this culture was flourishing there more than anywhere else”.
There was a follow up album, Shangaan Shake, a release on the respected label Jialong, a collaboration with Actress, and a series of European tours where Shangaan Electro would perform at some of the biggest and most well known electronic music festivals. In 2013 alone, after signing with the respected UK artist management agency QUJunktions, they would play a series of gigs all across northern Europe and the UK, mixing performances with workshops on Shangaan dance. Shangaan music had gone global. Presciently, at one point Nozinja declared that his real major success was harnessing the power of Shangaan sound to transcend spatial borders, “Now Shangaan music is both, rural and urban. We jumped the boundaries by changing that bass into playing with the marimba, that when we touched the nerves, and now it’s all over”.
This was a major arrival in the independent music world. It was something Wills Glasspiegel could take pride in and something that Nozinja openly acknowledged, declaring that “Wills did everything he promised me he would do. When I tell people that I have an international release for Shangaan music they don’t believe me! But it’s all down to him”. Amplifying the new sound, Wills emphasised that it marked the chance meeting of likeminded entrepreneurs who shared a similar interest in music. As he explained to journalist Lloyd Gedye’s prompting:
I asked Glasspiegel if it seemed bizarre to him that hipsters were dancing to his music in clubs in New York and London, “Yes and no,” he said. “Which is the point – that someone in a small studio in South Africa could be at the forefront of what people who supposedly have access to everything are seeking. It’s just fascinating that the development of Shangaan traditional music could somehow align with the development of more mainstream and Western indie music. It’s like meeting someone who has a lot of the same ideas and ideals as you, but they’ve gotten to that place from an independent perspective”.
In the narrative about the emergence of the band Shangaan Electro and the new sound it is hard to find the voices of the dancers and performers. The zinging rhythm and funk of Shangaan Electro therefore seemed to flow from a complex political economy of unequal circuits of collaborative invention. There were two more seasons of international shows and performances, before the band seemed to wane from the international music scene.
Walking into the Oostertent at Pitch Festival, I had no idea what to expect. Shangaan Electro put on an entertaining, evocative show that challenged me to think about our understanding of and relationship to popular ‘traditional’ South African music. Walking out, dizzy, intoxicated and confused, I never imagined it would lead me through dusty corners of South African cultural history and contemporary circuits of global electronic music. Clearing my head of the beer and cigarette smoke, tracking a path through a genealogy of popular African music that this encounter augured, I came to learn that Shangaan Electro is to be located in the shaping of culture that happens in the global capitalist economy of cultural consumption. I have also come to understand that in the same way that ‘Thonga’ cultural identity was the product of collaboration between colonial experts, amateur anthropologists, and their local “native informants”, so too, it appears, Shangaan Electro is the product of a similar arrangement of seemingly benevolent forces. This encounter is a platform to think about the global arena of cultural entertainment; about how local acts participate in that arena; the kinds of cultural and capitalist effects that flow from those engagements, and how they can and are being used to sustainably empower ‘source communities’ and subvert the very circumstances that have shaped desire for exotic and spectacular forms of cultural entertainment. Certainly, in interrogating my taste for popular ‘traditional’ South African music and culture, I’ll never take Shangaan Electro for granted. As the globe becomes more intimately connected, where ‘remote’ cultural forms are propelled ever faster onto the world stage, Shangaan Electro is right there, unsettling it all.
With thanks to Cornelia Knoll and Dr Thokozani Mhlambi for comments and suggestions.