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revolution rave: how dance music changed south africa

June 20, 2019
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Kwaito is the crown jewel of South African creativity and ingenuity. While the country was ravaged by sanctions that were financially choking the apartheid machine into submission, the cultural isolation felt by the youth gave way to a revolution unlike previously seen in music. That revolution is documented in the film, Rave and Resistance: The Birth of Club Culture in 90’s Johannesburg, an exploration of how a Euro-inspired rave scene helped birth a Black South African music genre. Kwaito is distinct to South Africa but its origin felt worlds away — and, in the sonic sense, it was. Through smuggling back-channels, banned music was making its way into SA as contraband in the early ’90s and that secret funnel of music sparked a rave scene frequented by the disillusioned white youth looking for a place to let loose.

White ravers were clueless to the reality of Black South Africans but that didn’t stop them from enjoying this new, almost alien, techno music being smuggled into the country to be played in underground clubs in Pretoria and Johannesburg CBD. The political tide was shifting, but the youth had caught onto newness that provided an escape through the relentless cyber-like-sonics of European techno. Black and white mixed in a drug-infused, neon sea of escape as a means to assert freedom, even for a few hours a night every week. That cultural integration allowed South African youth to place discussions of gender, race and politics by the wayside, as they busied themselves with simply being. The music was still clinical and very white, lacking the kind of warmth and connection to South African tastes; but it was different, and the hoops that were jumped just to get access to it, sparked the beginning of what would become the final cultural resistance to the crumbling apartheid regime.

Because of international trade sanctions, it was illegal for any foreign music to be licensed or released in SA, resulting in underground DJ’s having to either go about it illegally or use the age-old tactic of chopping up songs into something unrecognizable. This is where the dam broke. In the experimental spirit of American house originators like Frankie Knuckles and Todd Terry, young Black DJ/producers like Oskido slowed down the tempo of techno songs from 130 to around 100/110 rpm, completely transforming the sound into a whole new genre. Chicago house also had a growing presence in underground parties in Johannesburg, with South African youth connecting to the genre created by gay kids in a warehouse half a world away. The jazz influence that seeped into the Chicago House sonic landscape spoke more to the tastes of Black South Africans (with their existing jazz and blues culture), feeding more inspiration on how to expand this infant genre into more than chopped and screwed techno with Black flair.

In the first half of the ’90s, the Joburg suburb of Yeoville was a creative melting pot that was independently doing the work of desegregation by filmmakers, musicians and artists of all races. If you subscribed to the culture of Yeoville, then you came in open-minded with a sense of curiosity about the world beyond Black and white. There were parties held in Constitution Hill before it became home to the South African constitutional court — at that time, the youth knew it as the jail that held Winnie and Nelson Mandela, coming into reclaiming the space for a different type of (admittedly debaucherous) freedom. Pretoria and Thembisa also built reputations for their parties, township bashes which would function a lot like block parties. Streets would be closed on both ends, giving Black youth the freedom to share in new music and party all in one go. White kids would also attend these parties, the universality of the sound making setting and race meaningless, even for a moment. For the first time in the history of these young South Africans, the music one listened to wasn’t an indicator of race; dance music was a universal language everyone could partake in. These were the islands of free expression in the sea of apartheid, eventually growing substantial enough to build bridges where none previously existed.

The Black youth was ready to move on from the electronic Bubblegum era, made famous by artists such as Brenda Fassie, Ciko Twala, and Yvonne Chaka Chaka, which had defined the South African music scene during the 1980s height of apartheid. The kids desired a new narrative and were building a new sound to communicate it. The aspiration of freedom was the same, but the language was changing, lead by pioneers like Oskido, Arthur Mafokate and Mdu. In collaboration with some white DJ/producers like Christos Katsaitis, this new generation of Black South African musicians took advantage of the grassroots popularity of Kwaito, selling cassette tapes out of their car boots. Big record companies rejected these producers at the outset, but the growing demand for the music resulted in a distribution network forming through a “beat-the-pavement” attitude that had them selling hundreds of thousands of units by word of mouth. Thus the musical revolution created one industry in South Africa where Black people could actually own their output. The money went straight into the hands of the producers, giving them the power to build studios and start their own record labels.

Where Kwaito truly hit its second gear was in the emergence of the music group, Boom Shaka. DJ Vinny DaVinci and DJ Christos (known as Two DJs and Keyboard) were part of a group of DJ’s taking Kwaito into the streets and the clubs all over Joburg. They were involved in spreading the sound of Kwaito soloist Junior Sokhela, who added vocalists to his set. Lebo Mathosa, Thembi Seete and Theo Nhlengethwa became the voices of the new group, which helped ushering in Kwaito’s maturity. The music had outgrown its reputation as slowed-down re-edits of techno beats, finding its groove by adding vocals and previously impossible production elements. Radio was the litmus test for public music consumption, and soon, Black and white radio stations in Johannesburg were tripping over each other, insisting that they played Kwaito first — a long way from the days when Black (Urban), white (Rock) radio split the music.

The movement was growing to such a degree that a tape like music engineer Arthur Mafokate’s debut Groove City Vol. 1 could move 40-50k copies without formal distribution. The song that cemented its arrival was “Sekele,” by Two DJs and Keyboard which managed to sell 200k units in corner stores, car boots and pre-orders alone. These artists were financially independent with the freedom to re-invest their earning back into music, and into the growing culture that ran parallel to a country on the verge of major change. Soon, Nelson Mandela was finally free and the whispers of democracy were in the air in a way they hadn’t been before. This is the pioneering culture that paved the way for the current guard of South African DJ’s, international superstars like Black Coffee, Euphonik, Kent, and all the others.

Rave and Resistance: The Birth of Club Culture in 90’s Johannesburg re-introduces a musical and cultural legacy that millennial South Africans don’t easily have access to. It’s one thing to know who Oskido and Mdu — but had I not grown up in a household with siblings a decade older than I, this world would feel foreign to me. Even in the dank isolation of sanctions, music found a way to push its own cultural revolution, and giving Black creatives the kind of power and resources they dreamed of. It’s a mind-blowing birth story — as, today, Techno and Kwaito feel like they occupy different galaxies. But the back-channel cultural exchange that took place between continents is proof that, like life, free expression finds a way.