Spoek Mathambo’s Township Tech: A Glimpse of South-African Worldtown

Who knew the township occultism of Spoek Mathambo shared something of the pulse of post-punk dirges?

— By | March 1, 2011

Last year, South African musician Spoek Mathambo flipped Joy Division’s “She Lost Control” into a disorienting pastiche of dubstep, new wave, and South African electronics on his excellent debut long-player, Mshini Wam. Spoek traded the female interest of Joy Division’s original for a frenetic meditation on the concept of “Control” itself. In fact the whole record spins elusively around the interplay of control and resistance, organization and disintegration, creation and destruction. Spoek himself baptized the record as a foray into “Township Tech.” Coagulated terms like “darkwave township house” have also been passed around. These cascading words, reminiscent of Hydra’s own worldtown moniker, quite precisely suggest the outline of Mshini: Syrupy synth chords meander along fragmented bass lines and gurgling wobbles. It echoes the deep soulfulness of Chicago House and the interlaced poly-percussive wirings of UK Funky. But this shit is purely South African, hungry and pressing. Spoek, together with photographer Pieter Hugo–who also documented Nigeria’s burgeoning film industry in Nollywood–and cinematographer Michael Cleary, just dropped the video for “Control.” Who knew township occultism and gangs of South African kids shared something of the pulse of post-punk dirges?

Fellow writer Adri Wong recently asked me whether an African musician can be afro-futurist. After all, the central origin story, or so it seems, of afro-futurism stems from a sci-fi nightmare at the heart of America’s own genesis as a nation. A people is abducted from their homeland and taken to an alien, new world, where they are forced into exploitative manual labor. Generations pass, languages are unlearned and new ones adopted; values distorted, transformed, and re-modified, lives divided and interwoven, new forms of life invented. Blackness solidifies, dissolves, and refigures itself.

Afro-futurism is the dream of a distant homeland, one no longer home, and a prophetic liberation, set somewhere in the purple glow of the horizon. Does the same narrative apply to peoples recovering from generations of colonialism? Third-world countries competing in globalizing markets? All nomadic peoples of the Diaspora in its multiple forms and aberrations?

In recent years, an embryonic pulse for dance music, rap, and experiments on the boundaries of conventional genres has erupted in South Africa. Last year’s Shangaan Electro compilation on Honest Jon’s tracked the skittering mutations of 1990s Kwaito into a rapid gurgling discharge of digital sounds that strangely parallels the footwork and juke movements in South Side Chicago. Sometimes a Shangaan song is just a Kwaito record played at 45 RPM.

2010 was also a big year for the white South African group Die Antwoord. The crew stormed the blogosphere and indie dance parties with their elaborate agitprop performances, lyrical extravagances, and an onslaught of music videos seductive enough to terrorize your subconscious. What is so striking about Die Antwoord is how the group evokes such a global sound, ideas, and emotions from an essentially local focus on South African concerns and heritage. Their latest experiment “Evil Boy” centers around the story of a boy who refuses to obey his tribe’s gruesome right of passage into manhood: self-circumcision.

Still less on the mass radar, but no less innovative, is an emerging movement of new dance music from South Africa which informs Spoek Mathambo’s stylings, but stretches far beyond in boundary and scope. Inspired by synth swirling Chicago House and recent blips of UK Funky, just as well as dub and poly-percussive funk, South African producers and musicians are forming a new pattern of rhythm and electronics. The music not only thrives in local clubs, streets, and parties, but also circulates in roaming taxi sound systems throughout Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Gabrouw, among other townships.

One of South Africa’s most promising up and comers is Mujava whose “Township Funk” received mad play on Rinse FM a couple years back, and inspired remixes from the likes of Skream and Ikonika. A good place to start, to sink into a vortex of music of which I barely was able to scratch the surface while researching for this article, is courtesy of London-via-South Africa producer Gerv, part of the group LV (Factmag interview here), who scrambled together this OKZharp mix early last year.

These tunes, strangely enough, sound like they could just as easily be coming out of densely populated immigrant neighborhoods in East London, as if the trajectories of underground dance music in SA and London traveled side-by-side into the flittering dark spheres of broken down rhythm-and-melody house. But once again, the global arises from the absolutely local, transmitted in a digital haze, intravenously through the coiled wires of the network. A glimpse of the township can be heard.

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