Introducing… Kwaito

Zami Majuqwana 15 October 2009

Zami Majuqwana The Cambridge Student’s Music Editor, introduces Kwaito Music as the perfect winter warmer

As the zeds and clicks (yes, clicks!) in my name may suggest, I’m not from around these parts. I am a South African, and like anyone from the sunny planes of the southern hemisphere, this grim and drab time of year fills me with a pathetic sense of nostalgia for sun, sea and the sounds to match.

This year, however, I have found a coping mechanism; the perfect way of making the glum, daily trudge from college to the Sidgwick Site (and back … at least twice a day…) all the more bearable. I have rediscovered Kwaito.

Kwaito (kwai-tow) is, as you may have guessed, a genre of South African music. Too often it is crudely reduced to “South African hip-hop”. Though this explains the origins of Kwaito in its original form, generations of experimentation have rendered such a simple definition redundant. Kwaito began when house burst onto the South African music scene, first in Cape Town and later in Johannesburg, in the early 1990s.  House gave Kwaito its early signature slow, deep baselines. Artists added to these a flurry of babbled and chanted lyrics in a variety of languages, contributing an exceptional element of rhythm and menace.

This is why the often drawn parallel with (popular) hip-hop is inaccurate. Kwaito is popular, in that it empathises with a certain demographic about certain things, but its comparison with hip-hop is flawed; hip-hop nowadays is more about what is ‘rapped’ rather than how it is delivered.

Kwaito is all about sound, bounce, and rhythm. Of course the often-political messages are essential, but they are by no means the defining feature of the genre. We’d run into trouble if lyrics were everything, as the township slang in which they are delivered (known as ‘isicamtho’, or ‘Tsotsitaal‘ in Afrikaans) is only completely comprehensible to a fraction of the genre’s devoted audience.

This emphasis on delivery and sound makes Kwaito a uniquely accessible genre, especially to a western audience completely unfamiliar with the Bantu languages (a collection of African languages prominent in sub-Saharan Africa) used by Kwaito artists. Kwaito songs generate an atmosphere of movement and excitement (a ‘vibe’, if you will) that allows any listener to pick up immediately on the sense of the track.This ‘vibe’ is usually excited and animated, and it is this defining quality that gets me to my 9am lectures.

So what, and who, can I recommend? The King and Queen (though they, despite these titles, never actually worked together) of Kwaito are Arthur Mafokate and Brenda Fassie. Though I would certainly urge you listen to these at some point, for reasons of accessibility I wouldn’t suggest either as an introduction to Kwaito.Mafokate especially was a more political artist, making his work more sensitive.

Instead, I’m going to suggest an album that isn’t even South African. The music is still very much of the Kwaito tradition, and adequately represents everything I have described here. It is a collaboration between an African artist and a European production team, and so a perfect lead for indie-kids everywhere into the wonderful world of Kwaito.

Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit’s The Very Best was one of the finest albums of 2008. The Malawian-born Mwamwaya is now based in London, where this superb partnership was born.The album combines Mwamwaya’s vocals with Radioclit’s production over twenty-first century indie classics, as well as in new, original (and to my mind, infinitely better) material. One great service done by this album was to bring a welcome pause to New-York -skinny-jean-clan-lads (Vampire Weekend) churning out what they claimed to be music of an ‘African influence’.For the VW fans out there, The Very Best does include a Mwamwaya’d-up version of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, the superior quality of which should speak for itself. The album includes marvellous collaborations with South African artists like BLK JKS for the track “Salota”, showcasing the true potential of African beats and melodies that goes far beyond throwing a marimba into the guitar-bass-drums mix. (If this all still seems a little far-fetched, let me announce that the album also includes a Bantu-spun remix of MIA’s Fez Club classic, “Paper Planes”. How’s that for familiarity?)

As fantastic as this album is on its own terms, I encourage you not to end your experimentation with Kwaito here.It may sound trite, but one watch of the Oscar-winning film Tsotsi and one listen to the accompanying soundtrack will not only make the culture behind Kwaito clearer, but introduce you to fundamental artists like Mandoza and Zola in the process.

In the winter months it’s easy, and often tempting, to bare the monotony of the daily grind to a soundtrack to match.But instead of coping with a typically awful English winter in a typically dire English way, explore what Kwaito has to offer: excitement, entertainment, and Esau Mwamaya.

Zami Majuqwana