South African music: play it by ear

Music – not hooting minibus taxis or the drone of vuvuzelas – provides SA’s real soundtrack. In a country with more music genres than official languages, there’s certainly a playlist just for you. From BLK JKS to Miriam Makeba and TKZee to Lira, South African Music Awards judge Nils van der Linden offers his picks.


From the txt msg-inspired spelling of their name to the experimental-electrofunk-blues/psychedelic-space-rock/Afrojazz-futurism of their music, BLK JKS (pronounced Black Jacks) have a flagrant disregard for convention… and racial stereotypes. ‘We’re not trying to be unique or different – we’re just honest,’ say the Jozi four-piece whose trippy US-recorded debut After Robots combines tribal rhythms, Jimi Hendrix guitar hysterics, hot brass and mystical vocals in English and Zulu.

Now, fresh from a typically unlikely collaboration with Dutch dance DJ Tiësto, they’ve re-imagined ‘Zol’, a traditional grassroots street anthem, the song young dudes in Soweto sing on the way to local matches. They’re calling it the moment’s unofficial theme.

‘We don’t make music for the masses, we make music for you,’ guitarist Mpumi Mcata reckons. So listen up.

Also try: The Parlotones, whose slick, anthemic indie songs are as popular as the fried chicken they endorse.


It’s 1996. Three privileged private-school kids (including the first black member of the Drakensberg Boys Choir and the son of a former Bafana Bafana coach) combine hip hop, classical, house and gospel beats to create a genre that gets the townships grooving. Their second hit ‘Shibobo’, sampling ‘The Final Countdown’, features soccer star Benni McCarthy and, in the run-up to the 1998 soccer World Cup, became the country’s fastest-selling CD single ever. But with fame comes infamy: R14 000-a-month cocaine habits, a fatal car accident, charges of culpable homicide, tax evasion, rehab and break-up.

Fast-forward to 2009. The re-energised Tokollo Tshabalala, Kabelo Mabalane and Zwai Bala reunite for the innovative Coming Home, their first album in eight years, and reinvigorate the stagnating genre they created.

The new stars: Durban’s Big Nuz and their hard-hitting Undisputed album were the knockout champs at this year’s South African Music Awards. Thank their defiant retro hit ‘Umlilo’, which relies on one simple truth: people want to dance and have fun.

POP: Freshlyground

With their seven members ranging from a Xhosa-speaking former-drama-student-and-one-time-punk singer to a ‘middleclass Jewish cat’ who grew up in the leafy Cape Town suburb of Bishopscourt, the multicultural, multinational, multitalented Freshlyground take Mandela-like inclusiveness to a new level. Using mbira, saxophone, flute and violin in their UN-style approach to music, the group’s exuberant signature songs ‘Doo Be Doo’ and ‘Pot Belly’ are hopeful singalongs.

Even though their new album, Radio Africa, is more raw and less pop, they certainly bring on the good times on the 2010 World Cup’s official anthem, ‘Waka Waka – This Time For Africa’ (featuring Shakira). Join in, you know you want to.

Dance some more: Goldfish are two classically trained jazz musos who’ve added chilled beats, electro bleeps and sexy soulful vocals to old-school double bass and sax. Goodbye weddings and bar mitzvahs, hello Ibiza superclubs and summer festivals.

RAP: Hip Hop Pantsula

Former Strictly Come Dancing winner, alumnus of soap opera Rhythm City, HIV/Aids activist, TV talk-show host, arts education advocate and fan of Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’, the man known as Jabba to his fans is still a rapper first. Raised in the North West’s capital city of Mmabatho (‘Maftown’ to the locals), he prefers to drop his rhymes in Setswana – but that hasn’t stopped his eclectic motswako (‘mixture’) style from finding a global audience.

HHP’s latest album, Dumela (which means ‘hello’ in multiple African languages), aims to expand that fan base by recruiting some of the continent’s biggest names – and US rapper Nas – on songs of unity. As his smash hit ‘ShowDem’ declares: ‘Make the circle bigger!’

For something completely different: White trash trio Die Antwoord’s mullets, rubbish Casio keyboard blips and potty-mouthed lyrics have somehow translated into online notoriety, celebrity fans (including Katy Perry), an international record deal, and a fast-growing fan base. Still no class though.


Never mind the post-graduate financial accounting qualification, or the false start to her music career as a kwaito starlet. She’s no boring wannabe. Over the space of just two albums – 2006’s Feel Good and 2008’s Soul in Mind – Lira has become a chic style icon, Afrocentric role model and leading lady of South African music. With her warm, sincere delivery and uplifting, positive lyrics, the little girl who wanted to be Whitney Houston is now being compared to her idols: Sade, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Miriam Makeba.

‘My music has to be empowering,’ says the soulful singer-songwriter. ‘I don’t want to bring anything negative into my music.’

See for yourself on her Live in Concert DVD.

Just as smooth: No longer playing his homemade cooking-oil-can-and-fishing-wire guitar, anti-apartheid poet-activist-turned-singer Vusi Mahlasela still uses his hauntingly beautiful songs to share messages of conciliation. ‘He was a voice during the revolution, a voice of hope, like a Bob Dylan of South Africa, and he still is,’ says frequent collaborator Dave Matthews.


If a wooden giraffe and Madiba shirt are on your have-to-have list, be sure to add these:

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: On Paul Simon’s Graceland the all-singing, all-dancing a cappella choir took isicathamiya music from South Africa’s mines to homes around the world. They’ve released more than 50 albums since 1964, so start with Long Walk To Freedom, which features their best songs re-recorded alongside guest stars including Sarah McLachlan and Hugh Masekela.

Johnny Clegg: With songs like ‘Impi’ and his groups Juluka (‘sweat’) as well as the more pop-oriented Savuka (‘we have risen’), the former anthropologist smashed ’80s cultural and language barriers, uniting Western pop with African music styles like mbaqanga. Appropriately then, they call him ‘Le Zulu Blanc’ in France.

Miriam Makeba: Her star burned brightest in the ’50s and ’60s with the funky dance song ‘Pata Pata’, the ground-breaking opera King Kong, a Grammy-winning US tour with Harry Belafonte and those bewitching Xhosa vocal ‘clicks’ on The Manhattan Brothers hit ‘Qongqothwane’. But South Africa’s first lady of song was to remain a powerful political and musical force until her untimely death in 2008. Exiled for 31 years, she became known as Mama Afrika for inspiring hopes of freedom among her country’s disempowered masses.

  • This article originally appeared in Signature, the official magazine of Diners Club South Africa.

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