Ten years ago in Limpopo, South Africa’s most northerly province, a brand new sound was born from ancient folk traditions. Shangaan electro combined rapid-fire marimba melodies popping off at nearly 190BPM and a blend of chipmunk and soulful vocals. It was a hyper-local scene for a handful of years, but then in July 2010, the release of an essential 12-track compilation, Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music From South Africa, by London label Honest Jon’s, brought it to the attention of a global audience.
At the head of this emerging movement was a gap-toothed mobile phone repair shop entrepreneur called Richard “Nozinja” Mthetwa. He wanted to capture the energy of the Shangaan people from his homeland in Limpopo, especially their impressive dance-fuelled street parties. For years, these events had been soundtracked by bass, guitar and drums but Nozinja, keen to apply his skills as a music producer, cooked up a 21st century version and called it Shangaan electro. Thus, it was as much about frenetically shaking your hips in a bell-shaped xibelani skirt and the hip-hop influenced Pantsula dancing, which originated during apartheid, as it was about MIDI keyboards and maniacal drum fills.
The sound began to catch the ears of forward-thinking producers around the world, and in 2012 Honest Jon’s released a remix album, Shangaan Shake, featuring the likes of mercurial London artist Actress and Chicago footwork pioneer RP Boo. Then last year the inimitable Nozinja signed to legendary UK label, Warp Records, for a series of releases including his debut album Nozinja Lodge, which is out today. Here, he explains in his own words how he came to invent Shangaan electro.
NOZINJA: I grew up with traditional Shangaan music around me in Limpopo all the time––it was always part of our entertainment––but I would also would hear artists like Boy George and Phil Collins, as well as house music and then, in the ‘80s, what we call bubblegum music, which is basically American-influenced pop music with synths. Oh and jazz too, of course. But pretty much as soon as electronic music reached our country, we all became hooked and wanted to follow the trend by making our own steps and music. That’s simply how Shangaan electro came to be; we wanted to do something new and something unique. And when you want to do something new and unique, you will readily embrace anything that you come across that may take you to a different place or point. So I went about changing the traditional style into what we are doing now, so it would be something new and exciting for our generation and younger generations to come. I wanted the young people to love it.
“I think the world embraced Shangaan electro so readily because our music is so unique. There’s no imitation.”—Nozinja
As I child, I remember that traditional Shangaan music was slower––that’s the main thing to understand––but the very essence of Shangaan electro is how incredibly fast it is. The way I did it was I went into my studio––which I built myself from scratch––in Soweto and played around on the keyboard and with vocal samples. A lot of the time I made them English because I wanted to try and have global appeal. I did sing on the hit “Nwa Gezani My Love” but, to be honest, singing is not really my passion. My passion will always be producing; I just love being in the studio producing a variety of artists. It appeals to me because it means you can play around with things and it gives you the chance to invent something new, all the time. You know it can take as little as six months to come up with a whole new style, for example.
It felt good when it all started to kick off around five years ago, but I also felt like it had been long overdue. I am a visionary; I told everyone that my music would go off internationally and they all said I was crazy. But look where we are! I think the world embraced Shangaan electro so readily because our music is so unique. There’s no imitation. It's not trying to copy what the Americans are doing with rap, for example.
I think the soul of Shangaan electro is painted lots of bright colors. The music has grown from a respecting nation—we respect each other and other cultures and so that’s what Shangaan is essentially about. The dancing––particularly the speed of the dance––is the most powerful aspect of Shangaan electro as it is like nothing else. The music and the movement are connected in that you can’t play the music without dancing or seeing someone dance to it. There are, of course, similarities with other street dancing crazes—for example, I love footwork. I want to see it live as I still haven’t had the chance to. I like it because it’s all about dance—it’s fast, but still a bit slower than us; they will never match us though as we are very, very fast!
When it comes to other American dance music––EDM, you would call it––I would say that because everyone is dancing and doing what they do best I enjoy seeing that. I like seeing all the emotion and passion, because that’s what I believe in. But do I like it? For me, to say that something isn’t good doesn’t make sense because all music is art and therefore valid in some way. If I went to Nigeria now, or to America, and I saw them doing their thing, I would enjoy it. If it’s dancing then I like it. I wouldn’t say I didn’t because then I would be insulting someone’s art. If I was to go up to somebody and say that what they were doing isn’t good, then I believe I would lose the right to be a musician and an artist myself. I always think, how would I feel if they insulted what I was doing?
I never thought I would be signed to a big elephant like Warp. I thought it would be a smaller label, but I was not expecting to be signed by such a big one—I never saw it coming. It was both a shock and a bonus for me. I had, of course, heard of Warp and the stuff they did because when you get into making music it’s important you know about the music industry too, in my opinion. But I thought it would take another five or ten years to get to the point when someone like Warp would consider or even know about me. The internet definitely helped speed up the process––without the internet I wouldn’t be where I am now.
Of course, the older generation from my country will never really be happy with what I am doing; it’s just one of those things. People don’t like change. They will always come and tell us to play their music and that what we’re doing is not real music. But I believe strongly and have faith in the newer, younger generation. When the older generation see everyone all over the world dancing to our music, they'll have to say "if you can’t beat them, join them."