The Real Roots of Kwaito

(bigup This Is Africa for publishing this!)

The few times western publications have written about Kwaito and South African House, styles which have thrived for many decades, the story is almost always told in terms of a unidirectional migration of House Music from the United States to Africa.  This is problematic because 1 central factor is not only understated, but entirely missing, including from the South African voices sometimes interviewed.

This central factor is the wealth of Southern African musical traditions which was the real precedent, the main cultural lineage, the Mother (with Chicago perhaps being the Father, which might be an exaggeration) of Kwaito and SA House.

Mbaqanga, Township Jive, SA Jazz, music styles from Tsonga (Shangaan), Xhosa, Tswana, Zulu, Swazi, Venda, Sotho, Ndebele, etc., tribes, numerous other Southern African 20th Century and traditional styles, and influences from other parts of Africa, these are the true ancestors of contemporary urban electronic music.

In many classic, pre-80s South African jams you can hear the 4 to the floor kick, the consecutive high-hats (sometimes done with clapping), the off-beat snares (as opposed to on the 2), additional percussion, distinct baselines, driving chants — all elements which live on in today’s SA dance music.  Many older recordings sound almost exactly like Kwaito played on acoustic instruments:

modern Kwaito:

2 examples of unmistakeable precursors to SA house, 1 of traditional music, the other of classic Jive:

During the earliest days of new urban music in the townships, as a new wave of Afro-American and Afro-European imports landed in the form of disco and house, SA artists took a lot of inspiration from these refreshing electronic sounds, incorporating the influences and sometimes outright imitating.   Western sounds had the effect of an initial stimulant and inspiration, but its impact did not last, and soon after this initial phase, Kwaito, and a little later SA House, began to mature, and became its own thing, less and less influenced by outside sources, more and more taking ideas from indigenous Southern African musical heritage.  Eventually, as African musical roots fully manifested themselves, these genres took their rightful places in the history, the lineage, the continuum, of South African music.  Important was the shifting of rhythmic emphasis: as early as the 90s, Kwaito started to use more and more the homegrown “Dembow” rhythm pattern with offbeat snares, distinctly different from the mechanical Duple 1-2 beat of Western House.

Today, if one looks at canonical artists of SA House, those most emblematic of the genre, such as Dj Cleo, Dj Clock (most recent releases of these 2 artists excepting), Black Motion, or Dj Vetkuk, the music is clearly, much more than anything else, the descendent of deep African roots, with American or European characteristics largely left behind, almost as if it was never there.  Indeed, a very good case can be made, through analysis of musical form, that South African House is now a related but entirely different breed from Chicago House, with its own rhythm signature, its own palette of sounds, attributes, textures, and stylistic conventions; its own family tree, genealogy, and history.

Yet western journalism to this day nearly always focus entirely on the American Father, to the point of completely neglecting the African Mother.  Franky Knuckles was surely seminal (unlikelihood of the gay brother impregnating anything aside), but this influence needs to be seen in the context of a larger cultural womb rich with musical nutrients which nourished and gave birth to modern SA music, and its limits recognized.   Too much importance, as always, is given to Western exports, as if SA is only doing an African version of an American thing, as if Kwaito is only “Slowed Down US House” – a distorted view so common that it is on the Wikipedia page.  Even more extreme, This article absurdly compares the relationship of SA House to Chicago to that of the Rolling Stones to Muddy Waters, demonstrating plain ignorance and ethnocentricity. Grossly over-simplified, reductionist, and simply false claims such as these are made too frequently, perpetuating structurally West-centric points of view.  Even those with the best of intentions, such as Dj Lynnee Denise, often subconsciously take the hegemonic position, inadvertently denying Africans of cultural and historical agency.   And it is not surprising that South Africans themselves often reproduce these skewed perspectives, being a people recently liberated, and still largely in awe of everything from the wealthy people up north, often under valuing their own, in every way much more significant cultural heritage.

When it comes down to it, African Mother is much older and possessive of much larger bodies of deeper and more varied musical knowledge than American Father; the later being himself, of course, only one of her many children.