The Real Roots of Kwaito

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.

4 thoughts on “The Real Roots of Kwaito

  1. “Mbaqanga, Township Jive, SA Jazz, music styles from Tsonga (Shangaan), Xhosa, Tswana, Zulu, Swazi, Venda, Sotho, Ndebele, etc.”


    Your intentions are good, but you also gloss over a lot of issues. Old school kwaito is slowed-down house, even the early proponents will attest to that (DJ Christos, DJ Oskido, Arthur Mafokate, Don Laka)

    What you also fail to point out is that there were different sides to kwaito. What came out of Kalawa Jazmee was different to 999music which, in turn, was different to what was coming out of, say, M’du productions or Ghetto Ruff.

    “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”

    Hm, condescending much?

    While your efforts are great, you fail to engage meaningfully with a topic which could’ve opened up alternative views to the ‘roots of kwaito’ issue.

  2. Hey Ngoan’a, thanks very much for your message!

    1. my thesis is that AFTER the initial phase, a time when Chicago House was not only taken as inspiration but often “straight imitated” by SA artists, SA music came into its own. So i did absolutely acknowledge the “seminal” influence from the US.

    2. good point about the different strands of Kwaito not being mentioned, but a dissection of the genre is not the focus of this piece. maybe a good idea for another article… maybe you should write it? 🙂

    3. i suppose a statement like that can seem condescending. but it is truthful to what i have observed: SA youths often prize American exports more than their own local culture. Kanye West is worth more than Shangaan Music. This is incontestable.

    • It’s apparently easier to criticize than to politely try to educate. By the way, Zhao. Mad props. Folks like you Ben Labbrave, Wesley Pentz (Diplo) and the whole global house sound are like my life-blood. Keep doing what you’re doing. From one global citizen to another, much love. Your whole radio ngoma is sooo dope.

      My one and only question is: where the hell is Asia with the whole global house sound? Latin Am – Nu-Cumbia; US – Bmore/Juke/Jit/Go-Go; Europe – Funky/Dubstep; Caribbean – Bubblin/Dancehall; Africa – too much to name (kwaito, kuduro, azonto, cha3bi for starters); but WHERE IS ASIA?! It’s like the fifth piece to four piece puzzle that everyone says should be there but doesn’t seem to be. What gives?

      • there are amazing dance rhythms in S.Asia, and S.E.Asia, Central Asia, and of course The Middle East. The reasons for, say, Thai Molam, which i casually call S.E. Asian Cumbia, has not much made its way to “the West” are economic and political.

        The Han Chinese (my ancestors) colonized the entire continent many thousands of years ago, just like Europeans, and destroyed or marginalized thousands of ethnic minority cultures along the way, all of whom had more colorful music and dance than the Han themselves. The Uyghur for instance, have awesome music, and are today still persecuted by the Han. In more recent history, Chinese culture was frozen a few hundred years ago by corrupt kings of an ancient empire which was in decline, and then colonialism, civil war, and dictatorship completely killed any possibility of cross-pollination with the world at large, and innovation of any “youth culture” at home. There are recordings of Funk/Jazz/Pop/Dance music similar to the Thai Funk stuff, of Chinese diaspora in other parts of Asia in the 60s and 70s, but it was not possible at home. So for reasons purely political and circumstantial, there is a real void of dance music culture in China and many other parts of East Asia.

        hope that answers your question a little bit.

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