Post-Apartheid Pop

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Artsy types in Johannesburg will tell you straight out: Kwaito is dead. Next they’ll start listing their favorite kwaito songs.

South Africa’s only indigenous electronic music, kwaito was born in the country’s black townships just before the apartheid regime fell apart in the early ’90s. It has a hypnotic mid-tempo pulse somewhere between reggaeton and a Chicago stepper’s beat, fleshed out with an urgent mix of Africanized English and native languages called “vernac.”

When democracy came, kwaito captured the new energy of independence and flourished in the “gray areas,” neighborhoods like Yeoville and Hillbrow that were among the first to be racially integrated. By the turn of the millennium, venues like Rockafellas and Tandoor on Rockey Street in Yeoville featured kwaito shows every week, if not every night.

Now, drive around Soweto on a Saturday night looking for spots playing kwaito, and you might start to believe the reports of its death. House music rules the sets, with European imports mixing more or less seamlessly with South African productions by DJ Fresh or Bantu Soul. House music is a natural counterpart to the freaknik atmosphere that pervades Johannesburg right now. Everywhere you go in “Jozi”–from trendy Melville to the townships–the moneyed, the poor, and the hustlers in between are all posing off, scoping one another out, snapping pics, and jumping into conversation with strangers. Years after the end of apartheid and the commencement of real democracy, South Africa’s coming-out party is just getting into full swing.

Johannesburg is bubbling: with optimism, with preparations for the 2010 World Cup, with talk of South Africa joining the United Nations Security Council. Now Soweto–not a traditional name but a shortening of South West Township–is no longer a ghetto but a sprawling city unto itself. Light years from the images of schoolkids and white soldiers clashing amid tin shacks in 1980s news clips, 2008 Soweto houses shiny monuments to democracy like the Mandela Museum, as well as some 20 millionaires and as much diversity–from posh suburbs to shantytowns–as the rest of the country.

Like the generation that spawned it, kwaito has not so much disappeared as moved uptown.

“We’re going through a big transition right now,” says Mr. Bouga Luv Two Shoes, a South African rapper born Kabelo Mabalane who can plausibly claim to be the king of kwaito as part of the trio TKZee. “Four or five years ago our music was quite prevalent in the clubs, but now it’s out. Kwaito is more like in people’s houses, the lifestyle side of things.”

There are signs of a kwaito resurgence, however. TKZee, which split up several years ago, has reunited for concerts. Newer kwaito artists like Brickz and Brown Dash are scoring hits. And nearly every artist who proclaims the genre dead claims that he is personally going to resurrect it.

The young South Africans now hitting drinking age are the first to grow up without the mental segregation that came with apartheid. Every camera snap, every pose is an expression of their birthright, a dance that says: our moment, our city, our space, ours. To understand the vibe, think the optimism of Motown, the pageant of black expressionism in late ’90s Atlanta, Chic’s “Good Times” anthem. Then multiply it by a whole country.

House music is the sound track of those aspirations, and the future wouldn’t look good for kwaito except that kwaito in some sense is house music. Much of kwaito’s originality comes in the lyrical content and the township subculture attached to it: the pantsula dance style; the uniform–a floppy Gilligan hat called a sporty (pronounced spotty), Dickies and Pro-Keds or Chuck Taylor techies; the slang called tsotsi-taal, or gangster talk. Take all that away and kwaito is basically slow house, making the current resurgence a weird return to its roots.

If there’s one section of the cultural landscape that hasn’t changed, it’s Alex. Established back in 1912, Alexandra is one of Jo’burg’s oldest black communities, predating even Soweto, and the kwaito subculture is alive and kicking there. Every Sunday afternoon, a backyard barbecue breaks out at Joe’s Butchery, where the DJ plays house, but the vibe is kwaito. From Joe’s everyone migrates to an open-air club up the street, and then on to the exclusive Club Zambezi. The next night they repeat the ritual on a bigger scale, spilling out of a small nightclub called Cheeks to transform 15th Street into a street dance.

Around 3 a.m., when the energy on 15th Street is winding down, some dude in a sporty will jump on top of a speaker stack or a dumpster and bust some pantsula steps, stiff arms held out dramatically, accentuating the long angles of the body like something between a pop-and-lock contortion and those ’70s funk poses you see on the intro to Good Times. The slim, dreadlocked girl running the turntables looks out the Plexiglas window of Cheeks, across the sea of people and the twinkling valley of shanties behind them, and pitches down a house record that sounds more or less like the last one, and suddenly everybody goes crazy.

Excerpted from the Fader(March 2008). Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (8 issues) from 71 W. 23rd St., Floor 13, New York, NY 10010;

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