In his brilliant book The Recording Angel, Evan Eisenberg uses the example of funk to express the way that music, having moved from a ritualistic process to become a commodity—a thing—circles back to the ritualistic by presenting itself as “thang”. In a wonderful passage that brings together the desire to own commodities and the desire to give oneself over to music’s temptations, Eisenberg writes, “A thing is what you possess, a thang is what possesses you. A thing occupies space, a thang occupies time and preoccupies people. A thing, above all, is private, a thang can be shared”.
As with funk in the ‘70s, so too with South African Shangaan disco in the ‘80s and, more recently, with the mind-boggling phenomenon that is Shangaan electro. It’s mind-boggling because, thang-like, it is temporally preoccupying, dazzlingly confusing, thrillingly insistent, and utterly possessive. It takes ownership of you in the best possible way. There is no point trying to make this music private; you have to share it with as many people as possible.
Shangaan electro is a form of dance music popular among the Shangaan people who live between southern Mozambique and the South African provinces of Limpopo and Johannesburg. It is characterized by its combination of hyper-fast beats (180 bpm being the average speed), warped electro instrumentation, and more drawn-out traditional elements such as chanting and slow hand claps. It is this mixing of temporal registers, the hyper-kinetic with the hypnotic, that makes the music so weird, yet compelling.
The man behind the music gathered on this compilation goes by the names Nozinja and Dog. Like Chilean DJ Ricardo Villalobos mixing the otherworldly strains of folk singer Violeta Parra into his hyper-charged mixes, or Syrian dabke master Omar Souleyman sounding ancient over contemporary beats, Dog produces a music that warps time and tradition in a manner that is uncanny and catchy. He is something of a one-man (or dog) machine, as related in the notes that accompany this collection: “I’m an engineer, I’m a producer, I’m a composer. It’s my record label. I’m the marketing manager. I transport them—I’ve got a micro-bus. I do everything on my own. I’ve got manufacturing. I buy CDs, I will silk-screen myself. I sing, too”.
But there’s plenty of other talent on show here. The sisters who make up Tiyiselani Vomaseve perform traditional Shangaan music which is given a special twist by Dog’s “marimba bass” (nearly all the instrumental textures emanate from his keyboards, with processed marimba and guitar being among the most used elements). Nka Mwewe is another female-fronted group that combines township choruses with frantic, dance-orientated beats. Then there are the mask-wearing Tshetsha Boys, who combine frighteningly bizarre costumes with frighteningly fast dance moves and infectious chorus lines.
Dance is at the center of this music (and, it seems, of Shangaan life), and the dancers’ routines operate at the same breakneck speed as the beats. Indeed, it’s never quite clear whether the beats are getting faster to keep up with the dancers or vice versa. It is probably more the case that each issues a challenge to the other and dancer and musician become indistinguishable. In the numerous Shangaan videos that have appeared on YouTube, musicians and dancers appear from and disappear back into the crowds of spectators. What is striking about the videos is the way the performers, for all their spectacular difference, seem to be enacting rituals of the everyday.
This sense of rootedness is useful in that it helps to deflect the more dubious tendencies of the music’s hipster potential for those outside of Southern Africa. Shangaan sounds have slowly and inevitably been spreading across the mass mediated international culture-scape and there are already debates in the blogosphere about “the Shangaan scene” and how long people have known about it. It seems that, for some, Shangaan is this year’s kuduro, or the basis for some equally reductionist comparison.
Honest Jons, the undeniably hip label behind this compilation, are following Dog’s lead by presenting this as essentially local, rural music: music as thang. However, as thing, it’s out in the world now for better or worse. If these 12 brilliant tracks are anything to go by, it’s very much for the better. Shangaan Electro issues a serious challenge to Konono No. 1’s Assume Crash Position as high-octane African album of the year.