Johannesburg – It is probably not a coincidence that the first kwaito hit albums were Boom Shaka’s Makwerekwere and Arthur Mafokate’s Don’t Call Me Kaffir (Baas) – both released in 1994 as seminal recordings of a genre that, 20 years later, is still going strong.
This is not a coincidence because from its first year kwaito stars celebrated the country’s newfound freedom with songs that carried controversial lyrics and words not regarded as acceptable in polite society.
Unflattering words for African immigrants and local blacks are still frowned upon, but these were a new breed of artists who were prepared to flaunt the rules.
It was a sign of rebellion but unlike the rebellion of their apartheid-era predecessors, not exactly with a clear political cause. But economically kwaito musicians were determined to express their independence by forming their own record labels and therefore becoming masters of their own destiny.
In this regard the artists who started as hawkers selling their music in cassettes from the boot of their battered cars eventually became self-styled but respectable music moguls with indie labels – notably 999 Music (Arthur Mafokate), Kalawa Jazzmee (Don Laka and Oscar Mdlongwa), Will of Steel (DJ Cleo) and TS Records (DJ Sbu and TK Nciza).
The birth of Ghetto Ruff, Bula Music, Bulldawgz and the formation of the Association of Independent Record Companies (Airco) in 2006 underscored that after a decade of existence, kwaito had grown into a formidable multimillion-rand industry in its own right.
Artistically, the genre had also made strides.
Following in the musical footsteps of homeboy Mdu Masilela – godfather of kwaito – a new breed of kwaito artists from the notoriously rough Soweto neighbourhood of Zola were at the apex of their act with multi-platinum albums like Bambatha (Zola), Mthandazo Wa Bolova (Brown Dash) and Sgelekeqe by Mandoza. All these albums were released in 1994.
Mandoza first took the genre to dizzying heights with his monster album Nkalakatha (2000) while in the same year Mzambiya, a 13-year-old kwaito prodigy from the same neighbourhood made his ambitions clear with his debut album, From Zola to Hollywood. The album featured The Sheriff (Nimrod Nkosi), co-owner of Bulldawgz Productions with Oscar Mlangeni.
Alongside big names, kwaito spawned less famous but colourful and talented outfits like Tronik, Trybe and Cream.
Kwaito queens included Iyaya (Queen Sesoko), Mshoza (Nomasonto Maswanganyi) and the genre’s first hit-makers, Boom Shaka (Thembi Seete and Lebo Mathosa). They set the tone back in 1992 with It’s About Time.
Groups like Mashamplani, Trompies, Bongo Maffin, Brothers of Peace, TKZee and Alaska also gave the sound its solo stars.
By 2005 Durban artists like T’Zozo and Professor were making waves with hit albums like Woz’eDurban and taking the genre to a new level. Alongside homeboys Big Nuz, they have stamped their authority as kwaito’s top dogs.
In its 20 years of existence, kwaito has evolved from rebel, boot-of-the-car music into a formidable youth sub-culture and a multi-million industry.
In-between it has spawned short-lived sub-genres like d’gong, kwai-hop, guz and swaito, to name a few.
It has witnessed the rise of the local hip hop movement spearheaded by the likes of Hip Hop Pantsula (Jabu Tsambo), Skwatta Kamp, Cashless Society, Pitch Black Afro and others, thanks mainly to the local hip hop independent label, Outrageous Records.
It has seen the emergence of the house DJs juggernaut, Kwani Experience’s The Birth of the Mudaland Funk, Afro-pop pioneers like Mafikizolo, Malaika and Ntando as well as Afro-soul songbirds from Sipho Sithole’s Native Rhythms stable.
Initially shunned by the SABC’s mainstream radio stations, it found vocal expression and a platform in fledgling community radio stations such as YFM and its flagship publication, Y-Mag.
At the age of 15 this soundtrack of a pulsating ghetto life eventually achieved the Zola teen sensation’s dream of conquering Hollywood when it became the real soundtrack of the Oscar-winning motion picture, Tsotsi (2005) featuring hits like Mdlwembe (Zola), Izinja (Mapaputsi) and Tjovitjo (Brickz).
And after 20 years the industry has finally honoured one of the genre’s versatile and prolific practitioners, DJ Oskido.
Last year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award during the Channel O Awards and gained a similar accolade recently at the Metro FM Awards. “Kwaito has become a culture that touches everyone by transcending social barriers,” observes Arthur Mafokate.
“It has become a lifestyle. Clothing labels like Magents, Stoned Cherrie and Loxion Kulcha are part of kwaito. As for the music, it might incorporate foreign styles like hip hop but the lyrical content will always remain ours.
“Kwaito’s longevity lies in the fact that it defines our identity as a people.”
If kwaito started as the music of young rebels without a political agenda, jazz, like the blues, began its life as an articulate artistic expression of the black condition.
And if there is any genre that poignantly expresses the beauty and majesty of South African music, that genre has to be jazz – our kind of jazz. This is the same genre that apartheid authorities couldn’t tolerate because they associated it with protest against the political establishment.
It was the music of “cheeky, educated natives” who didn’t know “their place” in a society that was organised along racial lines.
From the onset, local jazz performers, like their African American counterparts, had to reckon with the problem of the colour bar which was defined by a set of racial laws that prohibited them from expressing their craft freely in the land of their birth. They were not allowed to perform in whites-only venues or where alcohol was served.
Musicians like Mankunku Ngozi, whose seminal 1968 album, Yakhal’inkomo, captured the mood of the black condition, had to suffer the indignity of performing for white audiences behind curtains using a pseudonym.
Following the destruction of freehold mixed areas like Sophiatown (Johannesburg), Lady Selborne (Pretoria), District Six (Cape Town) and Cato Manor (Durban) – all culturally vibrant centres with rich jazz traditions – many jazz musicians were driven to despair, destitution and early graves accelerated by alcoholism.
The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 was the last straw for others who saw exile as the only answer. This exodus of South African musicians to the West was spearheaded by musical luminaries such as Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim and the Blue Notes.
Concert halls, once vibrant venues of live jazz entertainment, were left empty.
With the exception of the legendary Cold Castle Jazz Festivals, outdoor competitive affairs held between 1961 and 1964, the live jazz scene as many knew it then was virtually dead.
For influential jazzmen who remained in the country, notably Kippie “Morolong” Moeketsi, alto virtuoso and mentor, the future was indeed bleak.
In 1960 he had starred in the London tour of the King Kong jazz opera and in the same year initiated the recording of the country’s first jazz LP titled Jazz Epistle – Volume I under the name Jazz Epistles, a combo of protégés that included Hugh Masekela (trumpet), Dollar Brand (piano), Jonas Gwangwa (trombone) and bassist Johnny Gertze.
The album was a protest against the unfair treatment of black musicians who performed in white clubs.
With the mass exodus of South African artists into exile, the music that started in the smoky bars of New Orleans was transported back to its roots and gained some of these musicians international acclaim.
Miriam Makeba’s unprecedented global success in this regard is a well-documented story.
Back home Kippie recorded a handful of brilliant collaboration albums like the 1976 Tshona (with pianist Pat Matshikiza) but died a pauper in 1983.
Two years later his memory was honoured with the opening of Kippies International Jazz Club at the Market Theatre Precinct, Newtown.
The event opened a new era in the history of South African jazz and live indoor jazz performances.
The venue’s first resident band was Phambili (Forward), a jazz combo led by composer and bassist Victor Ntoni.
It boasted a formidable line-up of instrumentalists – Duke Makasi (sax), Tete Mbambisa (piano), Rashid Lanie (piano), Lulu Gontsana (drums), Lawrence Matshiza (guitar) and George Tyefumani (trumpet). For the next two decades, Kippies became the country’s premier jazz mecca and hosted a new generation of post-1990 jazz stars like Zim Ngqawana, Moses Molelekwa, McCoy Mrubata, Jimmy Dludlu, Selaelo Selota, Moses Khumalo and others too numerous to mention.
Sheer Sound, a jazz label established in 1994 by Damon Forbes, contributed significantly to the growth and development of the genre by recording new talent while reviving the careers of old musicians like Allan Kwela, who were marginalised by the apartheid-orchestrated industry in the previous decades.
Jazz appreciation societies have become an integral part of the local jazz scene while premier events such as the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz and Cape Town International Jazz Festival have exposed a new generation of artists to global stages through cultural exchange programmes, for instance.
Although Kippies eventually closed its doors in 2004 and was declared a national heritage site, an interesting chapter in the story of Joburg’s vibrant and ever-evolving jazz scene unfolded recently with the opening of The Orbit – Home of Jazz, in Braamfontein.
Back in Newtown, Morolong’s Sad Man of Jazz bronze statue cradles his beloved saxophone as he relaxes on a chair at the entrance of Kippies, seemingly deep in thought.
But as the post-1994 SA jazz rolls into the third decade, its future looks promising.
A new wave of local talent is showing the world how this thing called jazz is done.