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Wooldridge and Nxumalo-Shifting Sounds Capes and Youth Dance Cultures

Wooldridge and Nxumalo-Shifting Sounds Capes and Youth Dance Cultures

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Published by: domw on Nov 03, 2009
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Dominique Wooldridge and Sibusiso Nxumalo, ‘Shifting soundscapes and youth dance cultures’; inPieterse, E. and Meintjies, F. (eds);
Voices of the Transition. The politics, poetics and practices of social change in South Africa 
; Heinemann; Johannesburg; 2004; pp 206-214.
Shifting soundscapes and youth dance culture in Jo’burg
Dominique Wooldridge and S’busiso Nxumalo
Introduction: Jo’burg, late1980s/early 1990s
If you’re young, hip, black, and into dance culture 
- you’re probably hanging out at swanky clubs likeRazzmatazz in Hillbrow or at Countdown in town. Or maybe a tavern, one of the new up-marketshebeens springing up in Soweto. The venues are packed, the patrons are smartly dressed, the vibeis rowdy, and alcohol is the drug of choice. The music of the day is “bubblegum disco-pop” from thelikes of Brenda Fassie, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Chicco Twala – singing in a mixture of English,Zulu, Sesotho and scamto (totsitaal).
If you’re young, hip, white, and into dance culture - 
you’re probably heading for seedy inner-cityvenues like The Junction and Le Club. Almost everyone’s dressed in black and fashionably depressed(or at least trying hard to look preoccupied with existential questions). The DJ is probably playing yetanother 12” prog rock remix –or if you’re lucky some alternative rock like Sonic Youth or the Pixies.Despite the rumors that poppers are circulated through the air conditioning and that the glasses arerinsed in meths, its likely that most clubbers are using nothing harder than alcohol and splif.What white and black youth have in common is that they’re starting to get into British and Americanhouse music. Frankie Knuckles, David Morales, Mr Fingers, JM Silk, Lil' Luis Vega and Masters atWork are playing on home hi-fis in Soweto and Jo’burg’s northern suburbs. House would become thebasis of the two most dominant youth scenes in Jo’burg during the 1990s - kwaito and rave.Looking back, it is easy to imagine a moment of anticipation- an expectation of an emerging popularyouth culture that crossed racial boundaries, a ‘new’ youth culture for a ‘new’ South Africa. But thatmoment was never really there. There was certainly an expectation of something new, a feeling ofchange, of movement – linked to both the national transition process and the influx of artists andcultural artifacts from around the globe. Yet the possibility that house would form the basis of a youthculture that crossed racial lines never really seemed imminent.In the Jo’burg of the 1990s, both kwaito and rave developed along distinctly racial lines. The ravescene was overwhelmingly white, while kwaito would came to be seen as music which ‘representsSouth African township youth’ (Nhlanhla, lead singer of Mafikizolo, quoted in McCoy 2003)Dolby (2001) makes the point that the demarcation of race is closely linked to popular culture. Herresearch in a Durban highschool revealed that young South Africans tend to define racial identity interms of fashion and music preferences. Practices of cultural selection and appropriation play a criticalrole in the production of racial identities. Popular artefacts (such as clothes and music) take onspecific, racialised meanings. Cultural artifacts which act as racial markers circulate both locally andglobally, so that the global intimately shapes young people’s interaction with the everyday livedrealities of race.
Jo’burg, early 1990s
 There are many stories about the beginnings of kwaito. Our personal favourite goes like this: Onenight the
DJ doesn’t pitch. The guy who sells boerewors rolls outside the club fills in forhim. He starts slowing down house trax to mid-tempo and mixing them with chanted lyrics from localbubblegum pop. It goes down so well that he gets asked to play a regular session at
.The boerewors vendor in this story is Oscar ‘Warrona’ Mdlongwa. Oscar, with Christos Katsaitis, MduMasilela and Arthur Mafokate, is one of the pioneering DJs who invented kwaito – a kind of mid-tempohouse (around 100 to 120 bpm) with an African twist. Like house, kwaito is a genre with many
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variations, incorporating influences ranging from international house (Arthur, Mdu) to hip-hop(Mandoza, TKZee), to R&B and South African jazz (Bongo Maffin, Mafikizolo).Many accounts of the emergence of kwaito link it directly to South Africa’s transition to democracy. Forexample:Kwaito was born when Nelson Mandela was released. (Mzekezeke’s speech at the SouthAfrican Music Awards, quoted in McCoy 2003).If there is any symbol of the change that has taken place between the apartheid and post-apartheid generations, it is this music. It emerged—and this is no accident—with the electionof Nelson Mandela in 1994 (Servant 2002).While it is widely acknowledged that kwaito was played prior to the 1994, these accounts, which tendto see kwaito as the ‘authentic’ music of black youth, attribute a symbolic significance to the linkbetween kwaito and democratization. For example:For many South Africans, kwaito represents the reclamation of black cultural identity. In acountry where black culture and identity was always marginal despite a majority blackpopulation, kwaito has come to represent black pride (Bosch 2001)While kwaito would only become ‘big’ in the mid 1990s, its popularity spread rapidly in the early 1990s,mainly through street bashes and clubs. It quickly influenced clubbing styles and expectations, and by1992 or 93 it was the norm to have both a house DJ and a MC with a mic at a party. Then, followingthe influx of black students into historically white universities, the kwaito scene moved onto campus.The question of whether the end-of-year party would be a rave or bash became a heated discussion inmany university residences.Despite its popularity, kwaito seldom made the playlists of local radio stations until the mid 1990s. Afew kwaito artists got some time on the airwaves, but most radio stations shunned the genre entirely.Record labels were also slow to take an interest in kwaito. To get their music recorded, artists like Mduand Oscar started producing compilations of kwaito in tape format in bedroom studios. The tapes weresold from car boots at the side of the road.When we started making kwaito tapes around 1991 and 1992, the songs were popular butradio and record labels though it was shit music... they said it was crap because it had a fewchanted lines... (Mdu, quoted in McCloy 2003)Oscar teamed up with DJ Christos and Don Laka to form their own record company, Kalawa Jazmee.Their first release was Boomshaka's ` It's about time'. This track, sold from the side of the road, waswhat finally caught the attention of major labels.The record companies just weren't interested, it was a new genre, new to the ear, so westarted distributing it ourselves, and the Boomshaka track became big. That's when it startedout. And then suddenly the record companies were all over us (Oscar, quoted in Douglas andHarris, undated)White dance clubs started to play house and techno in the early 1990s. At first house was mixed with12” prog rock and high-energy. FourthWorld (Jeppe street), which opened in 1991, was probably thefirst house and techno club in Jo’burg. It had an ‘underground’ aethestic and advertised mainly byword of mouth. It was renowned for its experimental music and in-house smart-drink (‘psuper psonicpcyber ptonic’). After the opening of FourthWorld, other clubs began to mix house and techno intotheir play-lists. In 1994 the city’s first ‘mainstream’ rave club, ‘the Shelter’ opened in Randburg.The rave scene in Jo’burg was a low-key affair in the early 1990s. Raves were advertised by word ofmouth and phone lists, and tickets were available from Bizarre Records, a second-hand music shop inYeoville. The first commercial rave (or first rave where patrons were charged an entrance fee) wascalled ‘Evolution’ and took place in 1992 at the old Picadilly movie house. Later in the year raves wereheld at Wembley Ice rink and the old Fort.Merle Jacobs, ex-owner of Bizarre Records, recalls that there was there was no particular dress styleor ‘look’ associated with rave at this stage. LSD and cocaine were the most commonly used drugs,
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‘probably because ecstasy wasn’t easily available yet’. The use of LSD probably contributed to theemphasis placed on the spiritual and psychedelic aspects of rave.There are several different versions of what rave is. To some it is a hedonistic ‘rush culture’, a form ofentertainment based on drugs, avoidance, cheap thrills, display, and spectacle. For others rave isessentially about the music and the experience of dancing, a sensual journey which effects theindividual’s relationship between mind and body, as well as relationships between people. Others seerave as a profound spiritual experience, a way of accessing communal energy, a neo-psychedelic tripwhich emphasises unity and the interconnectedness of all things. While all these definitions can beapplied to the rave scene in Jo’burg at different periods, it is the later which best describes the scenein the early 1990s. ‘Damn New Thing’ (1992), a local fanzine, describes rave as ‘all about usingfuturist technology to return to the ancient purpose of music; communal release through ritual ecstaticdancing’.Flyers for early raves tended to emphasise movement and a break with the past. For example, the‘Evolution’ (1992) flyer advertises the rave as ‘A journey from your past… into your future!’ The front ofthe ‘1 Nation’ (1993) flyer says ‘Unity’, while the back says ‘Keep constant in your thought that thefuture is simply an invisible jigsaw for which you alone can supply the pieces to make up the fullpicture, music is the language of the globe, the password to all culture.’
Jo’burg, mid 1990s
 Until around 1994, the rave industry in Jo’burg was loosely organized. Most raves were organized byindividuals or small groups with a personal interest in the music or ideas associated with rave, andheld in warehouses or unused buildings. Merle Jacobs recalls thatNo-one made much money. Often there wasn’t enough money to pay for equipment hire, orpay people who had worked for the rave. Lots of organizers went into debt and lost money.In the mid 1990s the scene started to scale up. One reason for this is the establishment of localproduction houses, notably ICE (Incubated Cyber Energy), which improved the standards of thefacilities available at raves (particularly safe parking, toilets and free water).Another reason is the influx of promoters with experience in the rave scene in other countries, mainlyBritain. This is largely as a result of the legislation of the draconian ‘Criminal Justice and Public OrderBill’ (1994), which aimed to put an end to outdoor raves. The Bill defined a rave as anything over ahundred people gathered to play amplified music ‘characterised by the emission of a succession ofrepetitive beats’. It gave the police the power to close down raves, and to disperse a gathering of ten(or more) people if there was a suspicion that they were setting up a rave. Ravers and partyorganisers responded with several protest marches, and a ‘right to party’ movement was started.However, the Bill effectively ended the British outdoor rave scene. As a result, several promotersassociated with the British rave scene arrived in Jo’burg.Around the same time, ecstasy became easily available in Jo’burg. Leggett notes that the first arrestsfor the possession and sale of ecstasy date back to 1994, and have increased exponentially since thattime (Leggett, 2001:67). While there are no reliable statistics on ecstasy use in Jo’burg, Leggett(2001), drawing on surveys done in Durban and Jo’burg, estimates that 77% of people attending ravesuse ecstasy.The relationship between rave and ecstasy is a complex one. Reynolds (1998) argues that rave ismore than ‘music + drugs’. Rave music cannot be reduced to be a drug, and some of the majorproducers of rave music are known for their complete abstinence. However, ‘rave culture as a whole isbarely conceivable without drugs, or at least without drug metaphors: by itself, the music
thelistener’.As Sadie Plant puts it:‘This was music as a matter of modifying states of mind, perceptions, bodies, brains; musicthat became almost as immediate as drugs themselves; music that remembered thetechniques of dance and drumming, rhythm and trance, and anticipated the sense that musichas more to do with sound and frequency than melody and meaning…..the drug was the music, and the music was a means of engineering and exploring its effects.’(Plant, 1999:166)

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