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Spoek Mathambo in his video for the song "Control" (Screen grab)
Spoek Mathambo in his video for the song "Control" (Screen grab)

Russell Smith: On Culture

In South Africa, the music is hyphenated - and pervasively violent Add to ...

In South African singer Spoek Mathambo's new video, for the song Control, ghoulish children torture each other in abandoned buildings, they are coated in viscous black and white liquids, they appear to have convulsions. There are skulls, a gas mask, fire. The singer himself chants his monotone through a megaphone in a cemetery, wearing a clerical-looking white suit. Then he's beaten by a mob with rubber hoses.

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It's not the cheeriest thing - it's township horror reminiscent of the apartheid days - but it's a strangely beautiful thing, a crisp black-and-white art film that could have been shot by Michael Haneke or Ingmar Bergman. And that beat, that driving beat, it's something scary and propelling, and it's so familiar - what is it exactly?

It's not till you hear a familiar riff hidden in the layers of the song that you realize this is a cover of She's Lost Control by that whitest of groups Joy Division. And that makes it even eerier. I had not imagined the existence of Afro-Goth before, but it seems natural in this imaginative guy's hands. Funny, his music is always described in hyphenated terms - township-tech, Afro-futurism, electrowave hip-house, darkwave electro-funk - as is so much recent South African music. It's a furiously dynamic scene that's all about overlaps, mashups, borrowings, crossovers of the unlikeliest kind.

It's also pervasively violent. Mathambo's debut album is called Mshini Wam, a version of the menacing phrase "Umshini Wami" ("my machine"). The phrase is central to a Zulu song sung by the African National Congress in the days of armed struggle, and now primarily associated with supporters of President Jacob Zuma, and when they sing it, it is assumed to mean, "Bring me my machine gun." It no longer connotes noble anti-apartheid causes but rather the worst kind of tribal xenophobia. Mathambo says he uses it to mean something positive, like "bring on technology," but still, it's pretty provocative.

There is something fearlessly extreme in this culture. Gleeful violence and cross-cultural experimentation are also the favourite gimmicks of that more famous South African shock troop Die Antwoord. This rap duo, a husband-and-wife team who call themselves Ninja and Yo-Landi, play the roles of chav Afrikaners who also happen to be multiracial in their interests and associates and really like African-American hip hop. They're also always described with multiple hyphens - "zef-rave-rap" is their favourite.

One of their hits, Evil Boy, includes rapping in Xhosa. It's full of penises and rude words and monsters and threats of violence, but it's still not quite as nihilistic as the short film in which they have just appeared. This 15-minute art video, directed by American wunderkind Harmony Korine, is also blithely called Umshini Wam, after the same Zulu struggle song. It tells the story of two wheelchair-bound and infant-sleeper-wearing gangsters on a crime rampage in the suburbs. With machine guns. The elfin, albino, helium-voiced Yo-Landi (who sports the coolest haircut in the world today) cheerfully sings, "I'm old enough to bleed, old enough to bleed, old enough to smash a brick in your teeth when you sleep."

It's funny, surreal, poignant - and the performances by the two singers are so good that they prove one thing people have been suspicious of all along: They're basically actors.

Indeed, the apparently inarticulate Ninja is actually a clever artist with the very un-Afrikaans name of Watkin Tudor Jones. He has been in a number of other bands and art projects playing very different personas. It's an Ali G sort of thing he's doing here, maybe serious, maybe part satirical. So what - all rock stars are playing a role, and the result is convincingly electrifying.

The violence of both style and content in recent South African pop is still unnerving, and one must admit, exhilarating, whether it's meant as satire or not. A place still steeped in anger from the apartheid years and still facing daily crime violence is producing music that is so anarchic and uncensored it's like something from a futuristic Wild West.

But even more shocking (particularly for someone like me, who left there in the sixties) is its easy embrace of miscegenation, of hybridity. In an interview, Ninja has described South Africa as a "fokken fruit salad," which is not at all what I remember - I remember a place where nothing was mixed together, on pain of imprisonment.

 

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