Interview: Shangaan Electro

This article originally appeared in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on July 12, 2013.

It is, they say, all in the waist. Ladies: fling your head to the heavens and flail one leg at terminal velocity. Gents: sling an animal hide round your midriff and engage in warp-speed stomping. Et voila, you’re ready for Shangaan Electro – the rapid-fire South African dance phenomenon whose grassroots day-glo hyper-pop took off in Soweto townships in the mid-2000s. It has since taken Barcelona, Sydney and Berlin by storm, and is set to touch down in Glasgow next week.

The dazzling craze is spearheaded by a charismatic record producer, label kingpin and former mobile phone salesman called Richard “Nozinja” Mthethwa (aka Dog), who was raised in rural Limpopo but is now based in Soweto. Limpopo’s traditional Shangaan music – live percussion, sinuous bass/guitar rhythms – was popularised in the West thanks to General MD Shirinda, who performed on Paul Simon’s Graceland (I Know What I Know), but Nozinja’s ultra-modern, hi-octane Shangaan sound is re-wired with kamikaze MIDI keys, delirious electro-beats and re-pitched vocal samples. It has found avid fans in acts like The Knife, Caribou and Damon Albarn, whose Honest Jon’s imprint released an excellent Shangaan Electro compilation in 2010.

Several of that record’s stars will perform at Glasgow’s Shangaan Electro carnival, including the ecstatic, orange boiler-suited Tshe Tsha Boys, vocalists Tiyiselani and Nkata Mawewe, and the dapper, technicolour-suited Nozinja, whose magnificent Nwa Gezani My Love became a YouTube / club sensation in 2011. The tour will also feature some of Shangaan Electro’s most expeditious dancers for a series of workshops and a live extravaganza, thanks to Glasgow promoters Highlife and Cry Parrot.

“The dance workshops are kind of a re-enactment of how Shangaan Electro is out and performed in the streets of Soweto,” says Cry Parrot’s Fielding Hope. “The music itself is fast-paced, it’s quite esoteric, and it’s quite mad, but the whole dance thing around it is completely and utterly bonkers too – it’s kind of formed this fascinating whole new dance culture.”

What strikes about the Shangaan Electro phenomenon is its sense of community, physicality, communal joy, and accessibility (the workshops are for all-ages and Nozinja’s 11-year-old son is one of the Tshe Tsha Boys). It’s an interesting mode of distribution, too – touring the Shangaan Electro culture wholesale, bringing their music, and dancers, and merchandise, to us, and passing it on. “Yeah, despite it being a business model for Nozinja, there’s quite a strong sense of community about the whole thing, which is great,” says Hope. “I think that’s one of the strongest things about it. If you watch the videos, you see loads and loads of people out in the streets, dancing and having an amazing time, it’s all really positive.”

Shangaan’s local resonance is vibrant even before Nozinja and co come to town. “We’ve got Auntie Flo providing support, which I think is ideal because Brian [D’Souza] has championed Shangaan Electro more than anyone else in the Glasgow music scene,” offers Hope. “He’s been DJ-ing it for years, and I think his own music is quite inspired by Shangaan Electro – if you listen to Future Rhythm Machine [Auntie Flo’s superb debut album, which was long-listed for this year’s Scottish Album of the Year Award], you can feel the essence of Shangaan Electro in some of the rhythms and speeds.”

Shangaan’s dance-floor popularity was celebrated and explored last year, thanks to the Shangaan Shake compilation, which saw the likes of Actress, Theo Parrish, Burnt Friedman and Hype Williams reconfigure Shangaan Electro works. It made for fascinating listening – as do the thrilling Shangaan 12-inches Caribou’s Dan Snaith is releasing via his Jialong imprint – but as a showcase, 2010’s straight-up Shangaan Electro compilation is, as yet, unsurpassed. Hope agrees. “I love Honest Jon’s and I liked how the original Shangaan Electro album was packaged – they made sure it was all about the music, and they presented it in a DJ-friendly format, which was really important because that’s how lots of us heard Shangaan Electro, through DJs playing it out,” he says.

“I think that’s possibly the best way to be introduced to Shangaan Electro,” Hope reflects. “If you’re in a club, and they’re playing traditional house and techno or African music and the BPMs [beats per minute] and rhythms are a bit more straight-up, and then Shangaan Electro comes on as some sort of crazy thing at the end, everyone turns round going, ‘What the hell is this? How do I dance to this?’ – And at the same time, you can feel your body jerking all over the place,” he laughs. “Most people have never heard music like that before on dance floors, music quite as fast. That’s the thing people can’t quite believe – the music is over 180 BPM. I struggle to think of any other dance music that is that speed.”

What about Scotland’s favourite 1990s luminous rave craze, happy hardcore, which was big on ludicrous tempos (circa 180 BPM), pitched-up vocals and rapid-fire melodies – might there be a kinship? “Yeah, and I think it’s got a similar sort of liberal energy to it as well,” nods Hope. “I find happy hardcore strangely liberating, because it’s so uncompromised and so in-your-face, and I think Shangaan’s got a similar vibe to it. It’s music beyond confines. With both Shangaan and really fast happy hardcore it’s got this almost cartoonish joy to it. It feels like it’s broken free of the mould in a way. I think that’s brilliant.”

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