Apartheid has ended, but in the South African music industry, only if you’re under-25. If you’re a Caucasian European wanting to feel some good ol’ liberal guilt, try dancing in a club where the clientele is entirely, pointedly, black, instead of with the white clientele next door. Music in Africa can be heavily divided between the descendents of the colonists and the colonised, but the rise of specifically South African dance genres like kwaito have begun to break down the old cultural divisions for the first generation to grow up in the new Rainbow Nation.
Kwaito, the most typical and popular indigenous dance genre in the country, comes from the poor bottom of SA society; the name derives from the Isicamtho term ‘kwaai’, meaning angry, strict, or ‘cool’. A creole dialect from the largest township in the country, Jo’burg’s Soweto, Isicamtho is what’s known as a Tsotsikaal – literally, “thug language” – the gang languages and slang dialects of the ghettos. The controversies that have dogged kwaito in recent years mirror those that have chased African-American music forms like gangster rap, but the two share little more than both being male-dominated genres created by those with darker skin tones; the closest cultural comparison could best be made with Jamaican dancehall, another genre that came out of a repressive system on the verge of collapse.
The main influence on kwaito is house (Chicago, mostly), but it takes other typically Western genres and melds them with traditionally African music forms. It is just as much mbaqanga as disco, as much 80s R&B as isicathamiya. The goldrush that caused Johannesburg’s population explosion also gave some Soweto residents the chance to buy synthesisers and turntables; kwaito gained underground popularity quickly, and in 1994 the newly-elected ANC government passed a law stating that all local radio stations had to satisfy a local music ‘quota’ of between 20-40%, driving kwaito into the mainstream. By the beginning of the new millennium it began to absorb further elements of hip-hop and rap – some older artists bemoaning what they saw as the gradual loss of the genre’s African aspects for a thuggish celebration of power.
Mainly, kwaito involves slowed-down house beats (to almost the tempos of garage), much heavier bass, male-female vocal dynamics and lots of live call-and-response. It is a stubbornly apolitical music in that it rarely deals lyrically with anything more than the act of dance – though the tendency to avoid political statements in such a political country is, in itself, somewhat of a political act. It is a young peoples’ music, for dancing in both the shebeens (simple dance parties in bars and private houses) and upmarket clubs of the country; and, like hip-hop in America, has generated a whole subculture for those who find in it an identity that they otherwise lack. Further cross-pollination with other South African genres (like SA psychadelic trance) and a burgeoning rave scene contribute to a uniquely African form of music where white, black and coloured (SA term for mixed-race) can hang out and forget about the colours of their skins.
Dunedin, on the southeast shore of New Zealand’s South Island, has the same population as Grimsby, and through a quirk of urban planning the city limits are thrice that of London. Its most prominent tourist attraction is the world’s steepest paved road. The local students pass the time by ceremonially burning sofas in the street, prancing naked through the fire in the manner of pagans taking a rite of passage. It can be frustrating, living on the edge of the world.
A bunch of kiwi kids in the late-70s, like everyone else, started hearing the punk bands coming from the northern hemisphere and, with further influence from the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, they figured that the violent thuggish release of the New Rock could be a better way to pass the time than destroying furniture. After the first wave of such bands had been and gone (of which the Enemy were undoubtedly the best and most influential, possessing talent furlongs ahead of their Coventry namesakes), the second wave of post-punk indie bands gave New Zealand a music scene as innovative and exciting as any in post-war Western music; and the Flying Nun record label did for the kiwis what Factory, Sub Pop and Rough Trade did for the Brits and Yanks.
Roger Shepherd founded the label in 1981, in Christchurch, signing up the bands he’d heard and loved around the south. It was the debut single by The Clean, ‘Tally Ho’, and its unexpected chart success that first brought attention to the label and the Dunedin scene. After the massive success of the Dunedin Double EP (featuring The Clean, The Verlaines, The Stones, and Sneaky Feelings) the press coined the term ‘Dunedin Sound’ for the shared lo-fi tinny experimental feedback-pop sensibilities that the bands (roughly) shared.
The curse of distance meant that none of the Flying Nun bands cracked the UK, yet echoes of bands like the Chills and the Bats appear in Britpop, and Headless Chickens in Madchester. In America, however, the label’s 80s roster is somewhat more revered, especially amongst fellow musicians (and Pitchfork litters references to FN bands like nobody’s business) – Stephen Malkmus of Pavement has long acknowledged the debt he owes to The Clean; Tall Dwarfs were a huge influence on the Elephant Six collective of bands (such as Neutral Milk Hotel and Elf Power); even the current punk-shoegaze-feedback-angry-whatnot revival has archetypes in bands like Straightjacket Fits. Throw in other classic groups like the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience and the DoubleHappys and you have a scene that few countries can compete with in terms of influence and vigour, let alone any as small and empty as New Zealand.
These days Flying Nun is owned by Warner Music, and the days of signing scratchy lo-fi bands are long gone – but the label’s early compilations (try Tuatara or In Love With These Times) remain a grandly efficient way to start investigating the Dunedin Sound. There’s also a great documentary available for free on YouTube, Heavenly Pop Hits, which nicely summarises the scene.