My immediate impression of Johannesburg was of a modern, wealthy and stable city with an international air, an impression bolstered by the friendly, smartly dressed, hip youngsters around me who seemed as informed as anyone in the East Village or London. But soon a more complex picture emerged.
One's experience of any city can, of course, be very different depending on where and with whom you spend time. For the grumpy travel writer Paul Theroux arriving by bus from Botswana, Jo'burg was scary; for a media person I met in Berlin prior to the trip, it was boring, having experienced only the affluent suburbs; for me, it was charming, exhilarating, sad, endearing, informative, familiar, strange, challenging, inspiring, frustrating, and awesome.
DJ Zhao @ Chaf Pozi
A Chinese person in Soweto must be an extremely rare occurrence, and I was told that I was the very first to ever enter a local club, not to mention taking the stage and manning the DJ decks. Yet the most extreme reaction from strangers to this anomaly were curious glances, welcoming smiles and delightful disbelief before my sets started, and high fives, cries of joy and hugs when my different but surely recognizable sounds began. Nearly everyone I met was friendly, warm and open-minded; the only garden variety asshole who did not shake my hand when offered was this rude and almost hostile DJ who spun, perhaps not so incidentally, Top-40 American rap.
The legendary Panyaza is a world famous spot where people eat fresh braai (BBQ) and rock to pumping South African House and Kwaito delivered by a constant rotation of DJs. It consists of an outdoor area enclosed by shops under a huge tent holding up to 1,000 people, and the party starts every Sunday at noon, is packed by 2pm, and the good vibes keep flowing steadily late into the night. The best sets I heard were deep, techy and tribal house: funky, driving and percussive, sometimes with vocals in Zulu and other South African languages, and that unmistakeable South African oomph: "woza woza wozawozawozawoza". The patrons are very picky, and are known to shut DJs down after the first 5 minutes. The music policy basically boils down to the phrase "no mainstream", but the mainstream must have slightly different meaning here than in Europe and America, as a few DJs played tunes infused with Kenny G type smooth jazz, or clichéd R&B crooning.
My set, around dusk, of classic Ngoma mashups and edits in the 125bpm range, including some Yoruba ritual singing, Ghanaian jazz, traditional South African drumming and Ethiopian funk all underpinned by Afro-House beats and bass, won over not only the crowd but the club owners and resident djs – the booker welcomed me back any time, and told me a week later that people were still asking about it. Some mistook the Cameroonian pygmy-derived flutes of Francis Bebey on one of the edits for Chinese music, which was funny but also makes sense: the pygmy flute does have an unmistakeable East Asian feel. The sun set as the rhythms got heavier - an unforgettable night.
In a place where the parents of people my age nearly all love Kwaito and new House Music (quick to enter into a discussion about Dj Clock's recent releases, for example), what constitutes "underground" is different from the West. Here, without much of a generational gap or cultural fragmentation, the word seems to mostly mean "music that hasn't yet made it big", and includes the freshest sounds on the streets (Sgubu, for instance, is a new breed of house music stemming from the Mujava camp in Pretoria). I was very disappointed to find out, after searching in vain, that distribution channels for such new sounds simply do not exist in Jo'burg; often the only access is directly from the artists themselves, at their gigs. In a country so rich with rhythmic and musical ideas, the absence of a decent infrastructure for much of this music is saddening, especially when you recall the rows of neatly stacked white label just-out-this-week dance 12 inches in the specialty shops of rhythmically-impoverished Europe. In fact, independent record shops are themselves a rarity in Jo'burg; there are only chain outlets, and not very well stocked ones either.
Another big outdoor event had a "retro" theme, with some local fashion labels coming out to represent. Mixing up traditional African decorative motifs, patterns, and jewellery with classic Western designs and contemporary global trends, the funky outfits - from chic and elegant to eyebrow-raising unusual - were just as deliciously creative and wonderfully varied, as refined, polished and stylish as anything you'd encounter on the hippest streets of Tokyo. One girl pulled off a stunning goth b-girl Lolita glam outfit, and next to her was a handsome dude in a well fitting thin tweed jacket, Keffiyeh and knee high boots, successfully combining professor, outdoorsman and international hipster protest.
A rainbow nation still segregated
Apartheid Museum poster (Solomon Mahlangu, a hero of the struggle, was the first MK cadre to be hanged by the apartheid government.)
Five hours at the Apartheid Museum rendered razor sharp the reality of life under the system known by this Afrikaans/Dutch word, a word which was only an abstraction for me before. The systematic oppression of and violence against South Africans in every sphere of life continued in broad daylight until 1994: slave labor, abject work conditions and low wages; suppression of education and erasure of African culture; denial of the right to own land; denial of health care; forced segregation; forced relocation of entire communities; normalized hunger and depression; routine degradation and humiliation - a system in which "people were arrested, abused, beaten and banished for trifles". People who fought for equality and justice (including a few coloureds and whites), who were imprisoned, tortured and murdered by the police, were nothing but terrorists in the eyes of most world governments, until as recent as 2008 (when Nelson Mandela was finally taken off the US Terrorism Watch List). Many nations continued to not only tolerate, but collaborate with the "followers of Goebbels" (Nadine Gordimer) that was the Apartheid regime until the very end.
All such official edifices to crimes of the state against humanity, be it a museum like this or streets named after civil rights leaders, tell two big lies, even as they acknowledge and commemorate. The establishment makes the struggle seem 1. a part of the past, instead of very much ongoing, and 2. a part of itself, instead of its actual enemy in real life, as it always has been and currently is. As I absorbed the collection of photographs, films, recordings, texts and objects in this museum (yes, owned by a white guy) which document but a tip of the Apartheid iceberg, I kept in mind of the fact that many injustices continue and that the struggle is far from over.
According to the museum's director, just over 9% of South Africa's current population is white, yet this minority owns 90% of the land and holds most of the high paying jobs. Eighteen years after the official end of Apartheid and the overall wealth distribution has not changed much, leaving the country to vie every year with Brazil as the world's most unequal society. And wherever there is such uneven wealth distribution, there is, of course, crime. Nonetheless, in Soweto, which is obviously still very poor, it is actually very safe because of tightly knit communities and their brand of tough street justice. As you'd expect, it's also relatively safe in rich areas because of high security. But in the black suburbs between Soweto and city centre, and many other areas where I stayed, I was told it's still not a good idea to go out alone at night, as muggings, robberies and car-jackings are fairly common.
This was a rather cheesy club located inside a casino, but it was the only mixed crowd I played to during the entire tour.
During my 3-week stay close to Soweto, apart from when I was at the malls in city centre (Sandton), at a cheesy mixed club inside a casino, or at the museum, I saw six or seven white people and no East Asians (despite there being hundreds of thousands living in the city). In Sandton, groups of friends hanging out were almost always consisted of people with the same ethnic background, and I saw no mixed-race couples at all (but many flamboyant pretty boys holding hands, which was refreshing). The separateness of social spheres in Johannesburg along lines of class and race seems, in my estimation, significantly more pronounced than NYC or Paris.
Although there is a LOT of great music in Jo'burg, people’s general taste reflects the business and industrial nature of the city: more commercial compared to places like Pretoria or Durban. But much more troubling is that - judging from my new friends who are really into music, other djs and pretty much everyone I spoke to, people in Jo'burg all know and accept mainstream American (c)rap and generic Euro Ibiza fodder, but have very little to no idea about new developments in other parts of Africa such as Angolan House, Kuduro, Hiplife or Naija; and there is no exposure to underground sounds from the West such as UK funky, Juke or Moombahton (there are now parties where Dubstep and Drum'n'Bass are played, but it's usually of the predictable variety). And when it comes to the incredibly varied and bottomless wealth of African traditional music, South Africans generally seem just as ignorant as Europeans or Americans, having never even heard of Soukous (!). And as many post-colonial theorists have pointed out, the South-to-South communication lines desperately needs to be opened: South Africans seem entirely disconnected from India or South America: when I mentioned Cumbia, Tribal Guarachero, Baile Funk or Bhangra, all I got in response were blank stares.
Vintage lifestyle in Pimville
SA House rules the clubs, but glossy US exports with big production budgets are valued more highly than many other forms of locally produced music; yet the latter, to me, is without a doubt artistically and intellectually much more sophisticated, beautiful, and rewarding. When I asked for Shangaan music, people in the shops all thought it was HILARIOUS, and started doing sarcastic little rump shaking dances. Even though it is clear that they all enjoy it, they have to make fun of the music because it is perceived as rural and backwards, and thus not "cool" at all. They would have been surprised to learn that in 2011 the Shangaan tour rocked Berlin's Berghain, one of the top 10 most famous and prestigious dance clubs in all of Europe.
Life in South Africa is saturated with Kanye and Beyonce, Cosby Show and the Fresh Prince, McDonalds and KFC. Agents like these make up the current tide of insidious cultural imperialism, which South Africans are allowing to dominate through sheer economic might, even as it marginalises, destroys and replaces local narratives, melodies and forms. Between the two reputable book sellers in Jo'burg, they had exactly two books by black South African writers - I was told is that books by black authors, especially the politically-conscious, which is to say often outlawed or exiled ones, were never printed in large quantities, if not banned altogether, often circulating only in the underground, and many or most remain out of print; meanwhile, Eurocentric versions of history is still taught in schools. With the now adult generation largely deprived of higher education under Apartheid, and the quality of the current underfunded education system being among the lowest in the world, US hegemonic brainwashing is particularly effective.
If the world is living in "the long intellectual shadow of the Age of European Empire" (Satya Mohanty), South Africa is still reeling from the immediate aftermath of Apartheid. Yet despite ongoing injustices and unofficial segregation - as well as foreign cultural infestation - vibrant and strong forms of local cultures still manage to survive, mutate and thrive.
DJ Zhao lives and works in Berlin; his work can be heard at Ngoma Sound.