Whenever western publications have written about Kwaito and South African House, the story has almost always been told in terms of a unidirectional migration of House Music from the United States to Africa.
This is problematic because it always omits one central factor, one that's often missing even from the South African voices sometimes interviewed. That central factor is the wealth of Southern African musical traditions that was the real precedent, the main cultural lineage, the Mother (with Chicago perhaps being the Father, which might be an exaggeration) of Kwaito and SA House.
Mbaqanga, Township Jive, SA Jazz, music styles from the Tsongas (Shangaan), Xhosas, Tswanas, Zulus, Swazis, Vendas, Sothos, Ndebeles, etc., numerous other 20th century and traditional Southern African styles, and influences from other parts of Africa, these are the true ancestors of contemporary urban electronic music from South Africa.
In many classic pre-80s South African jams, you can hear the 4 to the floor kick, the consecutive high-hats (sometimes done with clapping), the off-beat snares (as opposed to on the 2), additional percussion, distinct baselines, driving chants — all elements which live on in today’s SA dance music. Many older recordings sound almost exactly like Kwaito played solely on acoustic instruments:
Here are are two examples of unmistakable traditional precursors to SA House, one traditional, and one pre-1980s Jive:
In the earliest days of new urban music in the townships, as a new wave of Afro-American and Afro-European imports landed in the form of disco and house, SA artists took a lot of inspiration from these refreshing electronic sounds, incorporating the influences and sometimes outright imitating. Western sounds, thus, had the effect of an initial stimulant and inspiration, but its impact did not last, and soon after this initial phase, Kwaito, and a little later SA House, began to mature. They became their own thing, less and less influenced by outside sources, and borrowing more and more ideas from Southern Africa's indigenous musical heritage. Eventually, as African musical roots fully manifested themselves, the two genres took their rightful places in the history, lineage and continuum of South African music. Of note was the shift of rhythmic emphasis: as early as the 90s, Kwaito started to use more and more the homegrown “Dembow” rhythm pattern with offbeat snares, distinctly different from the mechanical Duple 1-2 beat of western house music.
Today, if one looks at canonical artists of SA House, those most emblematic of the genre, such as Dj Cleo, Dj Clock (most recent releases of these two artists notwithstanding), Black Motion or Dj Vetkuk, it is clear their music is now rooted in African traditional sounds, with American or European characteristics largely left behind. Indeed, a very good case can be made - through analysis of musical form - that South African House is now a distantly related but entirely different breed from Chicago House, with its own rhythm signature, palette of sounds, attributes, textures, and stylistic conventions; its own family tree, genealogy and history.
Yet western journalism continue to focus entirely on the American Father, to the point of completely neglecting the African Mother. Franky Knuckles was surely seminal, but this influence needs to be seen in the context of a larger cultural womb rich with the musical nutrients that nourished and gave birth to modern SA music, and its limits recognized. Too much importance, as always, is given to western exports, as if SA is only doing an African version of an American thing, as if Kwaito is only “Slowed down US house” – a view so common that it is on the Wikipedia page. Even more extreme, this article that absurdly compares the relationship of SA House to Chicago to that of the Rolling Stones to Muddy Waters, demonstrating garden variety ignorance and ethnocentricity. Oversimplified, reductionist and simply false claims such as these are made frequently, perpetuating structurally West-centric points of view. Even those with the best intentions often subconsciously take the hegemonic position, inadvertently denying Africans of cultural and historical agency. And it is not surprising that South Africans themselves often reproduce this skewed perspectives, being a people recently liberated, and still largely in awe of everything from the wealthy people up north, often undervaluing their own, in every way much more significant cultural heritage.
When it comes down to it, African Mother is much older and possessive of much larger bodies of deeper and more varied musical knowledge than American Father; the later being himself, of course, only one of her many children.
A version of this article appeared originally on the writer's blog: Ngoma Sounds.