British journalist and author of the monumental “Altered State”, Matthew Collin has just released his latest work “Rave On“. This new book traverses across times, continents and peoples to give what can only be described as one of the most extensive, accessible and exhilarating accounts of “rave” music. What makes this book special is Collin’s ability to weave in historical and cultural detail alongside in-depth interviews to unearth whether rave and all that it was founded upon, can exist in the mainstream. Meeting the promoters, DJs, artists, and clubbers in each location, Collin is able to trace how rave went from counterculture to multi-billion dollar industry and what kind of space it occupies today. From the techno that unified a divided Berlin to the house pumping through what was once a “disco paradise” (now known as Ibiza), Collin takes the reader deep into the underbelly of rave.
For anyone interested in the history of rave culture and music, this is your new bible. In this exclusive excerpt from “Chapter 5: House Nation, South Africa”, Collin explores the relationship between house music and political and social freedom in the southernmost African country. Speaking to those who are currently operating in the kwaito and gqom genres in the backstreets of the country, he finds that the explosion in new sounds here is the product of a country still trying to heal, of a place where suffering is the norm and music is a way out.
“Part of the reason for the popularity of deep house was political. Arriving not long before the country’s liberation from apartheid in 1994, it was perfectly placed to occupy the cultural free spaces that opened up as white minority rule finally ended.
‘A lot of electronic music is party music, and for the last 20 years we’ve had a big reason to celebrate,’ says Nthato Mokgata, alias Spoek Mathambo, the Soweto-born producer and vocalist who became one of the most inspirational performers on the country’s avant-garde electronic scene. ‘Being a democracy for a first time, that creates a culture all of its own, people being free to move around where they used to not be able to.’
The subtitle to Future Sound of Mzansi, the feature-length documentary that Mathambo co-directed in 2014, was ‘Welcome to the Apartheid After-Party’. He argues that electronic dance music was the soundtrack to liberation for the country’s youth in a similar way to how techno became the new pop culture of reunified Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
‘A lot of the music culture and party culture comes directly from the fact that it is a freedom party – not just any party, but a freedom party,’ he explains. ‘It’s not just the freedom to express oneself but the literal thing of being able to go to different places at different times because there were curfews before that. Because of their race, people wouldn’t be allowed into certain establishments.
‘It’s a very functional, real freedom, not just freedom of expression. Being able to be in the street, 2,000 of you with a sound system without the army shooting you down – that’s what it’s about.’
These were exhilarating times with a genuine sense of new possibilities emerging. ‘For a few years after the end of white rule in 1994, Nelson Mandela’s visionary leadership encouraged the hazy belief that a political miracle had occurred and that a new South Africa had been born, exorcised of the torment of the past,’ wrote Financial Times correspondent Alec Russell in his book about the post-apartheid era.
Public space had even been even designed to keep races apart and stop people from gathering, says urban planner Zahira Asmal: ‘During apartheid, three black people standing on a corner together talking was considered a demonstration.’ So after the night-time curfews imposed on black people by the apartheid regime to quell unrest were lifted, there was an outpouring of repressed energy.
‘Before 1994, if you lived in a township, there was a curfew. By seven or eight everyone was on the streets, and the streets were patrolled by police with Casspirs [armoured vehicles],’ explains Duncan Ringrose, the former director of the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival. ‘Then 1994 came and suddenly you didn’t have to be in your house at night, and you could make some noise, so the street bash culture just exploded. It was this eruption of celebration and it spilled out onto the streets with sound systems.’
Clouds of pungent smoke drift languidly over the low-rise concrete buildings of Gugulethu, one of the impoverished townships that sprawls outwards to the east of Cape Town. The heavy smell of barbecued meat in the air is almost potent enough to be intoxicating, as people rush to and fro with plates heaped high with choice cuts for the grill and bottles of bring-your-own hooch.
For years, the streets of Gugulethu had no names, just the initials NY – standing for ‘native yard’ – and a number. Many of its original inhabitants were forcibly moved here in the sixties when Cape Town’s multiracial District Six neighbourhood was razed by the apartheid regime.
Mzoli’s grill restaurant on NY115 in Gugulethu had become something of a local institution, attracting hungry carnivores of all races from all over the city to chow down on steaks, ribs and sausages, guzzle beer and party hard to the DJs who pumped their house beats into the afternoon sunshine. I was there with Andile ‘Max’ Stemela and Sello Mangwana, a kwaito duo known as Ruffest, who had brought some new tunes to give to the restaurant DJs to play, because Mzoli’s, like the minibus-taxis and KasiMP3, was also a place where fresh hits could be promoted.
We sat down to chat just across the road at a shebeen called Esikomu, among tables packed with revellers scar ng down grilled meat and pouring endless glasses of brandy and vodka. Ruffest, like so many others, started out cutting rudimentary tracks in township bedrooms using FruityLoops, but the duo got their break when they were selected to take part in a two-week government-funded training course for emerging musical talents run by kwaito originator Oskido. At the end of the course, which taught them business and marketing skills as well as studio techniques, the participants were given either recording equipment or DJ tech to further their careers.
Ruffest went on to feature on a sizzling 2012 album by electronic beatmakers LV on London’s Hyperdub label, but even this marginal cult success didn’t come easy. Stemela was once a dancer, but was now in a wheelchair – he refers to it as ‘my BMW’ – because his legs were paralysed when he was shot during a gunbattle between rival gangs in the nearby Nyanga township. ‘I was caught in the cross re, in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ he says. ‘But I did not stop, I did not give up, I said this bullet that hit me will not stop my dream of being a musician.’
More adversity, more struggle… ‘Kwaito is all about happiness, celebrating being African,’ says Mangwana. ‘Most artists who are starting sing about ladies, sing about booze, sing about nice times – the good things in life. But as you grow, you see that you can’t just write about fun all the time; there has to be a message…’ He pauses and looks glum for a minute: ‘Kids should want to be the next Ruffest or even the next president, but they are just destroying their lives and killing each other…’
I remembered what DJ Roach from the veteran Cape Town breakbeat label African Dope had told me earlier that week: ‘Creativity thrives on suffering, and there’s a lot of suffering here, especially in the townships, so that’s why you have so much creativity.”
“Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music” by Matthew Collin and published by Serpent’s Tail in paperback and ebook.