In the early hours of 22 September 2006, as a young DJ Euphonik played his first set in a Durban club known as Skyy Bar, shots rang out downstairs, killing two bouncers.

“You must understand, the shooting happened at 5am,” says promoter and event specialist Kgolo Temba, who ran the club with his business partner, DJ Chinaman. “The first news [bulletin] on East Coast Radio 6am news, I think it was there: ‘People shot dead at top Durban club!’ Skyy Bar at the time used to attract media people.”

Skyy Bar, situated on Stamford Hill Road in one of Durban’s clubbing districts, was fast gaining a reputation as the place to be to witness the early mutations of what was becoming known as Durban kwaito music.

“A lot of guys would come to me with their demos and say they wanted to perform or play,” says Temba, a slightly built, soft-spoken guy with a thing for sunglasses. “A DJ would work on his computer, work on music and say, ‘You know what? I want this thing to be played at Skyy Bar’. So I created these opportunities. I launched a lot of guys  L’vovo, I launched those guys. Big Nuz the first album when nobody knew who Big Nuz was, they called me and said, ‘Can we come perform there?’ T’zozo en Professor … This was where T’zozo used to come every Thursday.”

Felix Karlsson

Temba, sitting across me at a Gateway shopping mall restaurant, not far from where he runs an Umhlanga Rocks club called The Cube, says for black people living in Durban at the time, the idea of going to a club on a Thursday was rather novel. But as people came to immerse themselves in the largely DJ-driven culture that would later rescue kwaito as it drowned in a sea of house beats, all the attendant elements of the nightlife came along for the party.

A club-hopping drug dealer known as Goodman, famously immortalised in a Thebe song, set up camp at the club, much to the chagrin of Temba, who for a long time “didn’t even know what an ecstasy tablet looked like”. As for the shooters, they were known heist men who Temba says had come to celebrate a score. “There was an issue with a girl,” remembers Temba of the shooting. “At Skyy Bar we didn’t take shit. You hit your wife or your girl, we chase you out. So the guy did that, they chased him out. Fifteen minutes later he comes back with these guys and they just shoot the bouncers.” The two bouncers, Sabelo Hadebe and Mandla Msomi, died on the spot, with the suspects fleeing the scene in a white Ford Laser only to be captured a few weeks later for the murder and a host of other crimes.

In T’zozo en Professor’s We Ma, Professor talks of pulling out a wad of cash and going to spend it with girls “e Skyy Bar”.  As to the venue’s enduring popularity, even as the shooting threatened its momentum, Temba says, “I would open every Thursday without fail because I’m not one of those promoters who wants to open just because it’s the end of the month and I want to make my money. I’d open knowing that I’m not gonna make my money, but I didn’t want to punish the 80 people that would come out that night wanting to have a good time. I’d rather invest my money and make my break-even at that time. It was fine.”

Felix Karlsson

Across town, Paul Mnisi, another party-starter with links in the restaurant industry, was building a movement that would eventually land him, more or less, at the forefront of Durban’s mushrooming house DJ scene.

Hooking up with a business partner to set up a small coffee shop beneath a beachside supermarket, Mnisi later pushed the tables and chairs aside, creating space for what became known as the Sunday movement.

“I started the Sunday movement with DJ Bongs and Chinaman,” says Mnisi from his beachfront flat in Durban’s South Beach. “I’d say DJ Bongs and Chinaman’s peak was about seven years ago, so when they were climbing their DJ ladder, we hooked up. The Sunday movement started with 60 or 70 people and ended up with a consistent following of about 400 people every Sunday. From there, obviously my network in the industry grew stronger and we clicked with Tira.”

Mnisi, who has been promoting nights at Tira’s club, Afro Fashion Lounge, for more than two years now, says with Tira having a reputation for being a “hardcore rock star”, it’s only obvious that his club would be for “rockers”, or, as he specifies, people who don’t want to sleep. “Most clubs close at about 3.30am, 4am; we close at about 6am.”

Afro Fashion Lounge sits just off a busy intersection in Durban’s clubbing and factory shop district on Stamford Hill Road. Its wood panels make it distinctive, and a stroll into its cavernous interior is almost a religious experience, the intensity depending on who’s on the decks and what drugs kicked in at exactly what time.

One lucky Sunday morning, at about 3am, a photographer and I talked our way in as DJ Sox, Tira’s former partner in relatively defunct DJ duo Durban’s Finest, was in full command. The beats Sox seamlessly blended for the better part of the wee hours lay somewhere in the broad realm of techy, tribal house, with the distinctive crack and tweaked hollowness of the hard Durban aesthetic known as igqom, or, in some instances, ispakpaku.

Felix Karlsson

The monikers are, to a degree, onomatopoeic, but Sox, who has been sweating out the DJ booth before the advent of the sound, breaks it down like a chemist in a lab coat and goggles. He sections off the Durban scene he helped build like a pie chart and explains, “If you’re playing at Afro, it’s a bunch of house freaks that are deep into house, they know what they want because they go out every weekend, or they download the music so they have it at home. Whereas if you’re playing Plush [Ultra Lounge in Springfield], it’s more of your student crowd, they’re into MTV Base, Vuzu – it’s a mixed crowd, you play more of your ‘urban movement’, 5FM-type tracks. They are more your radio and TV people. Afro is purely house freaks who are there for the music.

“If you play elokshini, they’re more into the black people’s radio stations like Ukhozi. Some are into your ‘urban movement’, so you can play your very latest house and kwaito mixes. There are different crowds, but a lot still fall under your main market of house in Durban. The Afro style is hard, full-on drums, and some of it is the same beat for Durban kwaito. Places like De La Soul play your deep house, but it’s not big in Durban.”

Although Durban kwaito is a broad umbrella term, it has certain identifiable characteristics, but songs, textures and styles bleed into each other when Sox is commanding the dance floor, creating an endless visceral groove. “Most of my music I download it from various sites, but it’s Afro stuff. Some of it is electro, produced locally, and some of it is international, like [French house DJ] Rocco makes those types of beats.

“So about 65% is not local – as in not from Durban – but it’s these boys that are making tracks and putting it out on Traxsource. [If you were to put a finger on it,] it’s something like that Da Capo song Pretty Disaster, featuring Tira, but I’m more interested in the Afro-tech side of things and tribal, but adding that Durban kwaito flavour into it.”

Felix Karlsson

In terms of the genre’s trajectory and genealogy, Sox has been there pretty much since day one.

In T’zozo en Professor’s signature tune Woz’e Durban, which catapulted the Durban club scene to the national forefront at the time, Sox contributes a loose-limbed verse about the contagious nature of the Durban vibe, but it’s the shout-out  in the breakdown of the song that lets you know this was DJ turf before vocalists took over. The mixmasters are called out in roll-call fashion: “uSox uyazi [sox knows] … uTira uyaziSiya uyazi, ezase DurbanuBhuddha uyaziDa Bongs uyaziSiyanda uyaziezase Durban.” It’s Sox’s lines that best capture the frenzied fever of the party the song is at pains to convey.

Today, the genre’s life of the party – as it sheds its cottage-industry status,  hops over the South African border for amusement and becomes the standard template for new kwaito music – is the pint-sized DJ Tira. From his home base across the Greyville Racecourse, Tira commands an empire centred on his record label Afrotainment, a recording studio, a club, a lounge in an upmarket clubbing strip (Uber Zulu) and a radio slot on Durban radio station Gagasi FM. On Tuesday nights between 9pm and 9.30pm, Tira co-hosts a slot called producer’s corner (often with artists linked to stable) and then does a 30-minute mix called Makoya Berries (one of his pet names). On one episode, as he talks to a producer from Richard’s Bay known as Amenisto, the architect of the electro, rave-evoking Tira smash hit Umhlola ka James, Tira jokes that the label is akin to Suge Knight’s West Coast hip-hop label, the once iconic Death Row Records. Afrotainment’s roster includes Durban kwaito’s perennial favourites Big Nuz.

At The Cube in Umhlanga Rocks earlier this year, I caught up with Tira and Cndo, a female DJ signed to his label.  It is a week or so before he jets off to Nairobi with his top-tier group Big Nuz as part of the MTV Africa All Stars series of events. He’s upbeat and a little mischievous.

At first he declines an interview, but I persist, and with Cndo looking angelic in a white dress, the three of us exit the jam-packed, brightly-lit smoking section and end up at an underground parking lot, the makeshift “backstage” area. On the bill tonight are Big Nuz, Zakes Bantwini, Professor, Joocy, L’vovo, Cndo and the odd ones out, Johannesburg hip-hop group Teargas.  Three of these artists are signed to Tira’s label and he has just stepped off the stage with Big Nuz, the most popular group. He’s riding some kind of a high.

Felix Karlsson

“This whole thing is dominated by guys and talking about being in the club and getting girls and all that. Where do you fit in as a woman?” I ask, pointing my bulky voice recorder at Cndo’s chin.

“Us as women, we also have a voice out there,” she says.

Sometimes it seems that’s what Durban kwaito’s all about – guys getting to pick who they want to take home?

“That’s the part that you get to listen kahle [properly]. Mina, my part, ngiza [I come] as an independent woman, saying, “Lalela guys, you’re all about that, we’re all about being independent. We are women of South Africa who are working hard, and we are women of South Africa who love themselves. It’s all about having fun but at the same time we make money, just like you guys make money. Fifty-fifty, baba.”

Are you saying there’s equal space for women in this Durban kwaito movement?

Ja, it’s getting there,” she says, a little unconvincingly. “We’ve started the movement and it’s getting there, hanyane hanyane.”

What’s your actual role in this music thing? This question condenses five-year-old rumours that she is merely Tira’s muse into a single line.

“Being the first female DJ in KZN. It shows ukuthi I ain’t scared. I don’t care what people say, it’s all about standing your ground and knowing who you are. At the same time, believing in yourself, mina, I do this for myself, so ja. Ain’t nobody can stop me.”

With a slight flick of my wrist I turn my bulky recorder to Tira. The pair stands at roughly the same height.

Felix Karlsson

It’s been 10 years that this thing has been going and it’s still going on, I say. The music is so popular, but what is it saying?

“No man, the music is just talking about the party,” he responds, almost rolling his T.

I like that you say that, but can South Africa only ever be about the party considering where we come from? You’ve made money off the party, but is it all about the party?

“Actually, it’s not really all about the party, but, you know what, we need to celebrate.”

What are we celebrating?

Cndo takes the baton and screams: “Life! Life!”

Tira catches the Holy Ghost: “Freedoooom, baby! Freedoooom, baby!”

What?

“Freedoooom, baby!”

Not all of us have freedom. Some of us are suffering.

“I think we brought some colour into these cloudy days of South Africa. Livelihood, my man, speed up the tempo. You know that before we arrived the tempo was slow, neh? ‘Eeeh Magasman ,’” he says, reliving Trompies’ early-Nineties crawl. “So we came and injected some energy, so now everybody is on a high.  And when everybody is high, everybody is happy. Ha ha!”

But you can’t be on a high forever. Sure we are celebrating, but siyaphi?

“Like right now,” he says, getting serious for a moment, “we’re going into Africa. You can see African music is like ‘ttrrr-pa-pa, ttrrr-pa-pa’. But we ain’t going that far. We ain’t going that fast, you know. But we want to conquer Africa. That’s where we are going! And after that we take it worldwide.”

My line of questioning is getting a bit tiresome, even to myself, but I ride it out.

Are you saying as Africans we dance because we’ve seen too many problems? But is there more, after the dancing? Tira gets a bit righteous.

“The talent we have right now is feeding our families. We grew up in the township and on the farms. But the talent we have, we’re taking it back to the township. People are happy and content. What more can we want?” 

 Listen, Tira, we can be happy for Saturday night, but what does Afrotainment say about Sunday morning?

“Actually, we’ve thought about opening a church,” he says sarcastically. “ABC – Afro Bible Church. Then we thought, South Africa ain’t ready for that. We’ll relax on that for a while. But then we thought, ‘mawuno [R]4000, ususele no [R]2000.’ That [R]2000 you must use it to pay for school fees and pay for groceries and all that.”

“We are done, you’ve got your answer,” Cndo says, as they crack up, making their way back to the smoking section.

I respond inaudibly, to myself.

In all of six minutes, Tira and Cndo capture the rampant nihilism of the genre, its ambition and its intuitive capturing and recycling of the zeitgeist.

It is something Mampintsha, the chubby giant from the hugely popular Big Nuz, is at pains to explain to me as I obsessively dwell on the topic immediately after the group’s performance at The Cube. Wiping sweat off his brow with a towel, in the same “backstage” chamber in which I cornered Tira, he is streetwise, philosophical and frank.

Felix Karlsson

“Kwaito was on its own wavelength, then house came in. When we saw that, we saw that it signified changes – even genetic changes in people. And, as such, a new style was born. These are all new manifestations that are emerging from what was already in existence … If the music should change direction and become infatuated with reggae, we’ll be on the reggae as well. We’re trying to capture the flow of the people and we don’t want them to leave us behind, because if they do, what will we be left to do? We have to time the impulses of the people. When they go up, we also go up.”

You’ve been on top for a while. So how do you plan to stay there?

“Like the track on L’vovo’s album, the track Original. Originality is what will sustain us. If you’re original you have no fear, because you’re doing what God gave you – you’re fine, everything is all right.”  

Of all the sets I see at the MTV Africa All Stars launch at The Cube that night, the Big Nuz set is most memorable. There is just the requisite amount of looseness to their performance to match their bellicose physiques. The skinniest member of the group, R Mashesha, is nursing an illness and is replaced on stage by the nimble DJ Tira.

Mampintsha, drenched in sweat, has an impossible, even magnetic charisma. Danger is not far behind. A photograph my colleague shows me later has him looking down at his torso, hand slicing the side of his thigh as if putting his own spin on kwaito has-been Arthur’s infamous sika lekhekhe step. The accidental act of appropriation suggested by the photograph says more than it intends to. In that one still moment, I read the entire history of Durban’s rise from oblivion to the top of pop culture relevance.

Felix Karlsson

Isina muva liyabukwa is a Zulu proverb that can be translated as “he who laughs last laughs loudest”. The direct translation, though, is that he who enters the circle last has the most attentive audience. It becomes useful in pondering the ubiquity of themes centred on concrete jungle dominance in the music referred to as Durban kwaito. Part of it has to do with the ascendance of a middle class built more on consumerism than entrepreneurship; part of it settles the score of Durban’s perennial underdog status; and part of it, still, has to do with Durban’s image as a 24/7 holiday destination.

Prior to the arrival of the “new members” with a clutch of house 12-inches and a knack for repurposing instrumentals into new songs, the conversation centred more or less on the results of kwaito’s post-mortem.

“Just a bit of perspective, from my side,” says Vukile Zondi, head of Durban-based Gagasi FM, as he readies me for a quick historical recap at Tira’s Uber Zulu lounge in Durban’s Morningside neighbourhood, where the station is hosting some clients.  “Four, five, six, seven years back, when I was starting at YFM, that whole thing of saying ‘kwaito is dead, kwaito is dead’ was happening. Your original kwaito guys were kind of falling out of favour. Durban people came and rejuvenated that thing. I was at YFM and we threw Big Nuz in for the first time, a song called Ubala. It relit the whole thing. Obviously Big Nuz blew up from then onwards. That came back as the kwaito savior-type move. That was their fist single and then the guys started pushing out a lot of material after that. Professor started pushing out a lot of material. Cndo started coming up. She put out a track called Terminator, which was house, but it was still a Durban sound. The thing now, kwaito and house, it’s pretty much hard to decipher between the two.  But a lot of the big hits now are still coming out of Durban and for the past few years, as far as kwaito is concerned, they’ve been either from Durban or associated with Durban in some way or another.”

Out of all the venues in the city, Tira’s promoter Mnisi says it is Afro Fashion Lounge that best embodies the spirit of the music, right from its inception to the boisterous expressionism it inspires on Afro’s wooden floors. “Most of the people are there when the beats are made,” says Mnisi. “For instance, when Tira wants to produce a beautiful hit for Big Nuz, which is his biggest group, he’ll close the club and then we’ll hit a convoy to his house. For the inspiration, you know, everybody is around. It’s like a party where everybody gets inspired and they produce good beats. Most of the beats are not made during normal studio time. If they are, most of those songs will end up as album fillers. The hits are the ones that [come] straight from the club, we go and there’s drinks, there’s meat, it’s nice. Everything is flowing and they get their inspiration.”

It wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest that Tira is the figurehead of an insect with long tentacles, and a small and fleshy midsection. The genre is insular, its infrastructure underdeveloped, and yet its reach is continental at worst.

In an earlier interview with Rolling Stone magazine, former Durban kwaito poster child L’vovo says, “It can’t be DKM (Durban kwaito music) if there are only a few artists. We need to recruit more. Johannesburg can host a show with Johannesburg artists. In Durban, you would probably need to call a few from outside.”

 But there are other things happening outside the Afrotainment stable. Most significant of these is Professor, who has blossomed into the genre’s ambassador of aesthetic possibilities.

Felix Karlsson

While an artist like Joocy will acknowledge the impact of gospel on his life and speak of God as his motivation for his involvement in the music scene, Professor is the personification of that rhetoric. Over the course of two albums, The University of Kalawa Jazmee and The Orientation, he has developed a voice more profound than any of his peers. In fact, what Professor has done is perform gospel music, at least in terms of subject matter, but from the perspective of street-corner dialectics. The results, more often than not, are pure alchemic genius.

His anthem Baphi, featuring former Bongo Maffin member Speedy, is age-of-apocalypse stuff, tailored for the dance floor but centred on the return of Jesus. It evokes Biblical imagery, of the Son of Man coming to rebuild his temple, not with bricks and mortar but purifying volcanic fury.  

Atop minimalist, techy house, Professor sets the scene like Spike Lee, painting portraits of fallen Jezebels, their pimps and entourages wallowing in excess, not knowing that their day of judgment is near.

The song is formulaic to an extent, sonically and thematically reprising a University of Kalawa-era collaboration with Speedy called Ubani. It points to the fact that Professor’s formula has legs, and gospel themes can be tackled inventively and turned into cerebral booty-shakers.

Like the moral conscience of the nation in Adidas gear, Professor allows you to let it all hang out on the dance floor, but throws in some jewels to take home. 

The offbeat kick–drum pattern of One Night Stand (featuring Busiswa), starts with a manifesto of sorts. The protagonist proclaims the liberating properties of dance and disinterest in the trinkets of the nightlife and advances from ugly, lecherous men. The song represents rejection in real time with Busiswa and Professor role-playing. She rebuffs him, explaining that she gives it up only to the beat. He, on the other hand, misreads the signs and comes on too strong.

From the old, carnal messages of “Asihambe siyoyigroovela, besesiyayirockela, besesiyayilahlela, [Come, let’s groove, rock and fuck]” from himself and former collaborator Tzozo’s Amantombazane (Girls), to the obscure ramblings in albums like University of Kalawa Jazmee, Professor had his Damascus moment, drew a line in the sand and opted – in the main – for declamatory statements in honour of his maker.

Felix Karlsson

As far as interviews go, Professor generally sneers at journalists, waves them away, but he is quite happy to pose for photographs, usually unsmiling. But that matters little, because the eloquence of his music can carry beyond his attempts to elaborate on it.

Another “foundation” artist who has seemingly moved beyond his peers is producer-turned-artist Zakes Bantwini. In the tradition of urban music movements, Bantwini named the genre before any hipster journalist could. Today, even as he veers more towards Afrobeat lite and proto-house than reclaiming instrumental house tracks, he sticks by his reasons for doing so, despite inviting scorn from first-wave kwaito gatekeepers. “We gave it a name because it was not there, it was not available before we did L’vovo,” he says, recalling his role at the helm of one of the genre’s most enduring artists.

Do you not think calling it ‘DKM’ worked to isolate Durban, I ask from the same underground parking lot that hosted Cndo and Tira?

“We’re not an island. Guys from Zola, they were saying ‘from Zola!’ [in their songs]. It has never been a problem. A guy from Limpopo can make Durban kwaito music. It was just a different type of a genre. If you’re doing a style like this, you’re going to call it Durban kwaito, not because it was isolated or it could be done only by someone from Durban. I hear a lot of Durban kwaito music now – even guys from Johannesburg doing the same sound that we started in Durban. Even in Namibia, there are guys doing kwaito. We were just naming it and putting a tag on it.”

Elaborating on the distinct vocal textures of the sound, Bantwini says, “It was sing-alongs. In Durban people sing along. We can go back inside now and see the people dancing. When the people dance in Durban, they sing – and that’s all the time. You don’t get that anywhere in the country, except in Durban. They have gimmicks. They have a lot of things that they say. They open the circle, they participate, so it was born out of that – the thought that if we could mix the house beats with these particular gimmicks, we would create a new sound.”

Like the co-architect Professor, Bantwini has carved a niche parallel to the scene as opposed to being immersed in it. But, as Sox says, the sound is no longer confined to the gentrifying clubs that once gave it room to express itself. “Eighty percent of the boys [making the music] are these young boys we don’t even know. They meet on their [online] forums and discuss their stuff. So basically igqom, idrum lase Durban has revolutionised. It has deep-house elements and even Joburg people are doing it. Like Maphorisa n Clap. Clap is from Durban and he met Maphorisa in Joburg.”

Felix Karlsson

As for the future of the sound, Zondi at Gagasi FM believes its best days are still ahead. “Why I’m saying that right now it’s far from dead is that you’re seeing a lot of new guys coming up as well, like Benzy No Mzakes [who have a hit song with Mampintsha called Macarena]. There’s a new guy who came out last year, Bhar [who raps with a standard half-time-to-the-beat flow]. There are some producers coming out from Port Shepstone and Richards Bay that Afrotainment is bringing in and producing some songs with them. There’s a big hit like, for example, Imhlola ka James, a big Tira track produced by some boy [Amenisto] from Richards Bay. In that particular space, your house and kwaito is bustling. We’ve got a few shows [Gagasi music sessions] that are made for unearthing the stuff, and I thought it would be a hard job to find these people, but it’s not.”

Outside the Afrotainment stable, Mnisi, the promoter at Afro Fashion Lounge, counts a list of adversaries and rivals, but none are the champion sound, he says.

Driving from townships to suburbs and back to townships, Durban kwaito might have legs, but for it to move beyond being a fiefdom, with one dominant record label and hardly any infrastructure it can call its own, the scene will need more than legs – it will need balls.

 All photos by Felix Karlsson


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