Shangaan Electro

I have a longish review of the terrific new Shangaan Electro CD in the latest issue of The WireShangaan is a collection of 180 b.p.m. plus electronic dance tracks from South Africa that’s causing quite a stir at the moment, partly because of videos of Shangaan dancers like this one of the Tshetsha Boys:

“Shangaan” refers to the Shangaan or Tsongha people who historically lived in a region spreading from Mozambique to northern areas of South Africa, many of whom today are migrant workers in places like Johannesburg. In the review I discuss the puzzling absence of cultural forms developed in actually existing African societies in discussions of Afro-futurism.  And the way that, in recent years, cutting edge electronic dance musics have emerged in various locations in Africa: notably Angolan kuduro, South African kwaito and house; couper decaler from the Cote D’Ivoire, hip-hop across the map; and more lo-fi stuff like the Congolese group Konono No. 1. A lot of these musics are highly local, yet produced in relation to very complex diasporic networks, in which the copying and reconfiguring of musical styles proliferates rapidly and productively.

One of the threads running through In Praise of Copying concerns the status of folk cultures today: their persistence in industrial societies through the use of creative acts of copying, many of which involve appropriations from imperial, colonial or globalized capitalist forms.  The whiteface clown costumes and Guantanamo jumpsuits in the above video remind me of the colonial appropriations/parodies of whiteness documented by Jean Rouch in his amazing ethnographic documentary film Les Maîtres Fous (The Mad Masters) in which we see a group of villagers in Niger in the 1950s, possessed by spirits taking the form of colonial administrators.

Different time, different place of course, although intriguingly, Fritz Kramer discusses Tsongha rituals of possession by “foreign spirits” in his book The Red Fez: Art and Spirit Possession in Africa. Shangaan looks like a pretty secular scene tho.  Nozinja, producer of the tracks found on Shangaan, insists that his use of samplers and digital electronics actually connects back to traditional Shangaan music which he notes was also “very fast”. While the adoption of guitar and bass in 1970s “Tsongha disco” music slowed things down to 110 b.p.m., Nozinja’s sampling of marimba sounds which are then played on a keyboard or looped makes possible a revival of an older form.

I find the politics of musical/dance scenes like Shangaan interesting. I recall Slavoj Zizek saying recently that one had to look to the townships, Mike Davis’ “planet of slums”, for the production of new political forms and practices.  I agree with Steve Goodman‘s caution at the end of his recent book Sonic Warfare, concerning overinterpreting the kinds of music scenes we find today in the Afro-diaspora. But I think the least one can say is that post-hiphop electronic dance scenes distributed around the world, often in heavily locked down locations, are interested in one another, and are talking to one another.  Sometimes. And that’s an intriguingly rare concrete example of “autre-mondialisation” or “counter-globalization” at work …