Thursday, March 10, 2005
Today went well. Sarah Nuttall, researcher at the
Institute of Social and Economic Research was great. She told
me the whole story of Phaswane Mpe (author of Welcome to Our
Hillbrow, another "kwaito generation" novel) being sick and
deciding to leave his degree program in order to start studying
to be a traditional healer. The very weekend he was to begin his
training he attended a funeral. At one point, he got up, went
to the bathroom, and died.
She also talked about K. Sello Duiker (author of
13 Cents and The Quiet Violence of Dreams), the shooting star
of kwaito fiction who died just a month later. I read that he
committed suicide after going off his anti-depressants, believing
that they inhibited his creativity. It's ironic because kwaito
grew, in part, out of an explosive desire to party, to finally
enjoy life after years and years of oppression.
"We've been talking about joy and the pleasure of being young in this city at the moment," Sarah said to me after a while, "But you have to understand, in fact what's so intricate and fascinating is it's never far from the question of death. And I think that's the history of this country. There are bodies underneath the city. I think that the story of the city, this city, is always going to be the story, at some level, of murder and of dying. But that doesn't mean, and I think many commentators miss this, that there isn't a great capacity for life and Phaswane certainly was somebody who lived life with a special kind of light."
Later in the afternoon, I talked to Unathi Nkayi,
a DJ at YFM
which is the big, local hip-hop and Kwaito station
here. She's an up-and-coming kwaito performer herself. South African
urban media culture is nothing if not synergistic. YFM's DJ's
aren't just DJ's, they're performers, record producers, label
owners, nightclub DJ's, TV hosts. The station itself has branched
out into publishing, advertising production, new media and, of
course, aggressive merchandising. It's rumored that Mzekezeke,
the masked trouble-maker of kwaito nation, is actually a YFM DJ.
In any event, his voice was first heard as a recurring character
on a YFM program. Probably the most famous kwaito star in the
country, Zola, has his own reality show. Which is a full circle
from where his career began, playing the role of a thug on the
controversial evening TV "soapie" Yizo Yizo. As it turns out,
Yizo Yizo releases a soundtrack CD with every season, which is
how Zola made it into the music world.
I only got a half hour with Unathi, but we covered
a lot of ground in that time. Probably the best part was at the
very beginning where I was recording as she was talking to a guy
in one of the 11 official languages in South Africa. I said "What
language was that?" and she said "That's his native language,
Sesotho." And we talked about language for a minute and then the
PR person, Dineo Mahloele, comes in and they start speaking to
each other in yet another language. Again I say "What language
was that?" And she says "That's HER native language. Seswana.
Which is similar to the one I was speaking with him. Which is
Sesotho. But here in Joburg we have such an integral culture.
We can mix languages and still get a general gist of what someone's
trying to say. We call it totsi taal." Totsi, I learned at one
point, basically means "thug." Taal just means "language." It's
a slang hybrid of all kinds of different black South African languages
along with English and Afrikaans. It's the language of kwaito.
Kwaito artist and YFM DJ Unathi Nkayi talks about language and tries to teach reporter Sean Cole how to do 'the click.
There's a little bit of everything in everything here. What I'm really getting more than anything else is that South Africa is a place of amalgamation now, moreso than ever. Yes you will see very few white faces in some Johannesburg neighborhoods and virtually none in the townships. But racially, ethnically, culturally and in terms of identity...
...gotta go. One of the people I'm staying with needs the computer.
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