90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station

Reporter's Notebook

MAR.8.2005 MAR.10.2005 MAR.11.2005 MAR.14.2005 MAR.15.2005 MAR.16.2005
MAR.17.2005 MAR.18.2005

Monday, March 14, 2005

Ishmael performing at Monaco.
Ghetto Ruff Managing Director Lance Stehr and artist Ishmael talk about the label's first kwaito hit.
The past week alone has felt like a month, particularly the past three days. Friday night I was at Monaco, a nightclub in the white affluent suburb of Rivonia where the friends I'm staying with used to live. Nonetheless, there were virtually no white faces at the club. The crowd was mostly a chunk of the burgeoning black middle class here - yuppies in nice clothes, many of the women wearing very little, a fact that was not lost on the men. I was there because I'd heard that there was going to be a bit of a kwaito revue, mostly artists from the local record label Ghetto Ruff. What I didn't know is that parties don't tend to start in Johannesburg until about the time that they're over in America, which is appropriate considering the time difference. Virtually no one was there at 10 and 11 at night, the dance floor was empty, even though the DJ had been spinning for hours. Instead people just danced where they were standing. They'd stand up at their tables and groove a little bit or dance at the bar. The bartenders were dancing, everyone was kind of bopping a little bit, all to US hip-hop. Jay-Z, 50 Cent, etc. The crowd not only loved these tracks, they knew all of the words, more so than me.

Finally something snapped and a steady stream of people spilled onto the floor. I've never seen a group of people enjoy music so much. Enjoy it with their soul like there's nothing they'd rather be doing than dancing. No maudlin, dull-eyed, reluctant dancers here. These people had smiles plastered across their faces and could move like no one I've ever seen in the states, black, white or both, or neither. That lasted about another hour before the live show started at around 1:30. The show lasted less than an hour. By the time I left at 2:15 the crowd was still jamming. In fact more people were coming in. The Marketing Director at Ghetto Ruff told me she knows people who leave their house to go out and party at 3:00 in the morning, staying out 'til 8:00. "South Africa's the number one party country babe."

 Freshers Ball
Fresher's Ball
Kwaito/Afro-pop super-group Mafikizolo performing at the Vaal Institute of Technology's Fresher's Ball, March 12, 2005.
But that was nothing. Saturday night, we got to the Vaal University of Technology at 5:30 PM or so for the Freshers Ball, an all-night, outdoor kwaito and hip-hop concert. We left about 11 hours later. Here is a hopelessly inadequate run-down of what happened in between.

The concert site was this huge swath of land - a rugby field and adjoining grounds basically - split in two by a long, high, tortured coil of barbed wire. The wire ended at a gated box where the artists were to perform, completely barricaded from their fans. One of the organizers explained to me that they had to set it up this way because the fans always want to touch and grab the performers. I thought the security was kind of overkill but it turned out to be almost totally inadequate.

The show didn't start 'til 9:00 PM or so. For one thing they couldn't get the Coca Cola truck with the staging in it to move. They had to haul a crane in to pull it into the gated box. I spent the first hour and a half or so talking to Mpumi, Marketing Manager for Ghetto Ruff and got a lot of great stuff from her. She talked about how promoters and concert organizers never take kwaito seriously. At jazz concerts, she says, every artist has his own dressing room, his own towel. At kwaito shows the artists don't even have their own water a lot of times. At one show, the security was so bad she had to carry Zola on her back through the throngs of people wanting a piece of him. She said that kwaito itself has an inferiority complex, is apologetic and doesn't demand the treatment it deserves. By extension she says South Africa has an inferiority complex in terms of the West. Everything from America is always better. But that's slowly changing, she says. Anyway it was a great and very useful conversation.

But I'm not doing this thing justice at all. Essentially, it was the most insane show I've ever seen. When the gates were finally opened, the kids just kept coming and coming, dancing as soon as they were in orbit of the stage. Smoke from the barbecue (or braai) concession stands rose up to the stadium lighting. It was only DJ's at first, like at Monaco the other night, spinning a mixture of U.S. and South African house music. I did some interviews with the kids, some of whom were big kwaito fans, saying it was their music, local music and they were proud of it, some saying they didn't like it that much, that it didn't get them moving like house did. After a while, I went back over to the little area by the stage where the VIP tent was. It seemed that everyone gathered around there was an artist no one had heard of, each wanting their slice of air time. I interviewed artist after artist. One of them, a member of this quintet I bumped into, was 12 years old. He looked like Michael Jackson circa 1969 but even more adorable. He gave me a brief sample of one of their songs, his verse: "You don't have to wear a miniskirt to charm� something, something, something� to prove your beaut."

After a while I got hungry and ventured back into the student area for some sausage (vors), but I couldn't walk three feet without being accosted by at least one drunk college boy. I've never been in a situation where people actually demanded to be interviewed. This happened the whole night. I probably missed some really necessary and amazing moments of the show because of boys monopolizing my time with shout outs and drunken declarations about kwaito. Standing in line at the braai stand I saw a fight break out and thought I should get out of there. On the way back down the back path to the stage some big, kind of older guy walked beside me saying, in Zulu mostly, that he knew I was afraid I was going to be in a fight or raped, kind of aping that he was punching me and grabbing me. I didn't go back.

When the live show finally started everyone went crazy. After a while they were pressed so close to the gate that the girls in the very front couldn't move, I thought I saw tears in the eyes of one of them but when I looked back later she just seemed annoyed that she didn't have room to dance. A couple of times people climbed the gate to get a better view, just hanging out at the top. One couple even clung to it in tandem, the girl grinding her groin against the metal and her boyfriend, presumably, grinding into her from behind. Then she let one of her hands and feet go and opened her legs, thrusting into the air. It just got crazier and crazier. The crowd became a single, irrational being, buckling the fence back toward itself to the point where the security guys had to climb over it and try to force it back into place.

Finally, I went into the box where the stage was, what would be the back stage area if the show were indoors. I've never had access like this. I was allowed to just come and go as I pleased. I'm sure it helped that I was from America. Over and over again during my time in South Africa, performers and producers would say to me "if only someone over there�" meaning America "if only someone over there would give us a chance. I'll give you my information. They can get in touch with us through you." I've never felt like a representative for my entire nation before.

The coup of the evening was my interview with Mzekezeke (pron: mm-ZEH-geh-ZEH-geh), a kwaito superstar who's also appeared on TV and reached a kind of celebrity-for-celebrity's-sake status. He always wears a mask. He's never seen in public without it. So no one knows who he really is, though they have their suspicions.

It was Mzekezeke who finally got me moving, dancing in place like everyone else, scores of young black faces smiling at me through the barbed wire. Either they were laughing because they thought I looked ridiculous or they were genuinely excited that a white guy from America was actually enjoying kwaito. After the set, Mzekezeke was whisked away James Brown-style by an entourage of body-guards to an awaiting minivan. He was hot and sweaty to the point where he had taken off his shirt. But he kept his mask on. We sat in the back of the minivan together for about twenty minutes, talking about kwaito. Or rather, I talked. He screamed. He's a screamer.

[LISTEN: to kwaito superstar Mzekezeke expounding about the genre of music that made him famous. Recorded at the Vaal Institute of Technology Fresher's Ball, March 12, 2005."]

And it was Mafikizolo - a wildly popular kwaito/afro-pop duo with synchronized outfits and back-up dancers - who finally calmed everyone down. They weren't nearly as amped up and metallic as a lot of music that night, but smoother and soulful. Suddenly, everyone had climbed down from the fence, had stopped squashing and pushing forward, were swaying rather than dancing, especially to this one heartbreaking number. It's a love song. I still weep sometimes when I hear it, even though I barely know what they're saying. Someone told me that the refrain means "let's celebrate my woman." Couples clutched each other and swayed. Everyone sang along in unison. It was really extraordinary.

[LISTEN: to kwaito/Afro-pop super-group Mafikizolo performing at the Vaal Institute of Technology's Fresher's Ball, March 12, 2005. They were the only group that calmed the raucous crowd down. Thousands of people in the audience swayed and sang along with this love song."]

One of the volunteer security guards, a lanky high school kid named Baba, told me he could get me an interview with Mafikizolo. So I waited by the stage with him until they finished. As beautiful as they sounded, the set seemed to take forever. It was cold, and nearly 5:00 in the morning and I was freezing and exhausted. At one point, Baba turned to me and asked if I had spoken to Kabelo yet, another kwaito performer. I said no and so he literally took me by the thumb and led me like a baby over to where Kabelo was standing. Kabelo didn't want to talk and I didn't press him. Later I'd learn that his song Sangena, Sangena hit number one on the YFM's Urban Top 40 and Kwaito Top 10 charts. He was also nominated for a South African Music Association award, the SA version of the Grammies.

Even though Kabelo didn't want to talk, Baba said to me, "So I'm doing a good job for you, no?"
"Yeah you are," I said, "Thank you."
He smiled and said, "Twenty bucks will do." Meaning twenty rand.
"Oh," I said "Okay. That's fine." Whatever, I thought, it's four dollars.

When the set was finally over, we caught up with Theo, the male half of the Mafikizolo duo. He told us to go and wait out in the field where it was quieter and that they'd drive out to meet us. We walked out and waited. And nothing happened. So we walked back, only to find that their minivan had been mobbed by fans one of whom looked like she was combing the hair and massaging the hands of Nhlanhla, the female singer. Finally, Theo just told me to climb up front with him. He looked exhausted. Still, he had the cherubic face of a man much younger than him. Mafikizolo only became a duo recently, he said, their third member Tebza was killed in a road rage incident. He said that Tebza was the rapper of the group, the one who really brought the kwaito element to Mafikizolo. Now that he's gone, they've become more afropop. But the things they sing about have remained the same, he said. "Every social aspect. People read in the newspaper about women and children abuse� the question of infidelity. We deal with so many things. Issues that effect every normal person. So those are the issues that we deal with." "And that are affecting people in the townships. You think it's still in the township that you're founded?"
"Still in the township," he said, "But I would say some of our people, they live in the suburbs and stuff and we are able to capture them as well. Because a question of infidelity or people going to parties doesn't only affect people in townships. It affects everyone even if you're living in the townships it affects everyone in general."

Finally it was time to go. Baba escorted me down the path to make sure I got out safely. He was about 120 pounds so I didn't exactly feel safe but I did feel a little better having him there. As we walked down the path toward the main road, he said "Are you going to bonus me?"
"Oh yeah," I said "I almost forgot." I took out my wallet and handed him 20 rand. He looked down at it disappointed. "Will that do it?" I said.
"No," he said "It won't." So I fished around for another 10 but couldn't find one and just handed him another 20.
"Is that good?" I said.
"Yes very good," he said.