we get deep inside the future sounds of mzansi
A new documentary is shining a light on the underground world of South African dance music.
Directed by Nthato Mokgata (aka Spoek Mathambo) and Lebogang Rasethaba, Future Sounds of Mzansi is a beautifully documented study of the increasingly diverse electronic scene in South Africa. Focusing on Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town, the two take us on a tour of Qgom, Barcardi, Shangaan Electro and Deep House as artists including Black Coffee, Mujava and Durban's Rude Boyz attempt to distill the musical magic currently being created at the bottom of the mighty continent. The film also examines the personal and political struggles that both the artists and the country itself is facing.
Future Sounds is playing in select UK cinemas this weekend, so i-D caught up with Lebo and Nthato to talk about how, and why, they created a visual language for a scene that is steadily seeping out of South Africa and into the wider world of global electronica…
Can you explain the title, what does 'Mzansi' mean?
Lebogang: Mzansi is a pervasive slang commonly used to reference anything "South African". If I'm not mistaken it's the Xhosa word for South.
How and when did you decide to document the South African electronic scene? How long did it take?
Nthato: I guess it took about two years. We finished it in the middle of last year. It was a dream that I'd had for a long time. I approached Lebogang, who was studying film in Beijing, and he got on board with his film knowledge.
Lebo: A lot of the heroes of the SA electronic scene are unknown, so it felt important to take them out of relative obscurity, create a visual language for them and the scene, but also for South Africa. There is still very little documentation of South Africa as a cinematic treasure.
Why did you want to make the film?
Lebo: It was exciting to explore the country through music. We got to travel, meet new people in their spaces, we partied, we toured… the process was really fun. But it was also super informative, we learnt something new at every interval.
Nthato: As a fan, first and foremost. I was discovering all this great stuff and then starting to hear the stories behind the great music - and no one was covering it nationally or internationally. In South Africa, electronic music is the air that we breathe, it's part of pop culture, it's everywhere - but no one saw fit to document what was happening. I think a lot of people don't have the perspective of even relating the techno scene to the house scene, to Township house, to progressive house that Indian kids in Durban are into. It's not seen in that context.
Do you have a favourite story from the film?
Lebo: A mother must love all her children equally. But if I had to answer that question I would say Pretoria. It has strong visuals, the characters are solid storytellers, and more than just music it has a very human story. I love that because we didn't want to just make a film about music that would be small-minded. We wanted to make a film that communicated some kind of a human experience.
Nthato: My favourite part - even before we started shooting - was Mujava's story. He had always been a mysterious character but at least he was mysterious with songs out. But when he disappeared, people thought he was dead, or he'd run away to Limpopo, he'd gone crazy…. The rumours were flying around, so this film helped to show him speaking about himself and his experience.
Can you describe the evolution of House in SA; Bubblegum, Kwaito, Gqom, Barcadi, Township House etc., etc.
Lebo: I see everyone in the film as some kind of a hero for their specific sound. And a lot of that has to do with the geography of the country. It's big, it has a lot of people, and in each corner there emerges a sound that is linked to the geography, the people, their souls, their fears and inhibitions, their victories and celebrations. It can't all be the same because it speaks to these groups, who have their own ideas, identity, languages and cultural sensibilities. In Durban for example, hits are created in the club via a real-time back-n-forth between the producers and the partygoers. In Pretoria, Barcadi music was named after an alcohol brand because at the time a lot of people were drinking that type of alcohol. No two stories about how music evolves across the country are the same. But the point is that each style of music evolves according to prominent social forces that come out of a collective consciousness that is sort of determined by geography.
Is there a strong infrastructure in place to support and nurture the scene both domestically and internationally?
Nthato: It's a fiercely competitive climate. The infrastructure is there but the people who are dominating a lot of the time want to stay dominant. It's a vibrant and alive scene, tens of thousands of people making great music, but there's only space for a few.
Lebo: But on another level, and the bigger point, which is something the film delves into, is how the scene is less dependant on external factors and all you need are the basics; which is a computer and the internet.
Is it fair to say that one thing the film shows is that the racial divide in SA is still prevalent?
Nthato: People still don't want to mix. It's really just a class thing right now. There are some black clubs who don't want to hear certain sounds because it's too 'township'. It's the same in the UK with grime. So you see a lot of artists from here getting more love across seas, it makes people here rethink. Artists like me and Okmalumkoolkat are widening the language and introducing sounds to black people and introducing language and sounds to white people.
What is the future sound of Mzanzi?
Nthato: There's so much stuff coming up. All I hope and pray for that everyone can realise and actualise their potential and not lose hope or let other people define them. Through the film I want people to see that you can be singular, you can be odd, you can be original, you can be obscure in the African content, but you can take your music and take it to the world. Because what we're doing is such an incredible standard. I don't want people to be tied to styles; I just want each producer to find their way without having to pander to charting or not. Because that pandering has fucked over so many people.
Lebo: I think we will hear less of an international influenced sound and more of a proudly South African sound. In fact the whole idea of a South African sound will change and develop as we change and develop. The music will get younger, fresher, more raw, but bigger, more ideas because of the collaborations that are coming out. But the bigger point is that we will hear more of it because now the veil of mystery has been lifted.
The Future Sounds of Mzansi is on at Deptford Film Lounge on 10 April, Rich Mix, London 11 April and Watford Palace Theatre 12 April.
For details of other screenings, check here.
Text Hattie Collins