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Shangaan Electro

Curio Dance Music

by Morrel Shilenge / 07.01.2011

I first heard Shangaan electro music in a taxi to Soweto. It was Chiawelo from Malamulele in my own Limpopo Province. The taxi played these admittedly infectious songs loud enough to make the windows shudder.

I’m familiar with the legends of Tsonga guitar music: Thomas Chauke, George Maluleke, and the Sinyori Sisters – but I’d never heard this kind of updated, urban twist on Tsonga/Shangaan (TS) music before. It’s different, unique and poised to break globally (note that Youtube hit count and this breakthrough article in the M&G).

Shangaan Electro has an immediately distinctive beat – strong enough to differentiate it in an overcrowded World Music market – with less emphasis on the deeper narrative storytelling traditions at the center of TS culture. Original Tsonga/Shangaan music has the usual complaints about life, love and that duplicitous devil woman who’ll leave you broke. Age old blues poetics.

After the thrill of that taxi ride wore off, I looked into Shangaan electro a lot more and began to resent the new form. Too commercial. Too obvious. Older TS music was composed on guitar. Shangaan Electro is computer based with manufactured beats, making the music less organic and more disposable.

Shangaan Electro

Old school TS music was cherished because it was intertwined with abiding Shangaan beliefs and customs. It is music with a spiritual message, parables offering guidance about how to live. Shangaan Electro turns its back on that kind of guiding communal message. What makes the old TS music distinctive is the primacy of the guitar and the oral tradition. Without it, is it even Tsonga/Shangaan music?

If rap lost rhymes would it still be rap? If R&B was stripped of its lurve talk and serenading beats, would you still wanna you know what to it?

Shangaan Electro is soundtracking the ongoing urbanisation of rural culture. This dumb, rollicking music feels like the death of old ways. And I just can’t shake the feeling that Shangaan Electro has captured a vibe but has little substance behind it. It’s really just distinctive African beats and people singing about drinking and having fun. It’s party music.

Shangaan Electro is no longer related to that culture. In the video, they wear masks and dance as if they have no bones. It lacks the immemorial symbolisations of authentic Tsonga/Shangaan Culture.
In Giyani, Malamulele (anywhere Tsonga people live), women still wear traditional clothing even when going into town. They value tradition. They embody and enact it. The Tsonga/Shangaan people belong to one of the last indiginous South African cultures whose cultural values are lived and practiced everyday. They embrace who they are and are proud of where they come from. Shangaan Electro doesn’t reflect that. And its emerging popularity could just de-link the past entirely from the present. What will this mean for the culture?

Our Gaza Kingdom, our own unique style of dressing and living is going global. We’re about to become another bit of far flung exotic strangeness for moneyed metropolitan audiences to enjoy (before moving on to the next cultural colonisation). Shangaan Electro is about to put us on the map. Only problem is – just like Africa itself – it’s a map we didn’t draw, reflecting an idea of us that isn’t our own.

Visit Morrel’s Gazankulu Republic Blog.

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