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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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  1. wills says:

    Some good points in this article but overall seems like you’re a bit of a traditionalist bemoaning new developments in music — “Oh those young people today”! What do you think people said when the electric guitar was introduced to Tsonga / Shangaan music? The same thing! Also, to your point about this being an outside phenomenon, a map drawn by non-Africans — This is simply not true. This is the map drawn by the Nozinja record label based in Meadowlands. Yes, they are being supported by outsiders, as they should be. It’s the creative, spiritual, and marketing prowess of Nozinja that is the leader here — not the “world music” market which has so often felt the need to Westernize and change African music for global audiences. This music is what people are dancing to in Meadowlands. It’s very much a part of the culture and you can hear that in the sounds, see that in the videos. Like everything else, culture is not a static force. It changes with the times, it helps people develop themselves — that’s why this is so exciting. Nozinja inks up the immemorial Shangaan past with cutting edge creativity. He was also the first to make DVDs of Shangaan dance videos which are cherished throughout the culture. Nozinja’s music is opening up important opportunities for all Shangaan culture (especially the guitars!) to be recognized in SA where Shangaan culture is sometimes marginalized. This recent article int he Mail & Guardian, I hope, is only the tip of the iceberg. The difference between a MIDI marimba and an electric guitar is not that great and there’s a place for both as representatives of modern Shangaan culture. If you want Shangaan to stay in the sticks, I suggest you keep that belief to yourself and not hold others back from simultaneously developing and bringing respect to their culture and to their cultural dances which still preserve moves that are decades, perhaps centuries old. Also, please do listen to the breadth of music that is released by the Nozinja label — much of it contains guitars, much of it contains a message and a celebration of rural Shangaan culture.

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  2. Richard Mthetwa says:

    Inkomu boti, I never thought Mutsonga would be the one to criticize my music. The people who dance for my music don’t see it the way you do, including some of your friends. If you don’t want Matsonga/Mashangani to get on with time, to develop, then we should stop using the internet, ha! Of course WE NEED TO STICK TO CULTURE. I don’t think you come from Malamuleleor Giyani as you claim. In Malamulele, woman of today can wear jeans and everything they want to wear, including the traditional clothes. But you are portraying Matsonga as uncivilized. Please grow up. Nwana baba hi ku mitirho ya vulavala.

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  3. tsheg1 says:

    couldn’t have said it any better wills. the fact that we have been listening, and yes dancing, to shangaan electro (or something similar) in taxis in and around soweto since our childhoods, long before a bespectacled jewish boy from new york chanced to grace our shores and help hasten it into the international spotlight to make it the indie darling it is now, well that must a show at least a modicum of some indigenous growth and not the parasitic cultural colonisation here suggested. right?

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  4. ntsako charles mathebula says:

    Ha mikhensisa kuva mihiyimela tani hi machangani mitiro a yi vulavuli.

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  5. Mano Ventura says:

    Beautiful to see our people happy joined showing what our culture are. We can’t forget what we are, what dignify us, may Shangaan electro and other kinds made continue developping. We are togheter

    Mano Ventura from Maputo

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  6. Ephraim D Khosa says:

    Vatsonga!!! Nhluvuko a hi wona lowu ke? Mavondzo a ya nga ta va pfuna la va nge music wa Vatsonga/manchangana wu le hansi.Se lomu joni ha giya,ha chongola hi tlhela hi khinyaveza.Tintombi ta vatsonga swisuti swi ndzuluka onge swa tshoveka.Va lava yini xana.If I’m angry,I play tsonga music to calm me down.If I drive I,m playing Tsonga music ,and what now.What about playing marabenta music? Tohosi ti yingisa tiko through listening to tsonga music.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    Fak you all the shangan cant relly dance

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  8. fumo Ngobeni says:

    as machangani,this is wat i have to sy…we shuld simply get our traditional clothes-xibelani…play our music…and dance to it…we shuld ignore all the negetive things that people say about us…our culture as alot of beautiful things,but we overlook them because of peoples negeyive comments…

    Never forget were you come from…be proud of who you are,dont hide who you are…you are the best person,when you became yourself..Dont pretend to be what you are not…

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