The Struggle for Sbujwaby Rob Scher / Images by Justin McGee / 22.04.2013
The studio receptionist is giving us the ‘stank eye’. “Yes, that’s correct. We’re here with Soulistic Fusion – the sbujwa dance crew.” I reiterate. It’s a gamble. Between my honkey demeanor and the big ‘SWEAT FACE’ tattooed on the back of my photographer’s scalp, we don’t exactly scream Sowetan dance crew.
They’re talking sbujwa on Craz-e, the ETV kids show (incidentally, not that crazy) with Soulistic and fellow crew, Eskhaleni. It seems, after more than a decade on the streets, sbujwa is only now receiving wider attention. Ushered past the skeptical receptionist, we join the bandwagon.
“It’s ironic the media’s grabbing on to it now when it’s at its most rare. A lot of the passion’s no longer there,” Twinky, crew leader of Soulistic tells me as he sits waiting to go into make-up. “It’s becoming like pantsula. You only really find pantsula dancers in competitions – you don’t see it on the streets anymore.”
Mpho from Eskhaleni overhears the conversation and adds his two cents. “There are lots of guys dancing fake sbujwa.” He interjects. “In order to be proper sbujwa it needs the four main elements: rhythm, fusion, style and an understanding of the point of sbujwa.” So what’s the point, Mpho? “Haha, eish.” He says. “Determination!”
It’s hard to locate the exact origin of sbujwa. But if anyone should know though it’s these guys. “I started this thing in 2000 when I was 13,” explains Mpho, legitimising his knowledge bombs. “Yeah, the thing about guys like Mpho is they were some of the first to pick it up because it came from their hometown: Protea Glen, Soweto. That’s the real area where it started,” explains Twinky. “Yoh, if you used to say you were from Glen, then you knew…” He reminisces.
The 2pm studio call comes and goes. We watch the muted studio monitor as two ‘kooky’ hosts exchange an endless stream of banter. We take the opportunity to delve deeper into sbujwa’s roots. “The Formula Boys back in 1998 – Theo, one of Mafikizolo’s dancers – they were the ones who started this thing.” Asserts a confident Mpho.
Twinky offers a more diplomatic explanation. “Formula Boys played a big role but I couldn’t say they alone started it. You can’t be responsible for a whole culture. There were a lot of individuals, we just don’t know who they are now.” So what did Formula Boys contribute? “Formula Boys were the main guys we all looked up to. If they did it, we would copy. The style of jeans, takkies and formal up top came from them. They really established a lot of the basics, then we’d customise them. It also just evolved as groups introduced their own styles.”
So we had Formula Boys back in 1998 introducing a set of moves that would later come to be known as sbujwa, but where did they develop their moves? Mpho has an interesting theory. “You know taverns? Where you get DRUNK! You know those uncles, when they’d get drunk and hear the music. Well, they’d stumble around trying to dance.” Laughs Mpho.
Would this imply sbujwa is the drunken master of kasi dance styles? “Kind of, there’s still actually a dance move in sbujwa called Takunyisa [Which means ‘will make you shit your pants’ usually in reference to a specific brew].” Twinky adds, grabbing the opportunity to demonstrate. Leaping up from his chair he stumbles into a series of movements more graceful than I’ve ever moved – drunk or sober. “It’s about not standing still – that’s really the core of sbujwa,” Twinky explains as he continues Takunyisa-ing circles around us like a show-off.
With moves coming out of the taverns and Formula Boys providing the impetus and the formal style, how did it reach a wider audience? “Formula Boys realised if they taught people it would get popular – that’s how you start a movement.” Twinky answers. “Yeah, it was called Formula Boys Production,” adds Mpho. “That began in 2002 and from about 2004 people started doing it independently, teaching others sbujwa. That’s when it really took off.”
The guys leave on a cliffhanger as they’re finally dragged off to make-up. What happened in the space of a few years? Why is sbujwa virtually extinct on the streets? How much longer can that inane studio babble go on for? I don’t have to wait long for an answer. It seems there’s more talking to be done on the part of the muted hosts.
“In 2008, if I wanted to battle you – even if you just had music on your phone, we’d go to the corner and get it done. Now that space has been taken by skothane – they’re everywhere.” Explains Twinky.
Skothane, the self-immolating act of burning one’s possessions, all in the name of ‘swag’, seems to have filled the space previously held by sbujwa. “People who were dancing sbujwa moved towards that. If you’re going to do what you do because of girls, well then… As soon as the girl’s lost interest that was it really.” Laments Twinky.
“People have started wearing yellow jeans – it’s not right, it’s part of that skothane thing. If you’re wearing coloured jeans, you’re not dancing sbujwa, you’re attracting bees,” an animated Mpho exclaims, clearly frustrated with the state of his scene.
“You’re on gents.” Twinky’s face lights up. “Now you’ll see proper sbujwa.” The crews step out of the room, suddenly appearing on the monitor. The distant thump of house music leaks through the soundproof studio doors, as Soulistic demonstrate sbujwa in what they see as its purest form. Thirty seconds is all they get. The irony’s not lost on Twinky as he returns to our conversation. “You see how little time we had? People have short attention spans.”
Is this why skothane has taken over? Is sbujwa already losing its relevance for the next generation? A group like Indigenous Dance Academy (IDA), sbujwa finalists of the Beat Battle competition, realising this, bring in the exact elements Twinky and Mpho might criticise. A week later I’m sitting with them and pose the question. “A lot of people might say we’re losing the plot of Sbujwa, but it needs to grow. You can’t get to a show and have the first five crews all doing the same thing in a slightly different way. When a crew comes in and does something different, that’s how you evolve.”
It’s hard arguing with that logic and really it’s a futile argument. Whilst IDA, hailing from Tembisa, may dress differently and blur the lines of pure sbujwa, they’re on the same mission as Soulistic and Eskhaleni – keeping the dance form alive. The difference between the crews seems to be a matter of how?
Having performed sbujwa for audiences in France, IDA would like to see it move beyond the streets. “We find it disappointing that we’re respected more by people overseas than in our own country. Sbujwa and pantsula are only big in the townships. In urban areas all you get is hip hop, ballet and contemporary. If we can stick to our roots, whist elevating sbujwa to a wider audience, we’ll have done our jobs.”
So how does Soulistic answer the call of keeping sbujwa alive? “There’s nothing like the old Formula Boys Productions now. We need a platform to host workshops. It requires a lot of backing, but we’re working on it.”
We’re being kicked off the Craz-e premises. It’s a long ride back to Dobsonville for Twinky and the guys. “Sbujwa started long ago, and it’s not going anywhere. Skothane has the limelight for now but not in the long run. The only people doing sbujwa at the moment are those doing it for the passion.”
Crews like Soulistic, Eskhaleni and IDA are passionate ambassadors for sbujwa, standing their ground against the tide of passing fads such as Skothane and maybe even hip hop. Keeping it real, in the realest sense.
*All images © Justin McGee.
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