TKZEE / “I Got You”
Kwaito has got to be the hottest form of dance music to come out of South Africa… if not Africa in general. The first signs of this wonderful new form of expression appeared in the early 90’s when the political situation in this country seemed to be resolving itself. Where-as prior to Nelson Mandela’s release young people all across the country were the frontline of the political struggle, all of a sudden after his release, young people re-discovered their youth again. …To me Kwaito represents the struggles of black youth all around the world & parallels the developments of such art-forms as Ragga, Hip Hop & House… Street-made electronic music. —Phat Joe, in liner notes to Phat Joe Presents 3650 Days Of KwaitoKwaito is currently the most popular form of urban music in South Africa. It mixes rap and south African vernaculars with house and funk, over electronicly-altered indigenous rhythms, all of which is then creatively fermented into a heady dance brew. Kwaito is a relatively new musical form, and much like reggae, there are multiple explanations of where and how the name “kwaito” originated. Some say the name is a derivative of AmaKwaitos, a South African, Soweto street gang. Others suggest kwaito comes from a reinterpretation of the Afrikaneers word “kwaai” that means angry, reversing the meaning of the term transforming it from negative to a positive affirmation of coolness. And a third etymology is that it is a slang term meaning “these guys are hot.” Regardless of the origin of the term, there is no disputing that Tkzee is one of the most popular purveyors of kwaito. But before I drop Tkzee, let me give you a taste of the best intro to Kwaito I know of, a double CD titled Phat Joe Presents 3650 Days Of Kwaito, which, in a radio format with interview snippets, covers Kwaito’s first decade. Phat Joe is radio personality and TV talk show host Majotha Kambule. His spoken word intro pretty much captures the excitement of something new in the borning and the opening track by a DJ and future soccer star, makes clear that the roots of Kwaito are found in early rap and house music. Tkzee, the superstars of Kwaito, is a male trio of former high school mates: Tokollo Tshabalala, Kabelo Mabalane and Zwai Bala. The group name is an amalgamation of the first letters of each of the group members. Tkzee was so successful that much like Fela created afrobeat, Tkzee has created a style called “Guz,” which is a term they prefer rather than kwaito. The group ranges from untutored, urban street sounds to classical and jazz influences via Zwai who studied at the Royal College of Music & Drama in Scotland. The way they arrange their music reflects this stylistic breadth and technical depth. Their deconstruction and reconstruction of the Maze R&B classic “I Got You” offers a perfect example of what might be called their funky finesse. They separate out the various elements of the song: the distinctive piano, guitar and vocal riffs; the basic melody; the bassline; and treat each element almost as if it came from separate songs, with one or other of the elements to the fore at different times in the presentation, and they even overlay a quote from “Joy And Pain” sung in what sounds to me like Zulu. The whipped cream atop this delightful concoction is Tkzee’s judicious use of snyth-strings to provide counterpoint at key moments. It’s a beautiful tribute. Listen also to their first major South African hit, “Palafala,” which was originally released as a maxi-single in 1997. It’s classic kwaito—the slowed-down house beat, the indigenous South African lyrics (with polyrhythmic call and response) peppered with touches of electronics and computerized drum beats. Finally, listen to “We Love This Place,” a 1998 homage to their homeland (taken from their massive album Halloween). It’s a tender, heartfelt, albeit funky mid-tempo anthem featuring a memorable hook, sung in multi-part harmony. The piece exudes not only appreciation for today’s South Africa but optimism that it’s going to get better. Life in South Africa has not been peaches and cream of late, but nonetheless, while firmly grounded in their particular reality, Tkzee continues to produce an upful and invigorating popular music. —Kalamu ya Salaam Why is Kwaito so popular? Kalamu first introduced me to TKZee (and Kwaito in general) about a year ago, around the time we were tossing around the idea of starting this site. I didn't like it then. When he sent me these tracks, I was hoping time would've changed my opinion. Nope. I still don't like it. Any of it. What's strange is, the music is very likeable. What I mean is, I want to like it. Listening to it, I can easily hear how it could be just the thing to move an entire club of young people...in 1985 that is. And that's my problem with it. This music gives me strong memories of stuff like Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative," Johnny Kemp's "Just Got Paid," and damn near anything by Teddy Riley and/or Aaron Hall. Those are strong memories for me, but not necessarily good ones. While the New Jack Swingers kept the girls dancing, I spent the mid- to late-Eighties deep, deep into Golden Age hip-hop. I didn't like that clean, uptempo sound then and I don't like it now. The other thing I noticed is that all these cats are fluent in English. That surprised me so much, I did a quick Wikipedia search and found out that English is actually one of South Africa's official languages. Oops. Shows you how much I know. Anyway, if anybody out there is from South Africa, write in and let me know: Why is Kwaito so popular? No disrespect intended, I'm just not hearing it. —Mtume ya Salaam
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