Bubblegum and kwaito: African spin to international beat
While white rockers expressed their angst to largely white audiences during the 1980s, South Africa's black townships were held in thrall by what came to be called “bubblegum” – bright, light dance pop influenced by American disco as much as by the heritage of mbaqanga.
Forebears of this style were groups such as The Soul Brothers, who had massive hits with their soulful pop, while artistes such as Brenda Fassie, Chicco Twala and Yvonne Chaka Chaka drew huge audiences for their brand of township dance music.
Up until her death in 2004, Fassie was perhaps the most controversial and the best-known figure in South African township pop, having had a huge hit in 1985 with “Weekend Special” before embarking on a decade of high living that would have put the Rolling Stones to shame.
Ever outspoken, Fassie admitted to drug addiction, marriage problems and more, yet her keen following never quite deserted her, and in 1997 she made a significant comeback with her album “Memeza” (meaning “Shout”), which spawned the huge hit “Vulindlela” (“Clear the path” or “Make way”).
Fassie continued to stir controversy with diva behaviour and a turbulent private life, and remained a central figure in the development of South African township pop as her music – made in conjunction with a variety of leading producers – moved from the “bubblegum” of the 1980s to the edges of the dominant kwaito style of the late 1990s.
She duetted with Congolese superstar Papa Wemba and recorded a CD in Swahili; her 1999 album “Nomakanjani” sold in huge amounts, and she toured the African continent. Fassie was a consummate survivor, and the outrageous template for musical superstardom township-style.
In the 1990s, a new style of township music grabbed the attention and the hearts of young black South Africans. That music was kwaito, probably now the biggest force in the South African music scene.
Just as township “bubblegum” had drawn on American disco, so kwaito put an African spin on the international dance music of the 1990s, a genre loosely referred to as house music.
As house, in its many forms, swept the globe, so young South African music-makers gave it a homemade twist: the beat is paramount, the instrumentation usually minimal, and the lyrics more chanted than sung, with echoes of hip-hop and rap.
Stars with names as minimal as their music – Mdu, Mandoza, Arthur, Chiskop and Zola, for instance – rose to prominence. Groups such as Bongo Maffin, Abashante, Boom Shaka and TKZee developed huge followings, propelled by a street-wise visual style, an in-your-face performance energy and a host of pop videos.
Key recordings such as TKZee's “Halloween”, Mdu's “Mazola”, Chiskop's “Claimer”, Boom Shaka's “It's About Time” and Trompies's “Madibuseng” swept the charts and dominated youth-orientated radio stations such as the wildly successful Yfm.
Today, South Africa's kwaito stars are the commercial centrepiece of an ever-growing music industry that is too diverse to be contained in one overview.
The kwaito stars are rivalled in their selling capacity by the country's long-standing gospel industry, but also get significant competition from hip-hoppers and rappers – as well as the Afro-reggae of superstar Lucky Dube, who died in what is believed to have been an attempted car hijacking in October 2007. Such influences are also pouring into the kwaito pot, keeping alive the South African tradition of making music that speaks to global trends while remaining defiantly home-grown.