Freedom and the kwaito kid

2014-08-10 15:00

I was 11 years old in 1994 when the first democratic elections were held.

It was around the same time that kwaito made itself known to South Africans.

While I was in Grade 6 at Steadville Primary School, I was caught in the middle of two revolutions with a political one on one hand and a music one (embodied by kwaito) on the other.

In some ways, these revolutions were worlds apart and yet they also crossed paths and fed off each other.

My uncle, Joseph Mchunu, owned a popular tavern known as Club House in Steadville location just outside Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal.

This was where politicians, teachers, professionals and ordinary people spent their time in the company of sorghum beer, Western beer and spirits.

After school, on weekends and during school holidays, I would work at my uncle’s tavern.

It was here that I learnt about responsibility while cooking fast food and cleaning up after patrons.

Broken glasses, shouting and music provided the soundtrack of late nights at this corrugated iron establishment.

Built in the same yard as my uncle’s four-room house, the tavern was big enough for a spaza, a storeroom, a lounge where patrons enjoyed their tipple, a small kitchen and a waiting room of sorts where customers collected their food.

We served fish, chips, Russian sausages, beef and lamb stews, which they collected at the kitchen counter after they had paid at the shop counter.

Growing up on gangsta rap and American R&B gave me a musical head start of sorts.

My cousin Khanyisani Mchunu and I mimicked the likes of 90s US rap duo Kriss Kross with their baggy pants that they wore back to front.

The US lifestyle copied from music videos on Zero Hour Zone and VCR cassettes was instrumental in introducing us to the US way of doing things.

But it was Skhumbuzo Mchunu, Khanyisani’s older brother, who saved the day and introduced us to a new South African sound – what was to be known as kwaito.

This was home-grown music with heavy bass lines, call and response voice patterns, melodic and percussive loop samples and Tsotsitaal lyrics.

Skhumbuzo was a typical pantsula. In his heyday in the 80s, he would leave people mesmerised with his dance moves, scamtho (slang), dress sense, street smarts and wisdom.

He epitomised the kwaito culture to the T. Every time he left Ladysmith for Johannesburg, he would return with stacks of new music that fuelled my music appetite.

Khanyisani and I would have a field day going through his collection and playing this music loudly on the ghetto blaster at the tavern.

The old toppies would dance to this “doof doof”, often complaining and reminiscing about the good old days of Brenda and the Big Dudes and other music from their era.

Amagents Ayaphanda by Arthur Mafokate was one of the first tracks that got me hooked on kwaito with its township lingo.

But it was Boom Shaka, who were already getting a lot of attention on radio, who made the biggest impression with their baggy jeans and box braids.

Their massive hit, It’s About Time, became a song community leaders used as an election victory song.

They played it on loudspeakers blaring from a bakkie that drove from one end of the location to the other with us children running behind it.

Every community gathering featured Boom Shaka right alongside the struggle songs.

I soon traded my baggy m’rapper pants for Dickies pants, ispoti, mercerised T-shirts and All Star takkies?–?all of which were already part of Skhumbuzo’s ensemble from his heyday as a pantsula dancer.

I fully embraced this culture because it had always been there, but kwaito had given it a new spin that tied it to a newly gained freedom.

After matric, and on my first trip to Johannesburg to study music, I enrolled at Eastside College, now part of Central Johannesburg College in Parktown.

For the first six months of 2001 I studied music. The lack of finances prevented me from completing my music studies, but I was not deterred.

I returned home and, with my cousin Khanyisani, started a kwaito group.

Determined to make it work, we sent demos from one record label to another.

We even got our song played on YFM twice.

We felt as if we were about to make it big when our family spaza and the source of our livelihood was burnt down.

Our township of Steadville was in turmoil as drug wars and territorial disputes turned friends into foes.

I lost a few friends when my kasi descended into violence and mayhem.

It is only recently that calm and sanity has returned and the Steadville of old is on the comeback.

I still harbour dreams of stardom. South Africa is a country filled with possibility.

So the long-lost dream of becoming a kwaito star and following in the footsteps of the likes of Oscar Mdlongwa, Arthur Mafokate and others who made the dreams of many youngsters a reality continues.

I will not be dissuaded?–?people have died for the freedom I am enjoying.

A popular kwaito track by Mandoza keeps me motivated. He sings: “Uzoythola Kanjani Uhleli Ekhoneni (How will you make it if you’re just sitting on the corner?).

This is democracy, baba! Anything is possible.

Heita holla, zi’wu Seven Maziphelele!

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